Category Archives: wild

Poetry & Zen

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Meditation is not just a rest or retreat from the turmoil of the stream or the impurity of the world. It is a way of being the stream, so that one can be at home in both the white water and the eddies. Meditation may take one out of the world, but it also puts one totally into it. Poems are a bit like this too. The experience of a poem gives both distance and involvement: one is closer and farther at the same time.

Traditions of deliberate attention to consciousness, and of making poems, are as old as humankind. Meditation looks inward, poetry holds forth. One is private, the other is out in the world. One enters the moment, the other shares it. But in practice it is never entirely clear which is doing which. In any case, we do know that in spite of the contemporary public perception of meditation and poetry as special, exotic, and difficult, they are both as old and as common as grass. The one goes back to essential moments of stillness and deep inwardness, and the other to the fundamental impulse of expression and presentation.

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I started writing poetry in my adolescence, to give voice to some powerful experiences that I had while doing snowpeak mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. At first I wrote “directly as I felt.” Then I discovered the work of Robinson Jeffers and D.H. Lawrence. Aha, I thought, there is more to poetry. I became aware of poetry as a craft—a matter of working with materials and tools—that has a history, with different applications and strategies all over the world over tens of thousands of years. I came to understand poetry as a furthering of language. (Language is not something you learn in school, it is a world you’re born into. It is part of the wildness of Mind. You master your home tongue without conscious effort by the age of five. Language with its sinuous syntax is not unlike the thermal dynamics of weather systems, or energy exchanges in the food chain—completely natural and vital, part of what and who we are. Poetry is the leap off of [or into] that.)

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I think I had come to understand something about play: to be truly serious you have to play. That’s on the side of poetry, and of meditation, too. In fact, play is essential to everything we do—working on cars, cooking, raising children, running corporations—and poetry is nothing special. Language is no big deal. Mind is no big deal. Meaning or no-meaning, it’s perfectly okay. We take what’s given us, with gratitude.

The poet in us can be seen at both the beginning and the end of a life. Everybody knows a child can come up with a rhyme, a song, a poem that will delight us. At the same time, the old priest on his deathbed will write a poem, his last act. The most refined and accomplished people will express their deepest understanding in a poem—and the absolute beginner will not hesitate to try to express a transient transcendent moment. There is no sure way to predict which poem will be better than the other.

Poetry is democratic, Zen is elite. No! Zen is democratic, poetry is is elite. Which is it? Everybody can do zazen, but only a few do poetry. Everybody can do poetry but only a few can really do zazen. Poetry (and the literary world) has sometimes been perceived as dangerous to the spirit career, but also poems have been called upon to express the most delicate and profound spiritual understanding.

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Beyond wild. This can indeed include language. Poetry is how language experiences itself. It’s not that the deepest spiritual insights cannot be expressed in words (they can, in fact) but that words cannot be expressed in words. So our poems are full of real presences. “Save a ghost,” you might be asked by your teacher—or an owl, or a rainforest, or a demon. Walking that through and then putting a poem to it is a step on the way toward realization. But the path has many switchbacks and a spiritual journey is strewn with almost as many land mines as a poet’s path. Let us all be careful (and loose as a goose) together.

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Spending time with your own mind is humbling and broadening. One finds that there’s no one in charge, and is reminded that no thought lasts for long. The marks of the Buddhist teachings are impermanence, no-self, the inevitability of suffering, interconnectedness, emptiness, the vastness of mind, and the provision of a Way to realization. An accomplished poem, like an exemplary life, is a brief presentation, a uniqueness in the oneness, a complete expression, and a kind gift exchange in the mind-energy webs.

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder lives in the northern Sierra Nevada and practices in the Linji Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist tradition.  Pulitzer prize-winning poet and essayist, his most recent book is Practice of the Wild (North Point Press).

An extract from the Introduction to Beneath a Single Moon: Legacies of Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. Edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich (Shambhala Publications).

The first image is a detail from Felicity Aylieff’s Lotus Flowers (2006) at the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, and the second and third are from Akio Suzuki’s wonderful show at the Globe Gallery, Newcastle, part of this year’s AV Festival.  The fourth and fifth are Alstromerias and a reclining Buddha on my window sills at home.

 

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Flowering Through The Cracks

Red Campion

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Selfheal

 

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Now your flowers are all gone,

your flowers of light have come –

what’s left when this and that

you don’t need’s blown away

Call dark red/light green

your architecture of opposites –

spinal pagoda, whiskery sixes –

more than the eye can see

Haloed in fine hairs, like human

skin, you ask to be touched –

only let yourself be stroked

skywards, hollow-tongued

Summer’s blood drained from

your cups, you’re drying, huskish –

empty pockets of veined paper,

your language without words

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Tales of the Riverbank

IMG_5724Today, while my car was in the garage, I picnicked among the long grass on the riverbank at Corbridge and caught up with Saturday’s Guardian Review.  As well as enjoying watching a very hairy caterpillar add the flourish of its own signature to the page, I found myself initially pleased, then provoked by Steven Poole’s consideration of the current ‘fashion’ for ‘nature writing’ – a category of creative non-fiction he suggests is ‘a solidly bourgeois form of escapism’, offering an idealised and xenophobic view of the countryside and what grows and roams there.  His tone rings with familiar critical one-upmanship – just another aspect perhaps of old ideas about power and hierarchy contemporary authors are attempting to unravel? Environmental challenges have opened a door onto the exciting possibility of radically re-interpreting historical narratives about class and gender.  Poole asks ‘who should really be in charge?’  This is surely the wrong question, which can only lead to yet another unhelpful answer.

IMG_5728In his article Poole imagines a largely urban readership seduced and distracted from their usual concerns by these books – the texts themselves substitutes for nature.  People who live in the countryside like to read about it too!  And aren’t we all in this together, asking questions about what constitutes ‘the natural’ and where we fit in amongst it?  Trying to figure out how to limit the damage for ourselves and future generations? Surely the time for looking at things in terms of male/female, working/middle/upper class, urban/rural is past – such divisions a luxury we can no longer afford?

By now we’ve seen enough evidence to acknowledge the interdependence of living organisms.  This is simply pragmatic, rather than what Poole, rather sneerily, calls a ‘flirt with panpsychism’.  Whatever happens from hereon in, whether we live in the city or the country, there is no doubt that we are implicated.  On Radio 4, Monty Don’s Shared Planet has been offering a very balanced consideration of where things currently stand with regard to the pressures on species and space.  I’ve really appreciated his calm, measured tones – a pointed contrast to the quickfire delivery of most presenters.

IMG_5732Poole picks up on the implications of Otherness in relation to plant and animal species – seen as either ‘native’ or ‘invasive’ – and gives it a political spin, as if nature writers were no better than fascists, intent on keeping out ‘illegal immigrants’; his critique tending to be more rhetoric than fact.  In another enlightening radio series, looking at trees in particular, Richard Mabey made an attempt to redress the bad reputation of the sycamore, suggesting we should be grateful that such a robust, well-adapted species exists to fill up the gaps left by our failing elm and ash.  Landscape is not static.

The impulse towards a Thoreau-type immersion in natural environments that Poole criticises as romantic and elitist is so widespread it seems to reflect a deeper need in society than one reserved for a privileged few.  As the population approaches the 9/10 billion mark, it’s hardly surprising it’s not just writers who have an inkling for more silence, solitude and spaciousness, a corrective to the clamour of so much indiscriminate social and media input.  However the writer concerning herself with ‘Nature’ has the potential to unearth welcome and necessary insights out in the field that will benefit us all in the midst of our current ‘transition’ conversations and choices.

IMG_5726And like the caterpillar making itself present to the argument, the contribution of the writer seemed to be made clear on the next page  – where the poet David Constantine introduces his ‘Hero’ Albert Camus by saying:

I suppose most writers believe, with Camus, that ‘saying things badly increases the unhappiness of the world’. And that they are duty-bound, therefore, to say things accurately; that is, to tell the truth.

Fiction and poetry will help in this struggle (against the ‘hell’ of the world) by dis-illusioning; but also…by embodying a love of the earth and the enjoyment of its gifts and by making works which are fit to be seen in it; which is to say, by making and asserting beauty in the teeth of ‘a world that insults it’ (Camus)…an assertion of individual freedom…brings you into a recognition of common human suffering and of the common need to lessen it and enliven the lives of all.

This isn’t a definitive ‘answer’ but it is a way of living and working that does no harm  – saying things well, saying things true – one I am profoundly appreciative of my fellow writers’ risking and sharing.

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In searching for the links for this post, I found a very long thread of comments taking issue with Poole’s article online and a particularly persuasive counter-article from today’s Guardian by George Monbiot (who came in for a lot of stick on Saturday).  He reminds us of the dangers of upsetting the delicate balance of the ecosystem:

Exotic invasive species are a straightforward ecological problem, wearily familiar to anyone trying to protect biodiversity. Some introduced creatures – such as brown hare, little owl, field poppy, corncockle and pheasant’s eye in Britain – do no harm to their new homes, and are cherished and defended by nature lovers. Others, such as cane toads, mink, rats, rhododendron, kudzu vine or tree-killing fungi, can quickly simplify a complex ecosystem, wiping out many of its endemic animals and plants. They have characteristics (for example, being omnivorous, light-excluding, toxic or inedible to any native carnivore or herbivore) that allow them to tear an ecosystem to shreds. These aren’t cultural constructions. They are biological facts.

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Mountain Devil

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Lambertia formosa, or Honey Flower, is bush tucker. I tasted its sweet refreshing nectar at the weekend on a big hike along the Grand Canyon in the Blue Mountains. Very lovely.

It is pollinated by a variety of small birds, the type called here honey eaters. Its other name, Mountain Devil, is because of the horns on the seed head, which aren’t currently in season.

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Gymea Lily

The name Gymea Lily  derives from the local Eora dialect.  The plant is indigenous to the coastal areas of New South Wales, where Aboriginal people used to roast the stems and roots for food.

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Its botanical name, Doryanthes excelsa, means ‘exceptional spear flower’.  I have seen it both in the wild and at the Botanic Gardens and it really is.  Even the leaves are about a metre long but the flower spike shoots up to around six metres.  I’ve yet to see one in flower and am hoping the ones in the garden might open before I leave.  These sound quite exceptional too – a large cluster of crimson blossoms – first described by priest, philosopher, statesman and botanist, Jose Francisco Correia de Serra (1750 – 1823), a close friend of Sir Joseph Banks, colonial botanist extraordinaire.

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Last week, inspecting a scorched (by sun or fire, I don’t know) Gymea head in the National Park, I found what I thought might be a seed.  It looked suitably exceptional.

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And then I put my glasses on.

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My research is not conclusive but I think it might have been a male Redback spider, the female of which is nastily venomous.  He’d found a perfect sleeping place in the Gymea seedpod and wasn’t bothered by my getting quite close to take the photos.  When he found himself disturbed, he slowly crawled away, trailing skeins of sticky silk behind him.

 

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Drumsticks

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A small shrub, Ipsopogon anemonifolius has yellow flowers in the spring and summer. These have turned into cones with the arrival of Australia’s autumn … Seen today on a coastal walk in the Royal National Park, south of Sydney.

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Towards the end of the 19th century NSW Premier Sir John Robertson saw the need for a people’s park where Sydneysiders could escape from the pressures of urban living and enjoy nature. Traditionally the land of the Dharawal people, mudflats and mangroves were replaced with grassed parkland and exotic trees. The Park has evolved to accommodate more contemporary ideas about conservation.

It covers 16,300 hectares on a sloping sandstone plateau and contains over 700 species of flowering plants. The deep river valleys also support tall drifts of turpentine, blackbutt and bluegum, as well as areas of rainforest.

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Landing Place

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Of all the gardens I’ve visited Sydney definitely gets the gold for its setting.  A two-pronged patch of land, its boundary extends right into that part of the Harbour called Farm Cove to commemorate the first attempts at planting by the English invaders.

Captain Cook claimed ownership of the whole of the east coast of Australia on 22nd August 1770 by raising the British flag at Possession Island off the northern tip of Cape York.  Cook’s reports of only a few Aboriginal people, with nomadic habits, led to the fiction that possession was permitted since legally the land was ‘terra nullius’ – belonging to no one.

In fact for thousands of years the area around Farm and Sydney Coves had been inhabited by the Cadigal people, one of seven clans living in Coastal Sydney who spoke a common language, known as the ‘Eora’ people.  ‘Eora’ means ‘people’ or ‘of this place’ – their identity, community, means of survival and spirituality inseparable from their ancestral land.

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The eleven ships of the First Fleet arrived at Farm Cove, on the site of the Botanic Gardens, on 26th January 1788, under the command of Captain Philip.  700 convicts were transported across the globe to ease the pressure on Britain’s gaols.  All city criminals, with no agricultural or horticultural experience, they cleared the land in order to establish a three and a half hectare farm, ‘nine acres in corn’.  However their attempt at cultivation proved unsuccessful – the timing not taken into account, nor the high temperatures and low rainfall or the poor nutrients in the soil.  Nor the rats!  The plants the colonists brought with them as food crops, recommended by Cook’s botanist Joseph Banks, failed to thrive.

It is in this place that there is now a space within the Gardens called Cadi Jam Ora (‘I am in Cadi’), which grows all the native plants that the original indigenous people would have been familiar with and used for food and medicine and shelter.

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Meanwhile, back in the 18th century, the Aboriginal people, steering clear of the Cove, swarming with armed soldiers and chained prisoners, were close to starvation, deprived of their regular supplies of fish, kangaroo and plant foods.  In a matter of weeks the landscape had been completely transformed and it was becoming clear the intruders were there to stay.

In 1789 an outbreak of smallpox badly affected the local Aboriginal population and led to the beginnings of a sorry history of social collapse, grief and bewilderment.  By 1791 only three people descended from the Cadigal were left alive.

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By 1789, the farming venture had moved to Paramatta where it enjoyed greater success.  In 1810 the Governor Lachlan Macquarie established the ‘Demesne’ (now known as the Domain) as parkland for himself and his wife.  A new road system was built to navigate it.  One served as a boundary for his kitchen garden (on the site of the current Botanic Gardens); its completion on 13th June 1816, celebrated with five gallons of spirits divided between 11 men, is taken as the Gardens’ Foundation Day.  By 1820, Charles Fraser, Colonial Botanist and Superintendent, had created an independent Botanic Garden, with a catalogued collection of plants – one of the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere.  Here in Sydney they are looking forward to their bicentennial celebrations on 13th June 2016.  I’m sure it will also be quite a party.

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