I walk past this woman’s house every morning. I saw the rice on the sidewalk & figured someone was leaving it out for the sparrows, but I didn’t know it was such a longstanding practice. The Vietnamese are great bird-lovers, but they have a very long tradition of expressing that love by capturing birds & keeping them in cages. It’s a hobby, I’m told, that old men especially go in for, but I’ve seen younger men tending their birds too. And they do tend them, keeping the cages spotless, providing shade, misting them with water in the heat of the day. The only cruelty is the caging itself.
I’ve been a fan of Peter Mathiessen’s since I discovered At Play in the Fields of the Lord in the 1970s. Unlike many of his admirers, though, I think I have liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. Maybe I just have a problem with “environmental writing” that spends most of its energy in describing the environment. I already know that the Himalayan wilderness is beautiful — I’m not sure what pasting words over it really accomplishes, except inviting a kind of smug moral complicity on the part of the reader. Well, that’s hyperbole, but I nevertheless prefer a writer like John McPhee, who tends to focus more on the human presence within the environment. Perhaps I am too on guard against sentimentality to appreciate real sentiment sufficiently.
In any event, Mathiessen’s book of Zen journals has several passages of very clear exposition of Zen principles, but much of this — as one would expect from a journal — emerges from very fine-grained and small scale descriptions of the writer’s interactions with his teachers and — especially in the third section of the book — his travels around Japan visiting various Soto temples. This final part contains some of the best “Zen writing” but also tends to get lost in paragraphs of landscape painting and descriptions of peripheral Soto places & personalities. My own preference is for Mathiessen’s historical anecdotes, as opposed to his contemporary accounts. For instance, in Chapter 11, visiting the Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura, he relates the story of the 13th century nun Chiyono, who attained enlightenment while hauling water. Apparently, she had been studying a long time without experiencing kensho, but one evening her wooden bucket gave way & she “understood the great matter,” to paraphrase Master Dogen. To commemorate the event, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
This morning on the dog walk up the Morgan Road we heard a pair of loons calling to each other and last night while I was watering a flowerbed a ruby-throated humming bird came and flitted around the milkweed, then perched for a full minute on a trellis, studying me, I fancied, before streaking off toward the woods by the pond. Looking online this morning, I see that that three-inch bird has migrated to my yard from Central America. Amazing.Speaking of the pond, Carole rescued a painted turtle from the road on her way home from work yesterday and when we set him down at the edge of the water, he slid right in and made a graceful arc downward, disappearing in the murk.
25 below zero in south Colton this morning, but it’s bright & sunny for the first time in a week. I don’t think it ever got this cold last winter. There is a flock of finches parked in the bare maple out the window. small groups of them taking turns diving down to the thistle feeder on the fence.
On our dog walk this morning Carole and I saw the pair of ravens (not crows) who live up on the hill and a pileated woodpecker flew across the road just in front of us, then went to work on an old snag with the sun behind him so that we could see the full glory of his red crest. Cool and clear this morning.
I like nature’s outsiders. Our regular cohort of crows, of course, along with the lordly raven that lives deeper in the woods up the hill. And also the coyotes my neighbors revile. But then my neighbors — God forgive my saying so — revile many things I hold dear.