I was not the first to walk the ridge after the storm, but the third and it was very moving to come across traces of those who had traveled the road before me. When I saw this pair of footsteps, a deep calm came over me and I began a moving meditation that continued all day and ended with this poem.
Two pairs of footsteps imprinted in the fresh snow on a ridge-top road
flanked by bare trees and rhododendrons, branches and leaves blanketed in white.
Exhausted by the storm, the wind must have decided to hold its breath,
leaving behind a sheltered, sugar plum fairyland, the perfect stage
for long silenced dreams to take a leap of faith and become real.
What lies around the next bend is out of sight, yet the footsteps are even.
Their pattern conveys no apprehensiveness; they are regular but not forced.
Sometimes they step wide, perhaps to express their singularity.
Never do they stop short. The arc of their trajectory is graceful.
The pattern narrows near the bend, evoking a single point focus.
Logic says this convergence is an illusion, but what does logic know?
When I squint, the footsteps resemble a zipper, with two rows of teeth
conjoined at a point just beyond what is visible in the moment.
My heart tells me oneness is not a mirage but a deeper reality–
a goal to strive for while staying true to our unique footprints.
I’d begun my walk that morning when the sky was still dreary and dark. After I reached the top of the first hill, the sun broke through. The snow particles were still in the air causing the sun to reflect and make a mirror image of itself. Aware of the dangers of sun glare, I put the camera on Live View and got a general impression of how I wanted to compose the photo so I wouldn’t have to look through the viewfinder and damage my eyes. In order to capture the reflection and the sun, I had to underexpose my image which had the effect of making it look like a moonscape. Though we think of photography as capturing reality, often it is smoke and mirrors. And the light in snowscapes plays tricks on us in the first place. It made me wonder what was real, and in the end I decided it was my feelings about being there, the calmness I felt and the wonder.
When I looked back from where I’d traveled, as I always do to ground myself in my surroundings, I noticed snow was still falling in the across the valley. It was so interesting to see the way some whites seemed brighter, like the snow on the branches on the ridge line or the sky behind the snow-filled cloud in the distance, and how the falling snow itself looked grayer. If I were standing closer to where the snow was falling would it appear a different shade. So much depends on where we are situated, the source of light, reflective surfaces, etc. Many times the magic of what we see is just an illusion created by light, but if the scene calls to us to notice it doesn’t that make it more real because in a philosophical sense the tree has fallen and we’ve registered it. And if the “false” way things appear due to the trickery of light engages our emotions and causes us in turn to accentuate what we see and magnify contrasts is this artistic license justified because a fully lived life that has engaged all our senses is more real than some objective (divorced from our perceptions) reality. I walked on in silence, seeking more questions before I could even arrive at answers.
I looked down from the ridge and amid the lightly dusted branches and twigs, one tree stood out that was thickly coated in snow. How had the snow managed to cling so tightly to this one tree? Was it protected by the one next to it? Had it some how been sheltered by all the vegetation around it, or was its bark of a different density and texture that made it more able to receive the crystals and hold them in place? I could reach no definitive answers, as the terrain was too precipitous and unsafe to traverse. In the end, I had to be satisfied by marveling that this had happened and delight in its uniqueness.
The rhododendrons were beautiful in a traditional sense and I stopped to appreciate them. I have to remind myself that there is nothing wrong with appreciating beauty when I see it, though much of art and criticism has reduced the “beautiful” to ordinary perhaps because it is surmised that anyone can notice beauty and it doesn’t show the genius or transformational abilities of the artist. I am incapable of perceiving anything as ordinary and it saddens me that so many take beauty for granted that they miss noticing it at all. Awakening an appreciation for beauty might even help us change our behavior and motivate us to protect natural areas, though the issues extend way beyond conservation now. As many environmentalists have noted, the issues things have become so serious that something has to change or we will destroy ourselves as well as plant and animal life. Before I moved on, I offered gratitude.
The falling and broken trees along the hillside, some caused by this storm and others still lingering from storms past, are precariously balanced for now until some new weather event dislodges them from their geometrical balancing act. I am struck by the apparent tension of movement and stasis, any motion an illusion created by the angles of the trees and my knowledge of their impermanence in this formation. I am reminded that how I interpret this scene is colored by my knowledge of past falling trees and my expectations of what might happen to these trees in the future. About to chastise myself for not remaining in the moment, I switch gears and decide to accept and celebrate my perceptions about this landscape. Everything I see on this earth is part of the metaphorical river Heraclitus spoke of that contains the past and future. Though what I have learned in the past is still with me, it is the present me that understands and appreciates its significance.
As I continue to walk, I am suddenly stopped by this scene of two trees bending towards each other, their terminal branches intertwined and making the shape of a heart. I know many people that look for hearts in nature, as some kind of evidence of a benevolent life force energy or God. I would much rather believe that love has power over hate and that this is the natural way of the universe. Rather than judge people I prefer to empathize with how easy it is to become clouded with malas that darken our outlooks. But even if I hold back from becoming too New Age, because I am a firm believer in science too, this scene showed me how intertwined the forest is and it reminded me that nothing exists alone. The interstices on every branch and twig, every clump of snow, every leaf still hanging on through winter, each is energetically connected with its surroundings and a jewel in the web of life.
And then I saw this clump of trees and vines. The scene was united through the arc of the branches, a circular sweep that encompassed every singular tree that reached for the sky. The tension of the one in the many and the many in the one was palpable because it was so clearly visible. To see everything dusted with snow and ice, shimmering and frozen in a moment of completeness made me inhale so deeply that the air filled my belly and chest completely. If the ice melted would these branches separate? This unity seemed so fragile but at the same time so deeply entangled that achieving complete separation seemed neither possible nor desirable. I was almost afraid to exhale, in case the scene broke into fragments before my eyes.
I remember first learning about Indra’s jeweled net at an International Women’s Writer’s Group session. This metaphor is attributed to Tu-Shun (557-640 BC), an ancient Buddhist who envisioned a net in which a jewel is located at each juncture. The following properties were attributed to this net,
each jewel reflects all the other jewels in this cosmic matrix.
Every jewel represents an individual life form, atom, cell or unit of consciousness.
Each jewel, in turn, is intrinsically and intimately connected to all the others;
thus, a change in one gem is reflected in all the others.
When I close my eyes, it is not hard to envision what Tu-Shun described, but the only examples I have empirically seen with my naked eye are hurricane balls made of twigs and organic material along the Gulf Coast and these layers of knotted up vines and vegetation I see on my morning walks. They are not ideal in a classical sense. In fact, they are rather a mess. They lack Greek proportions and elegance, but they seem somehow more real. It is also easy to see how when one tree falls in the forest, it pulls on the whole fabric and other plants move and even parts of the the ridge collapse or shift. I used to be tempted to clean up nature, but now I see that messiness arises from interdependence and that we are creatures embedded in our ecosystems, a lesson many seem to have forgotten and with dangerous consequences.
The laws of Indra’s Net say if we do good deeds and care for one part of the net, other parts will benefit. In this way, the healing of the planet might come about, even if this sixth extinction cannot be entirely reversed. When we cause harm by polluting our waterways and by not being concerned about climate change, it will effect every part of the earth. When we fall, we are going down together. The rich or one party will not be exempt. Perhaps they will be able to mitigate their own suffering for a time by having the resources to buy land with glaciers for fresh water or by being able to afford technologies that clean the resources they consume, but suffer all of us will. Though every tree has not fallen in this image, their time will come if we continue to burn coal and pollute our atmosphere and water in other ways. If acid rain reverts to or even exceeds previous levels all life forms will suffer, even in the Blue Ridge where some of the highest concentrations of biodiversity remain.
Sometimes when I start thinking of all the harm that is being perpetrated in our environment, I become very sad and I look to the heavens, not to some God that will save us because I truly believe what happens to the earth is our responsibility now and not His, whether you believe in God or you don’t. I look up for inspiration because a lot of people are exhibiting dense and destructive energy at this time in human history and I long for a lightness of being that existed before the maelstrom we have created. I remember laying under the tree in my backyard as a child and peeking up through the branches and leaves and how dizzy I’d get trying to follow all the patterns simultaneously. I’d imagine myself scampering along the branches looking down at my body. It was my first experience with infinity and interconnectedness and it has always made me feel hopeful, because I understood intuitively that another perspective and change were possible. Perhaps I knew even then that trees are bridges to other dimensions of reality or at least of experience.
Near the end of the road there is a path that descends the mountain that hardly anyone uses. I don’t know where it goes and I’ve never been tempted to follow it before. Being on the top of the ridge, I couldn’t see the attraction of descending through the thicket and getting mired in confusion. Yet the snow had a way of making everything look magical and if it hadn’t been on private land I might have been tempted to follow it then, though I suspected I might easily lose sight of the trail due to the snow cover. I reminded myself of the importance of reconnecting with nature even where it appears most impenetrable. Each sapling bending under the weight of the snow had a lesson to teach about courage and not giving up. And just because nature appears messy sometimes doesn’t mean it should be manicured. More thank likely, I just have not evolved enough to understand how it functions. Walk slowly look closely, that was the theme of the first photographic competition I ever entered and its guided me ever since.
Before I left I paused before a sheltered clump of trees. The pale blue snow reflected the sunlit sky that filtered through the atoms of our atmosphere, uniting earth and air in a peaceful tableaux featuring trees not men. I gave thanks for the air I breathe, still relatively clean for now, and the cycles of snow and rain that provide water for all life forms, and the strength of these mountains where I make my home. Though my life will be but a brief spark compared with the eons they have endured, I possess the faculties to comprehend and appreciate what has come before me and the foresight to see how my actions can help or hinder life for future generations. I hope I can do some small part in preserving this planet, because I know it is too precious and too beautiful for it to exist for me and my generation alone.