Saturday, June 20, 2015

Black Canyon, Part III: Sitting

“Fragrant grasses and white clouds / hold me here. / What holds you there, / world-dweller?” – Chiao Jan, Inscribed on the Wall of the Hut by the Lake (translated by J. P. Seaton, The Poetry of Zen)

The juniper sets a good example: find a beautiful place (in this case, along the Rim Trail, facing upcanyon), then dig in
“What are you going to do today?” people keep asking.  It’s a perpetually interesting question in a place like Black Canyon, where beauty and adventure are just a short drive and/or hike away.  Park Service folks often head down to Ouray or up to Grand Junction, maybe all the way over to Moab on our days off.  (I did that last time I was here, plus Buena Vista, Denver, Yellowstone…) This morning, though, having returned from my sunrise walk, I now sit in the front window, eating a cinnamon roll and sipping coffee, gazing out across the mesas and mountains and nearly cloudless blue sky, wondering, what am I going to do today?  It’s going to be a lovely day and I don’t want to waste a moment of it.

On Friday, anxious to stretch my legs after spending half the week sitting inside for seasonal training, I walked the whole park road again.  Didn’t see anything new, but it was a lovely cloud day—stratocumulus breaking open to reveal a sweep of incoming cirrus. Yesterday, I aimed for East Portal (the only place in the park where visitors can drive a steep, windy road down to the river and the country’s first major diversion dam and tunnel), but didn’t quite make it to the bottom before a thunderously dark hailstorm chased me back up.  Admittedly nerve-wracking (not to mention the bear that popped out of the brush only a car’s length away), but also exhilarating. 

Today, then—what to do today? Although, as usual, I feel obligated to do something exciting, meaningful, and/or  memorable, really all I want to do is walk to the canyon’s edge and sit.  
Sit and listen, sit and look, sit and feel. The birds, the river, the rock walls and the space between them—these are best experienced from a center of stillness. 

Yes, I think I’m going to go sit today.

Important point: find a beautiful place... with enough water (and soil), then dig in 
Some of the best moments I’ve had at parks—the richest, the deepest, the most transcendent—have occurred when, or perhaps because, I’ve been doing nothing but sitting.  Sitting at Pintado Point at Petrified Forest when the sun slipped between dark clouds and the horizon, illuminating everything but the basaltic neck of Pilot Rock.  Sitting on my little cedar-draped island in Tongass National Forest when a loon’s melancholy wail echoed through cool, thick mist.  Sitting on Primrose Ridge in Denali when a caribou trotted boldly across the tundra, curious to know who I was and what I was doing there. Sitting atop Algonquin Peak in the Adirondacks when the cloudbank lowered to leave mountain-islands poking out of a sea of white.  Sitting by the shores of Heart Lake at the Adirondak Loj when the landscape was so clearly reflected in the water that it was hard to tell which was the real world and which was the mirror image.


Rim Trail juniper catching the rising sun

For all my praise for walking—the rhythm, the freedom, the promise of new sights—it’s only when I stop moving that I fully feel a part of a place.  It starts with heightened perception: in the exact opposite of zazen (seated meditation), when I sit outside, instead of freeing my mind from distractions, I become more acutely aware of my surroundings. I begin to recognize how the world is changing around me—I see light move between cracks in the canyon, smell juniper baking in the hot sun, hear the soft rustle of wings when ravens stop craawing and soar away.  Then, like Ed Abbey in Desert Solitaire, I start to “feel myself sinking into the landscape, fixed in place like a stone, like a tree, a small motionless shape of vague outline, desert-colored, and with the wings of imagination look down at myself through the eyes of the bird, watching a human figure that becomes smaller, smaller in the receding landscape...” Eventually, if I sit for long enough, the concept of “I” wholly dissolves into what David Hinton describes as “Presence in all its silent radiance” (in his beautiful, beautiful, insightful and luminous “Field Guide to Mind and Landscape,” Hunger Mountain): “there is no ‘I’ perceiving, there is simply perception, the opening of consciousness become[s] wholly [that which is perceived].” In my case, I become wholly rock, juniper, raven, air, light.

View of the chasm from the visitor center, sunset

View from my front porch -- rays of light before the storm clouds fill back in

It’s a fleeting presence, though.  Inevitably, it starts to get hot. Or cold. Noisy. Boring. The spell breaks and I return to “I”-ness, feeling self-conscious and guilty for just lazing around. Shouldn’t I go for a real hike? Shouldn’t I leave the park one of these weekends? Shouldn’t I be writing or preparing for autumn? Am I squandering the summer, missing something important? I can’t sit for a full hour without anxieties and desires creeping in, or what Hinton knows as a “restless hunger” and “dragon-nature,” as in: “thoughts, feelings, memories, desires… [that] all keep relentlessly appearing and evolving and disappearing into the forgetfulness that is the texture of our day-to-day lives.”

On that note, right now, shouldn’t I be outside? The sun is only getting higher and hotter, the sky a hazier blue; it’s time for me to finish my coffee and head to Rock Point to sit and see what the day will bring.

View downcanyon from the Visitor Center, river glistening in the gathering dusk

[Addendum: I began writing this last Sunday, but before I could finish and post it, headed out to spend the rest of the day walking and sitting and walking again, including a guided wildflower walk during which a volunteer ranger pointed out several dozen species that I’d never before bothered to notice. Larkspur! Claret cups! Tiny little white somethings whose name I’ve already forgotten!  

It’s now the following Saturday. I've returned from a pre-dawn walk all the way over to High Point at the end of the park road, leaving in the coolness of dark, following the dim light of the Milky Way until it was superseded by an assertively orange-pink sunrise, getting home just as the hazy sky has begun to bake.  Along the way, I paused for a soft half-hour at Rock Point again—bright sun, long shadows, cool breeze, river rushing and foaming far below.  One raven sat with me, silent.]

Rock Point (aptly named)

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