I’m sorry we all know so little

Mississippi River Gorge
waxing crescent moon; overcast and 21

From the New York Times, obituaries, 12/28/16

Vera Rubin, who transformed modern physics and astronomy with her observations showing that galaxies and stars are immersed in the gravitational grip of vast clouds of dark matter, died on Sunday in Princeton, N.J. She was 88….

During one of those flurries of excitement [created by a potential new discovery], in 2009, Dr. Rubin, who liked to stick to the facts, kept her cool. “I don’t know if we have dark matter or have to nudge Newton’s laws or what,” she said at the time.

She added: “I’m sorry I know so little. I’m sorry we all know so little. But that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it?”

I just heard the ancient, laughing cackle of a pileated woodpecker. Though large, unmistakable, black and white birds with a vibrant red crown, they are more often heard than seen. Commonly referred to as shy, they also have loud and piercing voices that seem to carry long distances. Hearing and seeing one still startles me with sweet surprise and awe.

There is a pair whose territory includes this stretch of the Mississippi River. I have been told that the narrow, four or five mile long gorge, flanked by urban neighborhoods, can only support one nesting pair. Given the size of the territory they have to protect, a large voice is useful in keeping trespassers at bay.

And of course, large body size correlates with the need for a homestead spacious enough to provide the necessary food, in this case carpenter ants chief among its diet, for a family of three or, sometimes, four. It’s difficult to imagine how many carpenter ants it takes to feed a family of three large woodpeckers for a year, or how many insect nests get ripped up, torn apart, decimated, scattered and rebuilt in the process. And that “destruction,” having been intricately and intimately woven into the myriad other process of these woods for thousands of years, has an effect on every other process, being and thing in the forest, right down [or up!] to the layers of ancient sedimentary rock that forms the walls of the gorge: the owls that nest in the newly formed cavities, the mice and voles that feed on the scattered ant eggs, and the return of nutrients in each chip of wood thrown down to the river bottom soil, among countless others. In effect, the destruction of an ant nest, unsettling as it is for the ants, has inconceivably numerous benefits for this stretch of the river and all that is dynamically interconnected with it.

The bird’s large body also corresponds to a big set of lungs. So it all fits nicely together in an evolutionary narrative, linking body size to territory to adaptive physiology and social interactions.

The raucous cackle of a pileated woodpecker
a sound turned into a noun
a noun into a story

All we really know
is the ephemera
rising and disappearing
like brush strokes
in the mind
no beginning and no end
vast and inconceivable
in darkness or in light

I look down at the brown snake at the bottom of the gorge
relentlessly and imperceptibly devouring layers of ancient rock
laid down by imagined rivers and seas

I look down upon a narrow flood plane
with its gray-brown trunks and gnarled treetops
silhouetted against the white snow blanketing the ground

Caw, clink, cackle
a sound becomes a noun
a noun a story
but that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it

Winter Observations

First Snow
On the porch the laughing buddha is blanketed by snow
pocketed and out of sight
like a ruffed grouse
diving into downy covers for the night

Ice crystals hang in the air at dawn
sundogs shimmer around the rising sun
it is a good day
as the seasons rise and fall


Chickadees go about their business on a cold winter morning
There is a brightness to winter
even on an overcast morning like this
snow amplifies the sunlight
challenging the memory of summer’s plentitude

I step out to fill the bird feeder
the cold air fires into my face
sunflower seeds rattling and tapping
as they tumble into the plastic cylinder

It occurs to me then
after all these years of study and meditation
I am not a buddhist and never have been
the chickadees seem unfazed

Summer Symphony

We were sitting on the sauna porch yesterday evening, cooling off between saunas, and the woods were alive with birds: redstarts, chickadees, ruby throated kinglets, black and white warblers, phoebes, golden-winged warblers, yellowthroats. Many were feeding low in the understory and on the ground, well within view even without binoculars. It was a very lively time of day in a quiet and calming sort of way.

Many of these birds were in the egg a month ago and have only been out in the world for a couple of weeks. They are hungry, growing, building muscle and putting on the necessary fat to take them on their first migration in a couple of months. They were extremely active, too, like human toddlers, and chatting constantly.

Now that they are out of the nest and able to manage to catch bugs on their own, it’s difficult to tell if families hang together. Perhaps the chattering is a way to keep in touch with parents and sibs. Or maybe at this stage of their life “family is history” and the chattering serves to keep a larger, mixed flock together – a survival strategy at a community, rather than family, level.

There are many more birds in the woods than just a month ago. I suspect the avian population has more than doubled, perhaps tripled. And though the evening chattering has increased, there has been a significant drop in the morning bird-song. Males no longer feel the impulse to seek mates or defend territory.

Between morning song and youthful evening chattering, there was an intermezzo of a couple of weeks duration in which the young of each species [with their own distinctive call] had fledged and were incessantly and insistently squawking as they followed parents around demanding to be fed. I found myself musing whether adult birds at this point experience stress and feel harried or are simply doing what comes naturally, responding to several aggressively demanding fledglings at once all day long.

Between the “morning song” and “fledgling demanding” periods there was another movement in the seasonal symphony, but you had to listen intently and be close enough to a nest. The nestlings usually sit quietly in their gradually shrinking piece of real estate made of twigs, grasses and potpourri; however, when a parent approaches the nest a chorus of soft squeaking and chittering erupts in anticipation of a bug or worm in their gullet. The parent deposits its harvest and departs within a couple of seconds, after which the chorus would sink into silence again.  During this movement the adults are too busy to contribute their voices to the choir.

Each species lends it’s voice to each movement of the symphony – morning song, nest chitter, fledgling squawk and mixed-flock chip – as the season progresses. Adult and young within each species has a different voice – and each changes as the year progresses.  All eastern phoebe fledglings sing their time-specific part together while adult phoebes sing theirs in corresponding time-specific counterpoint. So it goes with all the other species. It is a symphony that unfolds year after year, as intricate and glorious as those crafted by humans, if only we listen.

And there is a score of sorts.  It’s a score beyond humankind’s capacity to either plan or execute. Nevertheless our species has the capacity to alter and even destroy the symphony. We have already eliminated a couple of voices.  It’s called species extinction. We’ve certainly altered the mix of voices through habitat destruction.

The above puts me in mind of Borland’s cheerier entry for yesterday:

July is April’s hope, May’s promise and June’s growth pushing towards completion. July is mid-Summer, a season in itself. The bee and the ant now put man to shame as a sluggard. The quiet chlorophyll in the leaf makes man’s fissioned atom a puny force. The silent urgency of root and flower and leaf are manifest now, in mid-July, the power and the glory of the green earth itself.

Red Heart of Summer

A melodious, red-hearted song greeted me this morning on my saunter down the driveway to unlock the gate. It was a rose-breasted grosbeak at the tippity-top of a bare aspen. He was occupying a prized piece of real estate that grosbeaks often claim, especially this time of year, to announce his sexual prowess to prospective mates as well as his title to the acreage necessary to raise a family.

Below its black head, the grosbeak sports a large, red, inverted triangle on a white chest. The contrast of black, red and white geometry catches the eye immediately. Its song is a melodious warble similar to, but more musical than, a robin’s. It’s back and wings are also black with white and red highlights, perhaps making this bird the handsomest dandy of our neighborhood. The red-breasted grosbeak on a high perch is a visual and auditory harbinger of summer.


Sitting in the sun this morning it was the warm, red heart of spring. Other birds were certainly whistling and chattering their own greetings to the warmth of morning after a frosty night, but the grosbeak’s perch, color and rolling melody was like a drum major appearing at the end of the block on the Fourth of July just before the band rounds the corner. You can hear and feel the excitement of the seasonal explosion about to come.

The Hut

I take this walk first thing every morning when I’m here. It’s a bit of a detour as I make my way between the hut and the shack, both one room cabins. The hut is a six-sided log cabin with a peaked roof. Years ago as we were batting around names to distinguish the two buildings a friend suggested we call it “the muffin” because of the resemblance. It is where we usually sleep.

The Shack

The shack is a more traditional 16′-by-20′ cabin that sits on a bend in a small river, a few hundred yards before it enters the St. Croix. With a screened porch across the front, it serves as the kitchen and dining and living rooms.The walk between the two usually takes about three minutes.

However, most mornings I don’t make a bee-line between the two and, instead, walk down the quarter mile down the driveway to open the gate. Usually I then indulge the urge to stroll down the town road a few hundred yards more – simply to greet and, as importantly, be greeted by the morning. At this time of the year, high spring, the morning holds warm greetings from many old friends calling from all quarters of the forest, sky and river.

American Plum

Yesterday was the Ojibwa budding plants new moon. Indeed, buds are opening and spring ephemerals are at their peak on the Upper Tamarack River. Ephemeral is defined as transitory or existing for one or a few days only, and is an apt term for these tiny heralds of the profusion that is about to overtake the woods. Perhaps these tiny flowers open in response to the songs of birds that are making their seasonal migration to summer breeding grounds. Both the spring wildflowers and northern nesting birds will be gone by the time the forest canopy claims almost all the sunlight to fuel its energy-transforming magic by mid-summer.

The flowers of hepatica were the first to bloom several weeks ago. They are already gone, not to be seen again until after next winter’s blizzards are history. Others, like trillium, wild geranium and Jack-in-the-pulpit are yet to flower. Nevertheless, right now the forest floor is carpeted with tiny jewels that sparkle in the increasing length and warmth of the days’ light.

Violets are the most diverse species now in bloom, treating the eye with an array of yellow, purple, lavender and blue petals raised up on thin, curved stems. Bloodroot and anemone, the early companions of hepatica, are still in bloom, but the former is already losing its petals. The demure Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies and dainty pink spring beauties seem to thrive in moist soils near the river’s edge. Every day one or two species put out their first flowers; today it was yellow large-flowered bellworts and tiny, cream colored bishop’s caps, also known as mitrewort.

But, perhaps the most striking of all the ephemerals is not a spring wildflower at all, but the blossoming American plum, Prunus americana. This plum blooms before it, or almost any other shrub, has leafed-out. The thousands of five-petaled white flowers put forth by a single tree hang like a cloud in the understory. One here, another there – floating in the mist-like space above the forest floor.

A cousin of P americana became a common image for awakening and enlightenment in zen poetry. Here’s a poem by a Stonehouse, an abbot who retired to become a mountain hermit in 13th century China:

Most of the time I smile
old men can relax
not a care on my mind
nothing but mountains before my eyes
the P’eng soars into the sky
a leopard fades into the mist
I’m more like a flowering plum
waiting for the year-end cold

In Daoist literature, the P’eng is an inconceivably large, phoenix-like bird symbolizing transcendence, while the leopard losing its spots is a metaphor for a person who eliminates vices by cultivating virtue. Old Stonehouse seemed satisfied with the everyday and needed nothing more than the happenings of the woods outside his door.

Where Bodhidharma and Aldo Leopold Meet

Bodhidharma [483?-540?] is the reputed founder of ch’an buddhism in China, commonly known in the United States by its Japanese name: zen.  I use the image of Bodhidharma to represent zen teachings.

Aldo Leopold [1887-1948] is considered by many to be the father of the modern conservation and environmental movement and the United States’ wilderness system.  Among his best know ideas is the “land ethic,” which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature.  His writings have been influential to me and here he represents the present day effort to live in harmony with the earth.
For the longest time, I have been curious and passionate about the intersection of buddhism, zen, social activism, justice, the environment and politics.

With this website I hope to explore that intersection.  What does zen buddhism have to do with one’s engagement with the critical social issues that confront us: land, by which I mean soil and everything connected to it, i.e., the ecosphere; social justice; peace and harmony?  There will entries on zen, discussion of social issues, short essays on nature and links.  I hope some of what is here will be provocative.

Since first encountering buddhism and zen I have felt, at my core, that they offer something very, very important to our social discourse – a critically vital perspective as we collectively do our best to address the conflict, pain and suffering that is in-and-all-around-us in the form of poverty, racial domination, environmental destruction, war, hunger and violence.  I have personally tried to find balance and equanimity while effectively engaging in various social change efforts, even in the ego- and conflict-driven settings of a state legislature, a picket line, non-violent direct actions and the hurly-burly world of real estate development.  Sometimes I have been successful, sometimes not.

I’ve been a student of zen for over 25 years and a priest and teacher for the last 15.  I have been involved in peace, social justice and environmental movements for much longer, starting with the lead-up to the first Earth Day in 1972.  Since then I have been an anti-nuclear activist, training college students in nonviolent civil disobedience techniques; Teamster union steward; board member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and other non-governmental organizations [NGO]; lobbyist for environmental organizations; social worker in the fields of aging and hospice; executive director of a NGO that provided affordable, supportive housing to people living with HIV/AIDS; and meditation teacher in state prisons.

This website is an experiment, a project in progress.

Take care.