Simple Delight

Someone once said that the “best things in life are free,” but I think it is the simple things in life that are free. Free from money, perhaps, but more importantly free from want, free from worry, freely given, and free for the taking because it’s not taking when it is freely given.

We have now been living in a valley tucked into the North Cascades for the last two winters. It is snowy here and can be rather cold (the lowest recorded temperature in Washington, – 48 degrees F, was recorded here.) We live simply – in a school bus converted into a tiny home, no running water (it would freeze beneath the bus this time of year), and a stand-alone bathhouse (uninsulated right now) behind the bus. Since we have lived in the bus, it has dropped to perhaps -10 degrees F or so, and just a few days ago it was -8. Squeaky-snow, nose freezing, lungs hurting kind of cold.

Have you ever sat on a toilet seat in an unheated, uninsulated bathroom in the morning when it is that cold? Well, I have, and I was thinking that it wasn’t that bad. And what’s the big deal? Typical myopic response from someone who pees standing up.

It has also been said that “love conquers all.” Perhaps even stupidity? Maybe it was love or simply sympathy for my wife that finally got me to cut a hole out of a scrap of rigid foam insulation that has been just laying around and to put it on top of the toilet seat. This took me literally five minutes or less and it has been ABSOLUTELY REVOLUTIONARY! I am shocked and delighted by how warm it feels and I now can feel how cold the toilet seat used to feel. Funny how it can be retroactive like that. I still pee outside always, but I sometimes just go in there to feel how warm the foam feels. It is amazing stuff!

The lesson here folks – if there is something that is simple and that you have been meaning to do for a long time, do it! And keep your life simple because then the small acts seem wondrous. And they are!


by David LaFever

Three for Winter

Mule deer, winter silhouette.

White-Eyes

BY MARY OLIVER

In winter 
    all the singing is in 
         the tops of the trees 
             where the wind-bird 

with its white eyes 
    shoves and pushes 
         among the branches. 
             Like any of us 

he wants to go to sleep, 
    but he’s restless— 
         he has an idea, 
             and slowly it unfolds 

from under his beating wings 
    as long as he stays awake. 
         But his big, round music, after all, 
             is too breathy to last. 

So, it’s over. 
    In the pine-crown 
         he makes his nest, 
             he’s done all he can. 

I don’t know the name of this bird, 
    I only imagine his glittering beak 
         tucked in a white wing 
             while the clouds— 

which he has summoned 
    from the north— 
         which he has taught 
             to be mild, and silent— 

thicken, and begin to fall 
    into the world below 
         like stars, or the feathers 
               of some unimaginable bird 

that loves us, 
    that is asleep now, and silent— 
         that has turned itself 
             into snow.


Pine Tree Tops

by Gary Snyder

in the blue night

frost haze, the sky glows

with the moon

pine tree tops

bend snow-blue, fade

into sky, frost, starlight.

the creak of boots.

rabbit tracks, deer tracks,

what do we know.


Tilicho Lake

by David Whyte

In this high place
it is as simple as this,
leave everything you know behind.

Step toward the cold surface,
say the old prayer of rough love
and open both arms.

Those who come with empty hands
will stare into the lake astonished,
there, in the cold light
reflecting pure snow

the true shape of your own face


Skiing to the sun

Team “Snow Flowers” at the inaugural Ski to Sun Marathon.

This past Saturday, I skied as part of a team in the inaugural Ski to Sun Relay. This event, put on by Methow Trails, is the new winter version of the long running (pun intended) Sunflower Marathon, held each year here in the Methow Valley. Both can be accomplished as a single or team relay marathon (42 kilometers, so just shy of a true marathon). Our team consisted of me (far left), my wife (middle), our oldest daughter, and our good friends John (left, argyle sweater – yes he skied in that) and Mara (far right). It was a fun event and a beautiful day to ski.

Coming across the finish line at Sun Mountain.

by David LaFever

Reflecting Pure Light

It was 6 degrees when I woke up this morning. I slipped quietly out of a warm bed, put on my down jacket, grabbed gloves and a hat, crammed my feet into winter boots and stepped outside. My nose instantly hurt as did breathing. The moon, crescent-shaped, was still hanging in the southern sky and the sun had not yet risen above the eastern ridge. Snow-covered peaks glowed in first light as if some internal energy were emanating forth.

I stepped into the yurt, bowing to enter the low threshold. My breath was frosty in the cold air. I settled onto my zafu, a small, round black meditation cushion, and wrapped myself in a green, down sleeping bag. I pulled it up over my back and settled my body and breath.

Thirty minutes or so later, I exited the yurt, bowing into the now brilliant light of the rising sun. Snow-flowers, small crystals that form on top of snow, had blossomed during the night, seeming to emanate from the cold itself. They were now radiating brilliance and sparkling with pure light. It was as if they had captured the twinkling of the stars and were now sharing that beauty with the daytime world. I looked closely at these crystals, squatting to get a closer look. Each rose up, erect off the snow’s surface like a tiny sail or fern frond, and seemed to reflect every other one in a beginningless and endless dance of sparkling delight. I wondered, if I could only look closely enough, could see the entire world reflected in each one?


By David LaFever

Long Overdue

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I cannot believe that it has been nearly four months since I last wrote. How can that be? What have I been doing with my life that has kept me from writing about my life? WTF!!

Well, moving to new property for one thing. Yes, the Cozy Turtle (our tiny school bus home) was unmoored from the place where we lived for a year or so and it made it’s way 20 minutes or so to our new home. Also, we bought and put up a yurt, which required building a round deck for it to sit on. We moved our chickens and chicken coop (at night we loaded it, loaded with chickens onto a trailer and stole away into the dark). We have also started a Friday homeschool thingy – the great outdoors and the yurt are the classrooms and we are delighted to have approximately 14 kids any given Friday. We do now have internet here at home so the possibility for regular blog posts is there but we try to not spend any extra time on the computer. 

So, where do I begin? How do I catch all of you dear, delightful readers up on our life…..they say that a picture says a word or to, so perhaps I will start there.

August 2018 – Smoke, smoke, smoke.

September 2018 – Moved to our new place, cooling temperatures and clearing skies. David turns 39! Our new Community Homeschool in the yurt begins with Friday field trips or adventures at our homestead.

Our new land came with – 7 fully irrigated acres, a home (800 square feet, one bedroom), two-acre fenced in yard with garden beds, lots of flowers, sheds, and chicken coops), and access out the back gate onto State-owned public land up Booth Canyon. The house was immediately rented to a friend of friends who has two kids. We have all become like a large family and it’s wonderful!

Our “backyard,” the public land behind our place.

October 2018 – Amazing Fall weather just kept going and going and we were insanely busy with settling in. Firewood collecting resulted in a couple of seriously smashed pinkies (one of which is still swollen) and a huge load of logs to buck, split and stack.  Mongolian ger (yurt) was erected with the help of many friends. Ancestors were honored during an Ancestors Feast held in the new ger.

November 2018 – Autumn lingered on long and lovely and then it got cold quickly. Snow at Thanksgiving that melted. We visited Kristin’s wonderful family in Portland which was a nice getaway from the seemingly endless chore list to get “ready for winter,” whatever that means. How could we not be ready for winter when it hit?

December 2018 – Here is where we find ourselves. Cold, dry conditions created perfect lake/pond skating but now snow has finally come and some rain too. Snow-people have been made, and shoveling has been done. Our plow truck hasn’t been functioning well so I shoveled our new driveway after the first storm – 480 feet long, more or less. Yowza!

The girls absolutely love playing in the snow but not when it is too wet. Then again, I guess that’s what comes with living in Carlton, “The Mediterranean of the Methow.” Yes, our mailing address remains in Twisp, but we are now closer to Carlton, a town consisting of a Post Office, a church and a cannabis store. What more do you need?

We live approximately 7 miles down the Twisp-Carlton Road from Twisp and 3.5 miles up the same road from Carlton. While it is snowing up the Valley, it may be raining here. Lower elevation, warmer and much better growing (food) condition which is why we are here.

Real Life Blue Sky

Juni in smoke mask

“A mind full of questions and a teacher in my soul.”
~ Eddie Vedder

 

She awoke, looked out of the bus’s tiny windows and exclaimed, “It’s real life blue sky!” Then she jumped up and ran outside to more clearly see this amazing sight!

How many days do you or I not even notice how beautiful the blue sky is? How many times do we wake up and not even think about what a gift a new day is or how remarkable the world around us is? I can speak for myself – it’s far too many days.

After several weeks of moderate to heavy smoke in our valley, it was amazing to wake up to clear skies. It was amazing to see the landscape again, especially the mountains. And it was amazing to see clouds again, just ordinary, glorious clouds!

This August has been called “Smokust” and it has been much August 2017. We think of this as the “new normal” but Cliff Mass (WA meteorologist) says that it’s actually the “old”normal” which we are just not used. Apparently, this many fires and this much smoke was much more common in the early 20th Century and before, or so says Cliff Mass (http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2018/08/northwest-wildfires-are-we-seeing-new.html).

Whether or not this is the new normal, old normal or something else altogether, we are strongly affected by weeks of smoke and it’s having its psychological and emotional impact. The impacts are not only physical, but also mental. People tend to go out less and so suffer from a feeling of isolation. We tend to do less of the physical things that make us feel good such as running, biking and hiking. And we suffer from the loss of seeing and connecting with the places that we love. It is being called the “Lost Summer”, and it does feel as though summer just suddenly ended. No more swimming in rivers and lakes, no more trips to Black Pine Lake, no hiking or backpacking. There is a great article from The Narwhal that discusses this further:

https://thenarwhal.ca/the-lost-summer-the-emotional-and-spiritual-toll-of-the-smoke-apocalypse/

For myself I ran for the first time in weeks this morning before the smoke came back. It felt great and I connected with a promontory above the Methow River that I have not seen in weeks. I love this spot and it’s like connecting with a part of myself. In that way, the Smokust is keeping me from feeling my sense of self in this place. And that is always distressing.

So what do we do with this “new-old normal?” What do we do when our habits and passions are suddenly put on hold? And what do we do with this sense of self when the places and rhythms that define it are altered so greatly? Questions are thick like the smoke, but answers may come suddenly and miraculously like the “real life blue sky,” which is always there shining through the haze.


By David LaFever

 

The Way of Riding the Clouds

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The landscape and the language are the same. And we ourselves are landscape and the land.
~ Conrad Aiken “A Letter from Li Po”

 

For the second year in a row I participated in the Red Cedar Zen Community’s “Mountains and Rivers Retreat” on Mount Baker, which Red Cedar has been doing since 2000. This was the 19th time. Most years it is done as a multi-night backpacking pilgrimage to a large meadow below the azure glaciers of this hulking volcanic mountain. This year’s form was a day-hike of 12 hours and 17 miles round trip. We walked in silence, stopped and performed seven ritual ceremonies, chanted Dogen’s sansuikyo (“Mountains and Waters Sutra”), chanted Shitou’s “Merging of Difference and Unity” and exchanged water between the sea and the mountain. A pilgrimate of sorts and a “sutra-mapping” of the sansuikyo, where landscape, language and pilgrim come together, realizing unity.

Walking in silence through the deep conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest and into the seemingly esoteric words of Eihei Dogen, a 13th century Japanese Zen master, my mind runs rampant. Thoughts like “what’s this plant” and “what the hell does Dogen mean here”, ebb, flow and mingle with mundane thoughts about home and home-life.

Dogen’s writings, particularly in the sansuikyo, encourage us to see the realization or enlightenment in daily acts, not only of body and speech but also of mind. Words matter, he seems to be saying, just don’t hold on to them too tightly. He shows us the deep truth in going beyond thought and logic but also in thought and logic.  To understand that what is happening right now, all our words, thoughts and actions, are an expression of completeness, is to see mountains and waters as expressing wholeness.

“Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient buddha way. Each, abiding in its phenomenal expression, realizes completeness.”

The essay is divided into five parts, and we chant one section at a time at different ceremonial sites as we walk into and out of the mountains – an ancient hemlock, a headwater stream, a trickling waterfall, a mountain meadow, a rocky creek bed, and a bouldery prominence.

First stop is in decadent and quintessential northwest coniferous forest. Ancient, verdant, dripping with life. Our voices join together as we chant, raised to an ancient conifer whose bark is twisted and scarred by lightning. This ancient one’s top is broken and, with few branches with which to capture the sun’s energy, I am surprised that it is alive at all. But it is alive, erect and tall.

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The first part of the essay we read in front of this ancient and venerable teacher. Here Dogen quotes Priest Daokai of Mt. Furong, who said, “The green mountains are always walking …,” to which Dogen adds, “Mountains walking is just like humans walking…If you doubt mountains walking, you do not know your own walking.” 

Walking along the trail lost in thought, I wonder at the mountains’ walking, and my own. Do I doubt this walking? How can I doubt or not understand something that I have been doing for a very long time and that I do without apparent thought? How does this walking and the mountains’ constantly walking relate? How are they the same thing or are they? Perhaps if I wasn’t so distracted by thoughts, I would be able to see this mountains’ walking and understand my own? But perhaps the mountains too, get lost in thought, always walking, always changing.

“Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains. Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk.”

Climbing farther and ascending deeper into the mountains, we pass through unlogged, old-growth forests of hemlock, cedar and fir. Some of these trees, feet in diameter, have been standing here for hundreds of years and are a couple hundred feet tall. Drapped in moss and lichen they seem to grow not up from the ground, but out from the atmosphere filling time and space. Deeper into silence, deeper into the forest, and deeper into Dogen we go, yet my mind wands away from the present, moment by moment.

We stop where the trail crosses the South Fork Nooksack River, downstream of where it flows out of Elbow Lake. Not only do we chant the Mountains and Waters Sutra, but we also engage in a water-changing ceremony and chant the “Merging of Difference and Unity,” written by Chinese Cha’n (Zen) teacher Shitou Xiqian in the 8th Century. As the Salish Sea merges with the Nooksack, our voices join together with the sound of flowing water, becoming one chant, one sutra.

“In the light there is darkness, but don’t take it as darkness. In the dark, there is light, but don’t see it as light.”

At this time and place I think of this as:

 “In water there is mountain, but don’t think water is mountain. In the mountain, there is water but don’t think mountain is water.”

Each is it’s own, and interpenetrates the other, completely.

Continuing our chanting of Dogen, the sutra shifts to a focus on water. Water is water, right, and we all know what it is. It is wet and flows downstream. In typical Dogen fashion, however, he flips this on its head to remind us that what we think of as water (or reality) isn’t really water. He implores us to study the moment when “water sees water.”

“Water is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither existent nor nonexistent, neither deluded nor enlightened. When water solidifies, it is harder than a diamond. Who can crack it? When water melts, it is gentler than milk. Who can destroy it?”

What is this water that Dogen speaks of?  I begin to notice all the places where water flows in these mountains, trickling out everywhere – seeping out of tree roots and crevices and cascading down rocky streams. Does it only flow downwards or does it also flow sideways and upwards?

And where does all this water come from? Where is it going? Is there really an end and a beginning or is it simply an endless cycle of no-beginning and no-end? If this is so for water, surely it must be so for me as well.

Deepening our walking, deepening our mapping of this sutra, we traverse the edges of the South Fork Nooksack drainage. Cedars seem to flow down the mountainside, giant tree roots that cling like an eagle’s talons to the earth. The forest parts here and there to afford views of the South Fork Divide, Loomis Mountain and the Twin Sisters, hazy in the smoky air. We cross the divide at Bell Pass, a sweet little ponded-meadow and walk into the Middle Fork Nooksack River watershed.

We reach our next ceremonial site, a dripping, lovely little cascade where moss blankets the rocks and ferns dance in tiny breaths of wind. We lay down our packs, take out our sutras and prepare again for ceremony. Like each one before, it begins with Bob setting up the “altar” with a candle, incense and the vials of water. We all then engage in the ancient Zen dance of ritual which includes offering, bowing, chanting and dedicating.  Here it is further complicated by the tricky and often slippery ground of the mountain world, but then again, isn’t our life always a bit tricky and often precarious too?

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“Are there many ways to see one thing, or is it a mistake to see many forms as one thing?”

Our next stop is at Ridley Creek, close to our destination at Mazama Park, where we exchange water and again chant the “Merging of Difference and Unity.” We are high enough in the mountains that wildflowers blanket the creek-side. Lupines and daisys grace us with their color, bringing in bumblebees and butterflies. Suddenly there is a lot of life within this life.

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“If you don’t understand the way right before you, how will you know the path as you walk?”

I have long strove to understand the world around me, which has led me to the pursuits of ecology, Zen Buddhism, and even backpacking. I love knowing what plants and animals are around me and how they interact, and why things are the way they are. However, this can also lead me into questioning everything which can be done in a judgmental way. “Why are you doing it that way,” I seem to catch myself all to often saying. So what is Dogen saying here? How are we to understand the way right before us? How are we to understand understanding? And what does this tell us about the path we are walking?

We have lunch and take rests at a place the Nooksack people called something like spelhpalhxen (“large, open berry picking place”, or something like that) and gaze up at where the icy top of the mountain usually is. We can just barely make out the glaciers on Mount Baker’s flanks through the hazy smoke, which if you didn’t know they were there you might not even notice. We engage in ceremony yet again, and continue our chanting of Dogen:

“When you take one view you see mountains flowing, and when you take another view, mountains are not flowing. One time mountains are flowing, another time they are not flowing.”

Which is the truth, where does reality lie? Is Mount Baker really there or not? Does it have to be an either/or situation? Can it be both there and not-there, can we be both alive and dying too?

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We turn and head back down the trail. It has gotten late and we take an inventory of headlamps in case we need them. Our next stop is a steep, rocky and dry creek bed at the very top of the Middle Fork Nooksack watershed. Looking down the watershed, it feels as though we are at the very top of the world. The drainage winds down, sinuous and serene through forested mountains made hazy blue by smoke. It seems as though we can see to the sea and perhaps you can on clear days. A gorgeous view that draws me in. This could very well be the abode of sages and wise ones that Dogen writes about:

“You may think that in mountains many wise people and sages are assembled. But after entering the mountains, not a single person meets another.”

What is Dogen getting at here, I wonder as we continue on our journey? It was true that we have met very few people along the trail, and who knows if they were wise ones or sages, but still, didn’t we meet someone here? If no one else, then perhaps we meet ourselves here in the mountains, and come to a better understanding of our own walking, our own true nature. So how is it that we meet no one? Isn’t the point of this trip to meet someone, anybody? “Is anybody out there,” I want to yell into the void.

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The last stop on our pilgrimage is an outcrop of rocks high above the South Fork Nooksack, looking more or less directly at the Twin Sisters range. I remember this spot from last year and the astonishment I felt when I looked around and realized how many tree species were growing together here. It’s a place of mixing and mingling where wet-loving species like hemlock and Douglas-fir meet with mountain species like western white pine and mountain hemlock, drier species such as juniper and even Alaska yellow-cedar, with its characteristic draping foliage.  A remarkable spot and I feel a sense of something special here. No wonder this is one of our spots for ritual.

“Although mountains belong to the nation, mountains belong to the people that love them. When mountains love…a virtuous sage or wise person enters the mountains…trees and rocks become abundant and birds and animals are inspired.”

I sling my pack back on and say hello to the juniper growing low over the rocky ground, touching its scaly-foliage before turning and heading down the trail. I think of my daughters and the mountains and the future of it all. How are we to best take care of our home and each other? What is this “entering the mountains”, and what does the “green mountains constantly walking” mean for us at this juncture of time and space? What does love have to do with any of it?

Love, ahh love, is the key to it all, I believe. But it is not the kind of love that is possessive, greedy, or shallow. It is a love that is simple and deep, selfless and freeing rather than controlling and limiting. It is a love that comes from the knowing that we are all connected, so what each one of us does matters.

“Free your minds and your ass will follow,” George Clinton once said, so we begin with freeing our minds which may be what Dogen is getting at with all of these words, after all. We let our minds flow freely, not resting (for too long) on anything, like the purplish copper butterfly we saw near Ridley Creek. It alighted on a white daisy for flying off again, fluttering in the mountain air. And we engage in and acknowledge relationship just as the butterfly did with the daisy. We pollinate the mountains and the mountains pollinate us.

“Because mountains are high and broad, the way of riding the clouds is always reached in the mountains; the inconceivable power of soaring in the wind comes freely from the mountains.”

Both Dogen and the mountains are showing us the way to love, generously, and that what comes from this is abundance. When we are greedy we constrict the world and create limits, but when we give our lives and our love freely, the world opens up all around us. There is reciprocity and interpenetration. Actually this is already, always happening and we are simply called to see it. The green mountains are constantly walking, and the waters flow freely in all directions, and when we come to know this, we too can understand our own walking. And be set free, not from but into our very lives.