Unassailable Dignity

From The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen:

On the school veranda, Jang-bu and Phu-Tsering build a fire to dry sleeping bags, which are turned each little while by Dawa and Gyaltsen. Like all sherpa work, this is offered and accomplished cheerfully, and usually Tukten lends a hand, although such help is not expected of the porters and he is not paid for it. The sherpas are alert for ways in which to be of use, yet are never insistent, far less servile; since they are paid to perform a service, why not do it as well as possible? “Here, sir! I will wash the mud!” “I carry that, sir!” As GS says, “When the going gets rough, they take care of you first.” Yet their dignity is unassailable, for the service is rendered for its own sake — it is the task, not the employer, that is served. As Buddhists, they know that the doing matters more than the attainment or reward, that to serve in this selfless way is to be free.

“It is the task, not the employer, that is served.” I love that. I know I will read wonderful books in the future, but I don’t know that I will ever read a better book than this one.

The Mind Does Not Like To Be Alone With Itself

Writer Brooke Williams visited Fact & Fiction last week as part of the tour in support of his new book, Open Midnight: Where Ancestors and Wilderness Meet. It was an interesting discussion and I enjoyed it immensely. One particular topic piqued my attention the most: hermits. I wish I could remember the specifics, but Brooke mentioned something about reclusive Chinese poets (part of his talk was about his recent trip to China, which is another discussion entirely) and how someone had mentioned that one of the interesting things about America is we really don’t have a tradition of hermits who are important contributors to our culture. That’s kind of a hamfisted way to put it — fault for that being entirely my own — but that was the gist of it.

That discussion led me to finally reading The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Bozeman author Michael Finkel. Here’s a short synopsis of what it’s about:

“This is the fascinating true story of Christopher Knight, who lived in the Maine woods for 27 years and survived by stealing supplies from vacation cabins while living in extreme conditions to avoid detection. After more than 1,000 burglaries, he was finally caught and partially reintegrated into society. His story is told together with the history of hermits and those who have sought solitude in order to have insight. Chris defies psychological profiling, and it’s amazing Finkel was even able to interview him to write this book. This level of solitude would drive most people insane, but for Chris, it seems like an almost pure contemplative state. An excellent read.”

— Todd Miller, Arcadia Books, Spring Green, WI

I found this book fascinating. I was also mildly surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, with the number of personality traits I share with its subject, Christopher Knight. In particular, this passage struck me:

A large majority of men, and twenty-five percent of women, a University of Virginia study found, would rather subject themselves to mild electric shocks than do nothing but sit quietly with their thoughts for fifteen minutes. Unless you are a trained meditator, the study’s authors concluded, the “mind does not like to be alone with itself.”

That boggles my mind. I’m no “trained” meditator, though my morning practice is one of my favorite parts of the day. Beyond that, though, I bet I sit with my own thoughts for spans of fifteen minutes or more multiple times a day. I find as I’ve gotten older, silence is my preferred state. I rarely listen to music anymore. The list goes on. I’ve never considered myself particularly unusual for that, but perhaps I am. Particularly among men, it would seem.

I love quiet. I love the ambient sounds of the world uninterrupted by human-introduced noise. I love solitude. I’m convinced I could live perhaps not entirely secluded, but far more than I am now. I think I would thrive in that environment.

Brooke Williams said he too was fascinated with the idea of hermits, and that might be the subject of his next book. If that is the case, I await it with enthusiasm.

Friday Reads: The “It’s What Goats Do” Edition

From the “Fabrication and Impermanence” chapter of What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse:

Consider cooking a hen’s egg. Without constant change, the cooking of an egg cannot occur. The cooked-egg result requires some fundamental causes and conditions. Obviously you need an egg, a pot of water, and some sort of heating element. And then there are some not-so-essential causes and conditions, such as a kitchen, lights, an egg timer, a hand to put the egg into the pot. Another important condition is absence of interruption, such as a power outage or a goat walking in and overturning the pot.

I love that last line. Freakin’ goats….

Awake in the World

Taking a break from the break I’ve taken from the online world to mention this: Awake in the World: Riverfeet Press Anthology, a “collection of stories, essays, and poems about wildlife, adventure, and the environment, from over forty authors, both U.S. and abroad.” I mention it because I am one of those authors, via an essay I wrote called “A Path to the Wild.”

A short excerpt:

Those summer days fading into nights outside didn’t always lead to bucolic campouts. These were the 70s; my ear for stories of UFOs and cattle mutilations would make me wake wide-eyed with fear should I hear an airplane or, even worse, a helicopter pass overhead in the darkness. With the 1975 release of Jaws, I was frightened to swim in nearby Frenchtown Pond, though I did it anyway, for fear of teeth from the deep. In the wake of that predator-as-villain film, there were a rash of copycats. One was a movie called Grizzly, which I didn’t see, whose ads featured copy describing the beast as “18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror!” I asked my dad how tall 18 feet was, and he pointed high up on the side of the house and said, “About that high.” For nights after I lay in my sleeping bag staring at the side of the old place, dumbstruck that an animal could be so gigantic, waiting for it to come and drag me away.

The book has just come available for the pre-release sales price of $13. Support small independent presses and order one, if you are so inclined, HERE. And let me know what you think!

Wasn’t That Just Like Bill?

From the essay “The Short List” in A Fly Rod of Your Own, the new book from Fly Fishing Hall of Famer John Gierach:

Forty-eight hours later there was two feet of immaculate snow on the ground at the lower elevations and more than twice that amount in the high country to the west. And it was that dense, heavy, spring-like stuff that turns shrubs into moguls, builds precarious white hats on fence posts, and makes a snow shovel heavier than you care to lift too many times in a row. In Minnesota, where I grew up, they called this “heart-attack snow” because every winter it would spell the end for any number of elderly midwesterners. They’d trek out to shovel their driveways at age eighty-nine to avoid paying the neighbor kid a dollar and come back feetfirst. At the funerals people would say, “Wasn’t that just like Bill?”

Reviewing this one for the Indy next week. I’m halfway through, and I love it. Gierach is proof that the best fly fishing writing is barely even about fly fishing.

Another quote of his I love: “Fly-fishing is solitary, contemplative, misanthropic, scientific in some hands, poetic in others, and laced with conflicting aesthetic considerations. It’s not even clear if catching fish is actually the point.”

I took last year off from fishing. If I find my way back stream-side this year, Gierach’s book will be a big reason why.