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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The Joys of Summer

The poet Wang Wei's summer float trip in China

Last weekend saw both the Summer Solstice and a full moon. I try to appreciate all the seasons (winter is the hardest), but I gotta admit that summer is my favorite by a country mile. Consider my activities this past weekend: bicycling in the heat wearing swimsuit and Tevas, a swim in Chico Creek mid-route, then the glorious feel of warm air on wet skin as I whirl down the lane afterwards; hearing my kids talk of midnight (well, later than midnight, actually) swims; sitting in the backyard watching the full moon rise through banks of clouds, which glow with moonlight behind them; chatting with a friend who takes his recuperating spouse to a special spot to watch the moon rise over San Francisco Bay; even lounging on the back porch with a half-jigger of Scotch on ice, listening to the Giants get beaten by the lowly Florida Marlins—so much is special in this season.

The snow has disappeared from the Sierra Nevada high country (early this year), and soon we’ll head for Tuolumne Meadows and the High Sierra Camp at Glen Aulin, from whence John Muir loved to hike down the Tuolumne River a century and some ago.

Celebrating the summer solstice with summertime activities embeds us securely in the great rhythms of the planet, rhythms that our kind have lived through for millions of years. In the hunter-gather and then agricultural past, we were even more strongly shaped and influenced by these rhythms than we are now, so the observance today roots us and connects us in a practical, experiential way to who we are, still, and where we came from.

Traditional Chinese culture appreciated this connection much better than our Western culture, which is one reason I’m so drawn to it. The Chinese traditional solar calendar codifies the human/nature connection with its 24 “knots” marking the seasonal changes at two-week-plus intervals. The two solstices and two equinoxes form the frame of this calendar, and between these the intervals are described by terms also reflective of the seasons. Small Heat follows the solstice on July 7, then Great Heat on July 23.

In the complementary lunar calendar, the full moons were the markers, and in traditional China (and even today to a degree) boats were reserved for moon-viewing parties on lakes, and friends gathered for poetry and tea (or shoju!) in moonlit gardens, particularly in Korea.

This keen awareness of the natural world and how we humans fit into its ancient rhythms is the greatest gift that Eastern cultures (China, Korea, Japan) have given the world, far more important to my mind than gunpowder, the compass, fore-and-aft rudders, and printing. Because we were formed as a species in the matrix of the natural world, our mental and physical health require participation in these rhythms. In the ancient Chinese perspective, we’re healthier and happier when we are aware of the cycles of the natural world, and participate in them.

All cultures have various strands, of course. The strand in traditional China that understood and celebrated the vital connection between humans and the natural world was Taoism. The Taoist tradition in China consisted originally and primarily of this full-on orientation toward the natural world, a way of keeping in contact with our roots. My thoughtful, probing friend Gary recently asked me (via email) if Taoism might have taken a similar route to other religions: “start with a solid basic set of cosmological teachings, but then over time subvert them to suit the self-interests of a ruling group.” This is just one of “questions I want to ask you about your belief system.”

Completely understandable coming from the Western religious tradition, the framing of these questions is simply not applicable to Taoism. As Kristofer Schipper emphasizes in his fascinating The Taoist Body (UC Press, 1993), Taoism is not a religion as religions are understood in the West. That is, it has no “solid basic set of cosmological teachings”, and cannot in fact be considered anything remotely close to “a belief system.” In the first place, Taoism never had a hierarchic framework with any “leader” or group of “leaders,” and never convened councils to articulate or codify bedrock beliefs or creeds, as happened with Christianity.

Taoism, rather, bubbled up as the source of the folk religion (or “popular religion”) of traditional China, springing forth in a thousand streams from wandering shamans and sorcerers, from local temples and cults, from religious awe of mountains and holy places throughout China. Taoism is thus not so much a religion as a way of orienting oneself in the natural world. It’s a perspective, an approach, a way of living. A “way” or “path” (the usual translations of Tao).

What you “ believe” in the Taoist tradition is not very important. How you live is crucial. Taoism is a way of living. A way of orienting oneself to the natural world, in which we recognize that the natural world is where we came from, the matrix that shaped us, the background material that we still require to be happy and healthy.

So the Taoist tradition (which is the soil in which the Chinese folk religion developed) is chock-full of festivals and rituals and celebrations, reminding us of the great rhythms of our planet. The tradition offers us ways to mark and celebrate the natural world, means to participate in these rhythms and embed ourselves in the natural world which is, in the last analysis, our home. The Taoist tradition is a way for us to return to our home and reside there happily. It accomplishes this not by giving us a “belief system” or creeds or mental formulations. It gives us, rather, celebrations, rituals, festivals, and an outlook keenly aware of and fond of the natural world, our home.

And the Taoist tradition in China also gives us tales, usually whimsical and humorous tales, of mountain-dwelling eccentrics discoursing on clouds or strangely-shaped trees, people wondering whether they are butterflies dreaming they’re humans, or humans dreaming they’re butterflies. The tradition gives us poets (and occasionally poetesses) crafting sharp, heart-piercing images of humans in the natural world. Listen to Li Po, writing a thousand years ago in the great T’ang dynasty:

“To refresh our sorrow-laden souls / We drank wine deep into the splendid night, / Its moonlit charm far too precious for sleep. / But at last the wine overtook us / And we lay ourselves down on the innocent mountain, / The earth for pillow, the stars for cover.”

Or Wang Wei, of the same dynasty: “I float the winding Yellow Flower River, / Making ten thousand turns through the mountains / On a journey comprising less than thirty miles. / Rapids whish over jumbled rocks, / But in a quiet inlet, nut-horns sway / Among great pines and lush bankside herbs. / In my deepest heart the purity / of this clear water is reflected. / Oh, to lounge on a broad, flat rock here / And cast a fishing line forever!”

Wang Wei’s experience is still happening. Last night my kids listened to the excited tales of CoHousing friends recently returned from three weeks floating the Colorado River, tales of cooling dips in the water, fishing poles snatched by the current, beautiful hikes up side canyons, sightings of bighorn sheep, golden eagles, condors, and rattlesnakes. Wang Wei country, that.

Ah. Summer. Or Spring. Or Fall. Even Winter. In the natural world.

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