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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Only the rain abides

I awoke night before last, sometime after midnight, the sound of spring rain pulling me up to consciousness—to a sleeper, it’s more of an echo or a vibration than anything, but I know it and it draws me. I got up and opened our bedroom sliding glass door and drank it in. The full sound now, composed of the rain hitting both the roof and the trees outside; and best of all the sweet smell of rain, not as pronounced tonight as I’ve smelled before, but still there, clean and intriguing.
Back in bed, I lay listening and smelling, the night “far too precious for sleep,” as Li Po said. Another poem came to mind, by the 13th century Jiang Jie (Chiang Chieh), who retreated to the mountains rather than serve the conquering Mongols at the end of the Sung dynasty.

Once, when young, I lay and listened
To the rain falling on a brothel roof,
Silk and silky flesh gleaming in candlelight.

Later, I heard it on the cabin roof of a small boat
As I sailed under low clouds on the Great River,
Wild geese crying out in an autumn storm.

Now, again, I hear it on a monastery roof,
My hair turned white with the passing years.

All—the joy, the sorrow, the meeting, the parting—
All are as though they had never been.

Only the rain on the roof abides,
Falling on tiles in streams through the night.
(Barnett translation)

Two impulses nestle within this lovely poem. One is the Buddhist perspective, that our individual ego-driven activities are fundamentally ephemeral and to be discarded in surrender to the deeper realities of existence. Fair enough, if that is your cup of tea. The other impulse is the Taoist perspective, that human life is deeply imbedded within the natural world, and achieves its full expression in the human interplay with nature and its rhythms. This is what strikes a chord with me and my experience. The physical pleasures of the body by candlelight, river journeys echoing with the calls of geese, contemplative moments in old age—all these are good, in the Taoist tradition, and particularly good when enjoyed in the embrace of the earth’s great rhythms of rainfall, sunshine, and wildness.

So I had been glad, two days before our soaking night of rain, to hear my son relate his full-moon adventures with friends. They had hiked by moonlight into Upper Park, the wild two-thirds of our local Bidwell Park, and sat for hours atop Monkey Rock enjoying the views of Chico Creek canyon on the left and the Sacramento Valley on the right, bathed by the soft light of the moon. Laughter, tall tales, friendship. Life in the embrace of the earth’s rhythms.

I’ll soon start my own practice of sleeping out in the backyard on full-moon nights, now that the nights aren’t as cold as they’ve been over winter. I set up a cot in the middle of the yard, under the Valley oak tree (or, if the aphids in the oak are busy shedding sugar syrup, just outside the edge of the canopy!), and watch the moon move through the sky as I drift in and out of sleep all night. It’s surprising how bright moonlight can be if it’s shining full in your face, but that’s all right with me. I get a full ear of the frogs in a nearby pond in Valley Oaks Village until about midnight (in the spring, at least), then a full ear of the birds from dawn on. With the whisper of the breezes in the oak branches above me throughout. Heaven.

Two summers ago a Coopers hawk pair nested in the Valley oak, and every morning I’d check the ground beneath to see what supper was the day before. Cooper hawks are supposed to be strictly bird-eaters, but this pair hadn’t read the field-guides, and so beneath their nest I found not just feathers, but also rat tails and the dainty forelimbs of squirrels. It was like cleaning the floor of a butcher shop every morning, and very educational.

All this intimate and constant awareness of the natural world, however achieved, attunes us to the great ancient flows and rhythms of the planet, which are of course our own flows and rhythms. It enriches our lives by giving us just exactly what our evolutionary past has primed us to require: full immersion in the array of sensory inputs of the natural world, “strumming” our body and soul, eliciting music from us as sweet as Louie Armstrong ever pulled from his trumpet. This immersion grants flavor and health and melody to our lives. John Muir was particularly perceptive about these benefits. From his journal, in late 1872:

“Wonderful how completely everything in wild nature fits into us, as if truly part and parent of us. The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.”

Nor do you have to be in the high mountains to glow with the glow of creation. From his home in the little Alhambra valley near Martinez north of San Francisco, far from the Sierra Nevada, Muir writes on March 24 of 1895 in his journal: “Fine balmy day. (In the distance) Mt. Diablo one mass of purple in the morning. Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad, whatever is done and suffered by her creatures. All scars she heals, whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts.”

And to think: all we need do to flourish is to step out our door, to the nearest park or creek, the nearest oak tree or rock outcropping. Or sometimes, just open the slider on a rainy night, and listen and smell from your warm bed.

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