Friday, June 30, 2006

June 19

June 19
I woke up feeling surprisingly well, considering how much I had had to drink the previous night. Word had gotten to us yesterday that a good friend, Katie, had killed herself in a particularly gruesome manner on Friday night. She was such a unique and great person. She struggled with finding the point to life; like so many she fell to one of the two extremes with regards to what, exactly, life means. She rightly perceived that there is, in the end, no real point to life. I’m sure one could rightly argue that there is a point, and it is to pass on your genes, but such a non-cerebral pursuit is hardly satisfying to those seeking something profound.

But on the other hand, any life is extremely meaningful, and in fact, has whatever meaning and significance you choose to bring to it. The cold fact of Katie’s passing this mortal coil has brought such suffering to so many people shows that on some level her life held so much more meaning than she ever conceived it could.

Katie’s death shook some of my confidence in my convictions, and caused me, in the early stages of grief, to revisit the thoughts and ideas (and the feelings that those thoughts and ideas generate) I have regarding life and death, and that kept me up for a good deal of the previous night. I struggled with duality, what I had thought of as a sort of dynamic tension between a deeply ingrained human (or perhaps animal) will to survive and our other deeply ingrained instinct to relieve suffering. It occurred to me that I, too, was falling into the mistaken notion that this duality was two things. But the desire to survive and the desire to end suffering are really two human differentiations of the same thing. You survive because of what you fear or suffer, and you suffer because you live with the fear of losing life (impermanence), and because of the human tendency to transpose our being upon our possessions, we can actually see losing certain parts or aspects or impermanent features as threats to our actual being.

All of this was racing through my mind last night, and into this morning, so I thought that a walk through the woods might do some good for me. The weather was cool and mild, with a layer of clouds to prevent the sun from beating down and sending the summer insects into a frenzy. I chose to go to the woods above Hoffman Park, probably because it bordered a cemetery, and of course death and morbidity was much on my mind at the moment.

As I pulled into the parking lot, it started to sprinkle. I looked at the sky again to see if I had maybe misjudged the contents and intentions of the clouds, but they looked fairly thin and light, and I felt fairly certain that a sprinkle was the worst the weather would get; worse, of course, being a relative term, presuming there is something wrong with getting wet—a concept which I learned back at the stumps was bullshit.

By the time I had reached the entrance to the woods the precipitation had stopped and the sun broke out from behind the cloud cover, shining with noticeable heat and intensity, but within the woods it was still cool. As I was entering the woods, a woman and her dog were leaving. Both were very friendly and wished me a good morning, which I returned wholeheartedly.
As I entered the woods, I heard ominous-sounding cries of crows and blue jays rather than the calls of red-winged blackbirds and robins that encompassed me down by the river. I wasn’t but a few steps into the woods when I noticed that the vegetation along the edges of the path was chewed to shreds. I noticed one small tree at first, and examined it closely…I couldn’t think of any animal that would chew up a tree quite in that fashion. Then I saw that all the trees along the path showed similar damage and figured that the park department must have come through to groom the paths to keep them from being overgrown.

I walked on down the path, wondering if, when I got to the fork in the path, if I would turn right and go up the hill deeper into the woods or if I’d take a left and wonder around down by the cemetery. The mere thought of the cemetery got me thinking of Katie again, of course. I hoped that she would be laid to rest in that particular one, so that I might visit her on some of my walks, and then immediately thought myself selfish. In fact, it occurred to me, gravestones and cemeteries really are, in the end, for the living. Anything that was Katie is long gone now…gravestones give our brains something to deal with besides abstract concepts such as impermanence.

At the fork, I turned left and went uphill as the idea struck me to construct a makeshift monument to her by stacking some rocks. I’d never talked to her about rock stacking, although I’d been meaning to, and now never will, but I have a feeling she would have thought it was cool. The specifics of the plan had not gelled in my mind, and rather than overthink it, I thought I’d just let the whole experience unfold as organically as possible, being sure that’s how Katie’d want it.

I walked uphill for a while, past the crumbling sandstone of the natural retaining wall that was carved out of the hillside. Near the top of the hill, there is an outer ring which, I believe, goes around he hilltop, and within that outer ring, an inner ring that traces around the hilltop a little farther up. When I got to the outer ring, I was faced with the prospect of going left or right, and I chose right. Only about ten paces down this path, I spied a small trail going up a steep incline off the main path. I went straight up it without delay.

The short, steep path went nearly straight up about eight to ten feet, then crested and dipped down a foot or two. Then it lead a very short way to a small fire pit. It did not appear to have been used recently; there were no ashes in it, and three small paths radiated off of it, each about 120 degrees from each other. The area was very small, and seemed to have a sort of mystical aura about it.

Standing in this confined room in the middle of the woods, I wondered if Katie had ever been to this spot. In all likelihood, she had. The spot was secluded and very quiet, as it sat so far above the main path, and I was struck with the idea that I should stack some rocks here, as a sort of monument in her honor, some thing that I could return to, focus on, and even maintain as a memorial.

I went to build the stack on the westward path radiating off of the fire pit, and soon saw that it was less of a path and more of a small room. It was an ideal location for the stack, sort of out of the way (the stack location was difficult to see even from the pit a few feet away as it was obstructed by vegetation), and with a nice little space to sit and reflect.

I hurriedly gathered up a few loose rocks and set them up. Looking at them, something seemed wrong, and I decided it was the haste and lack of attention to detail that went into it’s construction. I unstacked the stones and left the fire pit, getting back down on the main path, determined to walk around thinking about the stack and its meaning, and to find appropriate stones for its construction.

While walking, I decided that the large stone I had used as a base for the original stack was good and proper…it was big and had a nice growth of moss that I was sure Katie would have liked. Along the path, I came upon a small upheaval of dirt, and in the dirt was a piece of sandstone with a v-shaped notch out of it; it sort of looked like the walking man or a ‘k’, and I deemed it appropriate for my project and picked it up, carrying it along as I continued down the path.

Later I came to part of the path where, on the left side, the hill rose sharply, and had been eroded away a little, exposing a substrate of sandstone rocks that resembled a crumbling retention wall. I noticed one of the rocks, small and thin, had the impression of a leaf on it. I picked it up and went on up the trail.
Soon I was at the top of the hill, on the inner circle path, and walked westward past all the deciduous trees until I came into a grouping of pines. Here, a small path darted off the main one, headed into the center of the inner circle path.

The small path lead to a campground with a fire pit which was surrounded by rocks and logs for sitting. There was a cushion of dry pine needles on the ground. A few paces away was a nice stack of firewood. This fire pit didn’t seem to have been used lately either. I was pretty sure that Katie had been here in the past, and I stepped with reverence around the site. Then, I thought, it was time to go and finish my work. (include other sites w/ birch cross and lean-to?)

I followed the main trail back to the site I had chosen earlier, where I started stacking. First, I put down the base rock, the big one with the moss and a rounded top, on top of which I placed a thin, flat rock that I’d gotten from the fire pit. Next I laid down the rock with the leaf imprint. I set the rock I’d taken from the upheaval and put it on the leaf imprint rock, but a little off center, and on that I balanced an awkwardly shaped but nonetheless beautiful stone, standing on its edge.

When it was completed, I took a step back and looked at it. I still wasn’t sure if I liked it, but it was made out of rocks I was sure Katie would have liked. It was also unstable, like her. I think her instability contributed to her beauty. Her instability, her fragileness, her frailty…all these things that some might consider imperfections or flaws, these are what made her a truly beautiful person.

I knelt there, on the soft forest floor, contemplating these things about her, when I noticed a low whine of machinery in the distance, one that kept getting closer and louder. I tried to ignore it and concentrate on Katie, but soon the noise was so much I couldn’t hear myself think. A chipmunk suddenly darted out of its hiding place, not more than three feet away from where I was kneeling down. I only saw it as a blur; it was gone so fast. It must have been hunkered down, anxiously waiting for me to finish my rock stacking, so it could get on with its life. I smiled to myself, realizing that I, too, am going to have to get on with my life at some point. But for now, I think I’ll have to try to be patient with my grief.

After the path-clearing thrasher had gone by, I got up and left the small secluded site.

I was walking down the path, thinking I’d leave the way I entered, when I heard a series of sharp, quick buzzes. At first I assumed that the noise came from the machinery that had just been by, but then I caught sight of a moth fluttering frantically on the path. I’d never heard a moth buzz before, so I knelt down for a closer look.

Once I got down to the moth’s level, I saw that it was so frantic because it was being attacked by a bee. In all my walks through the woods, I can recall countless butterflies and moths jittering by me and thousands of bees buzzing furiously past me, sometimes hitting me at full speed, angrily intimidating this creature about a millions times their size, but I hadn’t seen this hunting, this death, that I came across on this day when I was most able to witness it with such gut-wrenching empathy. The moth was obviously in its death throes, staggering, already dumb under the spell of the venom. I sat and watched for a few minutes, rooting for the moth to find some reserve strength and escape, but I knew better, of course. I tried to take a couple of pictures, out of some sense of need to document morbidity in the physical realm, but soon the bee knew the moth was done for and focused on me as his most pressing threat, stabbing at me in a series of unnerving aerial maneuvers. I backed off more a good couple minutes before racing past the now motionless moth.

I arrived at the fork in the path at the base of the hill, but instead of turning left and exiting the woods the way I had entered them, I proceeded down towards the cemetery. When I got to where the path exited the woods by the cemetery, I stopped short upon seeing a small gathering in the graveyard. It didn’t seem to be a funeral, as the grouping of people seemed casual and informal, and there was no hearse or coffin. Some of the people gathered were obviously somber, however, as they hugged and shook hands reassuringly.

Off on the edge of the cemetery, obscured from view from the group of people there, but visible to me, was a large pile of dirt, dark as if it was a little wet. This, I surmised, was where they put your dirt when they dug your grave. I fantasized that this was Katie’s family checking out a plot for their daughter, that this was her dirt, but I had never met anyone in her family, and I had no real clue whom these people were. Inside I knew that this was a stupid, self-serving fantasy; after all, other people do die.

Monday, June 05, 2006

zen garden diary 6/5/06

Yesterday, I cleared out the garden space and got the layout down.

I still have to remove a lot of dirt, as the current dirt level is where I want the pebble level to be when it's finished. Plus, I have to fine tune the grading and everything. These pictures are to help me map everything back out.

A painted fern goes in the back left corner, cascading out over the limestone, and a cedar gets palnted where the bunching plant is, back by the crack in the foundation.

Friday, June 02, 2006

June 2


This morning I dropped of my car at the local garage, and seeing as my walk home brought me past the northern section of the woods I've been exploring, I decided to wander around in there before I went home. I had dressed accordingly, wearing fairly grange clothes, so that I could explore what lay beyond the big storm sewer outlet. The wind was hot and dry, and filled with cottonwoods seeds. Along the sidewalk, the cottonwoods clung to the grass like little snow drifts, and I was already getting a little headache from my allergies.

I walked down the access road, and went to enter the woods...only, I couldn't find the entrance. In the week or so since I'd last been here, the rhubarb had grown so fast and thick that the pathway was utterly obscured. I paced along the edge of the woods, peering in as far as I could to try and see if I could locate the path deeper in the woods and trace it back to the hidden entrance. Finally, I gave up and took an educated guess where the path might be and trounced in, on the path, remarkably.

I had brought my camera with me, and I fiddled with it, starting it up and everything, as I walked along the now familiar main path in these woods. Just as it completed its' booting process, it announced that it was out of battery power, so I dug fresh batteries out of my pockets and fed them into the machine, barely paying attention as I continued along the path, down towards the stumps. This morning before I'd left the house, some subconscious part of my brain had assured me that I'd be able to take at least a few pictures, and not to bother looking for replacement batteries to take with me. I'd grabbed them anyway, though, but it was still frustrating to deal with the false expectation I'd had about the batteries.

I was growing impatient with the whole camera situation, muttering to myself about how long the odds were that I wouldn't be able to take even one picture before changing the batteries, when I stumbled like an oaf into the clearing and startled the heron, who took off with much splashing and effort. The camera had not finished rebooting, and so I was unable to get a picture of it, and this was by far the closest I'd ever been to him. He was no more than ten feet away. I could see every detail, the ruffles of his feathers and the features of his face. He and I locked eyes for what seemed a good long time but was likely only a fleeting moment, and then he was gone again. Damn it!

I stood there at the stumps for a long time, contemplating just turning around and heading back for bed, upset at how my day was starting. After a while, though, the sound of the rushing river took my thoughts away with it, and I zoned out there, standing on one of the stumps. I was lazily surveying the river, trying to figure a way across the stumps, sizing up whether I had the legspan to reach one from another, like I'd puzzled over many times before, when it struck me. Rather than jumping from stump to stump, I could maybe use a walking stick to help vault me, as it were, to each stump. That would surely help me maintain my balance and make the whole enterprise much easier.

Feeling a little inspired, I left the stumps to cross the chasm and maybe search for a vaulting stick. I walked slowly and kept my footfalls soft, thinking that I might run into the heron again. I had the camera set to go, not wanting to miss another opportunity. As I was walking, I was dwelling on the fact that more often than not I catch sight of the heron when I'm out on my hikes. Was there more than one? How else could I explain seeing a heron so often? But why do I never see more than one at a time?

I made my way along the inclined path, trying to keep quiet, but the leaves were crunchy underfoot and would've alerted any herons long before I was near. Before long I was at the chasm. I hung my camera by its strap from a small branch of a dead tree before I eased my way down. The chasm was about fifteen fet across, ten feet down, and was lined with rough jagged sandstone. A large tree was growing at the base, and it's roots, some up to nearly a foot thick, were intertwined in the rocks. There was nearly no place to set a foot comfortably, and any misstep could end up quite painfully.

I managed to transverse the tricky terrain, but was able to proceed only about ten feet before the vegetation grew too thick to penetrate. I could make out little animal paths going underneath the brush, but they were inaccesible to anyone more than a foot tall. I scanned the terrian for some time, traversing each possible path mentally, before eventually deciding that continuing the journey would be painful, if not impossible.

I reversed my course and made my way back to the stumps. Along the way, I found a fairly straight stick on the ground, about four feet long, around an inch thick, and slightly tapered. It was strong, not rotten, and seemed to suit the purpose I had in mind. I practiced my vaulting on the path on the way to the stumps.

Arriving at the riverside, I went straight for the stumps. I stepped on the first one and then the second one, just like always, and then stood there for a while. This second stump is where I had always stopped in the past. But now with my stick, I was more confident that I couls make it to the third set of stumps. I went over the routinr in my mind, psyching myself up with several false starts. The current of the river was strong, I noticed, so strong that it tried to pull my stick downstream with it. My confidence started to fade with every mental run through I did. Visions of slipping on the damp stumps, splashing into the river, maybe even hurting myself, damced through my skull. More and more, the whole enterprise looked like it would end with me getting wet, and then the thought struck me...

What would be so bad about me getting wet? I saw that I'd gotten it stuck in my head that I needed to stay dry while trying to see if I could get ti the other side. I giggled to myself and got myself back to the shore, where I immediately hung my camera ona tree branch and took off my shoes and socks.

I stepped onto the first stump with my bare foot, enjoying the feel of the old worn wood on the skin of my sole. The water was around a foot deep, and rather than jump in I decided to lower myself to a squatting position, place my hand on one of the stumps, and ease my foot in. It was fortunate on my part that I did it this way, because the current was so strong that if I hadn't been holdong on to something, it likely would have carried me away.

Once both my feet were in, I let go of the stump. Trying to walk straight across the river was almost impossible, so I moved with the water, going a little downstream with each step across. The river bottom was covered in small jagged rocks, which were, of course, slippery with river slime, so I had to walk carefuly and slowly. As I got to the middle of the stream, near the small island, the jagged rocks became covered with silt. The silt cushioned my steps a little. Eventually, the silt grew so thick that I could no longer tell that there were rocks beneath it, and the muddy goo gushed over my feet and between my toes.

I was nearly halfway out before it dawned on me that it might be a good idea to take the camera out with me. I was a little worried about the camera getting wet, but I thought the pictures I could take would be worth the risk.

I sloshed back to shore and went to the tree where I had hung the camera by its strap. The tree was a little off the beaten path, and had a good deal of grass and other vegetation surrounding it, which I gingerly trundled through, and noticed at some point that among the plants growing there were stinging nettles. My legs didn't begin to itch until after I'd fetched the canera and was on my way back to the river, and I jumped back in as fast as I could without splashing warter on it.

I stood in the cool water, letting the soothing current take the stinging chemicals away downstream.

As I got closer to the other shore, it became clear that there would be no easy path on that other side. I was really not disappointed, though, because it was such a revelation I had about just stepping into the river, it was almost as though I had solved a koan, so deeply satisfying was my contentment.

I stood a good long time in the river, just letting it flow past me. I snapped a couple of pictures, thinking it would be a neat perspective, then I reluctantly walked back to the near shore, shook my legs dry as best I could, and atarted on my way home.

As I walked the path back to wherre I entered the woods, off to my left I heard a sort of rustling. The niose was sort of slow and deliberate, like something was carefully planning its steps, ans the landing pf the footfalls sounded heavy. I froze, then crouched down slightly, silently listening for another sound. The sound eventually came, but not for almost a minute, and it was difficult to tell exactly where it was coming from, but it seemed to be originating from near the riverbank. It had to be a deer, I thought, and I pursued it as carefully as my excitement allowed.

I slowly made a large circle around wherre I thought the animal might be, then doubled back along the shore line, following nearly imperceptible animal trails as quietly as I could. I spent quite a while stalking my prey, but I heard nothing more. I crept along slowly, pausing after each step. Suddenly, something scampered out of the rhubarb patch I was walking past. It certainly wasn't a deer, I noted disappointedly, but could be a woodchuck or raccoon, I thought.

I went after this now what I knew to be smaller animal for a while, but it seemed to stay put wherever it had scampered off to and gave me no more clues as to its whereabouts. Just as I was about to give up, I heard it again, very close, and I hid behind a tree to make sure I was out of sight. I could hear the animal, it had to be less than ten or twenty feet away. I carefully peeked around the tree, moving as slowly as I could, but I saw nothing. I kept peering into the dense foliage, sure that at any moment the beast would move and reveal its' position, and eventually it did. Unfortunately, the acousatics of the woods had tricked me earlier, as it was not a deer or even a woodchuck, but a mere squirrel. I tried to tske its picture, but even that eluded was somewhere on the ground in the sunny patch of this picture.

Of course disappointed with the last part of my time in the woods, I exited quickly and headed home. On my wasy back, I encountered two squirrels chasing each other around the trunk of a large maple tree, jumping from the ground onto the tree itself and then off again. I noticed that the quirrel being chased was carrying something in its mouth, something the other squirrel apparently wanted very badlly. When they paused for a brief moments rest, I saw it was a helicopter, and I laughed to myself at the mental image of these two squirrels fighting over who was going to drop the thing from the treetop, like two kids fighting over a toy.