Sunday, April 28, 2013


First flowers open.
A person looks,
The blossoms look back...

I approached the Japanese maple, walked right up to its dangling crown and ducked past its low-hanging, star-studded canopy.

Inside its dark amphitheater, the maple trunks were dark, simple, serious shapes twisting into the cloud-swept sky.

I chose a particular branch, any branch. 

This was how I could watch the wind.

I was also on the look-out for shadows.

With the sun in the right spot, with the trees just barely leafing out, this is the time of year to catch the silhouettes.

That’s actually the pawpaw…

…and those are the pawpaw flowers, hanging like little bells, green and purple and papery, caught at last.

This is a game that I can only play in the spring.

Fun with trees or catching silhouettes, whatever you want to call it.  Identifying a tree by its shadow is a good little mindbender, makes your head feel like it’s working inside out…

…that’s a horse-chestnut.

I wonder if this is how some birds identify trees, if they play this game.  

It's a fun way to test the identification skills, a different way of seeing the ordinary, like trying to solve a Zen koan or a riddle:

            green buddhas on the fruit stand,
            we eat the smile and spit out the teeth.


This is also the kind of game that needs a big lawn…

…unless you’re able to find a tree massive enough to hold its own shadow.

That’s the way I could watch the sun.


This was a day made for nature-lovers: cold, crisp, clear and sunny.

The wind was outstanding.  It came in waves.  I could hear the next wave approaching in the trees further away.

And the light?  The light was tripping me fantastic.

I’m not one for hyperbole but this was the most beautiful, most splendid day of the year.

And because there would never, ever be another day as beautiful or as splendid as this day, I had the insatiable urge to stand still.

I was outside on a hunt, sure, but my prey wasn’t anything specific, nothing particular.  I wasn’t on the lookout for one tree or one leaf or one flower.

I wanted the whole day…but the whole day in one moment.

The whole day in one shot.

My spirit was restless.  My eyes were dizzy, too much to see, too much to catch.  My ears were ringing with birdsong and windsong and my mind was ringing too, with small bursts of half-forgotten poems, haiku and lyrics.

I was a traveler, a tramp and a rogue but I wanted to find the part of the day that would make me stand still.  I wanted to find the perfect place to sit and see, looking for the one place that would stop me in my tracks.

            such a moon
                        the thief
            pauses to sing

I wanted to be a deep breath, held.

If this were a baseball game, then put me out in center field.  That’s the position I want, standing in the middle of the big lawn…

…swatting flies, chewing the fat, following the game…every once in a while catching the occasional pop-up.

But the wind wasn’t helping.  It kept pushing me over to the next empty space.  It kept dangling new sights in front of my eyes, changing the landscape with every gust and blow.

            autumn wind
                        across the field –

The light wasn’t helping either.

I couldn’t take my eyes off that light.

It was astonishing…

…the light through the new leaves.

Have you ever seen a photo of a newborn mammal?  The way the light shines through the pink flesh, through the transparent eyelids and through the doughy snouts, a field of stars shining through every new finger and toe?

It shines through the new leaves in the same way.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the leaves…

…thin and taut against that blue, blue sky.

Standing still was hard enough to do an average day.

On a day like this, with all that terrific wind and all that amazing light?  Damn near impossible.

Standing still?  This might be my most daunting adventure ever.

Ah, but that’s what makes its reward so valuable.

Forget fortune and glory.

This adventure’s destination is peace of mind.

            we sit together, the mountain and me,
            until only the mountain remains.

I also found a bunch of new trees.  That wasn’t helping either.


I found some dawn redwood. 

This tree is a cousin to those Turtle Island giants on the west coast, the redwoods and the Sequoiadendron known as Bigtree. 

The dawn redwood is the third surviving member of a once mighty family and the only sequoia that can flourish beyond the foggy, rocky belt of the Pacific coast.  Its Latin name is the melodious metasequoia glyptostroboides.

It can be confused with the bald cypress but here’s the big difference: in the dawn redwood, the leaves grow opposite each other along the branches.

Like the ginkgo, this was a tree that was known only through fossils, thought to be extinct for centuries, until 1944, when a small grove was discovered growing in a remote part of China.

For centuries, its last living trees were standing still, waiting to be found.

The dawn redwood might not grow to the heights and girths of its California cousins but this is a mighty tree, a good teacher on the art of standing still.

Its strong buttressed trunk takes a hold of the entire planet, one giant clamp against the spinning sky.  Look at the grass.  Even the grass just grows up its trunk, like a mountain.

This dawn redwood is a true axis mundi, a hub in the center of the swirling world, a way-station where the three realms of the earth unite: sky, ground and underground.

The axis mundi…now there’s a place meant for standing still…and yet I was distracted again, just across the field, by a weeping larch…

…crawling like a spider across the green lawn.

And then, just around the corner, I found a tree that I’ve never seen before, a tree that I’ve only read about in books.

This is the Cunninghamia lanceolata, also known as the China fir, although technically it’s a cypress.  It’s one of the most valuable timber trees in China.  Its wood has a heavy, mahogany scent which is why it’s used to build temples and coffins

It’s distinct due to those long, long needles, growing in a flat spray from those thin, thin branches.

Where was I?

I was in Fairmount Park, off Belmont Avenue.

I was at the Shofuso Japanese House, as good a place as any, and better than most, on the quest to stand still.


This is a place designed to make you at peace with the present moment...

…purposefully executed to stay the wandering spirit.

I walked through its low, narrow hallways.

Here, the corridors don’t end.  They just continue its path into the exterior landscape. 

There are walls, made of paper, but there are no doors, a way of saying to the outside world that all is welcome.

If you’re a stranger, if you’re a bird or if you’re a frog, even if you’re weather, you have an open invitation.

This kind of landscape, both interior and exterior, is meant to instill a contemplative, meditative, silent, still and balanced state of mind, which is why these places always include a body of water.

A body of water, especially a stagnant pool like this, is meant to pause the hectic mind.

Water, after all, is the place of reflection.

Water, after all, was earth’s first mirror.

            a trout leaps high.
                        below him on the river bottom
            clouds roll by.

Walking around the garden of the Shofuso House, I have to admit something here.

Fish befuddle me.

Maybe it’s because I am a gill-less land-lubber, with two feet and two lungs, but I find it hard to fathom fishes.

Fishes never stand still.

How do they know where they are, if they never stay still?

And even when a fish meets another fish?

It always seems accidental, so coincidental and so serendipitous.

I suppose the exact opposite of a fish would be a tree.

And yet, to a tree-hunter like myself, a tree is always in motion, standing still.

I couldn’t take my eyes off that shocking, horizontal branch stretching out for miles away from its main trunk, one branch almost as long as the tree was high.

This is the Kalopanax, another new tree, the Castor-Aralia.

I couldn’t take my eyes off its fascinating bark…

…spinning like rope all around its massive bulk.

I wish someone had made a stop-motion movie about this bark so I could see it turning in formation throughout the ages…

…watching the wind and the sunlight, like a mad potter, spin and shape all these hypnotizing twists and braids.

I've never seen that movie before but that’s not what I call standing still.

I still hadn’t found the place, the hub in the center of the spinning Wheel…and, because I have a restless, antsy spirit, I left the pristine and orderly realm of the Shofuso House and wandered into the weedy, untamed trails beyond the picnics, on the other side of the ticket booth.

I’ll stay close to what I’ve always loved,
content to leave that peopled world forever.


According to Zen Taoism, the ten-thousand things, which is everything, are in a constant state of transformation, never standing still.

This is the Zen cosmology, the ten-thousand things all in perpetual motion, all in spontaneous harmony, acting out in broad daylight each of their individual natures…

…ten-thousand things rising forth into Presence to interact with sunlight, wind, rain, moon...

…everything is its own Wheel... wild ride into Existence and then right back to the Void.

The Zen masters say this also applies to the interior landscape: thoughts, memories, emotions, passions.

This is called tzu-jan.  It translates to self-so or, more poetically, self-ablaze.

Well, that’s easy to find on a spring day like this, the tzu-jan, all those different Wheels staking their own claim in the wild weeds…

…it’s everywhere you look, the ten-thousand things in constant motion.

But I wasn’t interested in transformation.

I wanted to see the ten-thousand things in rest.

I wanted to experience this.

As in this tree.  This rock.

This way.

I found a small creek, running fast, babbling and scuttling over the ragged rocks. 

What was it that Annie Dillard said?  The water carries its own light.

No wonder fish never stay still.

Further up, the creek rested in a pool underneath a tree-bridge

bright lake a mirror of fallen heaven.

The ground was wet and marshy.  The water was high, rising and running over the low banks, and every step was a gamble, my boots too heavy for such soft ground.

Off the trail, there were little pockets of swamp, hidden and nestling between the high clover and the long grass…

…as good a place as any, and better than most, to see the entire year in one place, in one shot.


Dried bamboo and spring's new twigs, poking out of the still waters.

Below the waters, cherry leaves from last autumn.  Most likely, they survived the winter by freezing up and, now, finally thawing out.

And then the water itself, that accidental puddle.  

Its surface, the thinnest edge, the largest unarmed, unmanned border you'll ever find on Spaceship Earth.

Below the water's surface?  The dark, mysterious, murky cavern from where all life first breached through the Void. 

Its thin, tense surface catches everything right now.  Willow catkins.  Maple samaras. 


The reflection of the black branches.  The reflection of the blue sky.

Looking deeper into the reflection is the same as looking higher into the sky and I can see, beyond the reach of this mirror, soaring above the swiftly tilting poles of this rocky planet...

The Frogs Return Moon.  Shining bright now.  Dark side of the world.  

If this were a movie, here’s the part where I would just fade to white.


  1. Thank you for so eloquently sharing this beautiful trip.

    1. Thank you, Connie. Appreciate the comment.