Article Appears in The Wayfarer Vol 3 Iss 4 | Winter 2014 | Visit our Shop to Order»

Image by Duncan George | Feature Artist for the Issue

Essay by Jason Kirkey


When I was very young my family lived on a ridge that divides two watersheds. On the eastern side of the ridge there were several acres of forest and marsh. The rain that fell on this side would flow, by way of streams and aquifers, into the North Atlantic. On the western side was an artificial reservoir filled by the Ipswich River, which flowed just further west and north. The rain that fell on the western side of the ridge collected into the river. This is the house, the oikos—the Greek word from which our word “ecology” is derived—that I was born into.

I arrived at the canoe landing one July day with a friend, Matt, who I often hike and canoe with. We lowered the canoe from his car then walked it down the steep decline toward the river. Light shone off the water. The humidity in the air clung to my skin like pine sap. All afternoon the clouds parted and coalesced into sunshine and rain. The rain fell splashing into the water to become part of the river. Other drops fell on leaf, on fur, on branch, and then dripped down into the soil, burrowing deeply underground into aquifers. These drops, too, would eventually become river. And all rivers will eventually become ocean, return to rain, and become rivers again; repeating the whole whirling dervish of a dance long after we are ashes and dust.

As traffic on the road above us bustled, the water on the Ipswich was as still as a hunting heron. I climbed into the canoe first, sitting in the bow. Matt gave us a few pushes, waded into the shallow water, and climbed in after. I felt the rough scrape of sand and stone beneath us and then—nothing. We were off and gliding quietly through the water.

Ten meters or so from where we set off from the shore there was a tangle of branches that rose up from the center of the river. We aimed ourselves around it. As we passed, there was a bump under the canoe followed by a long scrape. We stopped as though the canoe was grabbed from below. We had become lodged on a sunken log. The water was low and we came upon it before our perceptions had acclimated to the play of light, shadow, and depth. All we had seen were the trees above us reflected in the inky surface of the river. The canoe sat with its middle pressed against the log and we turned about on a pivot, again and again, in half circles with every attempt to paddle. With a bit of shimmying, pushing on the log with paddles, and Matt pulling us backward by one of the branches overhead, we managed to free ourselves. We navigated around the log by a narrow channel of water next to some debris built up on the shore.

There are not many wild places left in New England. Indeed, some might say that there are no wild places left here, depending on how strictly one defines wildness. However one looks at it, wildness is a quality of landscape that is in short supply, at least in the United States and much of Europe. Our patterns of land use have left the wilderness and the habitat it provides fragmented. This is a major concern to conservation biologists.

One of the many methodologies employed by conservation biologists to ensure the ongoing integrity of ecosystems is called rewilding. Michael Soulé, one of the pioneers of rewilding, outlines the process as conserving core wilderness areas, movement corridors between these protected areas, and carnivores. What we need now is wildness—a quality that we have largely sacrificed for economic growth and development. In an article that lays out the central thesis of rewilding, Soulé and Reed Noss write that “The greatest impediment to rewilding is our unwillingness to imagine it.” But perhaps before we can imagine rewilding the landscape we must first rewild our own minds.

I sometimes think that coming into this world on a drainage divide—half the water of my body looking to flow in one direction, the other half in another—has had some geological hand in shaping me. Landscapes shape us in myriad ways. Different places have different patterns that require us to think in different ways if we are to have any kind of practical or personal relationship with its ecology. More deeply though, landscapes lodge themselves inside us. Our spatial perception of the world comes to us as open meadows of grass and sky; the closed canopy of a forest; the vastness of the night sky; or as the gold of alpenglow on a mountainside.

Landscape, whatever else it might be, is how we experience ourselves as situated in the world. And what is mind but an interior set of these same kinds of relationships, situating our subjectivity amidst all our thoughts, hopes, dreams, and emotions? I experience the contents of my mind as I do mountains and rivers: embedded relationally in their topography. I am made by them, and in some ways, they are re-made within my mind. The mountains and rivers are inside of me just as surely as I am inside of them.

Spend enough time in the mountains—enough time not only observing the mountain, but one’s mind in relation to it—and the mountain’s mind and meaning might become comprehensible. True, the mountain’s mind may not be sentient or conscious, it may not respond to feedback from its environment in the same way that a grouse might be flushed from the understory at the sound of my approach. Its mind runs deeper still.

It is by meeting the mountains through walking them that one can come to know the minds of mountains, of rivers, and other phenomenon that we so often regard as non-living and therefore without mind. It is perhaps impossible to give an account of it but to say that they have meaning—no, are meaning, as fundamentally as they are stone. The river, too; the rain that feeds it; the trout and turtles and herons; the Douglas fir and aspen on the mountain; the wolves and elk and deer: all are loci of meaning.

Gregory Bateson calls this ecology of mind “the pattern which connects.” The Chinese character cannot be easily decoded by the English word “mind.” It is often translated as heart-mind. In Hunger Mountain David Hinton writes of this concept, “The plummeting hawk is not an inside looking out at its prey. Instead, its identity is the opening of consciousness itself…as it dives, prey filling sight and mind, that identity includes the prey.” Mind, in this sense, is not the mere activity of human consciousness but the pattern that connects all things, the mycelia in the deepest substrate of our identity that weaves us relationally into the fabric of nature.

Here on the Ipswich River, if you stop and become silent, you might then meet the river on its own terms. The lapping ceases in the slow glide of water. The birds begin returning. The stillness becomes palpable—even with the wind rustling through the reeds and grasses. No matter how much it might blow through, it seems part of the stillness of the place. A river is a contradiction; its stillness does not necessarily mean “no movement.” Or perhaps it only seems still to me because my own habitat is so full of noise and motion that any relief seems revelatory.

Each river has its way: the course it carves through the landscape, undulating imperceptibly through valleys and floodplains; the moods of its flow—glides that run into riffles and pools; the life in its waters and banks. When Lao Zi, author of the Dàodé Jīng speaks of the dào, he speaks in metaphors of water and of rivers. The dào is the process of nature. Metaphorically, we might imagine the entire substrate of groundwater as the dào: it underlies the soil, the whole ecosystem. The river is merely its outward face. To follow the Way of the river, of the water—to follow the ecosystem—is to the follow the dào. A Ch’an text says that by intending to accord with the dào you have immediately deviated from it; but the dào is also that from which one cannot deviate. Like wild nature, deviating from the dào is a mere temporary change in the flow of the river. The dào is that which continually brings all things into consonance with the wild—including our own minds.

It was my childhood on the edge of the marsh, on the ridge that divides two watersheds, that must have first shaped the ecology of my mind, first instilled in me this wonder and longing for wild nature. Those childhood haunts are indelibly carved within me as sure as glaciers shaped the very landscape. We evolved out of the fecundity of the earth. Our bodies are built up from the detritus of the forest floor, the tides of the oceans, and the heat of the sun. So too are our minds. The decomposition of leaves or the natural selection of evolution and the fitness of ecosystems are all, in this sense, thinking minds. The forest and meadow, as complex ecological systems, are thinking themselves into being. The human mind is an extension, perhaps even a condensation, of the ecosystem’s mind. As the flesh is made from clay and leaves, the mind is likewise made from the same wild processes that think the clay and leaves into being.

Who I am here on the Ipswich River, who I am anywhere, is as much a result of my own nature as it is the nature of the place. We are always shaping each other. The Ipswich River runs crisp and clean through my mind. Tall granite rocks, ferns, and beech have taken up residence in the soil of my flesh. Its water pours into me like the rain, drenching the ground, and passes through me on its way out to the estuary and, finally, to the sea.

Matt and I rounded a bend on the river, dodging rocks in the shallow water and gliding around fallen branches. The water level was even lower here—so low that in the shadow of an old stone bridge the depth became gradually more and more shallow until we glided only an inch or two above the stony bottom of the river. It was too late to redirect ourselves. With a scrape and grind we came to a stop once more. This was turning into a pattern. We had spent as much time dislodging ourselves from various shallows and woody debris than we had spent moving. Because he was wearing sandals, Matt got out of the canoe and pushed us off the shoal. He climbed back in, rocking the canoe back and forth as he did. We paddled on carefully, peering into the dark water as we passed under the bridge, bouncing off a few invisible rocks before emerging into deeper water.

The canopy darkened the river and sheltered us in shade. It started to rain—a drizzle at first, punctuated by the occasional large drop that collected on and then fell from the tips of leaves. The rain intensified quickly, as it does during the summer in New England. It was not heavy enough to soak us, but a shower enough to dot our clothes with drops, disturb the surface of the water, and refresh us from the heat. The kind of elemental rain that ought to bother no one.

As we approached a fallen tree, the arms of its branches still reaching toward the sky, a heron swooped in from the shore and settled onto it. Its posture was impeccable; its gaze, one-pointed. The rain showered down on us all. We shared the rain, the river, and the air.

The heron took off again, a few more meters down the river now, and settled in some branches on the shore. It became an illusion of light and shadow, there but not there—a dark wing glimpsed and vanished. The rain fell harder and the way was blocked by too much debris. We turned back. The rain left bubbles like a thousand eyes on the surface of the water, stirred up the mud and muck, wet us through and through. The way back was swift, assisted by what little current there was, and by a confidence in our knowledge of the right way to move with the water to avoid being hung up on obstacles. We moved with the dào of the river.

Approaching the sand of our landing we got stuck again on the same fallen tree. No lessons had been learned. Nothing was gained. Following the dào is like that. It is neither knowing nor not knowing. It runs contrary to our modern instincts of consumption and accumulation. We took away only the empty cans and bottles. Like them, we too had become vessels both filled and emptied by the river. To take more—even lessons—would be to take too much from an already threatened river. I would content myself with shunyata; emptiness. There was only the river, the heron, the trees, and rain—and us, all of us just as we were.

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