Monday, July 9, 2012

Things aren’t always what they appear to be.

A version of the following essay was published in the Concord Monitor 7/8/12

There is an old Zen Buddhist story about an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. 
"Maybe," the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed.
"Maybe," replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe," answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. "Maybe," said the farmer.[1]
So it goes.
The moral of this teaching tale is that things aren’t always what they appear to be. I relearned this lesson last Sunday when we set out on what first appeared to be a magical, evening kayak ride on the Suncook River, putting in just above the dam in Barnstead Parade. Mallard ducks, mud turtles, sweeping swallows, great blue herons greeted us, all silhouetted majestically against the setting sun. Swathes of yellow water lily cups lit up stretches the dark water like strings of tiny lights.

But soon we encountered trouble in paradise: Rising up out of the depths, long, feathery snakes of milfoil, writhing in the current just under the surface, formed an impenetrable mat, so thick it impended our forward progress, especially on the shallower, slower moving parts of the river. Not surprisingly, this exotic, aquatic plant, an alien life form to New Hampshire waters, is raising havoc, threatening the ecological health, along with the aesthetic and recreational value of many of our lakes and streams.

The menace of the unchecked milfoil growth struck me as an apt metaphor for our own exploding human population growth (and related unsustainable lifestyle) literally choking the living systems of the earth itself. As Bill McKibben has written, it is the end of nature. By that he meant that we have already done so much damage, the scale has tipped: Rather than mother nature reigning supreme and controlling her own destiny, now her future is in our hands.

Paddling along, I thought I saw a hopeful sign:  standing out among the yellow water lily cups, I spotted something pink. At first I thought it must be a half-submerged soda bottle or other human cast-off. But as I approached closer, I discovered a gorgeous pink water lily.

I couldn’t help equating the pink lily’s pristine beauty with that of the lotus flower made famous in Buddhist lore. I innocently concluded they were both of the same family when I should of said maybe as I found out when I got home and did some research: I discovered that, in fact, the lotus and lily are not related at all. They are two distinct species:The lotus is considered “emergent” because its leaves and flowers rise about the water level whereas the water lily humbly floats upon the water surface.

But maybe there is a positive: during my research, I discovered water lilies have their own unique claim to fame: they are now considered to be the critical missing link in the evolution of flowering plants.

Although our local pink water lily might be considered a poor cousin in some circles, one could make the case that our lily is more deserving of high status than the exalted lotus. The lotus flower is rightly celebrated in Eastern culture for representing good fortune because of its ability to arise through the slime and mud to bloom radiantly in the sunlight. Meanwhile, our lowly, local, pink water lily easily matches that feat while, simultaneously, fighting its way to enlightenment through an impervious mat of milfoil tentacles.

Perhaps we can learn a earth saving lesson from the sacred lotus and local lily: perhaps we can cultivate that same ability to rise up through the murk and bloom, to transform ourselves into a higher state, what the Buddhist’s call becoming awake or what the more pompous call enlightenment.

Albert Einstein was right, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” With scientists warning that climate change, population growth, and environmental destruction could cause a collapse of our entire ecosystem within just a few generations, we can procrastinate no longer: the time has come for all of us to wake up and chart a new, more skillful path. 

Speaking of being right: I just did some more research and discovered that the local pink water lily I fell in love with…well, I found out it’s not a native after all, just another transplant like the rest of us, arriving here at some point from some place else.

So it goes.


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