Sunday, May 28, 2017

Losing myself in an island

Jenness Island Spring
While it may seem counter-intuitive to get so worked up over such a seemingly boring subject, I have been fired up by David Hinton, a translator of classical Chinese philosophy, whose new book, Existence: A Story, makes the case that outer and inner are one.

As an added gift, his book has helped connect me in a profound way to a series of photographs I have been working on.

Hinton begins by reminding us of a fundamental difference in how East and West see the world. Descartes determined the current focus of western philosophy by stripping away everything that could be doubted until he found what he believed was the beginning place: “I think, therefore I am.”  

Conversely, to ancient sages in China, the beginning point of existence is found in the immediate experience of empty awareness, which underlies both the thinking mind and our identity as a person.

“Vast and deep, everything and everywhere: existence is alive somehow – and magically, mysteriously, inexplicably alive. Nothing holds still…This is the most fundamental nature of existence; and…it appears everywhere.”

Of particular importance to me was Hinton’s description of how a sect of Buddhists, starting around the year 700, discovered an unique method to access this “all-encompassing generative presence”: They did it by meditating on mountain landscape paintings, seeking to lose themselves in the misty, shifting configurations of the brush strokes.

Reading about how they meditated on misty mountain paintings, gave me the sudden insight that I have recently been doing something similar. But, in my case, I was losing myself in foggy island photographs, rather than swirling mountain paintings.
Jenness Pond Summer
My particular focus of meditation is a small, unnamed island on Jenness Pond, a close companion since before I was born. Taking the longer cosmic view of an ancient Chinese sage, my island has been a cog in the whole evolution of our Planet Earth in which, in some vital sense, I have always been a part.

When I meditate on my island photographs, I find myself starting in the present and then drifting back in time…

I still pass by my island almost every day, driving or during my evening walk, always smitten by her shifting transformations. I have passed by her almost daily for all my 71 years except for years away at college, my sabbatical in Vietnam, and a few years living here-and-there before building my house on land my parents gave me.

Growing up, my island was a constant feature. I not only walked by her daily to catch the school bus, but often played and fished by her shores, once even falling through new ice, foolhardily trying to skate by her too soon. When very little, I remember my father shooting two black ducks in her shallows. I think I even have a bodily memory being jostled by the rutted dirt road, riding by her while still in my mother’s belly.

Time frames shift…

I watch Jenness Pond fill like a schist bathtub as the last ice age recedes; I see the first pioneer species of plants take root; I smile as the first snapping turtle shoves herself clumsily up on a rock to sunbathe…as the first blue heron spears a fish…the first indigenous people gather clams in the shallows of my island.

Just as David Hinton suggests, by meditating on these images, the external world exposed in my photographic prints join seamlessly with the internal world of my mind:  Inner and outer –past and present – become one.

I now understand the truth of something Jackson Pollack once said: “I don’t paint nature, I am nature.”
Jenness Pond Winter

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