Thoreau threw up a hut in the woods partly of recycled building materials sourced in his local town of Concord, Mass. It was, at ten by fifteen feet, not far off of the dimensions of a hojo, and served much the same minimalist function as the zen monk's traditional cell - a place deliberating lacking in the fripperies of the age that might, whether in medieval Japan or mid-nineteenth century America, focus the mind on the deep pulse of the universe.
When they worked, these simple dwellings, often situated in rural or wild settings, enabled their inhabitants to recognize that their own intrinsic life force was beating within the more expansive rhythms of the cosmos. The simplicity of a life lived locally, within a shelter that barely kept its inhabitant warm and dry, with a food supply foraged, hunted or grown within walking distance, only occasionally provisioned by an itinerant rice merchant (or supplemented by merchants in the local town), heightened an awareness of humankind's larger, universal context. To live small was to think large.
A life lived locally was barely possible in 1850's America. Thoreau's attempt, essentially bankrolled by Emerson, and in large and small ways dependent on the support systems of an eastern seaboard intricately enmeshed in mercantile relations with the Southern states, the Caribbean and Europe, was a conceit: he was an anachronistic artist living on the fringes of a burgeoning global economy and living within earshot of an iron-road that would shortly open up his own continent to economic and cultural despoliation.
That was then. We are now even less capable of successfully living ‘Local’. Our attempts are doomed to fail in the face of a thoroughly co-mingled planet. Any pretense at limiting our individual impact to a particular place, to our locale, can only be maintained by denying the realities of our twenty-first century world. In truth, local has not been viable since we, as a species, moved off the plains of the Serengeti in search of specialized ecological niches across the world, where plenty in some aspect of sustenance inevitably encouraged trade with other groups who produced a surplus in another. We are done with Local. It is a pre-historical fantasy, it is stone-punk: it is intellectually, practically and morally dishonest to pretend otherwise.
Mired in the metaphysics of western thought, stuck in the tar-patch of individual identity, there is little possibility of denying our global interconnections with the material world. And yet, perhaps there is a Way.
We are consumed with the impact of our own agency. What if we are but shards of a greater consciousness reified in moments of perceiving the natural world? It may be that it is not so much a matter of our effect on the environment, of consuming locally, but of perceiving locally and allowing the presence of the natural world to fill the absence within us.
Turns out that these vague premonitions of the relationship between being and Nature are cogently investigated in a slim volume I purchased recently at Banyen Books in Kitsilano, Vancouver, where there were displayed several shelves of works devoted to eco-psychology and ecological ethics. Hunger Mountain, helpfully subtitled A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, David Hinton, Shambala, 2012, is a gem. It is a remarkable primer both to Chinese cosmology as reflected in the language’s graphs (alternatively, glyphs or characters) and to one of its major works, the Tao Te Ching.
I wrote the last couple of paragraphs whilst waiting for my car’s tires to be rotated at Fred’s Tireman in Oak View. The mountains are not so much a presence here as in other parts of the valley, and as I looked around, I focused less on nature than on the works of entrepreneurial humankind, wondering at the survival of an odd selection of stores that eke out a living for their owners in the harsh economic climate of this beleaguered township. Here, in front of me, exactly in a row, as in some sort of ecological climax community of the tawdry were Donuts and More; Nails Forever; Herbs of Hope; 805 Vapes Vapor Lounge; His ‘n’ Hairs; Gold ‘n’ Essence Tanning Salon; and anchoring the eastern end of this block, the unimaginatively titled Oak View Coffee. Across the street is the newly opened Jack’s Dollar Plus. Then it’s Ojai Valley Muffler; Rte. 33 Laundry; and the about to open Ojai Valley MAMA (Modern American Martial Arts) before the stand-alone red-trimmed Ojai Valley Glass which sits next to Fred’s.
On the stretch of the State Highway from the 101, through Casitas Springs (Bait and Liquor), Oak View and Mira Monte, the commercial presence might reasonably be considered woeful to those of bourgeois tastes and proclivities, but like the drought-plagued plants of the chaparral, the very persistence of its stores and services and the unfailing optimism of the new ones that replace the failed, against all the economic odds, possesses a kind of grandeur. Their openings and closings represent the ongoing process of transformation, in which all things arise and pass away, that is at the very heart of the Taoist understanding of the cosmos.
In his introduction to Mountain Home: The Wilderness poetry of Ancient China, Counterpoint, 2002, Hinton notes that “for two millennia, China’s tradition of rivers and mountains (shan-shui) poetry represents the earliest and most extensive literary engagement with wilderness in human history”. In Hunger Mountain, he proposes that it is the pictographic language in which these poems were written that allowed for the immediate engagement of ‘the ten thousand things’ of which the world is made because the glyphs of which the language is composed refer directly to elements within that world. By contrast, the western tradition is enabled by a higher level symbolic language that allows for the buffering of self and cosmos, or more simply, the separation of us and the natural environment.
In shan-shui, the world is not a stage for human events: the poet’s renderings of rivers, mountains and shafts of sunlight, moonbeams or enveloping mists, connote profound human connections within a cosmology where issues of being and non-being are demonstrated by the ten thousand living (including humanity) and non-living things which themselves are in constant transformation.
We are lost to that world of a pictographic language (although we tread here on a land that for fifteen thousand years supported peoples who scratched, pecked and painted on rock in ways that echoed across millennia, the voices of those ancient ones expressed in rock art, that most primitive of written languages) but we can still directly engage with a primal world in spite of the remove imposed by our sophisticated means of communication. This is what Thoreau attempted. This is what we urban-wildlanders attempt, poised on the cusp of rivers and mountains in (speaking personally) our tricked-out, solar-powered huts.
The energy that flows through Oak View, along the 33, is mostly provided by the woosh of traffic that passes: drivers and passengers intent on the road ahead and casting barely a glance at the enticements offered along the commercial strip – Forever Nails passed unnoticed in a moment; but it is in the act of noticing and being present that the swirling cosmic currents that the Chinese represent as chi’i can be discerned, whether in a strip mall or a mountain trail - those tender breaths of energy that, as Hinton describes them, cascade effortlessly “through fusion-lit star-generations”.
This is what can be perceived locally: our enmeshment within the cosmos. Hinton writes of a concatenated ideogram which interpreted literally denotes breath-seed home. Time and space are woven together in the ancient Chinese notion (as in most primal cultures) of the eternal present and animated through the agency of breath, or chi'i; time is the dimension where the ongoing transformation of the ten thousand things can occur. The glyph which depicts a seed sprouting in a thatched roof denotes home and is set within this space-time continuum (which stands quite apart from the Western notion of time as a relentlessly flowing river). Taken together, Hinton writes, the cosmology represented in the glyph combination "recognizes the fundamental dimensions of the Cosmos to be our most elemental dwelling place".
In the chaparral, beneath the looming presence of the Topatopas, or wandering a strip mall in Oak View, my urban wildland ‘practice’ (to use that charged word) is as it was for the shan-shui poets, medieval Zen monks in Japan, Thoreau in Concord and is for David Hinton in the wilds of Vermont: to observe the empirical world as it is inflected by the chi'i storm of the cosmos. This much remains local, yet it references "the boundless breath of the planet's empty mind".