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Buddhism in the Storm

The storm is coming.  Out the door the winds rage.  The weather service predicts two feet around my house in the mountains, and I’ve been stockpiling wood all day, and food, and batteries, preparing for the place to go dark.  My two daughters are with me, the night is galvanized, and it keeps them awake.

“And the storm,” says the little one, nearly five, “it comes with bears and the giants in the sky and we’ll dance.”

This is why kids should write weather reports.

To which I answer, “It has bears as big as the sky, tall as the trees, and then we’ll go sledding.”

Five year olds are poets at heart.  They live in enchantment.

I head out with snowshoes after she’s asleep, floating on the cresting white waves blown by the relentless wind.  I’m like Charlie Brown with tongue out tasting the purpose of each flake.   The house is being consumed.  The full moon rages behind the clouds.  The crappy flashlight made in China goes out due to the cold, and I’m wandering around the woods in the moon-white dark.   Though there is light enough to see, I am a little afraid.

I break out my back-up lamp, illuminate the woods. The snow is a rich heavy precious substance.  I find a scooped-out trampled snow-bed from a week ago where deer slept. It disappears under the storm.   All traces of animal or man are going.

I look back in the light and my steps in the snow are wiped clean.   The blizzard turns us humans in circles trying to find home, till we sit perplexed, frozen.

It’s the reminder that my life in such a storm, in such a forest, is not worth much – worth much less than, say, the deer hunkering in the tempest, who provide food for the hungry coyotes that keep the deer in check, which frees the understory from too much browsing from the overpopulous ungulates.

You could kill me, all my children, my relations, the people I know, dozens of people, and it probably wouldn’t make a difference in the ecological balance in this particular stretch of woods.

Further into the forest at the top of a ridge there is an old oak, wide-trunked, deity-like, that I’ve visited for the last decade in every season.   When I reach it, all is silence, as the snow seems to pause, and my sweat is as heavy as a blanket after the long hike.  There is a cadence of branches laden with snow giving up their load.  A ripe wall of drift collapses.  The bending hardwoods, heavy and creaking, shatter their snow arms at the least suggestion of the wind.

There is no wind, not a sound, not a snowflake.  It seems I’m in the storm eye, an immense center of calm.  Beyond my seat the ridge drops off into a chasm where the storm roils, apart, so that I’m watching it from a perch of peace.    I think of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, the caverns measureless to man, the ceaseless turmoil seething, the caves of ice.

I read somewhere that Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan in a dream-state that was broken by a banging at his door – I think it was a postman, probably bringing a bill – and that afterward, when he returned to his writing table, he found he could not complete the poem.   He called it, in his title, a “Fragment.”   The hikes we take in the woods are fragments of a view into the real world, which is the enchanted world.

What’s my ecological purpose here in the Catskills…except that I might die and rot my body into the woods, and give back the nutrients I’ve taken from mother earth.  That’s my enchantment.

A soil biologist tells me that the only way to truly complete the nutrient cycle in the age of modern man, whose crops are fed by industrial nitrogen and whose waste never makes it back to the land, is to plant our dead bodies in a green ring outside the cities.  Thereby to replenish the soil.   Add our feces too, and you have the sustainable organic garden: ringed with the dead and a lot of shit.

I sit for a long while thinking about human shit-and-corpse agronomy.  I like the idea not because it’s a rational use of resources.  I like it because I want my energy to return to the land.  I think of my children returning thus, which I hope they will, and I am at once horrified at the idea of their death, and accepting.  I know it will come.   The snow falls without cease.  My path home is gone.   My two daughters sleep.  In the morning I’ll make them breakfast, and we’ll go sledding.

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Christopher Ketcham is the author of the forthcoming “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West,” out in July 2019 from Viking-Penguin.  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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