“There are teachers everywhere.” I didn’t hear that from a guru or lama. The guy was an old-time hard core traditional climber, the kind of devotee who’d sneak out to bolted canyon walls at night with a cohort and yank the invading metal out of the rock. “For instance,” he said as I failed a move because I lunged before my feet were planted, “going too fast. What did you just learn?”
It was 1995 and I was still decompressing from a decade or two of book knowledge. I learned to feel my way up a route rather than think it. I learned to climb past the moment when I thought I was having a stroke. I learned that it didn’t matter whether I climbed a 5.2 or a 5.9 (my best) as long as my senses were in full play, as long as I watched light change on the sandstone and pressed my face close to the rock to breathe in the scent of home planet.
I’ve carried those lessons with me. So I was delighted when Sherry Berrin asked me to go with her and a group of Outward Bound kids out to Whychus Creek at Rimrock Ranch to pull invasive weeds. I listened as she taught us what to look for and how to dig, then she asked me to say a few words. I stood in front of the young people and fought the knot in my gut that I’ve had since I was a misfit little girl. I relied on my bag of tricks so they wouldn’t know I was terrified they’d laugh at me.
I asked them to close their eyes and take a deep breath--assured them I wouldn’t surprise them. You can read the results of our lesson on this blog at The Kids are Alright.
Months later, Sherry asked me to teach her how to teach that way. “You mean from the inside-out, then the outside-in?” I said. She laughed. “That’s it.”
We took ourselves to the upper end of Camp Polk Meadow Preserve. The lessons had already begun on the drive over. Sherry talked about a wild place in Vermont that she had walked so much that it was part of her. I told her about the cluster of seven Ponderosa near my old cabin in Flagstaff, and further south and west the fallen Joshua Tree that looks like a seated Buddha. There are at least thirty years between our ages, but we found in our conversation the lesson that kindred spirits are sisters beyond age.
We walked across the little footbridge. The pool was bright and black as obsidian. A gray duck with a brown head paddled on the water. Neither of us was sure what it was. We let the not-knowing be the teacher that it is. We stood looking out over the lower Camp Polk Meadow. I started to begin the lesson, then realized I was rushing when there was no need to rush. We let silence be with us. As I quieted down, I noticed that there was a tree/bush I couldn’t name and that it was luminous pale brown and green in the soft gray light.
We began. It is impossible to convey this kind of teaching in writing. You and I have to be on the ground, in each others’ presence. We have to be able to hear each other take a deep breath, close our eyes, then open them and see what we were looking at in a new way. We have to smell water and leaf mould and Spring drifting toward us. At the risk of being sneaky, you can take one of my writing circles with the Land Trust and be in (not reading about) the lesson.
And you can sign up for any of the 2011 tours and walks and encounter deep teaching. I remember my first tour with the Land Trust, how our leader Sue Anderson took her time on the Metolius Preserve trail, how she patiently showed a butterfly to the youngest member of our group, pointing out colors, reminding the child how delicate the butterfly was.
Sherry and I finished the teaching--and didn’t. We walked on the circling trail. She taught me about the young willows. We met a dedicated volunteer who told us that the gray and brown duck was a Common Merganser. We stopped at the Puzzle Tree. The tree and the silence held us. I tried not to think. That seems to me to be the great lesson of stopping, of doing nothing. Sherry’s face was peaceful. We nodded at each other and began our way back to the truck.
Two weeks later I was wakened by my phone. I turned on my side and tried to go back to sleep. I tried to ignore the uneasiness. But I remembered that every time I had ignored that subtle disturbance, I’d stepped off the ground that holds me safe. I listened to the message: “Is Matt okay.” My friend’s voice was worried.
My son lives in Japan. I jolted up and out of bed and logged on. The first message was from him. “I’m o.k., but very very scared.” I checked the news. 8.9 earthquake. Tsunami. I tried to remember how far his town, Mito was from the coast. I emailed him back and heard nothing. For five hours, my daughter and I kept each other cyber-company as we waited for word from him. Then his friend in Kyoto emailed and said Matt was okay.
Weeks later I read a brief Yahoo story on ancient stones in Aneyoshi that warned the people not to build below a certain line. I remembered reading that the Indonesians who had been taught the old ways of surviving a tsunami had been more likely to live through the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. When I looked for more information, I found this:
“Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point,” warns a stone tablet in the hamlet of Aneyoshi. As the Associated Press reports, many villagers heeded this advice. One man said his family moved their inn to higher ground a century ago — Aneyoshi was pummeled by a huge wave in 1896.
Some of the markers, like the one at Aneyoshi, were meant to function as yardsticks. Others simply memorialized past disasters and warned of the need to be vigilant.
Longtime coastal residents, as well as scholars who have studied the old tablets, note that the last serious tsunami to hit Japan was in 1960, and even that was relatively weak, generated by an earthquake off the coast of Chile. Those who experienced Japan’s most powerful tsunamis previous to this died years ago. And, as scholars have noted, in many places the old warning markers went unheeded. “It takes about three generations to forget,” one expert said.
---The Ancestral Archaeologist
We are teachers surrounded by teachers. We and the places we love are threatened by disasters not created by earth and water. As Barry Lopez said in his eulogy at Edward Abbey’s funeral in 1989: “The news is heavy...there are beasts loose that make the long walks, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Bhopal and Chernobyl pale in comparison.” Tsunamis or hungry human beasts, may we be part of a generation that refuses to forget...and so teaches the future.