In a world of transience, is conservation just another form of attachment?
We were walking in the winter woods with the tracker Sue Morse. Our eyes were fixed on the ground as we searched for more of the bobcat prints we had just traced around the base of a cliff. When Sue called to us, we figured she must have picked up the trail. But instead, when our small group had gathered around her, she pulled back the bough of an overhanging hemlock and released it over our heads like a plucked bowstring. We looked up, startled, as the snow that had been packed on the branch swirled around our warm cheeks and spangled against the sky. As we stood there, transfixed, she recited Robert Frost’s short poem “Dust of Snow”:
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
Seven years later, the gift of this poem still comes back to me when snowshoeing through a forested landscape, where drifts hang in the trees around my head as well as lying under foot. I’ll sometimes push on a branch with my ski pole, then look up into the enlivening micro-squall that follows. Such moments remind me of the wildness behind all this white serenity and release me for a moment from whatever map or agenda I may just have been following.
Recently, I also had occasion to remember Frost’s “change of mood” while skiing with my friend Peter Forbes on the hilly trails that wind around Craftsbury, Vermont. On this particular outing I never did stop to dislodge snow from an overhanging bough. The truth is that I could barely keep up with my swift companion, even when he tactfully slowed down or called my attention to a scenic outlook that seemed to require a long, reflective pause. But our intermittent conversation included one remark on Peter’s part that widened my eyes and shifted my perspective like a wintry spritz in the face. We had been talking about the relationship between Buddhist practice and the environmental movement, when Peter asked whether the concept of conservation might not be, on one level, just another form of attachment. It certainly involves a powerful effort of clinging to something precious, he pointed out, with all the personal and social suffering implied by such attempts in a world of transience. We need to rethink our approach to caring for natural creation, in order to find a more balanced and participatory model.
This was a startling challenge to a core value the two of us shared. In our professions, our memberships, our writing, and our daily choices, we both had long identified ourselves as conservationists. Letting go of the word felt like a kind of free-fall. In fact, though, the received vocabulary of environmentalism has also been taking a lot of other hits. Two provocative essays, by the environmental historian William Cronon and the writer and farmer Wendell Berry, are representative of these challenges to the lexicon. In “The Trouble with Wilderness,” Cronon argues that the term wilderness expresses a particular social and intellectual history more than an objective reality in nature; he further suggests that such language can actually reflect alienation from the land rather than intimacy with it. In “Conservation Is Good Work,” Berry takes aim at the word environment itself. By implicitly separating human beings from what is “around” us, the word is “a typical product of the old dualism that is at the root of most of our ecological destructiveness.”
Rethinking these words, and others like them, need not lessen anyone’s commitment to protecting wild habitat and endangered species, to practicing stewardship of natural resources, or to changing the practices that lead to global climate change. But there is something to be said for a spirit of detachment from the language with which we surround such projects. We need, even amid the deep snows, to stay light on our feet.
If the word wilderness has become a serious point of contention, it’s worth exploring a different language with which to affirm the value of roadless areas and of unbroken canopies for certain species of wildlife. Such an affirmation certainly does not cover all the important elements of the wilderness ethic—an environmental philosophy for which I continue to feel a strong personal affinity. Still, a provisional shift in our way of talking may allow us to move forward with individuals and groups from whom we previously felt divided. Similarly, if the word environmental and its variants seem to be obstructing certain conversations, we might sometimes want to reclaim the language of citizenship as we consider our society’s place in the larger community of life.
We don’t need to abandon these important terms forever; I won’t be able to do without them even until the end of the present essay. But they, and we, could still use a break from time to time. As far as that goes, newer terminology like sustainability and sense of place will doubtless seem problematic soon enough. That’s good. The collapse of accustomed ways of thinking and speaking lets us fall back into a bracing presentness. Which recalls that word conservation. Distraught as many of us are about heedless development in our home landscapes, not to mention about the dismantling of earth’s living systems and the diminishment of biodiversity, it is understandable for a certain clenched and trembling quality to come into our thinking. Our own little efforts feel so inadequate in the face of present destruction and impending dangers. At such a time, it is possible to fall into despair about stemming the tide of harmful changes, or to become bitterly alienated from what seem to be the culture of consumerism and the politics of vested interests. I speak from experience. But these emotions ultimately make us rigid, and slower to adapt to changing circumstances and opportunities. Further, they can dampen our joyful awareness of wild beauty—the wellspring of our most vigorous environmental activism. This is when we need to be shaken up by flurried arrivals and a splash of unanticipated weather. Such refreshing openings to what David Abram calls the “more-than-human world” can restore the elasticity of our spirit and allow us to return to our civic and environmental commitments with new resolution.
Any sudden loss of bearings, within our multitasking, overcommitted lives, can leave us breathless and insecure for a moment. But it is also an exhilarating relief to tumble through the prefab words and concepts and to enter the always welcome reality of what’s happening. Loss of certainty can be as arresting as the Northern Lights, when the overhanging bough of darkness pulses into life and stops us in our tracks. Surely many of us feel, within such a moment of astonishment, “Yes, I remember now!” Koan study, too, can feel like bushwhacking home through winter woods. So many handfuls of snow, sometimes whapping us in the face, sometimes sliding slyly down the backs of our necks. Look out. Look in. Wake up. For environmentalists (that word again, what can I say?) this can also mean recollecting what Gary Snyder calls our 50,000-year Homo sapiens history. From such a vast perspective, the institutions and technology of post-World War II society no longer seem so inescapable. Bearing the millennia in mind may help us to cultivate a spirit of vibrant celebration within our communities, and to feel that, rather than running against the tide, we are (quoting Snyder yet again) “in line with the Main Flow.” A refreshing rhythm of turning away from our effortful agendas may help us return with new vigor and pleasure to the work of conservation.
Frost’s poem and my friend’s question were both koans—surprising, momentum-reversing words that continue to reverberate. Haiku, as R. H. Blyth and Robert Aitken have both so memorably discussed, can serve in a similar way. In their pithiness, they strip away the familiarity or routine that so often muffles our perception; in their surprising juxtapositions, they sharpen our awareness of seasonal tides drawing through what might have seemed homely details. When our family was living in Kyoto, we visited the Basho-an, a simple hut on the forested slope behind Kompukuji Monastery. Basho lived here in 1670, as did Buson, his great successor in haiku, almost a century later. Slender rectangles of wood, not much thicker than a piece of paper, dangle from trees on some of the surrounding paths. Onto them have been brushed haiku by the two poets or occasionally by their present-day admirers. At first, these small placards, shifting in the breezes after the autumn leaves had fallen, felt superfluous to me. But eventually I came to feel that, though I wouldn’t want to brush past poems on every hike, these tokens of appreciation for poetry were touching and meaningful in their own right. They clarified that falling back into a presentness unaligned with our expectations need not imply turning away from other human hearts, any more than the love of wilderness must mean eradication of our social bonds.
We sometimes assume that art is the expression of an original, isolated imagination, often amplified by a spirit of estrangement. But there is a great tradition in poetry, running through poets like Basho, Wordsworth, Rilke, and Frost, and extended by contemporaries like Mary Oliver, that celebrates moments of refreshment and consolation in the larger natural world. This is not a linear, continuous tradition. Wordsworth and Rilke would never have read Basho, for instance. But this landscape of kindred perceptions and revelations has become available to us today, just as the study and practice of Buddhism, for instance, flourishes here in New England in ways that our ancestor Frost could never have anticipated. Those poems spangling in the trees around the Basho-an, like “Dust of Snow,” can continue to gust and swing in our minds. They remind us how others, too, have found moments of release into the presentness on which we, too, depend every day of our lives. Within every community of effort there is a community needing to awaken, over and over again, to the world beyond our projects and expectations.
A poem can serve both as door into a more spacious world of natural beauty, and as a reminder of the long history of human sensitivity to it. Master Hakuin’s “Zazen Wasan” (“Chant in Praise of Zazen”) contains the lines
How near the truth
yet how far we seek,
like one in water crying “I thirst!”
Like a child of rich birth wandering poor on this earth,
we endlessly circle the six worlds.
(trans. Philip Kapleau)
Within the landscape of poetry we find both a prompt to immediate sensation and a reminder of the larger story to which we belong. The dust of snow shaken down from a hemlock tree removes us neither from history nor from the human community. It reminds us that those realities exist within an interwoven world, in which isolation is always an illusion and a misdirection of our efforts.
Frost’s poem echoes not just Vermont’s winter landscape but also a particular haiku by Basho. Here it is in Japanese characters, in transliteration into the spoken Japanese, and in a literal English translation. (The characters and transliteration come from Blyth; the translation is mine.)
Kare eda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure
On a bare branch
a crow alights—
This branch releases no snow, but it does bounce under the weight of a large bird settling brusquely onto it. The Japanese word tomarikeri includes both the root of the verb “to stop, stay, or settle” and two syllables—keri—added not for any grammatical reason but just to signal the branch’s springy up-and-down on the level of sound. Startled, we look up into a honed world—black silhouettes of tree and crow sharpening the edge of a season. We can find the dramatic outline of that tree in each of the haiku’s first two kanji. Kare combines the radicals for “tree” and “old,” while eda is formed from “tree” and “limb.”
I appreciate Peter Milward’s translation of the last line (aki no kure) as “the fall of autumn,” an acknowledgment of the seasons within seasons so essential to a Zen perception of nature. Something is always ending, something always beginning. Here in Vermont, too, autumn has its spring, when the maple leaves first turn yellow and red and the sumacs flame up; its summer, when the maples’ crimson and orange flood the mountains, with russet contributed by the oaks and gold by the larches; and the hush of its fall, when branches are bare but the snow has not yet arrived. In that moment of suspension before the next big event, a crow flexes a leafless branch, reminding us that life continues on its way, unregulated by our calendar of human expectations.
How fortunate we are—conservationists, environmentalists, lovers of wilderness, earnest citizens—for moments in which we forget our language, our projects, and even our names. Soon enough, we will turn back to our lifetime projects and our daily work. But it’s always good to remember that our path is leading home, under branches shimmering with unexpected but familiar life.
John Elder teaches English and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and is the author most recently of Reading the Mountains of Home and The Frog Run. His wife, Rita, and he live in Bristol, Vermont, where they operate a maple sugarhouse with their three children.
Image: Antique Japanese Woodblock Print Courtesy of Ukiyoe Gallery, www.ukyoe-gallery.com
Poem 1: "Dust of Snow" from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. © 1923, 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, © 1951 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Poem 2: "Zazen Wasan" Reprinted with permission of the Rochester Zen Center.