It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. –Henry David Thoreau
At the end of May, riding my bicycle back from a great lunch with a friend who cares about the world, I made a mistake someone who’s been riding bicycles for 40 years should never make: I crossed an intersection without a clear view around a car in front of me. A truck appeared and I had no time to swerve. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, there wasn’t any special music, no celestial beings appeared before me. I woke in a daze on hot southwestern asphalt, and promptly passed out. An ambulance ride, 20 stitches, x-rays, two nights in hospital and a cervical collar later and I’m spending a Mojave summer indoors.
Bored. Bored. Bored.
I am not a sedentary person. My wife and daughter and I had other plans this summer. My three rescue dogs and I had other plans this summer. The twelve- and thirteen-thousand foot peaks of the Great Basin and I had other plans this summer. But it was not to be. My poor judgment ruined that for all of us.
So…I could spend my summer wallowing in self-loathing and self-pity or I could try to do something constructive. And I asked myself, as any good nature lover would do: what would Henry David Thoreau do?
I have an outdoor nerd’s passion for ancient Chinese wilderness poetry. If you read through Walden with a critical eye, you see that Henry David did, too. Even though he gets labeled as a Transcendentalist, I think Thoreau was our first American Taoist. “Go back to the books,” I think he’d say, “the truly ancient poetry. It will get you through.”
So I’ve been doing that—looking at nature through the eyes of spiritual men and women who looked deeply into nature. And it’s helped keep me centered and healing. It may help you, too. Here are a few places for you to start:
HAN SHAN. Gary Snyder translated the first few of Cold Mountain’s poems many decades ago. But if you’re looking for the best of translations, you need Red Pine’s The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Copper Canyon Press. (Red Pine also has the best translation of the Tao Te Ching I own.) Cold Mountain left civilization to live in a cave avoiding most people and carving his poems into rocks. Our modern society would lock up anyone fool enough to scratch poems into cliff and cave walls—and maybe rightly so—but fortunately the authorities of his time left him alone and we have over 300 beautiful poems testifying to the majesty of nature to his and our credit. When I read Hanshan I’m out there with him:
People ask the way to Cold Mountain
but roads don’t reach Cold Mountain
in summer the ice doesn’t melt
and the morning fog is too dense
how did someone like me arrive
our minds are not the same
if they were the same
you would be here.
LI PO. The Zen masters, especially the early ones, openly borrowed from the Taoist poets, who set the stage for them. Returning to nature, discarding the trappings of the world we don’t need—I can literally hear Li Po speaking in my ear as I’m trapped in the recliner in my neck brace:
You ask why I live
alone in the mountain forest,
and I smile and am silent
until even my soul grows quiet.
The peach trees blossom.
the water continues to flow.
I live in the other world,
one that lies beyond the human.
And the ultimate poem about losing yourself in nature:
Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain
The birds have vanished from the sky.
Now the last clouds drain away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
BUDDIST POET MONKS OF CHINA. Both previous poets are extremely well-known. But China and Japan had obscure voices only heard once or twice, like a one-hit wonder in our musical industry. One of my favorites, unearthed in the small collection The Clouds Should Know Me By Now, is Ching An, who I’ve been reading every day:
THIRD TIME WANDERING
TO CLOUD SLUICE PEAK
Propped on tough bamboo
three times now I’ve climbed
this tower of mysteries.
So I can write another poem
I brush moss from stone.
The cranes in the clouds
must know me by now:
every year we both come here for the Autumn.
For me, it’s unsatisfying to get lost in YouTube and Netflix videos watching other people do what I can’t right now. I take solace in the ancient poetic masters who really lived what they wrote—a life I promise I’ll get back into as soon as this neck brace is off. More than any video, Thoreau’s words and the ancient masters’ poetry will move with me: even while healing and unable to get outside, they keep the wild alive within me.