Today's picture is a coda from the china trip.
During my trip to China, I spent some time in Zhejiang province in a small town called Pujiang, about 3 ½ hours south of Shanghai. This town is located in the mountains and in most ways is somewhat remote from the tidal wave of development that has consumed much of China’s eastern seaboard. Quiet, rural, idyllic.
Across the street from the factory that I visited, there is an embankment about 15 feet high consisting of reddish layers of soil. This embankment immediately looked familiar. The color of the layers of soil told me that this particular group of sediments almost certainly dated from the Jurassic era. All over the world, when you see soils of this color, they are either Permian (older than Jurassic) or they date from the age of the dinosaurs. What is more, it was clear from looking at the soils that they were riverine deposits; that is, they were laid down by riverbeds carrying sediments of various sizes, including lots of sand and rounded pebbles.
The landscape had more to say. It was evident from some of the formations in the immediate vicinity (within five to 10 miles) that the area had been subjected to bouts of volcanism. And indeed, when I picked pebbles out of the river deposits, their varying nature betrayed the fact that they were volcanic debris of one kind or another.
Now, you might ask yourself, why would this interest me?
Well, you see, I live in Sparkill, New York, which is on the edge of the Newark Basin sandstones, a huge deposit of river sediments that date from the same era. It was remarkable to me to travel halfway across the planet and finds deposits so similar that date from the very same age. (I have seen them in New Mexico as well.) Not only that, the area where I live is on the Palisades of the Hudson River, a huge dike of basalt magma that, like the volcanoes in the Pujiang area, points towards an eruption event of great magnitude –again, just as in New Mexico.
I’m sure that by now you are asking yourself what kind of spiritual lesson, if any, we can draw from this.
My perception is as follows: it underscores how much the same everything is, everywhere. We make a great deal of the difference between people and societies; the differences between one landscape and another, one culture and another, one person and another. Yet everything all around us is subject to the same laws. Not only that, this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. The differences we celebrate are mostly imaginary-they are constructions derived from imagination. It’s true that our imaginations are spectacular, colorful, creative, and inventive. But a great deal of what they produce is- well- imaginary, that is, in the real world its validity is rather limited.
This certainly strikes me when I go to China. Their culture appears to be quite different than ours; their customs and habits and attitudes and language are different. Nonetheless, they are all engaged in the same fundamental activities the rest of us are. The main engines that drive them are sex, money, food, and fear.
In many senses we are all enslaved by these forces. We weave an elaborate dream around ourselves that takes our attention away from these basic facts. Yet if we look at the landscape that all of us inhabit, we see that it consists of the same elements everywhere.
That landscape consists of things much like the deposits from the Jurassic which I speak of. That is to say, slow gradual processes that build up sediments by virtue of accretion, and explosive ones that blow holes in everything, only to subside and succumb once again to the forces of gradualism.
Put otherwise, Sex: the interaction of substances to create new circumstances. Money: The cost of that interaction. Food: What that interaction uses to carry itself forward. Fear: the intermittent yet enormous forces that drive major changes.
Life is much like this in both an inner and outer sense for everyone. It’s worth attending to these two sets of processes: observing how we build up layers of being through the process of acquiring impressions, and how disruptive events – usually emotional – blow holes in our carefully constructed layers, rearranging the landscape and scattering debris in various directions.
Much of life consists of efforts to avoid the volcanic events. These efforts turn out, for the most part, to be futile. No matter what we do, explosions take place. The best possible course of action we can take in regard to this question is to continually prepare ourselves for life. We need to learn to work with both kinds of processes to help form the landscape we inhabit within.
…Much more could be said about fear, but not today. I once made the remark that we are all little fear factories. Let’s examine that together at a future date.
I have two little volcanic pebbles from that town in Zhejiang sitting in my collection of stones. Like so many of the other rocks I have lying around the house, most of them will never mean anything to anyone else, including my wife and children. When I die, people will pick these things up and scratch their heads and say, “what the hell was he keeping this for?”
In this sense, the external sediments of my life will seem to others to carry no more rhyme or reason to those who come after me than the sediments in the town of Pujiang do: a random, distant set of events. I was not there when they were laid down; yet every single grain of sand, every pebble and stone in the riverbed, has its own true story to tell .
Those stories belong to them; I cannot know them, or take them away from them. I can, however, respect them for what they, in their mute and timeworn state, have to teach me about myself and about life.
In a brief update from here on the banks of the Hudson River, we had a big snow and ice storm last night.
Winter has not left us yet. Feeling cheated by her late arrival, she has decided to remind us that her strength is not yet spent. And she has, in turn, spent mine: I have shoveled snow and ice today until my arms ache with the good pain of hard work.
Regards, and love to all of you on this Saturday morning.