[Essay] Excursions: December by Clint Stevens

This piece is part of the Excursions series.

“The paints for painting rice cakes are the same as those used for painting mountains and waters. For painting mountains and waters, blue and red paints are used; for painting rice cakes, rice flour is used. Thus, they are painted in the same way, and they are examined in the same way.”

Dogen

“In the winter,” Thoreau writes in one of his earliest essays, “the botanist needs not confine himself to his books and herbarium, and give over his out-door pursuits, but study a new department of vegetable physiology, what may be called crystalline botany, then. The winter of 1837 was unusually favorable for this. In December of that year the Genius of vegetation seemed to hover by night over its summer haunts with unusual persistency. . . . Every tree, shrub, and spire of grass, that could raise its head above the snow, was covered with a dense ice-foliage, answering, as it were, leaf for leaf to its summer dress. Even the fences had put forth leaves in the night. . . . It struck me that these ghost leaves, and the green ones whose forms they assume, were the creatures of but one law; that in obedience to the same law the vegetable juices swell gradually into the perfect leaf, on the one hand, and the crystalline particles troop to their standard in the same order, on the other.”

In his journal entry for March 5, 1854, we find a similar passage about ice crystals “shaped like feathers or fan-coral,–the most delicate I ever saw. Thus even ice begins with crystal leaves–and birds’ feathers and wings are leaves–and trees and rivers with intervening earth are vast leaves.”

Hold these together with a line from his journal for September 5, 1851: “All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy.”

And so we come to the penultimate chapter of Walden, which begins by considering when the ice breaks open on Walden and Flint’s Pond. He explains that what leads one to open before the other can be understood by examining the temperature flux of a single day because “the phenomena of the year take place every day in a pond on a small scale. . . . The day is the epitome of the year.” He then turns to the thawing sand and clay embankments along the railway: 

When the frost comes out in the spring, and even in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before. Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines.

The structure of thawing sand prefigures rivers and arteries and vegetation. In these inorganic-seemingly-organic forms, Thoreau sees, as it were, the prefiguration of all forms: imbricated thalluses of lichen, leopards’ paws, birds’ feet, the vitals of the animal body. “I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,–had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about.” Here Thoreau sees that “the very globe continually transcends and translates itself” and that these transformations flow everywhere, even into regions of sound, of language, in the phonemes of leaf, lobe, globe, lap, and flap. So many blends and continuities, and to know one leads to another and another. All is translation, and in the slowly sliding sand and clay one sees plants and animals and mirrors. “What is man but a mass of thawing clay? The ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed.”

A common human view is that the realm of life, the organic, is apart from the realm of death, the inorganic, and from that schism, perhaps, come all our dualities, and we think there really are two separate realms. But earth and heaven are not cloven. All this is whole without a seam.

“Ere long, not only on these banks, but on every hill and plain and in every hollow, the frost comes out of the ground like a dormant quadruped from its burrow and seeks the sea with music, or migrates to other climes in clouds.” Observe these transformations, observe the artist at work. Frost becomes critter becomes river becomes music becomes air. Vast interpenetrations without bounds.

From the beginning it is altogether complete, undefiled and clear down to the bottom. Where everything is correct and totally sufficient, attain the pure eye that illuminates thoroughly, fulfilling liberation. Enlightenment involves enacting this; stability develops from practicing it. Birth and death originally have no root or stem, appearing and disappearing originally have no defining signs or traces. The primal light, empty and effective, illumines the headtop. The primal wisdom, silent but also glorious, responds to conditions. When you reach the truth without middle or edge, cutting off before and after, then you realize one wholeness.

Hongzhi

___________________________________

The passage from Dogen comes from his “Painting of a Rice Cake” in Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, p. 445.

The passage from Hongzhi comes from his Practice Instructions, translated by Taigen Dan Leighton in Cultivating the Empty Field, p. 32.


About the Author
Clint Stevens lives and writes outside of Centralia, IL.

Click here to read more of the Excursions series and check back as more installments are released monthly.

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