|Thou Art That|
On my final day in Mendocino in March of 2017 I wanted to investigate yet another memory rooted in a place where I had walked many years before. Just a mile or so north of Mendocino in Russian Gulch State Park there is a trail called Fern Canyon. There are actually a number of trails by that name in a series of California State Parks along the north coast, and the moniker defines the trails precisely. The paths are similar; narrow tracks through tall canyons bordered by a thick forest with a creek running down to the sea. These are California rain forests very much like the ones up in the Olympic Peninsulain Washington state, but smaller and not quite as epical.
The trail runs along the creek and there are, of course, massive ferns in addition to thick green moss hanging from the trunks and branches of redwood trees. And other than the sound of water flowing and the wind rushing through the vegetation there is nothing to hear but the sheer cathedral-like silence of the natural world.
My wife and I spent our honeymoon in Mendocino in 1980 after our wedding on March 30. It had been a wet winter and California was recovering from another drought which had peaked in 1977. That dry time, while serious, was not as extreme as the one we have just left behind, but California was less prepared in those days. The wine industry had been hit hard. The crop that year was small and the grapes became miniscule raisins before they were even harvested. But by 1980 the weather was back on track, and those few days were typical of the climate along the Mendocino coast. But it was extremely windy every day we were there, so much so that the fishing boats could not head to sea.
|The Russian Gulch Bridge|
On the day we walked the Fern Canyon trail the wind was at its wildest. The trees alongside the canyon were swaying and creaking, though the sun was out and the sky was very blue, and white clouds were moving about at a breakneck pace. At one point we stopped, sat down on the ground, and smoked a little bit of Thai marijuana (called Thai weed or Thai sticks in those days). As we were just starting to enjoy the buzz there was a loud snapping and cracking sound. At first I thought it was lightning and thunder, but there was no threat of rain and aside from the puffy white clouds the sky was totally clear. We looked ahead and saw a huge tree falling over no more than 75 feet away. It dropped majestically in what seemed like slow motion making even more noise as it collapsed. Then it began to roll forward a bit and we both got up and prepared to run. But the other trees were blocking its path and the motion ceased.
Then there was silence, and then the sound of the running creek reappeared amidst a little bit of final crackling and snapping. We both looked at each other and started laughing. I remember bringing up that old conundrum, “if a tree falls over in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, will it make a sound?”
We were there to hear it. I can confirm that it did indeed make one hell of a racket and would have done so even if we had not been there. There was no potential solipsism in Fern Canyon that day. But I will admit that we felt as if nature was blessing our recent union in its own way, as if Nature said: “Go forth together and make your own racket, just like this.”
We made a hell of a noise for the next thirty five years. But we never went back to Fern Canyon. I’m not sure why. Life gets in the way of itself most of the time, and people become occupied with a multitude of details. We camped all over California both before our kids were born, and afterwards. We explored the Sonoma Coast for years and rented lovely houses for short vacations at Sea Ranch. But except for one brief stop in Mendocino as we were on our way down the coast (I don’t even remember when it was), we never stayed there again.
|Down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel|
In 2016 I spent a few nights in Fort Bragg, which is just a few miles north of Russian Gulch, and I had planned to walk the trail with Finnegan (my greyhound companion) but when we arrived I discovered that dogs were not allowed on that trail. So we hung about the park in other places and I spread some of Candace’s ashes underneath the Highway 1 bridge and moved on to another walk. So on my current excursion I left my four legged buddy behind at the dog sitter’s place because I really wanted to make that walk.
My original plan was to hike on March 15 (The Ides of March) which was the third anniversary of my wife flying away to the next world, but it was rainy and cold and the weather forecast indicated that the 16thwould be a better day. So I did other things instead and when the sun came out on the 16th I hit the trail.
|Fern Canyon trail|
In short, the hike was a walk through divinity. I’ll let the pictures tell most of the story, but as C.S. Lewis wrote, as I walked “further up and further in” I began to sense a presence that I had not felt in years. It goes by many names: the Great Spirit, the Higher Power, the Will of Heaven, God, Mother Nature and others. It is the immediately recognizable sense of the immanence of the natural world that surrounds us and runs through us and that we are not always aware of because of the multitude of details that I mentioned. The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku: forest bathing.
|Would you send this kid to Hell for not eating his carrots?|
When I was a kid and my brain was being stuffed with the complex and bizarre teachings of the Catholic Catechism, the nuns attempted to teach us about God. But their God never made any sense to me. How can a little kid’s intellect grasp a cosmology of suffering on a cross for the sins of the world when that same little kid doesn’t even understand the concept of sin because there is no evil in his life? Was Jesus suffering because I would not eat my vegetables without putting up a fuss? God was supposed to be up there at the front of the church during Mass while the priest had his back turned to me. None of it seemed reasonable. And yet my parents took it very seriously and they loved me and took care of me so I went along with it. That’s what children do. That’s how they survive the onslaught of consciousness. They have no choice. When you\’re a kid you don’t rock the boat, at least I didn’t.
To be fair, churches can be repositories of sacred space. But when I was six years old I didn’t know what sacred really meant. When the changes from Vatican II appeared in our local parish and the priest at last turned around and faced us and began murmuring in English instead of Latin, it didn’t seem to change anything, at least for me. It may have been worse because phrases like “Pater Noster qui es in caelis” were mysterious magic at least, and now they were gone. And my father bitched and moaned to our pastor about the loss of the Latin Mass, which I found embarrassing.
I realized when I was much older that the problem was that I wanted to feel in my heart and soul what everyone was telling me was beyond my reach. I had no sense of the Divine Immanence, and frankly the Church didn’t talk about that at all because it bordered on blasphemy.
|And a Heaven in a wild flower|
It wasn’t until our family headed West and traveled around the country in the summers of 1963 through 1965 that I realized where God was. There was no specific moment where I was struck by that realization, but as I grew older and spent time discovering the natural world present in places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, the message began to seep in. And it wasn’t until I was in college that I developed the vocabulary to understand it all.
And the language is this: whatever you want to call this presence, it is not transcendent. It’s not somewhere else beyond our reach that can only be attained through obeying dogmas and subsisting through rules that were written by men who lived in the ancient world and thought that the Earth was the center of the universe and that animals were simply there to be eaten.
Divinity is immanent. Its right here in us and around us all the time. It’s both the universe “out there” and the universe that exists inside our heads.
The only time we can really begin to sense it is when we are quiet enough to listen. Our culture is very loud. Aldous Huxley called it the Age of Noise. He was talking about the radio decades ago when he said this:
“The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire — we hold history’s record for all of them. And no wonder; for all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence. That most popular and influential of all recent inventions, the radio, is nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes. And this din goes far deeper, of course, than the ear-drums. It penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions – news items, mutually irrelevant bits of information, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but merely create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemas. And where, as in most countries, the broadcasting stations support themselves by selling time to advertisers, the noise is carried from the ears, through the realms of phantasy, knowledge and feeling to the ego’s central core of wish and desire.”
Simply substitute “cell phone” or \”Internet\” for “radio” and you’ll be in our current era where the Noise in now fully digital. It’s not just fake news, its fake everything.
|This is not fake anything|
And because of the changes in my life these last few years I am becoming a much better listener. I still have a long way to go and I’ll always be a beginner, but I’m trying. And on this day it was easy. There was no one else on the trail. It had rained the day before and all the trees and the ground were very wet. There was no wind so all I could hear was the little stream that ran through the moss and trees. When the trail moved away from the flowing water the sound of moisture dripping from the vegetation was palpable.
There were so many things to see, and I looked deeply with both my eyes and my camera. There was a sense of familiarity. I wanted so much to find the spot where we had seen the tree fall all those many years ago. I would turn a corner on the trail and think “this is it” and then I would move on and think that the next spot was the actual place. I began to realize it really did not matter because everything within my vision was the sacred and celebratory place I was looking for. My soul was sustained by my exploration. I was walking both forward and backwards in time across decades simultaneously.
|Old and New|
I never did find the specific spot. It did not matter. The important thing was to just be there and feel that immanence. A phrase I learned long ago arose in my head: “Thou art that” or in Sanskrit “Tat Tvam Asi.” While I felt intense emotion, my mind was clear.
Shunryu Suzuki taught: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner\’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert\’s mind there are few.” On that walk I took the first steps as a beginner in a new life and I was filled with gratitude.
When I realized that the goal was simply to be there I turned around and walked back to my car. Then I spread some of my wife’s ashes underneath the bridge again and returned to town. I stopped at a market for peanut butter, jelly, bread and milk. Sometimes a guy just needs a good solid PB&J for lunch! Which is what I ate. And after all is said and done, Thou Art That. Even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be divine.