Showdown at Boulder Pass

But all I could see was a cactus tree
And a prairie dog playing there
I watched the prairie dog feed on the tumbleweed
That’s his home, way out there

– Bob Nolan for Sons Of The Pioneers

Naropa, the Buddhist university in Boulder Colorado founded by Chogyam Trungpa has had a problem with prairie dogs on its campus for some years now. They say they’ve counted at least 250 of them. I am not sure exactly what the problem is but I’m guessing the cute little critters dig a lot of holes. Anyway, Naropa officials claim they have spent close to $100,000 trying to relocate them. The city and county of Boulder has set aside 2,000 acres for prairie dog habitat, but evidently its full up and there are no vacancies.

DPD2bThe school has applied for a lethal control permit to kill the prairie dogs. After the inevitable outrage over that proposed action erupted, school officials stated they actually have no intention of bumping off the animals, they only got the permit to raise awareness about the issue. That seems a weird approach to me. Maybe it is an example of that crazy wisdom Trungpa was known for.

WildLands Defense spokeswoman Deanna Meyer is leading the anti-prairie dog massacre protest. She told a online news outlet, the Daily Caller, “It is a Buddhist university and the fact that a Buddhist university would even apply for a lethal application for prairie dogs is totally against any Buddhist concepts,” she told the newspaper. Good point.

There’s an online petition to sign. I’m not too fond of the title, but I’m even less fond of exterminating prairie dogs.

Prairie dogs are considered a “keystone” species. That’s an animal that plays a crucial role in a ecosystem. Prairie dog colonies provide safe space for habitats that benefit nearly 150 other species. They are an essential part of our prairies, one of our most endangered ecosystems. Prairie dogs also help aerate and fertilize the soil, which allows a greater diversity of plants to flourish.

What’s more, prairie dogs are part of our heritage, part of the lore of the Old West. Take, for example, this song sung around a campfire by the Sons of the Pioneers. Note that one of those guitar pickers and singers is Roy Rogers, future King of the Cowboys. Lyrics after the video.

A lonely spot, I know where no man will go
Where the shadows have all the room
I was ridin’ free on the old SP
Humming a southern tune

When a man came along made me hush my song
Kicked me off, way out there
As she pulled out of sight I turned to the right
A left and everywhere

But all I could see was a cactus tree
And a prairie dog playing there
I watched the prairie dog feed on the tumbleweed
That’s his home, way out there

So I threw down my load in the desert road
Rested my weary legs too
I watched the sinking sun, make the tall shadows run
Out across that barren plain

Then I hummed a tune to the risin’ moon
He gets lonesome way out there
So I closed my eyes to the starlit skies
And lost myself in dreams

I dreamed the desert sand was a milk and honey land
Then I awoke with a start
There the train comin’ back on that one way track
Gonna take me away from here

As she was passin’ by, I caught her on the fly
I climbed in an open door
Then I turned around to that desert ground
Saw the spot I would see no more

As I was ridin’ away
I heard the pale moon say
Farewell pal
It sure gets lonesome here


Nature is transcendental

Most of us realize that spending time in nature is good for mind and spirit. A new study by researchers at Stanford University more or less confirms it, according to a paper published in last month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.”

Honestly, I was confused by the title.  I always thought nature enhanced rumination or contemplation. But I didn’t know that in psychology, rumination means to focus excessively on one’s problems and to brood on why you might be depressed. So,  nature reducing rumination is a positive.

The researchers say their study “reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

IMG_4821bEvidently, walking in natural areas simulates activity in a section of the brain that’s known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is connected to negative mental conditions and a negative pattern of thought the paper calls “morbid rumination.” They sent study participants to various areas on the Stanford campus and when the participants returned, the researchers scanned their brains. The result: “Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.”

In other words, walking in nature is good for mind and spirit, and walking in urban areas is not so good. As I suggested at the top, this only confirms what most people already know.

I have written a great deal about how the sages and poets of the East found nature to be beneficial in this way. Naturally, they are not the only ones.

Two prominent naturalists from America’s past, Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, had connections to Eastern philosophy but their appreciation of nature was firmly in place long before they became interested in the teachings of Buddha and Lao Tzu.

Thoreau’s name is practically synonymous with Walden Pond, a lake in Concord, Massachusetts formed by glaciers some 10,000–12,000 years ago. The place itself is famously associated with Naturalism. Emerson also wandered around Walden, and in 1846 he bought a wood-lot there, consisting of “more than forty acres, on the border of a little lake a half a mile wide and more, called Walden Pond,” as he wrote in a letter to his friend, Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher.

In his 1836 essay, Nature, Emerson complained that far too many people do not recognize the full worth and beauty of nature. In the essay, Emerson also set down some of the fundamentals of Transcendentalism, the philosophical movement linked to both Emerson and Thoreau. In another essay, The Transcendentalist, Emerson wrote a phrase I like: “Nature is Transcendental.”

Emerson’s view of nature differed a bit from the Eastern view. He saw nature as something outside the life of the individual, “all that is separate from us . . . the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body.” The Buddhist/Taoist concept of “Not me” goes further and nature is viewed as profoundly  inter-connected with inner life.

Nature is transcendental (note the small ‘t’). And, when we use any of the forms of the word “transcendent,” we do not necessarily mean metaphysical. Transcendent can mean beyond the limits of ordinary experience, what cannot be expressed in words, or realization that “goes beyond,” which in Buddhism refers to Prajna-Paramita or Transcendental Wisdom.

I would suggest transcendental can also be “going back,” in that it we can recapture a quality of childhood, the innocence, the sense of wonder, the “original mind” we had before our brains became cluttered with all the disorderly and tangled notions we’ve acquired as adults. I think others have commented on the same child-like orientation connected with spirituality, and judging by this passage from Nature, Emerson would seem to have been one of them.

ralph-waldo-emersonTo speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Note Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”


Harmonizing Our Planet

A draft UN report to be approved this week says that climate change may have “serious, pervasive and irreversible” impacts on the planet and human civilization, but that governments still have time to “avert the worst.”

A recent paper released by the Department of Defense, “Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap,” labels climate change a “threat multiplier” because “it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism.” Climate change is also classified as an Immediate Security Risk, one that approaches the level of the Cold War threat as nations with nuclear arms struggle to deal with resource shortages and environmental dislocations.

While other countries, especially those that belong to the European Union, are taking climate change seriously, here in the United States there is still a great deal of skepticism about it. Hopefully, this warning from one of America’s most “establishment” institutions will help change that. In the meantime, according to Reuters, the United States has stated that much of the information contained in the UN report “may be impenetrable to the policymaker or public.” Whether this means we are too thickheaded, or if our minds are simply closed, I don’t know. Probably a combination of the two.

But I do feel, as I’m sure most of you do, that we must continue to change our concept of the environment. Far too many people still see humans as rulers of the planet. We should be the harmonizers of our planet.

Human beings suffer the disease of separation – separation from the environment and each other. Buddhism sees this as a root cause of all suffering.  To meet the challenge of harmonizing our planet, each of us should try to establish harmony in our life, and share harmony with others.

Harmony is not just some lofty or pleasant notion to aspire to, it is practical, even critical. The EPA says,

Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

What the EPA describes is being called environmental wisdom worldview.  Survival for all depends on how well human beings sustain the earth. Historically, we have not done a very good job. This “new” environmental wisdom mirrors the wisdom found in the principle of interdependency taught by the Buddha 2500 years ago. How successful we will at implanting this wisdom depends, I think, on how well we can grasp another bit of Buddhist wisdom, shared by Taoism, that if your harmonize your inner world, you will be capable of acting with wisdom in your relationship with the external world.

Do you think you can conquer nature and control it?
I do not believe you can succeed
Nature is sacred
One cannot control it
If you try to control it, you will ruin it
If you try to hold it, you will lose it

– Tao Te Ching


“In every human heart, there is a Symphony of Nature”

A couple of weeks ago I went with a friend to The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena. It’s a private nonprofit collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by Henry E. Huntington. He was a railroad magnate and among his many holdings and operations were the famous “Red Car” trolleys here in Los Angeles.

Since our interest that day was on the Botanical Gardens, we just breezed through the library at the end. The collection is rather eclectic. Apparently, it’s the only library in the world with the first two quartos of Hamlet. They also have the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, the manuscript of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, the first seven drafts of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and the double-elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. And then to show that they’re not snobbish when it comes to literature, there’s a collection of manuscripts and first editions of works by Charles Bukowski.

We didn’t see any of that stuff. We did check out Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, though. When Huntington purchased it for $700,00 in 1921, it became the second most expensive painting in the world. Number One was da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Neither are even in the Top Ten Today.

But we went The Huntington to stroll through the gardens and they’ve got more than a dozen of them, including the Desert Garden, with more cacti than you can shake a stick at; the Japanese Garden, with a Zen rock garden and a bevy of bonsai trees; a beautiful Rose Garden; and the Liu Fang Yuan or “Garden of Flowering Fragrance.”

It was a typical June Gloom day with grey skies overhead, but that didn’t stop me from taking beaucoup photos. Today, I’ll just share three. You can see the rest at my photo site here. The text is from “A Chinese Garden of Serenity” translated by Chao Tze-chiang.

In every human heart, there is a Symphony of Nature . . .

Natural scenery – such as the azure mists on the hills, the ripples on the water, the shadow of a cloud on a pond . . . all of which are existent and yet non-existent, half-real and half-unreal – is the most agreeable to the human heart and most inspiring to the human soul. Such vistas are the wonder of wonders in the universe.

When the wind blows through the scattered bamboos, they do not hold its sound after it has gone . . . So the mind of the superior man begins to work only when an events occurs; and it becomes a void again when the matter ends.

A drop of water has the tastes of the water of the seven seas; there is no need to experience all the ways of worldly life. The reflections of the moon on one thousand rivers are from the same moon: the mind must be full of light.