Friday, January 15, 2010
WITHOUT A DOUBT
This past weekend I took a walk. I love to walk. I forgot how much. I don’t mean hiking: driving to a trailhead, parking, tying up my hiking boots and heading up a mountain. I mean going out the door and walking. Walking is much less athletic, lets the mind wander, which is what it likes to do. Or at least my mind does.
I recently read The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson. I highly recommend it to all you walkers out there. You will never underestimate the power of this simple act again. You may even revalue it like I did and begin walking again, for walking’s sake.
I never balk at taking a parking spot far from my goal. I look for excuses to walk. I like an approach that is heart beat slow and easy. And when I travel I like to walk too. I can walk all day if I’m alone, or have a travel companion who can walk like I do. I’ve walked from one end of Manhattan to another, Paris and Rome, too. I’ve walked all over Istanbul, Athens, Berlin and Delhi. I used to transverse my hometown, Milwaukee in the middle of the night from my 2nd shift job downtown to my parents’ house on the west end. You see all sorts of things when you walk.
Walking unfortunately seems like such an urban activity to me, so since I moved to the country my walking has nearly stopped. I do walk across the road through the Hmong flower fields to the river: priceless, but short. I sometimes walk to a neighboring farm. Or up to the swamp, just for the hell of it. I’ve even taken to walking into Carnation with a backpack to do grocery shopping, it’s an hour each way and once I’m off the road a lovely walk along the wooded banks of the Snoqualmie River. I try to justify this “waste of time” -- I can drive to town in 5 minutes-- as training for hiking, as exercise. But it is not aimless walking.
I love aimless walking. It seems such a luxury.
I indulged myself last Sunday.
I headed south, away from town. Options are limited in the valley with the river hugging the road on the east side and the marsh to the west. So I stuck to the road that I drive out on daily. It was early sunday morning and there was no traffic. Still I tired of stomping the pavement, so when I reached Tall Chief Golf Course, though the gate was closed I entered. Their incredibly short fences, short enough to step over, were nearly an invitation I thought.
I love golf courses. No, I don’t golf. And their horticultural practices are a bit suspect. How can they have a weed free lawn in this valley of weeds? But those vast undulating expanses of velvet green nudged open here and there with sand traps and ponds are like zen gardens on steroids. Especially when there are no golfers present.
Even the popping of the distant duck hunters’ guns sounded like temple bells that morning, bringing awareness to my walk. Sometimes a meandering mind chooses delusion I know. It’s good for an individual, though horrible for the masses. It was all beautiful even as the popping grew closer causing me to wondered if an errant bullet might penetrate my flesh. I decidedly moved away from the gunfire though, up the hill behind the golf course where abandoned fields skirt the wooded bluff. I was truly on that road less travelled.
The sun broke through and it was warm like spring. Fresh growth shot up through the dry grass. Buds swelled. Clusters of migratory birds, robins and redwing black birds, sang. I had nothing to do and my pace slowed. Two red-tailed hawks screeched and tangled over head.
Then I found it.
Barn owl feathers scattered on the ground, and above a low hanging mossy branch covered with feathers as if the owl had exploded in place. I looked but found no corpse, only bloody wing feathers evidence that the owl had not flown away.
Since I could still hear the duck hunters’ pops echoing around the valley below. No longer temple bells, buts rips in the silent morning fiber, my immediate assumption was foul play. Someone had shot the owl. It was probably an easy target in it’s mid-day slumber on the low slung branch. Did it wake as it fell, or did it die unaware in sleep? I painted the scenario so clearly in my mind: The hunter, the owl, one easy shot. Yet a doubt lingered. Am I jumping to a conclusion? Could the old owl simply have died in it’s sleep, fallen to the ground, been eviscerated by coyotes.
There was no doubt I wanted to hold on to the image of the hunter, the shot, the fallen owl. It enervated me with outrage. Who could possibly shoot an owl? A sleeping owl? The distant pop-popping of the duck hunters drove it home. I gathered a few of the best feathers with some obtuse sense of sanctity, examining the scene of the crime more closely. Certainly, I thought, the bird had exploded on the branch, the feathers circled outward like an expanding galaxy. I walked back through the rough meadow, leaving “the road less traveled” and heading straight through the tall dry grasses. When I returned to the golf course’s tidy juxtaposition, it felt more like a gun shot into the wilderness than any tranquil zen garden.
Soon the resident grounds was at my heels, questioning my presence there.
“Those are owl feathers,” he said, seeing the peculiarly beautiful bouquet I held.” You know , it’s illegal to possess those.”
Was he also the bird police?
“ Well, I didn’t kill the owl,” I said, all defensive and still outraged with thoughts of some yahoo hunter shooting a sleeping owl. Who thought my somnambulant January sunday would get me so riled up.
“ Well, you certainly can’t sell them,” he continued. He had not yet informed me that he was a dream-catcher maker, as well as a grounds keeper. But he wasted no time in telling me that his collection of feathers, tens of thousands, had totally infested his house with beetles and moths, which was a great expense to clean up. All in all he was a nice fellow who had lived in the valley for 15 years, owned many guns, but didn’t shoot animals. What he does shoot he wouldn’t say. He was a bird lover like me, so we chatted about what we had seen in the valley. But mostly about owls. when I informed him of my suspicions of foul play he said, “They shouldn’t be shooting owls.”
Then he added, “ It could have been a red-tailed hawk. They attack anything.”
Suddenly I was filled with an uncomfortable doubt of my assessment at the crime scene. Certainly a hawk at high speed hitting a sleeping owl could cause an explosion of feathers as much a a bullet could. I decided to accept his assessment, it was a more comfortable judgement to live with. A more natural explanation, though I know it is as natural for a man with a gun to shoot anything, even a sleeping owl.
What became important in that moment was not whether the owl died by gun shot, hawk attack or old age, but how fluid my assessment was and how uncomfortable I was with doubt.
Is doubt really just the opposite of belief?
Certainly I have doubts. Doubts about humanity, religion, our government.
And even doubts about gardening.
Last winter was horrid killing off all sorts of plants. Last January I swore off all the tempermentals, like hebes. Yet spring came, I began to forget winter. I began to forget the horrific flood which ravaged the valley, like our neighbor said I would. Then May came and I began to doubt we’d ever have a winter like the last one, at least not right away. I listened to these doubts and planted hebes again. Well, they didn’t even make it to Christmas. I shouldn’t have listened to my doubts. Yet, likewise I planted fatshedera at the farm doubting it would make it, and it didn’t. That time I could have saved myself a little digging and listened to my doubts.
Doubt is a scary slippery creature, even its shadow strikes fear. It is the antithesis of faith, the undoer of confidence, a stumbling block to progress. In short it is as un-American as al Qaeda.
Yet the taoist master Zhiangzi says, “If you doubt at points where others find no impulse to doubt you are making progress.”
To live without doubt seems nearly impossible. To fight it with over confidence seems foolish. It is a force to be reckoned with.
I am reminded of a story the sufis tell. Moses is out for a walk in the desert. I’m not sure how aimless his walk was, I think he was walking to talk with God. Moses asked God to get rid of Satan. So God puts Moses in a deep sleep and does away with Satan. When Moses wakes, he sees that everything is dead, no rivers flow, no birds fly, no flowers bloom. Moses is rightfully shocked and begs God to bring Satan back, which of course God does and everything returns to normal. And Moses learns a valuable lesson about the nature of the universe.
Now I like to demonize my doubts as we all do. But yet I’m beginning to see them as a necessary evil, a useful component of a much more whole picture of life.
I decided this year in a sort of resolutionary way that I will take a walk with my doubts, give them their due. This might end up being a little tricky, even a little dangerous. It will certainly require a lot of attentiveness, because I’m beginning to agree with Oscar Wilde who said,”To believe is very dull. To doubt is intensely engrossing. To be on the alert is to live, to be lulled into security is to die.”
Hopefully my walk with doubt doesn’t leave me with just a handful of feathers.