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Esteemed Reader: A Deep and Living Canvas

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JASON STERN
  • Jason Stern

I have traveled a good deal, in Concord.

—Henry David Thoreau

Walking a familiar path through the forest with a friend, we come to a pond. It’s called Duck Pond, though I have yet to see any ducks. Together we look for the copperheads that sometimes sun themselves on the dam pilings supporting a bridge over the stream flowing out of the spring-fed tarn.

From a distance, I see what look like sticks, not snakes, but on closer inspection, I notice that they are snake skins. A mosaic sheath rests on each of the two pilings, and I envision the two snakes undergoing the ritual of skin-shedding together.

By association, I remember a line from a Leonard Cohen song, and recite it to my friend.

I heard the snake was baffled by his sin
 / He shed his scales to find the snake within
 / But born again is born without a skin

One rich experience follows another on these walks along the accustomed route, past the pond and up a steep hill through dense and sparse forest, traversing open fields of clover and milkweed and sumac. Each part of the route has a distinct quality, like a room in a house or a neighborhood in a city. We walk this path in every season, and in each season, the journey reveals new impressions and new meaning.

JASON STERN
  • Jason Stern

We walk at dusk when the sun casts a stark light from the edge of the sky. Everything is illuminated in a stark glow. Dusk, as well as dawn, is the time of day that the Vedic tradition calls sattvic, signifying a quality of dynamic balance and charged stillness. It is like the motionless point at the apex of a pendulum’s swing or the minute pause between the inhale and exhale of a breath. It is the regenerative quality associated with clear awareness.

Walking the path in early June, we hear the sounds of innumerable insects and birds. My companion is expert in identifying birdsong and he names them, stopping from time to time to peer into the trees with his binoculars. I recall the same route we walked six months earlier, in the middle of winter, the morning after an ice storm, trees and grasses sheathed in ice. Nothing stirred, save the wind playing the icy trees like a flute. The life that is now on the surface was sleeping then.

I have been coming to this section of forest long enough to notice the trees grow larger and new growth springing up beneath the canopy. The impression is something like a Hudson River School painting, not copied from a photograph but composed over weeks or months of sitting in one spot, condensing impressions received over time onto a single deep and living canvas.

JASON STERN
  • Jason Stern

As we walk, we speak about the subtle substrate upon which everything grows. The noumena and the phenomena. It is like the Earth upon which life is born, lives, and dies, unchanging and yet subtly transformed by the processes unfolding on the surface. And yet the substrate is not of the same material. It is finer and yet more solid. It is the soul of the place, just as it is the soul of a human being, and the soul of the world.

In touch with this reality of an expanded present moment, cycles of time in the aggregate, my wooly garment of attention is not as caught by the burrs of short-lived phenomena. I see that what is arising now will change or disappear tomorrow or perhaps in a thousand years; that each arising in myself, in nature, in human society is a brief gamut within a larger cycle. In this long view, there is no need to react or hold opinions for or against anything.

Arriving home from the walk I am greeted by my partner of several decades. I see in her face the 12-year-old girl that I met in the nearby village 40 years ago. I see the radiant and intense 20-something, the pregnant mother-to-be, the perimenopausal beauty coming into her power. All her phases, her ups and downs, joys and sorrows, gains and losses are present in this being whose deeper nature is revealed in an eternal instant. In the face of a fleeting vision, I feel no lack and no gain, nothing to lose or attain, only completion, and love.

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