Panning for Gold

Panning for Gold

If you’re panning for gold, anything else that settles in the pan is just waste. Stones, moss, silt, the nymphs of aquatic flies are just so much debris to be discarded in favor of even the smallest particle of that one rare metal that you’ve priced above the ordinary.

Zen Master Dogen cautions against preferences that elevate one’s tastes above what’s commonly at hand. In the Tenzo Kyokan, Dogen instructs those who would undertake the practice of chief cook in a Buddhist monastery: “It was once said by a great teacher that priests do not differentiate between various foods just as fire does not differentiate between various sorts of firewood. If we are sincere when cooking, even the coarsest food can help us to exhibit the seed of Buddhahood.” Dogen’s teaching is one of the value of the ordinary, and the truth of the teaching has been shown me repeatedly in my life, but never more so than in the incident involving the sighting of the blue-phase Ross Goose.

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pan71One winter, several of us from the Monterey, California, local Audubon group traveled to California’s central valley to view waterfowl. We were especially desirous of seeing some Snow Geese and with luck even a few Ross Geese. The trip had produced lots of Snow Geese but not a single Ross Goose when late afternoon brought us to a field of corn stubble being gleaned by a flock of 10 to 12 thousand Ross Geese. Now the concept of rarity is postulated on a principle of relative abundance. A few equals “rare.” A few more equals “not so rare.” So 10,000 or more of anything in one place at one time is a lot and makes for considerable local commonness. Whereas our group had previously been high on the prospects of finding a few Ross Geese, now, confronted with this mob, the initial oohs and aahs soon subsided into searching the flock for something more stimulating. That’s when Alan Baldridge, scanning the flock with a spotting scope, called, “Blue phase!”

Now the blue phase of the Ross Goose is fairly rare and many of us had never seen one, so naturally we all wanted to see this rare goose. But the hopes were dismal at best. There were 10,000 of the geese packed into the field and only one among them was the one we now wanted. The desired goose was beyond range of the unassisted eye and, in fact, beyond the capacity of binoculars. Only a spotting scope could give enough magnification to distinguish the blue-phase from among the others. We couldn’t expect Alan to give us a peek at the rarity through his scope because the bird was continually moving about among the thousands of others and it was all Alan could do to keep track of it himself. If he lifted his eye from the eyepiece even for a second, the bird would likely be lost to him as well. “Stay with it, Alan,” we encouraged him, since Alan’s success in tracking the bird was pretty much our only hope of seeing it for ourselves. To add to these difficulties, the sun was rapidly lowering into some patchy clouds, and in the shadowy field the whole flock was beginning to look a little blue.

pan91All of us who had scopes were trying to line up in the general direction of Alan’s scope and were scanning the field and, of course, seeing lots of Ross Geese. “How far out is it, Alan? To the front or rear of the flock?” And Alan, with only the discrete image of the blue-phase in his scope, had of course no idea where in the flock the bird was. All he could do was inform us as to whether the blue-phase was moving to his left or right or whatever. On the whole, it was circumstance classic for promoting urgency and frustration. Yet, one by one, some of us were miraculously locating the rarity, so all was not lost.

All was not lost except that an older birder among us, Margaret Moody, a woman whose age-enfeebled eyesight had reduced her in this instance to the ordinary, was watching quite another event. She herself had had a lifetime penchant for rarities. In my earliest birding days, when my talent was taxed to identify even the most frequently encountered species, I was given to extolling the virtues of “behavioral observation,” trying I suppose to rationalize my own limited capacities and to mask my unmitigated greed for spotting a rarity of my own. “It’s not so much what a bird is,” I explained to Margaret, “but what it does that deserves interest.” She had simply said, “Oh, I love identifying rarities.”

Photo by Karen Laslo

Photo by Karen Laslo

But now the identification of this blue-phase was beyond her reach. Yet she could see well enough to witness how the geese were rising into the sky, thousands at a time, on black tipped wings that lifted them by some remarkable correspondence avoiding all collision. The strokes of their wings compressing the air overhead washed down on her, past her dim eyes, to call her thoughts into flight. She watched them rise hundreds of feet in great circling sweeps that eventually brought them back to the field where they settled once again. Her binoculars hanging slack about her neck, she watched this. Again and again.

pan10a1Thankful that the blue-phase wasn’t among those who had taken flight, the rest of us were fussing with our scopes and still muttering things like, “Okay, Alan, I think I’ve got it. Going left over an irrigation ridge, now raising its head.” Alan, his eyes watering, his scope image long ago deteriorated to a scratchy blur, would confirm or disconfirm that the action corresponded to that of the bird he was watching.

Later that night at the restaurant, when those of us who had spotted the blue-phase were congratulating ourselves on our good fortune, Margaret never once complained about what she’d missed.

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The quest for rarity dulls the palate. Simple tastes become flavorless as one prices one’s appetites out of reach of the common market of ordinary goods. The gift of Margaret’s weakening eyesight was to return her to the ordinary, where an object or event needn’t be novel or exceptional in order to be notable. She was forced to relinquish the rare and exotic. Age had brought her home once again to the interest and beauty of common things. And it wouldn’t have to take a flock of 10,000 soaring geese to get her attention, which is after all anything but usual unless you happen to be birding the Pacific flyway. It could be the patches of winter light on the far hillside or the gray winter grass underfoot or the rich odor of dampness drifting off the wetlands. It could be the itchy ride back to the motel with four of us in wet winter woolens packed into the back seat of the car. It could be the string of Yellow-Headed Blackbirds settling on the barbwire fencing beyond the steamy windshield. It could be the mud stuck to our shoes.

I was bicycling to town the other day and caught a neighbor of mine raking up leaves. I did the required bit about his taking a crack at my leaves when he got through raking his own. He gave the usual retort of telling me he’d love to rake my leaves but didn’t want to deprive me of the joy of doing it for myself. When we’d gotten these obligatory exchanges behind us, he told me he’d been looking through some of the fall issues of magazines, and in one of them, he couldn’t recall which, he’d seen photographs of the fall colors in the eastern hardwood forests. “Boy that’s something,” he said. “I’d like to see that. The colors are really something.” Well, I’d like to see hardwood forests in autumn myself, still I couldn’t help but notice that both of us were standing in a heap of brilliant red dogwood leaves at the very same time that we were both imagining how beautiful the leaves were elsewhere. And not far down the street was a cascade of golden ginkgo leaves shimmering against a blue sky.

 Tenzo

Tenzo

I don’t think Dogen’s comment that even the coarsest food manifests Buddha nature was meant to suggest that we should never appreciate fine food. I think he was simply warning against disparaging the ordinary by coveting fine food to the exclusion of the coarse. And in the same way, I don’t mean to suggest that I should never seek out something special, but only to caution that I not allow the rare beauty of an orchid to dim my delight in the first springing burst of daffodils or distract me from a simple bouquet of yellow daisies or a common sprig of forget-me-not. Of course, Dogen’s not talking about literal food alone, but rather the food that feeds the mind. And when a group of birders, eager in their quest for rarity are rendered indifferent to the spectacle of thousands of white geese repeatedly rising into the air and falling to earth again, they clearly demonstrate a momentary state of mind that has priced itself out of the common beauty of things. And that’s the same state of mind that leads any of us to stand in an absolute avalanche of gorgeous fall leaves dreaming of something better.

(Reprinted here by permission of Wisdom Publications)


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