Thursday, 27 December 2012

New Years Performance Review

Last year, a foolish monk.
This year, no change.


Wednesday, 26 December 2012

WW: Into a new year

(Photo by Dannon Raith. Click to enlarge)

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Hermitcraft: Chai

It's Christmas, when thoughts naturally turn to chai. Well, they do if they're mine, anyway. Chai is not in fact a Christmas drink; it's the daily beverage of India, a nation that hardly has Christmas at all. (And the word itself simply means "tea". Like salsa [sauce] and baguette [loaf], it's a humdrum, general term that English turned into a fancy, specific one.)

But chai is warm like Christmas, sweet like Christmas, and spicy like Christmas. It's the ultimate comfort food, and as good as it is all year, it's especially good now.

The trick to good chai is to mind the honey and not be Nordic with the spices. Hence the downfall of commercial efforts here in North America: too sweet, too bland.

Many years ago I set out to develop the perfect chai recipe. I spent months at it, pushing this, pulling that, until I arrived at the recipe below. I have since received favourable reviews from a wide variety of guests, from tea and chai connoisseurs to rank beginners. And from more than one Indian, a fact of which I am inordinately proud.

So in honour of the season, I share with all interested my most valuable possession. Wield it wisely.

PERFECT CHAI (or: Kensho in a Cup)

For one oversized mug or two teacups:

1 1/2 cups cold water
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons strong black loose tea, or two teabags of same*
1/2 teaspoon minced gingerroot
Two inches of cinnamon stick, shredded
2 cloves
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
2 cumin seeds (I mean it. Two seeds.)
2 peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon anise seeds
a pinch of orange zest, if desired (adds bitterness if the tea leaves aren't strong enough, but go easy)
Enough honey to make drinking pleasant; typically about two teaspoons.

For a pot:

3 cups cold water
1 cup milk
4 teaspoons strong black loose tea, or four teabags of same*
1 teaspoon minced gingerroot
4 cloves
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
3 cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds
3 inches cinnamon stick, shredded
3 peppercorns
2 teaspoons anise seeds
orange zest, as above
About four teaspoons of honey.

*Any strong black tea will do. If using teabags, cut them open and dump the leaves in loose. (Always the best policy, even when brewing ordinary tea.)

Place all ingredients in a saucepan and warm gently. Mind that the chai doesn't boil; it shouldn't even bubble. Heat for a minimum of 20 minutes; 45 or better is optimum. (If you plan to steep the chai more than two hours, omit one peppercorn.) Strain into cups, returning the spices to the pot between rounds.

Chai can be made ahead and refrigerated, as long as it's reheated gently. It's also good chilled.

Chai arhats know that success in this powerful alchemy, regardless of recipe, relies on the Four Noble Truths:

1. All ingredients must be infused together. Do not add milk or honey at the table.
2. Chai is all about the spices; if you can taste the honey, it's over-sweet.
3. Boiling is fatal. It flattens the water, exhausts the spices, and burns the milk.
4. A good masala is equal parts quantity and variety. Cumin and peel counter sweetness, and should be just barely detectable. Cloves, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander provide mouth and aroma and should be pronounced, without however overpowering the cup. And, crucially: the digestives (anise, ginger, milk, honey) make the whole thing possible. Without them you've got a harsh, even nauseating, stew. If your chai comes out coarse on the tongue or hard on the stomach, pump these up.

Chai goes wherever cocoa does. Take it carolling, or to football games, or serve it at parties. It's also a famous after-meal digestive. I have chai with breakfast most Sundays, steeped during the morning sit.

So from all of us here at Rusty Ring, many happy returns of the season, and best wishes for the new year.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

WW: Pet bluegill

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Christmas Kyôsaku

"If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say?

"And why are you waiting?"

Stephen Levine

(Photo of Christmas Eve, a 1910 American Christmas card, courtesy of the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

WW: Flicker

(Colaptes auratus)

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Love of Chair

There was no place on the Acres to sit. Not for a white man. White men don't sit. Not because it's dirty or demeaning. Because we can't.

How often I've wished I could sit lotus, the real one commended by the Ancestors, soles bared to heaven, butt grounded on the earth itself, like the Buddha's own. Many Asians still practice this way. (Some use a cushion now, but it's a small concession.)

I determined once, early in my practice, to meditate this way as well. A week later I was so crippled I could no longer walk. That didn't feel like enlightenment, so I stopped.

Throughout the Third World, people lounge comfortably on the ground, or squat for hours, with their buttocks resting on their heels, or even the dirt. Meanwhile I couldn't even defecate outdoors without a walking stick to hang from.

And so sitting remained a problem for me. Not meditating; just sitting. A chair is small enough a thing, until you don't have one. I sometimes walked all the way down to the barn, just to sit on the derelict old coffee table there. Meditation was my alibi, but the truth centred lower.

That old table was literally the only place, on all the Acres, where a man could sit in comfort. There was no such ease in camp. There I either sat on the mat, or balanced my backside on a downed hemlock, no more than a bark-rough pole really, to write in the log or braid a fudo. But that was just to escape for twenty minutes my half-lotus hell. Mealtimes and formal sits I had to plan mindfully: plenty of activity beforehand to loosen the leg joints, and plenty of movement after to work them free again. To move straight from a meal to meditation, or vice versa, was out of the question.

For sitting on the mat was no rest; just the act of sitting down there and getting up again took great effort. Looking back, I don't know why I didn't simply construct a chair, or at least a bench, to relax on from time to time. It's true I had few tools, so that making anything was a tedious, time-consuming process. But I had wire, and I had wood; more to the point, I had nothing else to do. The thing would have taken days, certainly. But I had days.

The best excuse I can make is, it was a small problem. And so it was never solved.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia and Oxfordian Kissuth.)

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

WW: Not a black and white photo

(Note the small patch of blue on the right edge, just north of centre.)

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Humility Kyôsaku

While on a trip to another village, Nasrudin lost his favourite copy of the Qur'an.

Several weeks later, a goat walked up to Nasrudin, carrying the Qur'an in its mouth.

Nasrudin couldn't believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the goat's mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, "It's a miracle!"

"Not really," said the goat. "Your name is written inside the cover."

From the Tales of Nasrudin.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and George Chernilevsky.)

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

WW: Sea lion's tibia and fibula

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Thanksgiving Prayer

                                   From too much hope of living,
                                        From hope and fear set free,
                                   We thank with brief thanksgiving
                                        Whatever gods may be
                                   That no life lives for ever;
                                   That dead men rise up never;
                                   That even the weariest river
                                        Winds somewhere safe to sea.

                                                              Algernon Charles Swinburne

(Photo of a work-weary Columbia shuffling past the Astoria bridge to the Pacific, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Gene Daniels, and the US Environmental Protection Agency.)

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

WW: Evening sunbreak

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Feeding the Work

The longer you stay in the woods, the poorer you get. You chew through your rice, burn down your candles, bury your toilet paper square by square, in little holes in the ground. Your pack grows lighter and your margin of error grows narrower.

And that's as it should be. Things are an annoyance, to be dragged around only if they help. In the outback you want to spend down your supplies. Work the feed to feed the work. As time passes, needs grow fewer and life gets simpler. In the end, if you come out with anything at all, you humped it all over the hills for nothing.

The Pali term for this is schmuck.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Graphic courtesy of WikiMedia and Claude Powell Fordyce.)

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

WW: Bonnie bouk o' boletes

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Ajahn Brahm's Five Types of Religion

Washing for gold, Warrandyte
You gotta love Ajahn Brahmavamso Mahathera. He's a forest monk, albeit not of the hermit lineage. In a West dominated by Zen, Vipassana, and Vajrayana, his dharma is Theravada. He's a working class Englishman with a Cambridge degree in theoretical physics, trained as a monk in Thailand, and teaching in outback Australia. He runs a monastery he built himself. (Seriously. With his own hands.) And he's been excommunicated by his lineage. So he must be doing something right. (Ordaining women, as it happens.)

But the best thing about Ajahn Brahm is his teaching. There's precious little piety about this guru. He'll call out hypocrisy so fast it'll make your incense burner spin. Starting with his own.

I particularly esteem Brahm's (in)famous Five Types of Religion. (True fact: the original teaching was Five Types of Buddhism, which is how I first heard it. Only when it was pointed out that all religions suffer from these delusions did he rework it for everyone.)

So here they are. Readers who practice a religion, any religion, should copy and paste this list. Then edit out my commentary, and meditate on the rest. Often.

Everybody strapped in?


1. Conceited Religion: Our religion is better than yours. (And therefore we are better than you.)

This is a Christian stereotype here in the West, but that's only because they're the majority; I assure you I run into identical Buddhists all the time. Despite what some would have you believe, triumphalism (the belief that you have a monopoly on truth) is a sin in every religion. And for the record, I learned both the term and the condemnation as part of my Christian training.

2. Ritual Religion: Venerating the container above the contents.

Did someone say "guru worship"? Let's face it, Zenners: we do the hell out of this one. Obsession with rank and form, bowing, chanting, posture, oryoki, lighting this, ringing that, bop-she-bop, rama-lama-ding-dong. None of it's worth a crock of warm spit, and if you forget that, it's a giant waste of time.

3. Business Religion: We're best because we're biggest: biggest church, largest sangha, highest priest, trendiest author.

This is the "success" model, whereby we declare the biggest seller the best product. Uh, no. Read your scripture, people. God doesn't like "success". Not least because it instantly becomes an altar to Mara. Worldly religion is no religion.

4. Negative Religion: We gotta GET those [insert group here] !!!

As Brahm points out, this is yin to Type 1's yang: where Conceited Religion says "we're the best," Negative Religion says "they're the worst." I call it Varsity Religion: lots of cheerleaders shaking their pompons and urging us to spend our meagre days on earth beating State. Good thing it has nothing to do with salvation; State can't be beat.

5. Real Religion: Doing what your prophet told you to do.

Note that the first four types are not this. Try it. Grab any religion. I like Zoroastrianism. And not just because it has the awesomest name of any religion. (It would be worth it to convert just so you could tell people you're Zoroastrian.)


1. Did Zoroaster teach his followers that they were a superior race, and all others inferior?


2. Did he teach that temporal gestures were the main point of faith?


3. Did he teach that the biggest temples or most acclaimed teachers were the most godly?


4. Did he teach that life is all about opposing some other group?

Almost. He did say that Earth was a battleground between the godly and ungodly, and that salvation was a matter of enlisting in the correct army. But he didn't identify any earthly group as Angra Mainyu's army, nor did he say that just being a Zoroastrian automatically put you in Ahura Mazda's. So…


So there you have it. Grand Master Z agrees: "Walk the line, chump."

If you'd like to see Ajahn Brahm teach this truth himself (and I heartily recommend it, he's very engaging), you'll find it on YouTube. You can also get free mp3s of all his talks at Dhammaloka, or search "Dhammaloka" on iTunes and download them to your brainwire.

And yes, they're all that good.

(Photograph of seeker panning out Oz gold courtesy of WikiMedia and the State Library of Victoria.)

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

WW: Best houseboat ever

(Decommissioned ferry, converted to civilian ends.)

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Street Level Zen: Won't Back Down

This week I'm posting a video tribute to Fudo, patron bodhisattva of my monastic practice.

I chose John's cover for the sole reason that his voice sounds like Fudo's own to me. (Minus the Scottish accent.) Plus I get a certain adolescent sursum corda from the graphic this particular YouTuber chose to run over it. But Tom's original is also great.

So burn on, brother. Here in hell, you lose until you win.


Wednesday, 31 October 2012

WW: Sunburst

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Swords Drawn at Fifty Feet

When the bridge collapsed, the telephone company erected a pole behind each abutment, guyed them with heavy galvanised cable, and stretched twenty feet of the same between their tops. Over that they looped a single black phone wire, to preserve service for any future settler who proved game.

The Wilson Creek high-wire served two unintended ends. It reminded passersby that, present appearances notwithstanding, the Acres had once been someone's home. And it gave the belted kingfishers a platform from which to fish without belabouring their wings midair like giant hummingbirds.

I often spied their blue jay silhouette on that high perch, overlooking a deep, fish-filled pool; it was also a handy anvil against which to beat senseless, with wetly emphatic blows, whatever prey they lifted back to it. Phone pole height, it also commanded three hundred yards of open river, the forest having been held off to create the pastures, and so was a property prick's dream.

For a kingfisher brooks no challenge. I often heard their ratcheting war cry from the meadows high above, and once observed a pitched battle in the tall alders between Paul's drive and the Willapa River. There two rivals expended an entire afternoon, attempting in real earnest to
skewer one another on their overlarge beaks. They fenced in and out of the treetops, slate blue wings feinting and flourishing like a swordsman's cloak, fifty feet high and in mid-flight. Like hummingbirds again, they expended far more energy patrolling their territory than they would ever extract from it, but their neurosis compelled.

On other occasions I heard the sploosh as they drove like harpoons into the creek. How did they not dash their brains out, smacking the surface like that? Nothing of the smooth entry of seabirds. Nor was mine the only ear listening, as I learned one afternoon when I allowed a slab of clay I'd levered up in the jungle stretch to splash back into the water. Seconds later a kingfisher came shooting upstream, over and under the slanting trunks, to perch on a crabapple and ratchet himself into a lather, his grey flat-top shaking with rage, like a Bircher before a trespasser. A moment passed before I understood: he'd taken my splash for another kingfisher, pirating frogs and cutthroat smolt from a run he judged his own, and finding nothing there at last but a muddy monk, chose to rave about his rights rather than acknowledge the chip on his shoulder. I ran across many his equal in the landowners of my childhood.

But politics aside, I've always been pleased to meet these handsome birds, on both sides of the continent. I learned to name them in Grade 2, and every next one has been brisk company.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photos courtesy of Linda Tanner (male belted kingfisher on lamp post), Magnus Manske (kingfisher in flight), Teddy Llovet (female kingfisher feeding), and WikiMedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

WW: Robin in huckleberries

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Blessing of Hardship

Hardship survived is the most precious thing I own.

In my twenties I lived in a dormitory on a university campus in southern France. The place looked and sounded like a penal institution, the vitality of five hundred young men clanging through cavernous bare bulb corridors, a single phone and two washing machines serving all of us.

In winter the rooms were a steady ten degrees Celsius, except for an eight-day stretch in January, when we had no heat or hot water at all. The bathroom was frigid at all times; one of the windows was permanently open to the bitter Mistral, to evacuate steam.

There were no seats on the toilets.

The meals, which consisted of raw hamburger, rotten vegetables, and other challenging fare, poisoned me on several occasions. But not on weekends; then, we weren't
fed at all. To bridge the gap, each floor was provided with a single hotplate, for which we all competed. Its adjustment knobs were long gone. Everything in Bâtiment C was old, spare, hard, and broken.

Except for us: students from every clime on Earth, and our French brothers, whose insolence and ingenuity helped us survive. It was living hard, and it has made the living since a lot easier.

Today, when circumstances get rough, I ask myself if it's worse than Bâtiment C. It seldom is, and so I am satisfied. The fact is, I was an impatient and impolitic young man, and I was living in country, if not conditions, I adored. The campus was on the edge of a vast, empty Provençal wilderness, and I spent hours -- whole days -- in it, beneath an endless sky, above a timeless sea. So fortunate I knew it, in hallowed moments.

Even Bâtiment C wasn't so villainous, to the old forest monk I've become. Had I been practicing Zen, I might have found the mordant beauty even of that garlic-scented gulag.

Living without puts the mindfulness back in living with. We need to do both. Often.

(Text adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Interior view of corridor in Bâtiment C courtesy of Capharnaüm’s; exterior photos of Bâtiment C and Mont Puget courtesy of nice_done, Leipold, and Panoramio.)

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

WW: Gaff schooner

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Koan: Ole and Lena

Ja, times is sad down dere in Ambivalence Bay, shoor. Old Ole's lyin upstairs dyin, been in a coma for days now, and da family's cryin and carryin on, and everybody's in and out. Not too long now, says da doktor.

So all da women's fillin da kitchen wid lefse and cakes and finally night comes and da house is all quiet. Up in da bedroom Ole smells all dem good tings, and it wakes im up! He comes downstairs and sees all dat on da table and tinks, "I musta died and gone ta heaven!"

He reaches out to take a piece o wunada cakes, and suddenly Lena smacks his hand.

"Don't you touch dat!" she says. "Dat's for da funeral!"

Wu Ya's commentary: "Respect the forms, for Christ's sake!"

(Photo courtesy of PD Photo and Jon Sullivan.)

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

WW: My cowboy grandfather, Crooked River, 1918

(Far left, holding his horse.)

Thursday, 4 October 2012

More Than Less

The concept of reading one's future in tea leaves seems plausible when you're holding a bowl of genmaicha: the ragged leaves and swollen rice, some grains waterlogged and littering the bottom, others afloat and clinging to the edge; the bits of stem strewn about like drift logs; and here and there the starburst of a popped kernel. Seaweed fronds pulsing in an algal olive tide, yellow, green, and brown beneath an oily, almost soup-like steam.

Yep, that's my life, alright.

Genmaicha is a mixture of roasted (gen) rice (mai) and green tea (cha). The rice is for flavour and body, and to cut the tea, which would otherwise outprice the intended customer. The tea itself is minimally-processed cull-grade chaff, up to a quarter stem, with a musty character reminiscent of old books. It's steeped a good long time before drinking, sometimes even chafed. The overall effect is hearty, wholesome, and rural.

Like brown rice and pinto beans, genmaicha is poor man's provender, traditionally sold to Japanese peasants as "tea, more or less". And like those other pillars of my mountain diet, it's superior, warp and woof, to the fine feeble fare of the entitled. It's a supportive bowl, generous and competent, and far more valuable than sencha, the fragile, astringent stuff of the Japanese middle class.

Not that foreigners always "get" genmaicha, either; I've often wondered what Japanese visitors think, seeing it sold at gyokuro prices in trendy American boutiques. By contrast, the giant package I brought to the woods was purchased in a Canadian supermarket for seven dollars. Savoury and sustaining, it quickly became my everyday tea, shifting my fancy Dragon Well to between-meal treats on barn days.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson.)

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

WW: First Nations fishing boat

Monday, 1 October 2012

Reality Check Kyôsaku

"I do not say there is no Ch'an.
Just no teachers."

(Photo of Evasterias troschelii [mottled seastar] fry, on the underside of a rock. The orange guy is about 2 inches long.)

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Good Book: Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits

In Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, Bill Porter writes:

   "Throughout Chinese history, there    have always been people who    preferred to spend their lives in the    mountains, getting by on less,    sleeping under thatch, wearing old    clothes, working the higher slopes,    not talking much, writing even less -    maybe a few poems, a recipe or two.    Out of touch with the times but not    with the seasons, they cultivated    roots of the spirit, trading flatland    dust for mountain mist."

He ends with a declaration: "Distant and insignificant, they were the most respected men and women in the world's oldest society."

Road to Heaven is the memoir of Porter's 1989 hunt for Buddhism in the People's Republic of China. Theorising that any true practice that could survive Mao's earth-scorching Cultural Revolution would have had to return to its ancestral source, he spurned monasteries and struck out for the badlands. Which is already astonishing: an ordained cœnobite and authority on Buddhist scripture, with sixteen published translations to his name (and his ordination name, Red Pine), who respects hermit monks.

His journey starts at the toe of the Zhongnan Mountains, China's vast, rugged outdoor monastery, where Porter and a photographer friend drop by every ancient religious site he can find in the texts. It's depressing: landmark after landmark razed to the ground, or turned to profane ends by the Red Guards; books burned, practice banned, monks killed. There are still clerics around, but they live more like bureaucrats than monks. And they assure Porter that "nowadays, all monks live in temples." (I guess some wars are truly global.)

But Porter persists. Armed with fluent language skills, he follows a trail of hearsay off the pavement, and then off the road, and finally, in one instance, up a long chain bolted to a cliff. (Incredibly, he's given run of the Red Chinese outback, though The Man does contribute a few scary moments.) And up there, on the howling peaks where they've been for seven thousand years, he finds a whole flagrant hermit nation, pounding their ancient path as if the 20th century had never happened. And I'm not being glib; one subject interrupts him to ask, "Who is this 'Mao' you keep talking about?"

As the chronicle unfolds, Porter pieces together a practice that anticipates the Buddha by four and half millennia. It's œcumenical and anticlerical, and often not Buddhist at all: about three quarters of the hermits Porter meets are Taoists. And it turns out that they are the ones obsessed with nontheism and koanic thought and oneness. Thus the oxymoron of Zen Buddhism: the "Zen" part, isn't Buddhist.

Porter puts his profession to work for the reader, bringing in Taoist texts little known in the West, and fleshing out a religion that is a great deal more than Lao Tzu. Nor does he despise eremitic discipline. One informant tells him you must mix Pure Land and Zen equally, or the imbalance will throw you off the Dharma. (Taoism strikes again.) Another says he neither meditates nor chants: "I just pass the time." "Trying to stay alive keeps me pretty busy," agrees a female hermit, then tosses in a statement that should be carved on every hermit's lintel: "Practice depends on the individual. This is my practice."

Not all of the hermits Porter finds live in deep seclusion. Some have built sparse "neighbourhoods" in the mountains, cabins scattered within shouting distance of one another, and some have formed sketes, small numbers of hermits living under one roof. They also recognise urban eremitical vocations. But most striking for me was their universal self-respect. "These are the [Zhongnan] Mountains," states one. "This is where monks and nuns come who are serious about their practice."

Published in 1993, the text has a slightly dated feel, owing to the use of old-style transliterations (i.e., Chungnan rather than Zhongnan). Its resemblance to Amongst White Clouds, Edward A. Burger's documentary on the same topic, is due to the fact that Burger took his inspiration from the Porter book. But where the film is necessarily summary, Porter takes full advantage of his literary medium to go deeper, investigate nuance, and pursue explanations. Where Burger implies, perhaps by oversight, that all Chinese hermits pledge to a teacher, Porter finds Buddhist Associations (parishes) that require no permission at all to sit in their jurisdiction. And as I speculated in my review of the Burger movie, Porter does indeed encounter Zhongnan hermits who reject the notion of separate religions entirely.

The book finishes on a note both hopeful and challenging, not just to China but to Buddhism the world over. Just before leaving the country, Porter happens upon what had for centuries been a thriving urban monastery. Long empty, the place has recently been occupied, in the Wall Street sense, by a knot of Zen hermits. They brook no hierarchy; they have no abbot. And though their new home is falling apart, they are in no rush to restore it; the decay keeps the tourists away.

And they've come to practise.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

WW: Crows on a wire

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Haystack of Needles

After lunch I climbed back to camp and tied back the fly on my tent to air it out. Ants had begun to crawl all over it, on the fly and under the fly and all over the tent itself, though few entered, even when I forgot to zip the door. They were thatching ants (Formica obscuripes), red-helmeted workforce of a well-stomped hill twenty feet east, on the ravine's edge; I had apparently pitched the tent on one of their highways. As summer progressed the hill grew, two feet or higher, into a graceful, peaceful haystack of needles. No elk kicked it over while my tent remained in the clearing; cowed by my presence, the herd no longer crossed the deep green canyon.

Thatching ants are particularly fond of Douglas fir forests, with their relatively dry ground and limitless supply of fallen needles for mound building, and so their colonies dotted the overgrown tree farm thirty yards south; on its sun-warmed edges they stood like checkpoints along a frontier. As summer ripened their crews were everywhere, scavenging dead insects and fallen leaves, single-file columns marching great distances with bits of lichen and straw and well-dried fir needles held high, for the further glorification of their metropolis. Like most thatching ants, theirs was a multi-racial society: large workers from a "major" strain worked side by side with smaller "minors". There seemed no further distinction.

How large that society might have been was a matter of some speculation. Thatching ants are known to form mighty commonwealths, spanning two hundred hills and fifty-six million citizens. Militia of one mound will not attack members of another, though each lay at the farthest-flung corners of the confederation. No-one knows how they conclude these treaties, or to what advantage, but the fact remains that ants are not only like us in that they alone, among non-human creatures, wage war; they can also evolve beyond it.

So the Bodhi Tree Dominion might have been the bulwark of a great Plantation League, an embattled outpost on the cusp of their cosmos. Whatever their horizon, I drew consolation from the knowledge that my ango had visibly reduced the suffering of at least one world.


Domain of the Thatching Ant - Part 1

It's not every day one of our own workaday nontropical species gets the Life on Earth treatment. This ten-minute documentary by David Louis Quinn is a mesmerising glimpse into the civic life of thatching ants. (Take that, David Attenborough!) Give it a click; the photography alone is stunning.


(Text adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photos courtesy of Matthew Priebe [thatching ant worker close-up], Lynette Schimming [thatching ant colony], and BugGuide.)

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

WW: Orb-weaving spider

(Araneus diadematus)

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Hermitcraft: How to Make Ghee

I had never made ghee before I went to the mountain. In the planning stages of that project, having been raised on tales of people who starved eating rabbit, I believed I needed a source of dietary fat. (Wild rabbits have no fat, according to backwoods lore, hence you can die on a full stomach if you eat only that.) I'd heard about ghee for years, how versatile it was, how good it tasted, and how it kept for months without refrigeration. So that spring I put up four pints of the stuff, for use during my ango.

I found instructions on various Internet sites, but most or all of them were more complicated than necessary. Therefore, because ghee really is useful, especially for people who don't have refrigeration, I submit my recipe.


First, copy the following list of ingredients exactly and procure them from a licensed full-service grocer.

1. Butter.

Next, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. When liquefied, turn the temperature up to a good roiling simmer. You're cooking off the water, which is in all butter, and so it will spit and carry on like any hot fat with water in it. DO NOT STIR. (Reason follows.)

You're also allowing the milk solids in the butter to congeal and sink to the bottom. This is the difference between ghee and drawn or clarified butter; many websites mistakenly equate the two. Ghee is cooked beyond simple separation, until all the water has steamed away and -- very important -- the milk solids have browned. This is what gives ghee its rich flavour, sometimes described as nutty, sweet, or lemony.

The only delicate part is telling when to take the pan off the heat, and that's only delicate because you have to do it by smell. First the ghee will go still; water gone, the bubbling stops. Not long after that, the kitchen will suddenly fill with a buttery scent some associate with baking croissants; to me, it's the smell of shortbread. It's a rich, sumptuous fragrance that takes no prisoners; you'll know it when it happens.

Tilt the pan gently at this point and note that the even layer of gunk on the bottom has a pastry-like, toast-brown aspect. That's your cue to take it off the heat.

Filter the ghee immediately, while still hot and thin. I use a paper coffee filter for this, for its fine mesh and ease of clean-up. (Woodstove Dharma strikes again.) You can also use muslin, cheesecloth, or a steel-screen coffee filter.

Pour the filtered ghee into a lidded jar or tub, and you're done.

Fact is, there are only two ways you can screw this up:

1. By becoming distracted (for example by drying paint, which is more exciting than watching butter melt) and allowing the milk solids on the bottom to burn rather than brown, giving the ghee an off flavour.

2. By boiling the ghee so vigorously that some slops on the stove and sets your house on fire, rendering the flavour relatively moot by comparison.

The fix for both is the same: never leave the kitchen until the ghee is off the stove. I wipe down the counter, wash a few dishes, start another recipe, whatever I can do without stepping more than a metre away from the simmering pot. Adventure averted.

So, what kind of butter is best? Again, details are important: you must only use butter made from the milk of some animal. Do not attempt to make ghee from roofing tar, modelling clay, margarine, or old tires; the flavour will be disappointing.

Aside from that, any butter will do. Many websites insist the butter be unsalted; some insist it be expensive; some say it must be organic. The fact is, all butter works. On the Indian subcontinent, ghee is commonly made of yak butter, but the stores where I live tend to sell out of that before I get there, so I use cow butter. The sole difference between the salted and unsalted is purity: marginally-refined butter must be salted to stop all the solids that have been left in it going rancid. Unsalted butter must be more refined, to remove the spoil-prone proteins that would otherwise require salt, and this extra processing raises the price.

Because it has fewer foreign substances to precipitate out, unsalted butter renders the most ghee per pound of butter. (Typically just a shade less than the original amount.) Good-quality salted butter renders slightly less ghee than that, but the ghee is not salty; the salt drops out with the rest of the solids. Even the cheapest, crappiest, scariest butter you can buy (that infamous single paper-wrapped rough-hewn slab that smells like cheese and tastes like salt paste) makes excellent ghee. There's just less of it. (Much less; you'll get about two thirds the original amount. In other words, a third of that machete butter, isn't butter.)

Ghee has less cholesterol than butter and keeps well without refrigeration if stored in a cool dark place. Since the crust left on the bottom of your pan is also what makes butter burn at high temperature, you can fry in ghee. And it can be used at the table like whole butter. The flavour is pleasant but subtle, and is compatible with most dishes.

Now that I'm initiated, I gotta have ghee. I fry potatoes in it, pop popcorn, and of course, sauté my masala. A pound or two put up, and I'm fixed for the year.

What was it they used to say on TV? "Try it, you'll like it."

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

WW: Tugboat Holly Ann

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Silent But Deadly

I practice in order to disappear. That's what I want. I used to think it was death, but it's not. It's non-existence, which is very different. That's why I went to the woods. Not to exit like a suicide, who thinks he'll somehow be able to enjoy the remorse of those left behind, but like a buddha, whose non-existence comes of nonattachment. He doesn't care if anyone feels sorry. And I mean doesn't care: he doesn't reject or scorn or turn his back on this life. He doesn't seek any consolation or victory, pyrrhic or otherwise. He just flat doesn't care.

True freedom is like farting. You're walking around, and suddenly you fart. Which you do, because you're living on rice and beans. And you don't say, "Ha, world! I fart upon you!" Neither do you say, "I must live my karma, as you must live yours. And right now, my karma is farting." And you don't even say, "Gentle world, dearest mother, brother, and child, I regret so that I must fart, but being human I've no choice, and therefore I ask, with profound love and respect, that you pull my finger."

You just fart. And it makes no sound, for there is no-one to hear it. And thus, by human reckoning, you never farted at all.

That is what I seek. Not to cease existing, but to never have existed.

If you could find that at the end of a rope, I'd'a been dead years ago.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson.)

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

WW: Bannock 'n' berries

(Salal [Gaultheria shallon], to be specific. Bread recipe here.)

Thursday, 30 August 2012

How to Save the World

The world does not need another activist.
The world does not need another defender.
The world does not need another patriot.
The world does not need another Buddhist.
The world needs calm, rational adults.
Please be one.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

WW: Okanogan farmhouse

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Sweetgrass Butte

I started the engine and continued the climb to Banker Pass. In the far distance the rugged peaks rounded, and a suspicion of sage on the east wind heralded the gates of the Okanogan.

As I swung around a blind bend the scene suddenly turned to Dante: an entire mountainside razed black and smouldering, heat waves dancing over its charred crust. I cranked the window against the acrid fumes and proceeded with caution. Yellow cards staked along the verge assured me this was a fire-management burn, under the theoretical control of a man behind a desk in a town twenty miles away. The Forest Service was getting a jump on wildfire season, burning the scrub and slash from this clearcut slope while the still-forested ones were fresh enough to discourage disaster.

The road caterpillared around another ridge, and Hell vanished behind me. Now I was cutting diagonally across vertical green pastures, one after another, where browsed bands of deer and cattle, and the occasional integrated society of both, amid wildflowers. The grandeur and freedom so mesmerised me that I forgot my resolve and let the hood ornament lead. By the time I came to my senses it was too late: I'd sleepwalked onto another summit feeder, trapped on a sharp, thin track jutting cloudward at something like the Ram's maximum grade. To the left, nothing but empty space; the mountain cut away so steeply from the trail's edge, just a few feet from my tires, that I couldn't see it. It was like driving up a rope.

With no hope of turning around, and nothing lying between me and the Swan Dive of Retribution, I had no choice but to push this road, steep and squirrelly as it was, to its bitter end. So I flattened the accelerator and the truck leapt gamely forward; I clung to the steering wheel, struggling to maintain maximum thrust on that sinuous ribbon of dirt. At that moment, momentum was survival; stop for any reason, and I wouldn't have the traction, on that pitched surface, to continue forward. And the thought of having to back all the way down that winding scaffold froze me in terror.

So, heart in mouth, eyes riveted on the empty stratosphere above, I Buck-Rogered that screaming Dodge into the cosmos. The g's pressed my spine into the bench beneath it, while I fervently prayed I didn't cross another Forest Service truck bent on validating Einstein on the way down.

Time dwindles to a drip at such moments, and for that instant, truth stands in bold relief. Hanging somewhere between an unremembered beginning and an unknowable end, possessed of a theoretical but functionally inoperative ability to stop, I could only rocket, as if a Saturn V were strapped to my backside, up and out. Welcome to existence.

At last the road crested, with nothing visible beyond but open sky. The Ram shot into it like a truck in a TV commercial, seeming to lift all four wheels off the earth, and then lighting, soft as a cat, on a freshly-graded plateau. I squeezed the brake and we sprayed to a stop. As the dust blew past the cab, I discovered the wherefore of this goat path to the stars: two huge, battleship-grey communication towers, their microwave drums staring implacably at the horizon, utterly indifferent to the panting insect at their feet. Lights winked red from their mastheads through linty clouds, warning jetliners not to ding their paint jobs on the bristling antennae.

I rested my forehead on the steering wheel and drew a shaky breath. The trouble you can get into with your mind in neutral. According to the atlas, I had arrived at Sweetgrass Butte, official edge of the twentieth century, and at 1860 meters, the highest point in the region.

I lifted my hat and passed a hand through my hair. The truck purred under me, as unperturbed as if we'd stopped at a city light. Aside from the sky and the clouds, and the icy gusts that bounced the truck on its shocks like a basketball, we were completely alone; if not for those antennae, we might have touched down on some distant planet.

I reseated my hat, shifted mind and motor back into drive, and etched a tight doughnut in the gravel. By standing on the brake, I was able to shinny the truck back down that skinny access road to the mainline. This time I could see the cliff dropping directly from my right front tire, down and down, to a knife-edged Road Runner gully miles below. Where, the crease being forested, I wouldn't raise so much as a dust ring, should ever that tire wander a few inches west.

When at last I reached the bottom, I found that the intersection was well-signed after all. There was no excuse for the detour, if not lack of sleep.

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

WW: Moonrise over sage hills

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Suicide: The Cause

(See also Suicide: The Cure.)

A former student of mine recently committed suicide. He was a truly exceptional young man, still in his college years, with a powerful soul that blazed a phosphorescent trail through his community and left a persistent retinal impression.

When I was a teacher there was much talk about suicide and how to prevent it. But I was amazed at the utter lack of insight into the core causes of suicide, and truly alarmed at the rank incompetence of official responses. Virtually all anti-suicide programmes for young people can be summed up by a poster I saw in a middle school counselling centre: a big yellow sun with a smiling cartoon character beneath, and the caption: "Life is beautiful! Don't throw it away!"

I wonder how many kids that poster killed.

For the record, people don't commit suicide because life sucks. They do it because people deny that life sucks. They're in pain, and everything they see and hear defines that as failure. Suicide is not an act of sadness or disillusionment; it's an act of loneliness and alienation.

The fact is, even concentrated individual treatment of suicidal persons is often embarrassingly nugatory. Know why? Because when it's over, we dump these unfashionably-perceptive people back into the same abusive, self-satisfied population that almost killed them in the first place.

So take a deep breath, brothers and sisters, because things are gonna get real.

It's not suicidal people who need treatment. It's you.

Your eternal War on Humans makes this life an unendurable hell. The practice of identifying humanity itself as weakness, and advancing shallow, half-baked ideologies, political, social, and religious, over decency, is deadly to human life.

When you brand someone a "felon" for life and deny her a job, a place to live, the vote, you fill this fishbowl with mustard gas. And it kills, liberally and indiscriminately. Because that's what mustard gas does.

When you meet poverty, sickness, and injustice with pat excuses, employ dehumanising rhetoric to smear their victims, preach and screech about this group and that group, value trophies over solutions and money over morality, you burn up all the oxygen in this Mason jar.

When you make an individual anathema, on any grounds, hold him up to ridicule, mock, bait, and blacklist him, you kill legions of faceless bystanders, though they be far removed from your victim-du-jour.

The suicide epidemic can't be addressed with the simplistic one-to-one arithmetic our plodding culture calls data. But whether or not the link can be easily demonstrated, every time you withhold basic dignity, respect, and forgiveness, you chop up the ties that connect us all. Fear and resentment and hopelessness drive the most human of us out of the herd, where they perish. And sometimes, every so often, what goes around comes home, and someone you love dies.

As for me, I wrote this world off a long time ago, and dedicated the remainder of my time here to transcending it. So today I am commemorating my brilliant young brother's life and death in accordance with my vows, by sitting sesshin on a small uninhabited island. In the course of this day I will perform acts of atonement, renew my commitment to the Dharma, and sit metta meditation for us all.

I invite you personally, you reading this article, to join me, by whatever path you walk. Please undertake the struggle to change your heart, and so change your species. Please find the courage to remain calm. Please abandon the wisdom of this world. Please cleave to truth.

And please stop being a mass-murderer.
So here's to you, brave Uncle Francis
When the snowflakes fall, I will sing the blues
And when I think on how you left this world
I will remember how the world left you
Michael Marra

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

WW: Paradise in the desert

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Koan: Helping a Woman

Two monks were travelling through the mountains when they came upon a woman weeping by a river.

"Why are you weeping?" asked the first monk.

"I am weeping because my husband is far across this river, and I have no way to cross it without ruining my new REI boots."

The monk immediately shrugged off his pack, took the woman upon his shoulders, and ferried her across the rapids.

The two monks hiked on in silence. At last the first turned to his partner and said:

"It is many hours since the river, and you have not said anything. What preoccupies you?"

"We have taken a vow of chastity," said the second monk, "and yet you touched that woman."

"Oh, grow the hell up!" snapped his companion, and wopped him over the head with his stick.

Wu Ya's commentary: "Line drive to centre field."

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia and 本人撮影.)

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

WW: Western Skink

(Plestiodon skiltonianus)

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Top Speed in the Pitch Black

Tim Flach bat
Night was soul-stirring beauty, heavy mist tumbling down silver from the high meadow and still as the grave. The oxeyes looked like melting snow under a solid cover of cloud, illuminated by the moon above it like a movie screen.

Bats darted into the barn, slalomed through the roof trusses, and out the other end. Soft little silent beings, spinning past the timbers without a qualm. Little browns; country bats. At the stable door they whispered past my ear, so close I could feel their slipstream. One wheeled hard at eye-level and flailed briefly, astonished to see me there without, as he thought, a light. (The red beam of my torch being all but invisible to animals.)

Even dense jungle was as open sky to them. One July midnight, as I sat beneath the Tyvek, a shadow hurtled past my cheek, several times in rapid succession, like a leaf in a whirlwind. It was a bat, winding around and around my rushlight, mopping up every flying thing. Barely a foot from my nose at near orbit, she vanished like a soap bubble when she realised what I was. I hoped she would return another night, but she never did.

I had a close relationship with bats. When I was a boy, I used to lie in my boat on summer nights and watch them shoot through the constellations. I liked everything about them. They were defiantly mammal. They ate mosquitos. They outflew every other airframe in nature, in pitch black, at top speed, intercepting the tiniest prey by sound alone. And people hated them.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia and Tim Flach.)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...