1993-06-03: The Practice of the Wild

The Practice of the Wild (1990)

by Gary Snyder (19-)

In this collection of essays, Snyder makes a case for humans to incorporate appreciation of the wild in their cultures, as their forebears did.  He contends that modern urban culture is poorer for neglect of and hostility to the wild, and therfor possibly in danger.

Snyder is clearly a reflective person, in my sense.  He presents many values, attitudes and other memes from a variety of cultures, and reflects on their similarities and differences, particularly differences from our own.  He generates new memes from these reflections; his work propagates these reflective memes.  Some of the reflective memes might have a place in my own work.

He presents some origins for the word ‘wild’ (wyld, Old Norse villr, Old Teutonic wilthijaz, pre-Teutonic ghweltijos (still, wild and maybe wooded (wald)), connections to Latin silva (forest, sauvage), Indo-European ghwer, base of Latin ferus (feral, fierce) “which swings around to Thoreau’s “awful ferity” shared by virtuous people and lovers.”  He gives some extracts from the OED:

  • Of animals – not tame, undomesticated, unruly
  • Of plants – not cultivated
  • Of land – uninhabited, uncultivated
  • Of foodcrops – produced or yielded without cultivation
  • Of societies – uncivilized, rude, resisting constituted government
  • Of individuals – unrestrained, insubordinate, licentious, dissolute, loose. “Wild and wanton widowes” – 1614
  • Of behavior – violent, destructive, cruel, unruly
  • Of behavior – artless, free, spontaneous. “Warble his native wood-notes wild” – John Milton

These mainly define wild by what it is not; Snyder turns them around:

  • Of animals – free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems
  • Of plants – self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities
  • Of land – a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of nonhuman forces. Pristine.
  • Of foodcrops – food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of quantities of fruit or seeds
  • Of societies – societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislataion. Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory. Societies which resist economic and political domination by civilization. Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem.
  • Of individuals – following local custom, style, and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post. Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent. “Proud and free”
  • Of behavior – fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploitation. Far-out, outrageous, “bad”, admirable
  • Of behavior – artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned. Expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic

Snyder points out that most of the second set of senses are near to the meaning of the Chinese Dao (Tao): eluding analysis, beyond categories, self-organizing, self-informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self-authenticating, self-willed, complex, quite simple; both empty and real at the same time.  Not far from Buddhist Dharma with its original senses of forming and firming.

The word ‘wilderness’ (wylderness, Old English wildeornes, possibly from wild-deer-ness (deor, deer and other forest animals), but more likely “wildern-ness”, has the meanings:

  • A large area of wild land, with original vegetation and wildlife, ranging from dense jungle or rainforest to arctic or alpine “white wilderness”
  • A wasteland, as an area unused or useless for agriculture or pasture
  • A space of sea or air, as in Shakespeare, “I stand as one upon a Rock, environ’d with a Wilderness of Sea” (Titus Andronicus). The oceans.
  • A place of danger and difficulty: where you take your own chances, depend on your own skills, and do not count on rescue.
  • This world as contrasted with heaven. “I walked through the wildernesse of this world.” (Pilgrim’s Progress)
  • A place of abundance, as in Milton’s “a wildernesse of sweets”

Milton’s usage catches the very real condition of energy and richness so often found in wild systems, like the billions of herring or mackerel babies, cubic miles of krill, wild prairie grass seed – all the incredible fecundity of small animals and plants, feeding the web.  From the other side, wilderness has implied chaos, eros, the unknown, realms of taboo, the habitat of both the ecstatic and the demonic.  In both senses it is a place of archetypal power, teaching, and challenge.

Snyder quotes a saying from the Northwest indians: “The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife.”

He describes the sense of place which most people develop (unless they are moved around a lot as children), and connects it to the idea of the commons.  A people with roots, as in an agricultural village, knew the wild lands outside the range of their cultivated fields, which provided their many needs that were not met in the fields: fuel, medicine, game, fish, building material, clay, herbs, dyes, seasonal open range for cattle, horses, goats, pigs, and sheep.  Agrarian culture was by no means self-sufficient.  The commons was perceived as the property of the village, and not for the use of outsiders.  The village had rules for its use, to avoid the problems of greedy persons taking more than their share.  (For example, one could not graze more animals in the commons than one could stable and feed through the winter.  Restrictions on the sale of materials taken from the commons would also make sense.)

He also presents the concept of a bioregion, in which interaction among the elements of the ecosystem is high, with distinctly less across its boundaries (such as across high ridges, broad waters).  Human primary cultures are also bounded by these, as they reflect the bioregion within which they operate.

He links the idea of the State with the idea of Monotheism, in that both require uniformity, universality and centralization, to the exclusion of sensible local variation.  He also links the existence of “barbarians” with surplus of food.  When there was no surplus to be obtained, there was no profit in raiding.  He quotes a report of an audience with Genghis Khan: “Heaven is exasperated with the luxury and decadence of China.”  On the other hand,

there are numerous examples of relatively peaceful small-culture coexistence all over the world.  There have always been multilingual persons peacefully trading and traveling across large areas. Differences were often eased by shared spiritual perspectives or ceremonial institutions and by the multitude of myths and tales that cross language barriers.”  He finds religious exclusiveness the odd specialty of Judeo/Christian/Islamic faith. “Asian religion, and the whole world of folk religion, animism, and shamanism, appreciates or at least tolerates diversity. (It seems that the really serious cultural disputes are caused by different tastes in food.  … in eastern Oregon [I knew] a Wasco man whose wife was a Chehalis woman from the west side.  He told me that when they got in fights she would call him a “goddamn grasshopper eater” and he’d shout back “fish eater”!)

Cultural pluralism and multilingualism are the planetary norm.

One of the many cultural expressions that is usually suppressed by a conquering society is dance (along with song and language in general).  For instance, the English banned Hindu temple dance, because they saw it as a form of prostitution.  Snyder describes an incident of dance from its revival:

Bharat Natyam, the dance of South India, is a confluence of archaic folk tradition, court patronage, northern-derived religious devotionalism, professional temple-dancing, and twentieth-century cultural revival.  The tradition has exceptionally high standards – the music alone is a lifetime study, the categories and qualities of gesture and expression are another study, and the accompanying drumming a specialty of its own.  The myth-derived narratives chanted to accompany certain dances evoke a vast and timeless cosmos.  I didn’t know all this when I first saw Padma Bhushan Shrimati Balasaraswati in a Bharat Natyam performance in Jaipur, India, in March of 1962.  It was storming.  We sat on the ground under a circus tent shaking in the wind, and then it began to rain in warm torrents and half the people left.  The performance went on.  I saw Bala act out, dance out, that moment when Krishna’s mother – trying to remove the clod of dirt he’s teething on from his baby mouth – looks in and sees not dirt but the depths of the whole universe and all its stars.  She straightens up, backs away, in  divine awe.  To music.  (This was Krishna’s mischief on his mother.)  My hair stood up.

I followed Bala to Bombay to watch her again, and was invited to a private late-night concert in an apartment.  I asked Bala, “When you move in your dance to the point where you look in Krishna’s mouth, are you already visualizing stars?”  She laughed sardonically and said: “Of course not.  I must start with dirt.  It must become stars.  Sometimes all I see is dirt, and the dance fails.  That night it was stars.”

Snyder spent a lot of time among Alaska natives, some of whom are trying to keep their traditions alive.  The Inupiaq spirit movement has compiled a list of their cultural values, hung on classroom walls:

  • HUMOR
  • SHARING
  • HUMILITY
  • HARD WORK
  • SPIRITUALITY
  • COOPERATION
  • FAMILY ROLES
  • AVOID CONFLICT
  • HUNTER SUCCESS
  • DOMESTIC SKILLS
  • LOVE FOR CHILDREN
  • RESPECT FOR NATURE
  • RESPECT FOR OTHERS
  • RESPECT FOR ELDERS
  • RESPONSIBILITY FOR TRIBE
  • KNOWLEDGE OF LANGUAGE
  • KNOWLEDGE OF FAMILY TREE

Snyder calls these “grandmother wisdom”, fundamental to our species.  What is missing from this list is what values to apply to difficult or different neighbors.  The concern is for conditions within the community, not for getting along with outsiders.

Snyder observes that American society (like any other) has unquestioned assumptions: it still believes in the notion of continually unfolding progress; it believes that there can be unblemished scientific objectivity; and it operates under the delusion that we are each a kind of “solitary knower” – that we exist as rootless intelligences without layers of localized contexts – just a “self” and the “world”.

He also sees three main currents (or glaciers) making up present-day world philosophies:  The main body is the Newton-Descartes linear, rational world model.  Another part is the revivified Goddess Gaia branch from our pagan past.  And from another angle, the “no-nonsense meditation view of Buddhism with its emphasis on compassion and insight in an empty universe”.

In talking about the sources of modern values, he says,

My own grandparents certainly didn’t tell us stories around the campfire before we went to sleep.  Their house had an oil furnace instead, and a small library.  (My grandfather did once say to me: “Read!”)  So the people of civilization read books… Books are our grandparents! … The library looks a little more interesting in this light.  Useful, demanding, and friendly elders are available to us… I always liked libraries: they were warm and stayed open late. …

If we actually tried to teach the values of western civilization, we’d just be peddling the ideology of individualism, of human uniqueness, special human dignity, the boundless potential of Man, and the glory of success. … (“Jewish Inwardness – Greek Narcissism – Christian Domination” is how Doug Peacock puts it.)  After Protestantism, capitalism, and world conquest, maybe that’s still what occidental culture comes to.

But it wasn’t that way when Greek learning made its way back into history.  From the standpoint of the lively Italian minds of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the message of the Greek texts was that human beings are freely intelligent, imaginative, physical, bold, and beautiful.  “Pagan.”  “Poetic.”  Maybe not so great an inflation of the human race (except in the eyes of the church) but a rediscovery of the secular culture and of human beings as natural beings in a natural world.  At any rate, an excited and deep study of antiquity – as occidental scholars have gone through several times over – is akin to an apprenticeship with traditional elders.  The freshness of the Renaissance slid into the stuffy Latin, Language, and Culture curriculum of the European middle classes.  The fascination with personality and possibility got lost in authoritarianism and smugness. …

Maybe the humanists of Europe were not exactly on the side of the power elites.  Superficially they served urban masters, but their “project,” whether they clearly knew it or not, was at bottom a defense of the vernacular – because to think clearly we must avoid narrow interests or entrenched opinions, and village values are in implicit opposition to the special interests of corporations or capital or traders or centralized religious bureaucracies and other such institutions.  Being regional, being in place, has its own sort of bias, but it cannot be too inflated because it is rooted in the inviolable processes of the natural world.

Philosophy is thus a place-based exercise.  It comes from the body and the heart and is checked against shared experience.  (Grandmother wisdom suspects the men who stay too long talking in the longhouse when they should be mending nets or something.  They are up to trouble – inventing the State, most likely.)  We make a full circle in acknowledging that it is necessary to pay attention to the village elders and also to the wise elders of the Occident who have been miraculously preserved through the somewhat fragile institution of the library. …

Euro-American humanism has been a story of writers and scholars who were deeply moved and transformed by their immersion in earlier histories and literatures.  Their writings have provided useful cultural – rather than theological or biological – perspectives on the human situation.  The Periclean Greeks digested the Homeric lore, which went back to the Bronze Age and before.  The Romans enlarged themselves by their study of Greece.  Renaissance seekers nourished themselves on Greece and Rome.  Today a new breed of posthumanists is investigating and experienceing the diverse little nations of the planet, coming to appreciate the “primitive,” and finding prehistory to be an ever-expanding field of richness.  We get a glimmering of the depth of our ultimately single human root.  Wild nature is inextricably in the weave of self and culture.  The “post” in the term posthumanism is on account of the word human.  The dialogue to open next would be among all beings, toward a rhetoric of ecological relationships.  This is not to put down the human: the “proper study of mankind” is what it means to be human.  It’s not enough to be shown in school that we are kin to all the rest: we have to feel it all the way through.  Then we can also be uniquely “human” with no sense of special privilege.  Water is the koan of water, as Dogen says, and human beings are their own koan.  The Grizzlies or Whales or Rhesus Monkeys, or Rattus, would infinitely prefer that humans (especially Euro-Americans) got to know themselves thoroughly before presuming to do Ursine or Cetacean research.

When humans know themselves, the rest of nature is right there.  This is part of what the Buddhists call the Dharma.

Snyder compares the changes of language with the evolution of species, but points out (from Ron Scollon) that “in biology species never converge, they only diverge.  All languages belong to the same species and can interbreed, hence they can converge. … all languages work equally well and each has its own elegances.  There’s no such thing as the ‘fittest’ among languages.”

Later he discusses the “humanist project”:

… The Greek thinkers started with an oral repository of amazingly lively songs and stories – the Homeric poems and Hesiod.  But their humanistic studies turned into an oddly formalistic and cramped concern for language.

A niche had opened up in the spaces between shaman, priest, poet, and mythographer.  That niche was the city, the small city-state.  Thought in the city reflected a kind of contest: the poetic and mythic way of seeing that was common to the villages versus the daily argumentation and reportage that dominated town life.  At bottom it was a contest between subsistence economies and surplus – the centralized merchants.  So the philosophers – the Sophists – were instructors to the rich young men on how to argue effectively in public.  They did a fine job.  They are the Founding Teachers of the whole occidental intellectual lineage.  Ninety percent of what all so-called humanists have done throughout history has been to fiddle with language: grammar and rhetoric and then philology.  For two and half thousand years they believed not only in the Word but in a proper format for it. …

In one of his talks Dogen said: “To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion.  But myriad things coming forth and experiencing themsleves is awakening.”

Snyder criticizes the categories of “good, wild and sacred” land.  He points out that “certain groves from the original forest lingered on into classical times as “shrines.”  They were viewed with much ambivalence by the rulers from the metropole.  They survived because the people who worked the land still half-heard the call of the old ways, and lore that predated agriculture was still whispered around.  The kings of Israel began to cut down the sacred groves, and the Christians finished the job.  The idea that “wild” might also be “sacred” returned to the Occident only with the Romantic movement.  This nineteenth-century rediscovery of wild nature is a complex European phenomenon – a reaction against formalistic rationalism and enlightened despotism that invoked feeling, instinct, new nationalisms, and a sentimentalized folk culture.  It is only from very old place-centered cultures that we hear of sacred groves, sacred land, in a context of genuine belief and practice.  Part of that context is the tradition of the commons: “good” land becomes private property; the wild and the sacred are shared.

He describes an incident when riding in the back of a pickup over the Australian outback in the company of a Pintubi elder named Jimmy Tjungurrayi.  The man began to speak very rapidly, telling a story about a mountain then in view, then rapidly told another about another hill and another.  After a while, Snyder realized that the stories were tales to be told while walking, and that the pace of the pickup was accelerating what was meant to be a leisurely several-day set of stories.  Mr Tjungarrayi was sharing this body of lore simply because Snyder was there.  The stories were a map that was easily memorized, relating the landmarks to one another, and giving their characteristics.  When the men camped, they would sing about a particular journey, refreshing the memory of a path and its useful and sacred places.

Snyder talks about Dogen some more:

“The blue mountains are constantly walking.”

Dogen is quoting the Chan master Furong.  Dogen was probably envisioning those mountains of Asia whose trails he had walked over the years – peaks in the three to nine-thousand-foot range, hazy blue or blue-green, mostly tree-covered, maybe the steep jumbled mountains of coastal South China where he had lived and practiced thirteen years earlier.  (Timberline at these latitudes is close to nine thousand feet – none of these are alpine mountains.)  He had walked thousands of miles. (“The Mind studies the way running barefoot.”)

If you doubt mountains walking you do not know your own walking.

Dogen is not concerned with “sacred mountains” – or pilgrimages, or spirit allies, or wilderness as some specialty quality.  His mountains and streams are the processes of this earth, all of existence, process, essence, action, absence; they roll being and nonbeing together.  They are what we are, we are what they are.  For those who would see directly into essential nature, the idea of the sacred is a delusion and an obstruction: it diverts us from seeing what is before our eyes: plain thusness.  Roots, stems, and branches are all equally scratchy.  No hierarchy, no equality.  No occult and exoteric, no gifted kids and slow achievers.  No wild and tame, no bound or free, no natural and artificial.  Each totally its own frail self.  Even though connected all which ways, even because connected all which ways.

This, thusness, is the nature of the nature of nature.  The wild in wild.

So the blue mountains walk to the kitchen and back to the shop, to the desk, to the stove.  We sit on the park bench and let the wind and rain drench us.  The blue mountains walk out to put another coin in the parking meter, and go on down to the 7-Eleven.  The blue mountains march out of the sea, shoulder the sky for a while, and slip back into the waters.

Snyder says, “People love to do hard work together and to feel that the work is real; that is to say primary, productive, needed.  Knowing and enjoying the skills of our hands and our well-made tools is fundamental.  It is a tragic dilemma that much of the best work men can do together is no longer quite right.  The fine information on the techniques of hand-whaling and all the steps of the flensing and rendering desribed in Moby Dick must now, we know, be measured against the terrible specter of the extinction of whales.  Even the farmer or the carpenter is uneasy: pesticides, herbicides, creepy subsidies, welfare water, cheap materials, ugly subdivisions, walls that won’t last.  Who can be proud?”  He then goes on to put most of the blame not on farmer or logger, but on the capitalists who have the real power.

He talks about ancient forests:

The forests of the maritime Pacific Northwest are the last remaining forests of any size left in the temperate zone.  Plato’s Critias passage (para 111) says: “In the primitive state of the country [Attica] its mountains were high hills covered with soil … and there was abundance of wood in the mountains.  Of this last the traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there . . . and there were many other high trees. . . .  Moreover the land reaped the benefit of the annual rainfall, not as now losing water which flows off the bare earth into the sea.”  The cautionary history of the Mediterranean forests is well known.  Much of this destruction has taken place in recent centuries, but it was already well under way, especially in the lowlands, during the classical period.  In neolithic times the whole basin had perhaps 500 million acres of forest.  The higher-elevation forests are all that survive – about 45 million acres.  Some 100 million acres of land once densely covered with pine, oak, ash, laurel, and myrtle now have only traces of vegetation. …

People who live there today do not even know that their gray rocky hills were once rich in groves and wildlife.  The intensified destruction was a function of the type of agriculture.  The small self-sufficient peasant farms and their commons began to be replaced by the huge slave-run latifundia estates owned in a absentia and planned according to central markets.  What wildlife was left in the commons might then be hunted out by the new owners, the forest sold for cash, and field crops extended for what they were worth.  “The cities of the Mediterranean littoral became deeply involved in an intensive region-wide trade, with cheap manufactured products, intensified markets and factory-like industrial production. . .   These develpoments in planned colonization, economic planning, world currencies and media for exchange had drastic consequences for the natural vegetation from Spain through to India.” (Thirgood, Man and the Mediterranean Forest)

China’s lowland hardwood forests gradually disappeared as agriculture spread and were mostly gone by about thirty-five hundred years ago.  (The Chinese philosopher Meng-zi commented on the risks of clearcutting in the fourth century BC.)  The composition of the Japanese forest has been altered by centuries of continuous logging.  The Japanese sawmills are now geared down to about eight-inch logs.  The original deciduous hardwoods are found only in the most remote mountains.  The prized aromatic Hinoki, which is essential to shrine and temple buildings, is now so rare that logs large enough for renovating traditional structures must be imported from the West Coast.

Snyder describes exactly the kind of interaction I think of as the medium of propagation and development of memes:

Place is one kind of place.  Another field is the work we do, our calling, our path in life.  Membership in a place includes membership in a community.  Membership in a work association – whether it’s a guild or a union or a religious or mercantile order – is membership in a network.  Networks cut across communities with their own kind of territoriality, analogous to the long migrations of geese and hawks.

Metaphors of path and trail are from the days when journeys were on foot or by horse with packstock, when our whole human world was a network of paths.  There were paths everywhere: convenient, worn, clear, sometimes even set with distance posts or stones to measure li, or versts, or yojana. …

A path is something that can be followed, it takes you somewhere.  “Linear.”  What would a path stand against?  “No path.”  Off the path, off the trail.  For hunters and herders trails weren’t always so useful.  For a forager, the path is not where you walk for long.  Wild herbs, camas bulbs, quail, dye plants, are away from the path.  The whole range of items that fulfill our needs is out there.  We must wander through it to learn and memorize the field … holding the map in mind.  This is the economic-visualization-meditation exercise of the Inupiaq and Athapaskas of Alaska of this very day.  For the forager, the beaten path shows nothing new, and one may come home empty-handed.

In the imagery of that oldest of agrarian civilizations, China, the path or the road has been given a particularly strong place.  From the earliest days of Chinese civilization, natural and practical processes have been described in the language of path or way.  Such connections are explicit in the cryptic Chinese text that seems to have gathered all earlier lore and restated it for later history – the Dao De Jing, “Classic of the Way and the Power.”  The word dao itself means way, road, trail or to lead/follow.  Philosophically it means the nature and way of truth.  (The terminology of Daoism was adopted by early Chinese Buddhist translators.  To be either a Buddhist or Daoist was to be a “person of the way.”) …

We find some ease and comfort in our house, by the hearth, and on the paths nearby.  We find there too the tedium of chores and the staleness of repetitive trivial affairs.  But the rule of impermanence means that nothing is repeated for long.  The ephemerality of all our acts puts us into a kind of wilderness-in-time.  We live within the nets of inorganic and biological processes that nourish everything, bumping down underground rivers or glinting as spiderwebs in the sky.  Life and matter at play, chilly and rough, hairy and tasty.  This is of a larger order than the little enclaves of provisional orderliness that we call ways.  It is the Way.

Our skills and works are but tiny reflections of the wild world that is innately and loosely orderly.  There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed.  Not for the sake of newness, but for the sense of coming home to our whole terrain.  “Off the trail” is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild.  That is also where – paradoxically – we do our best work.  But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them.  You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.

Of course, by the word ‘practice’, Snyder intends the meaning of meditation, as in Zen practice.

He closes with a few words of and about grace:

There is a verse chanted by Zen Buddhists called the “Four Great Vows.”  The first line goes: “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.”  It’s a bit daunting to announce this intention – aloud – to the universe daily.  This vow stalked me for several years and finally pounced: I realized that I had vowed to let the sentient beings save me.  In a similar way, the precept against taking life, against causing harm, doesn’t stop in the negative.  It is urging us to give life, to undo harm.

… At mealtime (seated on the floor in lines) the Zen monks chant:

Porridge is effective in ten ways

To aid the student of Zen

No limit to the good result

Consuming eternal happiness

and

Oh, all you demons and spirits

We now offer this food to you

may all of you everywhere

Share it with us together

and

We wash our bowls in this water

It has the flavor of ambrosial dew

We offer it to all demons and spirits

May all be filled and satisfied

And several other verses.  These superstitious-sounding old ritual formulas are never mentioned in lectures, but they are at the heart of the teaching.  Their import is older than Buddhism or any of the world religions.  They are part of the first and last practice of the wild: Grace.

Everyone who ever lived took the lives of other animals, pulled plants, plucked fruit, and ate.  Primary people have had their own ways of trying to understand the precept of nonharming.  They knew that taking life required gratitude and care.  There is no death that is not somebody’s food, no life that is not somebody’s death.  Some would take this as a sign that the universe is fundamentally flawed.  This leads to a disgust with self, with humanity, and with nature.  Ortherworldly philosophies end up doing more damage to the planet (and human psyches) than the pain and suffering that is in the existential conditions they seek to transcend.

The archaic religion is to kill god and eat him.  Or her.  The shimmering food-chain, the food-web, is the scary, beautiful condition of the biosphere.  Subsistence people live without excuses.  The blood is on your own hands as you divide the liver from the gallbladder.  You have watched the color fade on the glimmer of the trout.  A subsistence economy is a sacramental economy because it has faced up to one of the critical problems of life and death: the taking of life for food.  Contemporary people do not need to hunt, many cannot even afford meat, and in the developed world the variety of foods available to us makes the avoidance of meat an easy choice.  Forests in the tropics are cut to make pasture to raise beef for the American market.  Our distance from the source of our food enables us to be superficially more comfortable, and distinctly more ignorant.

Eating is a sacrament.  The grace we say clears our hearts and guides the children and welcomes the guest, all at the same time.  We look at eggs, apples, and stew.  They are evidence of plenitude, excess, a great reproductive exuberance.  Millions of grains of grass-seed that will become rice or flour, millions of codfish fry that will never, and must never, grow to maturity.  Innumerable little seeds are scarifices to the food-chain.  A parsnip in the ground is a marvel of living chemistry, making sugars and flavors from earth, ari, water.  And if we do eat meat it is the life, the bounce, the swish, of a great alert being with keen ears and lovely eyes, with foursquare feet and a huge beating heart that we eat, let us not deceive ourselves.

We too will be offerings – we are all edible.  And if we are not devoured quickly, we are big enough (like the old down trees) to provide a long slow meal to the smaller critters.  Whale carcasses that sink several miles deep in the ocean feed organisms in the dark for fifteen years.  (It seems to take about two thousand to exhaust the nutrients in a high civilization.)

At our house we say a Buddhist grace –

We venerate the Three Treasures [teachers, the wild, friends]

And are thankful for this meal

The work of many people

And the sharing of other forms of life.

Anyone can use a grace from their own tradition (and really give it meaning) – or make up one of their own.  Saying some sort of grace is never inappropriate, and speeches and announcements can be tacked onto it.  It is a plain, ordinary, old-fashioned little thing to do that connects us with our ancestors.

 

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