The Blossom That Can Be Named

Spring unfolds in different ways depending on your clime. Or it unfolds in a similar way at a different time. And so the crocuses that are suddenly here today perhaps appeared in your yard yesterday, or perhaps they will tomorrow. Such is the beauty of spring – appearing in her own time, much like last year, but always new.

A friend posted on social media that the Siberian Squill was blooming in his yard, and then he enquired as to what was coming up in ours. I’m glad he included a photograph, because otherwise I’d not have known what he was talking about. Yes, I’ve seen it before, and it is coming up in our neighborhood. It’s lush and grassy, with delicate blue blossoms. It seems to grow up in the middle of people’s lawns, so I suspect it gets mowed over as soon as it’s time for that to happen. But by then the deed is done as far as nature is concerned. The seed is sown, the bulb nourished, and life will begin anew to signal the arrival of a spring beyond this one.

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Siberian Squill beginning to bounce back from a strong spring downpour

 

I secretly envy those who can name an abundance of the plants with which they live. It speaks to me of a familiarity with the natural world that I admire. When one knows the name of a plant, one often knows a great deal more: when and where they are likely to be found, how they propagate, what fauna they attract, and what they might be useful for – whether it be a side dish or as a medicinal.

Older women seem to be especially good at this, but nature writers elevate it to an art form. Good nature writing weaves plant names into and throughout a seemingly effortless narrative encompassing attribute and taxonomy, life cycle and symbiosis, the manner in which the plant has changed the human landscape, and the manner in which the human changes the landscape of the plant.

But as much as I value all that names have to offer, I understand the danger they pose as well. Names convey the illusion that something is known, when in fact our knowledge, no matter how deep and wide it might appear, barely scratches the surface of ultimate reality. Names can also stand in the way of truer knowledge by separating and demarcating one “thing” from another “thing” when the two are in reality inextricable one from the other.

“The Tao that cam be named is not the true Tao.” So begins one translation of the Tao Te Ching.

“The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.” So begins one translation of the Tao Te Ching. And from that first sentence on we understand the provisional nature of the truth contained within its pages. The Tao Te Ching invites us to use its words as bootstraps with which to pull ourselves up to a better vantage point, or to lower ourselves deeper and deeper into more Truthful understanding. But don’t believe for even one moment that because you understand the words contained therein that you somehow know all that can be known. For words are merely fingers pointing at the moon.

Siberian Squill is not really Siberian at all. Native to parts of Russia and Turkey, it was brought to this continent as an ornamental, later to be deemed an invasive species. Different understandings of a larger reality yield different understandings of particularity. A name turns into knowledge which spawns a judgement and precipitates an action. And so a plant that was “just” a beautiful spring blossom to me yesterday – unnamed but not entirely unknown – becomes today a being with a history straddling continents and spanning epochs. And where once it was spring itself, with seamless belonging and natural existence, now it is a visitor that perhaps has overstayed its welcome and perhaps become a bit too comfortable. Siberian Squill, shall I call you by your name? Will that help me better live? And how about you? Or perhaps I should forget that your name ever dribbled from my lips. Perhaps I should forevermore consider you just another beautiful spring blossom. How best shall you be known?

 

Copyright 2020 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

Water Teaches Us the Way

FromOutOfTheHills

 

During heavy rains water flows across our side yard and out into the road. It finds the gulch beyond and tumbles without encumbrance into the valley there. It filters through the turf out back and pools beneath the pines behind our neighbor’s home. Eventually, though, it seeps into the shallow cut nearby – thence to meander ‘neath the pine boughs, and the road leading into town, to marry with the waters of more distant field and wood.

The waters wash bare the earth, leaving tree roots standing out like dark veins on the back of an aging person’s hands. They make the hillsides sag and droop, as if shrugging off the deluge. And yet those hillsides give mightily of themselves as they do, supplying the bottomlands with the nutrients that make them the rich farmland that they are. Perhaps the leaves that I raked into the low spots over the course of the last two autumns will slow this process down a bit. In the grand scheme, however, I’ve merely created a convenient way station for the detritus to accumulate for a time before continuing on its journey down below.

May we all heed water’s lesson of the Way!

I can’t see the river on a brilliant sunny day without seeing the rains beyond. I can’t see the fleshy crops sprouting along its banks without seeing those wooded hillsides up above. If life is indeed a collection of individual beings, then surely water must be that which connects us all. But when I see these flowing waters in the deepest way that I am able, I see only one body, one being, and one Life – with water being the blood ever flowing in its veins.

I studied with a now deceased Ch’an teacher for a time by the name of Ryugen Fisher – referred to by some as Old Frog. At the close of meditation retreats he made a habit of reciting a concatenation of two passages from the Tao Te Ching, one from Chapter Eight and one from Chapter Chapter Seventy-eight. I’ve been reflecting on these passages for the past month or so, reading various translations and bringing them to life in my mind. One way that I do this is by using new words to convey my internalized understanding of the collective works. So, what follows is Ryugen’s recitation, reimagined by this author after benefiting from translations by Fisher, Legge, and Feng/English:

Water teaches us the Way.

It benefits each and every living being,

But seeks nothing in return.

It simply keeps on flowing downward

To places we refuse to go.

Nothing on earth is more supple and yielding than water.

Yet nothing is hard enough, or strong enough,

To contain it or stand in its way.

May we all heed water’s lesson of the Way!

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.