Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Fall - That Which We Already Know

As I stated in my introduction to That Which We Already Know, I’ll be composing a book here on this blog in as close to final form as I can muster. I want to thank everyone who’s been following the project so far. For those who might be new readers I’ll simply state that in the first installment of this chapter I recalled an episode from my childhood in which I headed off with a heavy heart to spend the afternoon in what I would now refer to as meditation. Looking back, I must have realized I was falling – falling from that state of childhood grace that we only seem to recognize once it’s gone. What are we to make of such a fall?

Part I, Chapter 1 – A Child in Eden (first continuation)

The Nursery was my Garden of Eden. Within its ample confines I dwelt for years in a state of childhood grace, neither needing nor wanting for anything that hadn’t already been offered. But just as the first man and woman were cast out of that mythical garden in a fall from grace that we yet ponder to this day, so I ponder my departure from that paradise and my fall from that state of being that only a child or the very wisest amongst us can know.

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden,” that mythical first woman and man were told, “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (NIV) Of course you know that Eve and Adam did indeed eat from the forbidden fruit, but their death turned out to be a metaphorical rather than a physical one. What they died to was the state of grace that they had hitherto enjoyed in that garden paradise of Eden.

We might also consider this story from a more scientific-minded perspective as one relating to how the human race rose up from amongst all other species to possess the knowledge and self-awareness that we modern humans possess. Such intellectual capacity put almost god-like power in our hands, and the incredible responsibility to use that power wisely lest we end up sowing the seeds of our own destruction. Either way, the story is one of innocence lost.

Of course I wouldn’t be bringing up this story within the context of a discussion of childhood if I didn’t also believe that each of us relives it as we grow into adulthood. We begin life in our own personal Garden of Eden of intimate belonging and union with all things; but as the process of our individuation progresses, and our self-awareness and other-awareness become more refined, we begin our inexorable fall. The very process of our growing up involves our eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; and in doing so the child that we once were begins a fall from grace.

Depending upon the vicissitudes of life, our fall might come tragically early or it might come blessedly late. It might be precipitated by some traumatic event never to be forgotten or it might occur so gradually as to leave not even a single remembrance of childhood’s departure in its wake. Either way, we all at some point gaze back through the mists of time and wonder of the child that we once were. What did we know then that we’ve forgotten along the way? Can we even begin to comprehend our loss?

I was taking a walk in a city park recently – one that is quite beautiful and natural despite its being in the middle of a dense urban landscape. I came to a bridge over a recently restored waterway and stood there for a time watching some turtles down below. They were sunning themselves, as turtles do, on some flotsam that had collected alongside the bridge abutment, unperturbed by the bottles and plastic and sundry other garbage floating in their midst. As soon as I laid eyes on them I realized that I was witnessing something of what I’d lost in my fall from childhood grace.

The Nursery was not the most pristine of natural environments either. It was a managed resource – infrequently managed, yes, but managed nonetheless. To us children, however, it was wilderness. No, the stream separating the birch grove from the hall of climbing oaks was not a naturally flowing one. It was more an extension of the storm drains up the way, silted in with whatever had been scoured from the roofing shingles and the asphalt pavement up beyond our neighborhood, but to us it was a treasure. Likewise, the industrial castoffs half hidden in the grass beneath the honey locust trees were more curiosities worthy of exploration than they were eyesores. And if I were to see for the very first time today that deep gash of a ravine eroded into the meadow sloping down from the ball field, I would surely lament the mismanagement of the land that had allowed such a wound to be inflicted. At the time, though, I saw nothing of the sort. It was a rugged canyon, a lunar landscape, a place to pow-wow, and a place to be alone.

The Nursery was our beloved realm, regardless of what blemishes and imperfections my discriminating adult mind might impose upon its memory. Likewise, that city waterway, complete with the trash washed there from the humans living just beyond, is the beloved realm of turtles and fish and waterfowl – regardless of what might make me cringe. For just as animal discernment is oriented towards that which promotes life, so a child’s discernment is oriented towards that which induces wonder. The discriminations and assessments and judgments of the fully developed adult mind will come later, after having eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In closing, let me just quickly say that the 2014 Live Below The Line challenge begins this Monday, April 28. The challenge is intended to bring awareness to the reality that many people face living in poverty – that of living on $1.50 worth of food per day. Interested readers might want to check out the series of blog posts that I wrote detailing my experience of last year's challenge. I hope you enjoy it. And good luck if you are also taking the challenge!


Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Child in Eden - That Which We Already Know

Hello everyone. I hope you enjoyed the introduction of That Which We Already Know. I’m presently envisioning a three part book with three chapters in each part. As you will see, remembrances of childhood will become vehicles for the fleshing out of the book’s main thesis. I hope you enjoy this journey through childhood, yours as well as mine. In doing so I hope we will realize together the exquisite nature of that which we already know.

Part I, Chapter 1 - A Child in Eden

We were enjoying one of those periods of autumn weather when the mornings and evenings are crisp and cool and the afternoons are summery warm. Indian Summer is what we used to call such a pleasant string of days, harkening back in some barely understood way to a time when the onset of winter – whether harshly abrupt or blessedly gradual – determined what life in the coming months would be like. Would there be ample time to augment the winter food stores, or must haste be made instead to prepare for deprivation?

I must have been wondering then what life would have in store for me in the coming months and years. Gone were those not too distant days when I could wake of my own accord and enjoy my childhood paradise as weather and whim and the availability of companionship might dictate. Life had begun to make demands. School was still a brand new experience for me and, while I might have enjoyed it, I also sensed that it was but a precursor to a dangerous new season of life. I’d already caught glimpses on the evening news of the endless summer of jungle warfare that followed the spring of youth for so many young men, whether they chose to take part or not. Yes, the grownup world was a troubled and troubling one, and my time was marching inexorably toward it.

Perhaps sweet respite from those concerns and encroaching demands was what I sought as I closed the back gate behind me and headed straight for the Nursery’s interior. Eschewing the trail through the darkened wood, I veered right instead and then quickly left, past the thicket of white cedars on one side and the stand of birch trees on the other. The birch grove was always a pleasant enough place to while away the hours, with its undergrowth of Mayapples and wood lilies and wild ginger and such stretching clear from the trail’s edge to the drainage ditch meandering along its southern edge. On this day, however, it was light rather than shadow that captivated my eye. It pulled my gaze in between the birches and across the drainage ditch and through the understory of the double row of climbing oaks to where the sunlight set aglow the clearing just beyond. Yes, it was sunlight that I needed, and solitude; and I knew precisely where I would find them both.

Just past the birch grove the trail skirted the broad sinkhole and angled across a grassy clearing. The sounds of home and neighborhood were far behind me now, replaced by the croaking of frogs pulsing from the collection of ponds on the clearing’s far side – less insistent, to be sure, than during the height of summer, but insistent nonetheless. I continued on, though, across the dirt road heading south from the Gerhardt mansion, down into a shallow swale and up the other side to the middle of the meadow rolling down from the ball field.

The ravine was invisible to anyone approaching from the west, hidden by the tangle of wasting wildflowers spilling over its edge; and the fact that there were only businesses off to the east made it unlikely that I’d have any company for as long as I chose to stay there. I scrambled down the earthen wall and settled into a cupped space along the opposite bank. The bare earth felt warm on my back, having soaked up the sun for at least a few hours prior to my arrival. It cushioned me, and supported me, and surrounded me – even as the sky above remained as deep and open as ever. The sun felt warm on my body, and the air was still. It was quiet, too, for the stirrings of what few insects remained up above in the dry meadow were directed skyward, away from my ears. Only occasionally was a red-winged blackbird loud enough to make itself known, its sharp trill piercing my awareness quickly before easing me back into silence as its subsequent elongated cry trailed away.

I studied the earthen bank, and felt the moist coolness below the surface as I dug my fingers into it. Occasionally an ant or some other crawling bug would make itself known and I’d study it for a time as it went about its business seemingly unaware of my presence. I studied the sky – milky blue, with wisps of clouds that seemed to barely move. And when my eyes grew tired of studying what was going on around me I simply took to studying the way the sun shone through the red flesh of my eyelids. No, nothing much was going on at the bottom of that ravine, which was good, for too much was going on back in the world from whence I came. That world wanted something from me and I wasn’t sure what. My beloved realm, on the other hand, wanted nothing from me but my ability to observe.

The passage of time becomes interesting when there’s nothing much going on. It becomes difficult to measure. Everything that is has a certain rhythm and duration to it that we make use of in order to gauge how long it has been from then until now. The call of a bird, the chirrup of a cricket, the wriggling of an earthworm – each measures time in its own way. But when there’s nothing much going on our experience of time becomes more subtle. The pace of our thinking slows down and likewise ceases to be an accurate measure. In the absence of anything else our very own breath creates our minutes, and the beat of our heart ticks off our seconds. Time ceases to be something that we move through and instead becomes something that we create. And so it was that I sat there creating time for almost the entire afternoon.

At some point I looked up and noticed perhaps for the very first time a little bulb midway up a dried goldenrod stalk angling over the edge of the ravine. How odd, it occurred to me. Why would such a thing come to exist? I climbed up and snapped the bulbous formation off of its stem and returned to my place. I tapped it on a nearby rock to determine its density and firmness. I rolled it around in my fingers and scratched it with my fingernail. It was a widening of the stem – almost woody, yet fairly light. But even though I could readily ascertain the what of its existence, I couldn’t for the life of me fathom the why. Why did such a thing form in the first place?

Notwithstanding this great mystery, I took to creating time by filing off the little nubs on either side where the thin part of the stem entered and exited the bulb. I rubbed them against a flat rock that happened to be beside me in the ravine until what remained was perfectly spherical – like a large wooden bead. And when I was finished I sat with it in the palm of my hand, watching the clouds drifting slowly past and watching my own being creating time from moment to moment.

I spent the afternoon that way – at times merely watching, at other times meticulously crafting another wooden bead from one of the odd stems that I’d come to realize were much more common than I’d thought. I had four of them in my pocket by the time I finally climbed out of the ravine for the walk back home. It was growing cooler by then, and I was getting hungry. Back home my mother would be fixing dinner, and then I’d be able to watch a little television. No, the circumstances that had prompted me to take leave of civilization and go off to be alone weren’t any different, but at least a little bit of the stillness that I’d known out there in the ravine came back home with me.

I don’t know what ever became of those beads that I carried with me as I left the ravine behind all those many years ago. I kept them in a little bowl on a shelf in my room for a time, and then I lost track of them somehow. Nonetheless, I carry them with me to this day. They represent the great mystery that we carry with us day in and day out – the mystery of our very existence. Perhaps we keep it tucked away, only occasionally to pull it out to ponder and appreciate before tucking it away again. Perhaps we think we’ve lost it altogether, but it never loses us. It’s still here, and it will remain forever that which we already know.

By the way, I did finally learn the origin of those strange bulbous formations growing on the stems of some of the goldenrod. They're called galls and they're created by the goldenrod fly laying its eggs inside the stem. As the hatched larvae begin eating of the plant, the plant responds by creating a woody formation around them. If the larvae are fortunate, they'll eventually make their way out into the daylight as fully grown flies. Without such good fortune they become a meal for a woodpecker or a chickadee. Curiously, however, even the luckiest of goldenrod flies don’t live very long. The fully mature adult doesn't even have the ability to eat! Indeed, no matter how much we learn the inherent mystery of life remains.



Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Erosion by Marshall Brain via:

Goldenrod gall in autumn courtesy of BioKIDS via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Introduction - That Which We Already Know

With this post I will be veering in a new direction. I’ve come to realize that writing books and writing blogs and working full time and maintaining a house and relationships makes for a very busy life! How, then, to fit this new inspiration, this new realization of what I need to say, into an already busy existence? Yes, I COULD sell the house! That has definitely crossed my mind. Since I’m not quite ready to do that, however, I’ve decided to combine two of my most valued endeavors. With this post I will begin writing a book – in public, in “real time”, without a net, and in as close to final page order as possible. I hope it will be, for the reader anyway, a little like looking over the shoulder of a painter with easel set up before a great vista. I suspect, however, that it will be at times more like sitting in a backroom watching the making of sausage!

The regular reader will recognize the theme of this book in some of my past writings. In that regard this new direction will be a rather seamless transition with respect to Crossing Nebraska. More specifically, check out Returning to the Source and Those Still Wild Places. If at times over the coming months I feel the urge to slip in an “unrelated” post, I will let you know. Without such introduction, however, please assume that the next post you are reading is the next few pages of a larger composition which has a working title of That Which We Already Know.


The back gate of the very first home I ever knew opened onto a tract of land that once served as the nursery for nearby Gerhardt Gardens. By the time I arrived on the scene, however, the various plots of shrubs and saplings were already so overgrown as to seem more like wilderness to the child that I was. If not exactly wilderness, it was at least a crazy-quilt of different habitats stitched together and overlaid with whatever weeds and grasses and woodland succession plants happened to put down roots and start working their way toward the sun. Notwithstanding its state of near abandonment, we still referred to those 24 acres of beautiful wildness as the Nursery. If nothing else, it was a nursery for young minds.

A well-worn path headed east from that garden gate, through a dark patch of woods squeezed between a thicket of white cedars and the corrugated steel fence of a heating & cooling company. It was there that my father hung for us a rope swing in a welcoming box elder tree still within view of our house. It was there as well that a treehouse built by some older kids of days gone by beckoned to our new generation from high up in a much more imposing elm, challenging us to ratchet up our climbing skills.

On the other side of that dark wood the path opened onto the yard of an old abandoned barn. Within its yawning embrace were just enough rusting implements to be of interest to us kids even as its perpetual darkness and the ricketiness of the steps leading up to its loft kept our curiosity in check most of the time. Much more likely were we to be found scampering after the multitude of skinks that made their home amongst the rocks and debris piled end to end along its sunlit side.

Just past the barn was the white stone mansion where the Gerhardt family lived. We thought of it as a mansion, anyway, for we rarely saw one statelier – with four white columns gracing its two story face, and stone chimneys either side. The Gerhardt’s, we’d been told, were the real owners of all of the land that I’ve only just begun to describe; and so it was that we took care not to be seen as we passed by the back of their home, lest we have some orders shouted at us that we knew we couldn’t obey.

A dirt road headed south from there, laying claim to the heart of the Nursery – an open space that likely served as the staging area where harvested plants had their root wads wrapped in burlap prior to being carted off for sale. A row of trees and blackberry brambles lined the far side of that road, beyond which a rolling meadow sloped from the outfield of a baseball diamond all the way down to the nether reaches of our domain. For all practical purposes that meadow was the easternmost region of our world, save for an occasional journey out to oversee the activities of the men working in the stone yard bordering the railroad tracks.

Another trail headed south from our back gate, past the backs of the other homes on our side of the lane. From it one could access any number of other trails extending into the Nursery’s more tangled interior. Eventually it met up with another dirt road that veered west from that staging area and then wended its way up the hill and out to the main thoroughfare, passing by the bottom of our street and skirting a little vineyard and an old farmhouse along the way. Gephardt Gardens was out on that main thoroughfare – just across the way and down a ways. We’d pass it on our way to church on Sundays, until the interstate provided a much more direct route, that is.

Perhaps the Gerhardt business was already in decline by the time I came into the world, or maybe it had just gotten easier to ship plants in from elsewhere. At any rate, it was only very infrequently that we’d see a workman puttering along on a tractor with a flatbed cart in tow – heading out to abduct one of the tidier looking shrubs or saplings to be sold back up the hill. As might be expected, such sightings prompted a flurry of surveillance activity on the part of us kids so as to ascertain the mission and intention of these intruders. Which part of our beloved realm were they being dispatched to? How much disruption would they cause?

Thankfully, nothing much ever came of those incursions and the Nursery remained for the duration of our childhood an overgrown paradise, one in which we were free to wander and explore with precious few cares or constraints. It was a Garden of Eden, a perfect place for our sense of wonder to put down roots and flourish. Here and there, rows of evergreen bushes had grown to maturity so close together as to form cavern-like spaces underneath just big enough for us to crawl through. Elsewhere, a ring of mimosa trees remained with trimmings piled high around its perimeter – just like in my Tarzan book when the villagers needed to keep the man-eating lions at bay. A field stretched almost the entire length of its southern boundary, with prairie grass tall enough to get lost in or to shape into little hollows in which to hide for a time. There were also two great halls of oaks: one oriented such that it glowed like a golden cathedral in the autumn sunlight, the other with limbs spaced so perfectly as to tempt us to climb far higher than we were really ready to climb.

Threading its way between that hall of climbing oaks and an airy stand of birch trees was a drainage ditch that carried stormwater runoff from up above our lane down to a sinkhole about a hundred meters behind our neighbor’s yard. Of course we were warned to stay away from it lest we should tumble into its darkness and not be seen ever again, but that didn’t stop us from throwing rocks down into its gaping mouth in order to see if we might learn something about its interior from the sounds that echoed back. And down the hillside from that sinkhole, beyond where its effluent flowed out into a broad patch of sunchokes and Queen Anne’s lace, was a grove of honey locust trees whose thorny branches always gave us pause - as did the industrial detritus to be discovered there half-hidden in the grass and weeds.

Which brings me to the low-lying corner of our beloved realm. A vine-draped cluster of trees huddled there in solemn vigil around an eroded basin into which the runoff from the entire watershed came together before disappearing under the railroad tracks for parts unseen. Our entire world flowed through that point - the spring showers dripping down the still-dry stalks of prairie grass, the summer cloudbursts pummeling the wildflowers in the meadow rolling down from the ball field, the trickling mist from the irrigation pipes watering the truck farmer’s field across the way, and the rivulets draining from the streets and sidewalks of civilization to gush into the darkness of that sinkhole and out again into the light. I must have sensed that that was so even without the understanding that I presently have for I was drawn there just as surely as the waters were. I'd meditate there while sitting on a fallen log, allowing my gaze to soften so as to take in everything and nothing in particular all at once - the varied hues of emerald green, the glints of sunlight piercing through the leafy curtains, the tangle of branches and gravel washed down from above, the subtle impressions of form and light and being. I'd let it all flow through me like the water flowing through that basin.

Ah, but there was no shortage of such sacred places back there in the Nursery. There was that patch of cool grass between the spruce and fruit trees where we lay with the scent of wild onions wafting up our nostrils and the clouds billowing past overhead. There was that notch way up in the tallest of the sycamores that required no effort at all to rest in once you’d made it up that far. From there one could watch over the entire world that otherwise seemed so large while standing on the ground. There was the bottom of the ravine formed by the rainwater washing down from the ball field. The entire world seemed to disappear when we were there, save for the sky. And there were all those little ponds created by rainwater filling up the holes left behind after a bush or sapling had been plucked from the earth. If you sat still beside one of them long enough the frogs would begin to croak again, the birds would return to their chirping and chortling, and a dragonfly might even light upon your knee. How still could I be? How long could I remain as one amidst the suchness of so much sacred activity?

I learned a lot back there in the Nursery: the life cycles of frogs and mosquitoes; the coincidence of box elder trees and box elder bugs; the call of the crow, the red-winged blackbird, and the mourning dove; the look and feel and scent of the varied plants contained therein, and the earth in which they grew. I learned where you’re likely to find a puffball and what will happen if you pop it when the time is right. I learned that that which is moist nurtures life and that which is dry welcomes rain, and that all of life is a transformation from one thing to another – a coming into being based on causes and conditions, and a passing away when those causes and conditions subside. I learned that nothing exists of its own accord, and that in the midst of all of this coming into being and passing away is stillness.

Stillness is there in a lonely bird call on a sweltering afternoon, and in the blur of a dragonfly’s wings – hovering and darting, hovering and darting. Stillness is there in a chorus of frogs that falls silent as soon as our presence becomes known, and it is there deep inside to be known whenever we just sit quietly and observe. Yes, I learned a lot as the seasons came and went during those precious years of childhood. But what I appreciate most about the Nursery from my fallen position as one who is now all “grown up” is its ability to nurture in me that which I already knew – the value of being still and watchful.

That which is most central to our being is most easily overlooked. The simplest and purest truths of our existence are the ones most easily forgotten as we succumb to a frenzy of doing. Modern human life, even with all of its comforts and conveniences, is rife with the tyranny of busyness and frivolous distraction. It seems appropriate then to devote an entire book to the rediscovery of that which is in the heart/mind of every child, of that which nobody needs to be taught, of that which we already know. 


Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Five-lined skink photo courtesy of Michael Holroyd via:
Dragonfly photo courtesy of AndrĂ© Karwath, aka Aka, via:


Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank