That Which We Already Know: Introduction
From That Which We Already Know. This passage is the introduction to my forthcoming book:
The back gate of the very first home I ever knew opened onto a tract of land that I’ll not forget for as long as I may live. Ostensibly, it served as the nursery for nearby Gerhardt Gardens. By the time I arrived on the scene, however, the various plots of shrubs and saplings had become so overgrown as to seem more like wilderness to the child that I was. If not exactly wilderness, it was a crazy quilt of different habitats stitched together and overlaid with whatever weeds, grasses, and woodland succession plants happened to have put down roots and begun working their way toward the sun. Notwithstanding its state of near abandonment, we still referred to those 20-odd 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 gate, through a dark patch of woods squeezed between the corrugated steel fence of a contracting company and a thicket of white cedars within the Nursery proper. It was there that my father hung for us a rope swing in a welcoming box elder tree still within view of our house. And it was just a little bit further along that path that a treehouse built by some older kids of days gone by beckoned to our new generation from high up in an imposing elm, challenging us to one day claim it as our own.
On the far side of that dark wood, the path opened onto the yard of an abandoned barn. Within its yawning embrace remained just enough rusting implements to be of interest to us kids, even as its formidable darkness, and the ricketiness of the steps leading up to its loft, kept our curiosity in check most of the time. We were much more likely to be found scampering after the multitude of skinks that made their home amongst the rocks and debris piled all along its most sunlit side.
The Gerhardts lived in a white stone mansion almost out of view of the front of that barn. We thought of it as a mansion, anyway, for we rarely saw one statelier. It had four white columns gracing its two-story face and stone chimneys either side. The Gerhardts, we’d been told, were the real owners of all that I’ve just begun to describe. Thus, we took care not to be seen as we passed by the back of their home. We didn’t want any orders directed our way that we knew we could never obey.
A dirt road heading south from the mansion laid claim to the heart of the Nursery, an open space that once served as the staging area where harvested plants had their root wads wrapped in burlap prior to being carted up the hill to be sold. We only inferred this, though, from the remnants left behind. It was quite rare that we ever saw any of the workers. Only a couple of times each season would we see one puttering along on his tractor, flatbed cart in tow, sent there on a mission to abduct one of the tidier looking specimens. Nonetheless, these sightings always prompted a flurry of surveillance activity on our part. It was important that we ascertain the intentions of those intruders! To what part of our beloved realm had they been dispatched? And how much disruption would they cause?
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 down to the nether reaches of our domain. The far side of that meadow was the eastern boundary of our world in those early years. Only on the rarest of occasions would we journey to its edge in order to oversee the activities of the men working in the stone yard next to the railroad tracks.
Another trail headed south from our back gate. It skirted the backyards of the homes on our side of the lane and provided access to the Nursery’s interior via several footpaths branching off. Eventually it spilled onto a dirt road wending up the hill from that central staging area—past the bottom of our dead-end lane, the little vineyard up the way, and the old caretaker’s farmhouse looking out onto the main thoroughfare.
It took a while for us to work up the courage to play amongst those vineyard rows. We’d make our way up the dirt road to where we could survey the premises from the safety of an adjacent cluster of bushes. Then, once satisfied our presence had gone undetected, we’d swoop in to scurry up and down the rows until a game of hide-and-seek invariably arose from our furtive exploration.
Gerhardt Gardens’ retail space was just across that thoroughfare and down a little bit. We’d pass it on our drive to church on Sunday mornings, until the arrival of the interstate gave us a much more direct route there, that is. It overlooked the open field sloping down along the Nursery’s southern boundary to that woodsy far corner below the ball field. Along the interior edge of that field were patches of prairie grass tall enough to get lost in, or tall enough to fashion into little hollows in which to while away an afternoon. The far edge bordered the back gardens of another neighborhood, the inhabitants of which we knew little about early on. That field was shared territory of a sort, navigated by us only warily in case the mysterious older boys were about.
The Nursery was graced with two great corridors of oaks. One was a veritable cathedral, with its entrance at the crossroads of several trails and a spacious interior that never failed to pull my gaze into its lofty canopy. It was a destination in its own right, or at least a place to visit for brief reflection while on the way to somewhere else. The other hall was a place of action and adventure. Its trees all had limbs so perfectly spaced as to tempt us to climb far higher than we were yet 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 from up above our lane down to a broad sinkhole about a hundred meters behind our neighbors’ yard. We’d been warned to stay away from it, lest we tumble into its darkness and never again see the light of day. But that didn’t stop us from throwing rocks into its gaping mouth in order to ascertain at least a little bit about its interior from the sounds that echoed back. And down the hillside from that sinkhole, just beyond where its discharge carved deep into a patch of sunchokes and Queen Anne’s lace, was a grove of honey locust trees. Its 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 yet again to the low-lying corner of our realm—a vine-draped cluster of trees holding solemn vigil around a shallow basin into which the runoff from the entire watershed briefly gathered before disappearing under the railroad tracks for parts unknown. Our entire world flowed through that point: the winter showers dripping down lifeless stalks of prairie grass, the summer cloudbursts pummeling the wildflowers in the meadow rolling down from the ball field, the trickling mist from irrigation pipes watering the truck farmer’s field further down the tracks, the rivulets gathering in the streets and sidewalks of civilization to gush into the darkness of the sinkhole and out again into the light. I must have sensed this 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 tree, without yet knowing that what I was doing had a name. I let my gaze soften, so as to take in everything and nothing all at once. The varied hues of green, the dancing flashes of sunlight piercing through the leafy curtains, the subtle impressions of form and light and being—I'd let them all flow through me like the water flowing through that basin.
There was no shortage of sacred places in the Nursery that I knew. 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. There were clusters of evergreen bushes forming cavern-like spaces underneath just big enough for us to crawl into and hide. There was a ring of mimosa trees with the trimmings of umpteen years piled high around its perimeter, just as the villagers did in my African adventure book in order to keep the lions at bay.
Yes, and there was that notch way up in the lone sycamore tree, the one that required no effort at all to rest in once you’d made it up that high. From there one could oversee the entire world that I’ve described thus far. There was the bottom of the ravine formed by the water washing down from the ball field. Everything seemed to disappear when we were there, save for the earth and sky. And there were all those little ponds wherever a bush or sapling had been plucked from the earth, leaving a hole in its place to gradually fill with rainwater. 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 singing, and a dragonfly might even light upon your knee. How still could I be? How long could I remain as one amidst so much sacred activity? I had no word for it then, but suchness* is the word that I would use for it now.
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 various plants, 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. I learned that all of life is a transformation from one thing into another, a coming into being based on causes and conditions and a passing away once those causes and conditions pass away. I learned that nothing exists of its own accord and that stillness resides amid all this coming into being and passing away again.
Stillness was easy enough to find in the depths of winter, when everything was either dead or frozen. But it was there as well in a lonely bird call on a sweltering afternoon. It was there in the blur of a dragonfly’s wings—hovering and darting, hovering and darting. And it was there in the chorus of frogs that fell silent the moment our presence became known. What I appreciate most about the Nursery, however, from my position as one who is now “all grown up,” was its ability to nurture in me that which I already knew: the value of sitting quietly, being watchful, and finding stillness deep within.
* Suchness refers to the sublime and ineffable nature of reality as experienced with unadorned awareness. Suchness and thusness are common translations of the Sanskrit word tathata.
Copyright 2014 and 2022 by Mark Robert Frank