You probably all know the Zen story: the old monk gets chased over the edge of a cliff, by a tiger. As he dangles from a scrawny vine, he ponders the tiger above, and the jagged rocks below… where two more tigers lie in wait. Just when things can’t get any worse, a mouse pops out of the rocks and starts to gnaw at his vine.
SOMEHOW, in spite of his predicament, the old monk suddenly notices a wild, ripe strawberry hanging within reach. He plucks the berry, pops it in his mouth, smiles and says, “The strawberry is delicious!”
This story has always annoyed me, and made me feel very un-Zenlike. How can anyone enjoy a berry when they’re facing a horrible and certain death? But that, of course -- at least to me -- is the whole point of the story. He hasn’t fallen YET. One tiger’s in his past; two others, in his future. But in thismoment, there’s a berry, waiting to be tasted. The morale being that if we hang out in the past and in the future, we miss the moment. Which is pretty damn easy for me to do.
Some people say my interpretation is hogwash. They claim this is a cautionary tale. The monk is a fool. We should not be distracted by frivolous, passing pleasures like berries. We should kill the mouse, pull ourselves up on the vine, rip it out and choke the tigers with it. I guess it’s open to interpretation.
Anyway, I thought of this story last week, as the cares of the world were resting heavy on my mind. Wildfires. A global pandemic. Schools and businesses still closed. Protests in the streets. Loss of jobs and incomes. Loss of life. Loss of our WAY of life. Trump blabbering on about how great everything is. Plus, is there any break in personal and family problems? Not that I can see.
Crises pile up like hot cow patties, heap upon heap. Before we dig out from one, another one splats down.
Last week, Templeton was 110 degrees, with air as brown and thick as mushroom soup. Smoke from neighboring counties blew in, making it hard to breathe. Then, in Sonoma County, where our family home is, new fires broke out. We’d just returned from a long, long drive, and now, I’d need to leave again, drive north, and help Mom pack up. Joel would follow with the fire hoses he’s ordered, to help defend the property.
Before heading north, I gathered up dogs and husband for a quick drive to the coast, for a breath of fresh air.
The ridge we hike looked far away and high from where we parked. The heat and smoke we’d hoped to escape were there waiting for us. The dogs dragged their feet. I dragged mine, too -- body and soul, as well -- across a big field to reach the trail to the ridge. As we got closer, I finally smelled the ocean and felt a cool breeze.
“Wonder if there’s any plums on the old plum tree?” Joel asked. Across the meadow, there’s a tree so old and large that beneath its canopy is a secret room, where wanderers find refuge. Someone’smade a kind of shrine there, Modern-day Druids, maybe, with piles of rocks in patterns. It’s kind of magical to me. The first time we visited, blossoms fell around us like pink snow. The last time we went, the tree was filled with tiny, hard-green plums.
We sauntered to the end of the field and found the tree, now hanging with ripe, golden-yellow plums. When you bit into them, they’re so taut with juice they pop and drip everywhere. The dogs laid down in the grass, glad to rest. Joel and I ate plums, and that’s as far as we got. No hiking. No talking, even. Just eating plums.
For awhile, I was actually in the moment, with my husband, my old dogs, a coastal breeze, the taste of sweet-tart plums, their cool juices dripping down my wrists.
Suddenly, the Zen story didn’t annoy me anymore. The plums weredelicious! The road behind me still had smoke- and problems. The road ahead has more.
I want the berries. In fact, I’ll be looking for whole bushes of berries. This time of year, the huckleberries are ripe in my beloved (and burning) Sonoma County. If I find a good bush, out of fire danger, that’s where you’ll find me.
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.