Friday, November 14, 2008

Grass hut

I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it’s been lived in — covered by weeds.
The person in the hut lives here calmly,
Not stuck to inside, outside or in between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live.
Realms worldly people love, he doesn’t love.
Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature…

- From “Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage,” by Shitou Xiqian (Daniel Leighton and Kazuaki Tanahashi, translators, in Cultivating the Empty Field. North Point Press, 1991.

Carol and I recently spent a week at Cumberland Island. This was vacation, an attempt to get away from it all. Yet somehow we managed to drag my place work with us. We packed our gear seven miles into the backcountry, camped at Yankee Paradise, and were blessedly left alone for the entire time.

The campsite was a clearing amid a live-oak forest. The only sign of others was a bench made of an old wood board that had obviously washed up on the beach a mile away and been hauled there by a previous camper and set upon a couple of logs. It stood about a foot and a half high. It was wobbly. We had little interest in sitting on it. We used it instead as a counter upon which to set our cooking gear, drying dishes, and plastic water jug.

It was interesting how the bench helped to create a sense of place – for as soon as we arrived, we oriented our decision where to camp around the bench. Even when we considered other places, we assumed we would move the bench to them, and part of why in the end we rejected the other places was the hassle of moving the bench. So the bench influenced where we pitched our tent.

Moreover, because we used the bench as a countertop, it served as an outer wall to our camp, which was bordered on one side by the tent, another by the bench, a third by a large tree whose overhanging branch we used to hang our food, and a forth by the tarp we laid on the ground to sit on while we ate and visited after our hikes.

Outside these borders we threw out our dishwater and spat after brushing our teeth. We would not have considered doing these things inside, even though “outside” was no farther away from the “inside,” the tent or cooking areas. Yet these borders created an outside sufficient to accept our harmless wastes. So here in a campsite, a temporary place where in a sense it was all “outside,” we created a distinction between inside and outside.

Of course, the distinction owed itself to models we brought with us about households which we imposed on the camp. It is easy to see that. But I am also reminded of the nomads we studied in Africa who were always camping and yet always making distinctions between insides and outsides relative to camp life.

Shitou’s poem claims the hut’s resident is not stuck to inside or outside, and I see his point. But I wonder. Here beside our tent we did certain things “inside” the campsite and others “outside,” and though we were not stuck to these distinctions, our daily practices, if not our conscious thought, made them anyway.

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