A Visit to the Milarepa Center

Milarepa #1I spent a late-October weekend at the Milarepa Center, a Buddhist retreat center located in Barnet, Vermont.  This place had intrigued me ever since Edith and I first began spending our summers in Vermont fifteen years ago.  Named after an 11th-century Buddhist yogi and founded in 1981 by Lama Thubten Yeshe, the Milarepa Center is Tibetan in its orientation and offers programs, instruction, and retreats within the Mahayana tradition.  I went there for two reasons:  first, to undertake a brief private retreat; and second, to meet the current residents of the Center and to gain a sense of their approaches to Buddhism.  (A semi-irrelevant aside:  located just two miles away from the Milarepa Center is Karmê Chöling, a retreat center founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the early 1970’s.  What are the odds that a tiny Vermont town (pop. 1,708) would host two Tibetan Buddhist retreat centers?)

05 - finished #3Friends and family who have visited Edith and me at Hyland Hill know that my writer’s shack is also my meditation hut.  Why, then, would I drive almost an hour north to meditate in an unfamiliar place?  The answer:  to meditate in an unfamiliar place.  My little shack is so familiar, so comfortable, and so congenial that meditating only there could become risky.  It’s a little too familiar, too comfortable, too congenial.  All the better, then, to alter my routines and disrupt my habits.  In addition, I’m interested in visiting a variety of sanghas (communities) over the next few years to get a better sense of Buddhist practices in Vermont.  The Milarepa Center was my first of these visits.  So, after e-mailing back and forth with Felicity Keely, the Center’s thoughtful and helpful director, I reserved a cabin and, a few weeks later, I showed up for the retreat.

The cabin in question was Chenrezig, a one-room hut located a few hundred feet from the main house.  Inside this little room I found a bed, a desk, a lamp, a heater, and a table equipped with an electric tea kettle and some packets of tea.  A picture window looked Milarepa #2out into the woods and down toward the house.  Chenrezig offered just enough amenities to provide basic comfort but not so many as to create distraction.  The falling late-autumn leaves outside created an arrhythmic ticking sound on the roof, and the sun light pushing through the foliage tinged the walls a golden hue almost all day long.

My stay at the Center ended up slightly shorter than I’d planned, as the new pellet-fired boiler back at Hyland Hill had started to act up, requiring my attention and prompting me to leave on Sunday evening rather than remaining for a second night and leaving on Monday.  Even so, I had an enjoyable visit.  I meditated throughout most of both Saturday and Sunday; I visited with the on-site staff members and two residents; I took several walks on the Center’s 276-acre wooded property; and I explored the library and the bookstore inside the main house.  Everyone at Milarepa warmly welcomed me and cordially answered my questions.  Among the people who explained aspects of the Center’s mission, history, and programs were Felicity Keely, the director; Kiira Anderson, the Spiritual Program Coordinator; and Samantha Ferrato, the Kitchen Manager/Cook.

Kiira took me on a tour of the facility that included a stop at the Center’s gompa (meditation hall): . . .

Milarepa #3

. . . and the devotional/ceremonial room:

Milarepa #9

Later, while walking on the grounds, I visited the Center’s stupa, a large reliquary used as another site for walking meditation.

Milarepa #6

My own walking meditation focused on exploring the Center’s woods, an extensive hillside preserve criss-crossed with trails.  Deep in this forest are several more meditation cabins. (Among the practitioners who have these huts are visiting Tibetan lamas whose retreats have lasted many months or even Milarepa #10three to four years.)  I also spotted Buddhist-style “POSTED” signs nailed on trees to warn trespassers and to prohibit hunting.  One of these, affixed to a large maple next to a conventional sign, is the most polite, earnest, and plaintive warning I’ve ever seen.  Given what I’ve witnessed over the years while observing Vermont hunters in the woods––or at least the subset of hunters who couldn’t care less about trespassing or about hunting on “posted” land–– I’m surprised that this sign wasn’t riddled with bullet holes.  Who knows? Perhaps beseeching even scoff-law hunters is more effective than threatening them.

In any case, I found the woods a source of great solace and peace of mind, as I always do.  The path is uncertain, but I find it compelling and want to explore where it goes.

Milarepa #8

Plop! (Part 2)

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s
inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

––Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Last summer, the hottest ever recorded throughout the United States and a time of severe drought in most of the country, brings less drastic but still unpleasant hot weather to Vermont.  Edith and I find the heat tiresome despite knowing how much worse the situation is nearly everywhere else.  Late in August, however, the dry warmth gives me an idea.  Why not simply drain the pond and leave it empty for a while? water plants The algae would die in the dry heat.  That in turn would solve most of the problem––or would at least roll back the process of eutrophication.  When I cross paths with Jeff Moran again, I present this scenario for his input.  “Yeah, you could do that,” he states in his gravelly baritone.  He even offers an approach that would be simpler and cheaper than using the rented pump I’ve proposed for managing the task.  “Just put a one-inch hose into the pond, start a gravity feed, and siphon the water over the edge and down the hillside.”

That’s what I set out to do.  At the local hardware store I purchase three twenty-foot lengths of flexible plastic hose and some coupling devices to link the pieces.  My plan:  immerse the hose in the pond to fill it, drag one end up the bank, and throw that end over the down-hill side to get the water flowing.  In practice, the task isn’t quite so simple.  The pond’s shore is steep and slippery.  Just reaching the water’s edge is much trickier than I’ve expected.  I could easily slide into the pond and have trouble getting out.  Rather than risk a messy and potentially dangerous situation, I find a long branch, tie it to one end of the hose, throw the rest of the coil into the pond, and use the branch as a handle to dip the open end.  By repeatedly scooping water into the end, I plan to fill the hose until it sinks altogether.  hoseThen I’ll cap the open end with one hand, drag it up the hillside, fling it over the edge, and start the flow.  But this approach turns out to be far more difficult than I’ve expected.  Filling the hose is hard.  Dragging it up the slope lets most of the water drain back into the pond.
I never succeed in starting the flow.

After brooding over this initial fiasco,
I abandon the effort and go to bed.  An insight dawns as I fall asleep:  I’ll run a garden hose down to the pond.  Using it to fill the exhaust hose will be quick work.  How quick?  The next morning, all I have to do is pirate every length of every garden hose from every part of the property, purchase another hundred feet of hose from the local hardware store, connect all these separate segments, and run the assemblage downhill from the house to the pond.  Not so quick after all.  My initial experiments are promising, however; filling the siphon hose takes only about two or three minutes.  The problem is what happens next:  getting one end of the hose up and over the pond’s rim without letting the water inside it drain back into the pond.  Trying this on my own doesn’t work, so Edith and I attempt a two-person gambit.  She stands near the pond; I stand near the edge of the hillside.  Holding the hose to form a large U, we succeed in filling it.  Edith then throws her end of the hose into the pond at exactly the same moment that I throw my end over the hillside.  Water gushes out of the outlet and down the hill.   Eureka! . . . sort of.  After a minute or two, the flow diminishes to a trickle.  The trickle soon stops.  We try the sequence again.  No go.  We try yet again.  No go.

Plans A and B have now achieved the same result:  nothing.  The pond continues to fill from the spring and drain from the outlet.  A few minnows dart about near the shore.  Now and then a frog belches somewhere along the shore.  Dragonflies hover among the irises.

dragon fly 2

◊    ◊    ◊

Months pass.  Summer eases into autumn.  A book that Edith and I acquire—Tim Matson’s Earth Ponds:  The Country Pond Maker’s Guide to Building, Maintenance, and Restoration—confirms that our concern about eutrophication is valid and that attempting to slow the process will be worthwhile.  “Taking the water out of a pond can be an effective vegetation control method,” Matson writes in a chapter about controlling weeds.  “Algae and aquatic weeds cannot live without water, and when the pond is dried out, much of the vegetation dies.”  Even a partial drawdown can make a difference.  But Matson goes on to state that algae and weeds “are more effectively eradicated after complete drainage during both warm and cold weather.”  [1]

These comments inspire a further gambit.  Mid-November, during an unusual dry spell, I decide to roll out the artillery.  From a local rental joint I acquire an industrial-strength pump for the weekend before Thanksgiving. wacker It’s a Wacker Neuson—a gasoline-powered diaphragm pump that, in the words of the manufacturer, “can move anything that flows.”  Most often used for draining construction sites, this machine is probably underpowered for drawing down a pond, but running it for a few days seems a worthwhile experiment.  I tow it down the hillside in a little wagon hitched to our Husqvarna lawnmower.  I set it up with the twelve-foot “hard hose” immersed in the pond and the thirty-foot canvas outlet hose draped over the pond’s southern rim.  Starting the pump without difficulty, I watch with satisfaction as it begins to work.  The black rubber intake hose, immersed, jolts in the pond from the force of the pump’s suction.  The outlet hose quivers and pulses as water heads uphill and over the edge.  I walk up to the rim and see the nozzle gushing onto the slope.  Surely this device will make quick work of the task.

Six hours later, I can tell that my optimism has been foolish.  The surface of the pond has dropped by only five or six inches.  While it’s true that the circumference of the pond will gradually constrict, accelerating the decline in the water level, it’s also true that the process is taking much longer than I had expected.  I have a belated impulse to estimate the pond’s volume.autumn pond  I find some calculators on the Internet and quickly run the numbers.   The answer:  roughly half a million gallons.  An old pump like the Wacker Neuson can move about eighty gallons per minute.  Running twenty-four hours a day, the machine would take more than four days to eject half a million gallons.  But I can’t run the pump all day and night; limited daylight in November will give me only nine hours.  Sixteen days of pumping is more like what I’ll face.  The pump’s rental fee is forty-eight dollars per day.  This will be a ridiculous expense.  I conclude that the experiment has been worthwhile, but less to remove the water from the pond than to drain the delusions from my own mind.

Plans A, B, and C have now failed.  I resort to Plan D:  I give up.

◊    ◊    ◊

My mind is like the autumn moon,
As fresh and pure as a jade pond.
But nothing really compares with it –
Tell me, how can I explain?

—Han-shan (T’ang Era,
8th-9th century C.E.) [2]


Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto, Japan. Photo credit: “A Man with a Camera,” http://www.photopedia.com

 Timothy Egan comments on this Chan (Chinese Zen) poem:

The moon and pond each carry both general and Buddhist associations. . . .  The moon and pond form a polarity with the multivalent enlightenment message.  On one level, the bright round moon obviously alludes to the light of prajñā wisdom that dispels ignorance. . . .  The shining jade pond is a combination metaphor:  as the Awakening of Faith has it, still water is the enlightened mind, revealed when the wind (of ignorance) dies and the waves (modes of mind) cease . . . ; the water then becomes a bright mirror, reflecting things as they really are. . . . [2]

Does this commentary, or the poetry behind the commentary, or the sutras behind the poetry, suggest that I—or anyone else—will benefit more fully from meditating at a pond’s edge, or by meditating upon the pond itself, rather than by focusing on a less beautiful place?  Am I more likely to advance toward insight while meditating there than, say, near the compost heap . . . or in the basement?  Is a locus of beauty and calm inherently more spiritual than a plain, uninteresting place?  Is it possible, even, that the compost heap or the basement would be a better bet as I attempt to disengage from the senses during meditation?

To all of these questions I can only answer:  I don’t know.  I do believe that attending to the pond is worthwhile in its own right.  Perceiving the pond as a locus of meditation inspires me to protect it, and perhaps some day the pond will return the favor.


*     *     *


[1] Matson, Tim.  Earth Ponds:  The Country Pond Maker’s Guide to Building, Maintenance, and Restoration, 3rd edition.  Woodstock, Vermont:  Countryman Press, 2012.

[2] Egan, Charles.  Clouds Thick, Whereabouts Unknown:  Poems by Zen Monks of China. New York:  Columbia University Press, 2010.

White Stuff – Part 1: The Snow Man

white stuff 02

It’s mid-summer––a hot summer nationwide––so here in Vermont our thoughts turn to . . . snow.  As a local contractor, Fred, put it to me yesterday:  “The white stuff will be flying before you know it.”  True.  Edith and I know the rhythm of the seasons here well enough already that Fred’s comment doesn’t surprise us.white stuff 01  We’ve already ordered and received two cords of firewood; we’ve stacked the split logs in our woodshed and garage; and we’ll soon purchase a ton of pellets (fifty forty-pound bags) to stockpile for the pellet stove.  So, yes, we know that snow is in our future.  The first snowfall last autumn took place in late September.

Over the next few months, one thread of what I’m weaving in this blog will be spun from snow.  This thread will be stories and comments about my life-long and often complex relationship with those strange, intricate crystals.  My delight in snow.  My fascination with snow.  My longing for snow.  My occasional dread of snow.  My infrequent but sometimes intense loathing of snow.  A “love-hate relationship”?  What a gross oversimplification, that phrase.  For me, it’s far more . . . complicated.

So, first off, a tale not about winter in Vermont but, rather, about springtime in the Rockies.

◊    ◊    ◊

In late May of 2000 I traveled to my home state, Colorado, to visit friends and to participate in several literacy-promotion events at public schools in Denver.  I also took advantage of this trip to go hiking in the Rockies.  I had enjoyed this pastime since early boyhood; I had become an avid camper and mountaineer during my teens; and I had continued to hike and climb in many parts of North and South America during the decades since then.  Moving to the Northeast, getting married, and raising a family had limited my opportunities for the outdoor adventures I had pursued with great frequency earlier.  All the better, then, to return to my old stomping grounds periodically, as I could during this Colorado trip.  That May, once I had finished my school visits, I headed up to the Breckenridge area for a solo climb.

Quandary 01jpg

Quandary Peak, Ten Mile Range, Colorado – alt. 14,265 feet
Photo credit: listsofjohn.com

I had targeted Quandary Peak.  This mountain is a Fourteener––one of the fifty-four mountains in Colorado with an altitude of 14,000 feet or higher––and, like many in that class of peaks, Quandary is tall but not a technically difficult climb.  It’s essentially just a very large pile of tundra-covered granite.  A successful ascent demands little more than good legs, good lungs, and some degree of patience.  The weather is the only other significant variable.  Winter in the Rocky Mountains is often harsh; summer is usually pleasant, even beautiful, but can present rapid temperature fluctuations and violent thunderstorms.  I had climbed Quandary twice before, as well as dozens of other peaks in Colorado, in each of several seasons.  The only challenge I expected this time around was the snowpack.  May is still early spring in the Rockies, and much or most of the winter snowpack wouldn’t have melted yet.  It’s not uncommon for ten, fifteen, or even twenty feet of snow to pile up at higher elevations in the Rockies between September and May, and the accumulation can linger well into the summer months.  On approaching Quandary, I saw that the peak was still heavily cloaked in white.  I assumed, however, that my early start would prevent any major problems during the climb.

This assumption proved to be accurate.  I parked my rental car at the base of the mountain, slogged my way upward, and reached the summit without difficulty about two hours later.  Except for three young men present—undergraduates attending the Colorado School of Mines—I had the mountain to myself.  The views were splendid from the top:  a three hundred sixty-degree panorama of snow-capped peaks extending to a horizon at least a hundred miles away.  The college guys asked if I would take a snapshot of them, which I did.  They returned the favor with my own camera.  I still have the photo of myself posing up there, clearly content and comfortable as I stood with the precipice a few feet behind me, the temperature so warm by ten a.m. that I had stripped down to jeans and turtleneck.  ScanAfter chatting with me for twenty or thirty minutes, the students then left the summit by plunging down the steep south face of the mountain, a technique called the standing glissade––essentially skiing without skis down the snowy slope.  I had used this technique myself on many mountains.  It’s a quick way to descend from a peak under certain conditions; used judiciously, it’s safer than descending more slowly.  The main safety variable comes from having an ice axe at hand to use as an “arrest” device if the slide gets out of control.  I had considered this exit strategy myself on Quandary.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought my own ice axe with me to Colorado, nor had I been able to obtain one in Denver before setting out on my little expedition, so I’d known early on that I couldn’t risk a glissade off the mountain.  I would need to retrace my steps instead.

Quandary 02

Quandary Peak, standard route. Source: U.S. Geological Survey via http://www.snowedunder.com

The early phase of this retreat went well.  I simply followed my own path along the dazzling white ridge of the mountain; I worked my way down Quandary’s ramp-like slope; and, predictably, I made faster progress than during my ascent.  Soon I was almost two-thirds of the way to the mountain’s base.  So far, so good.  The effort was minimal, and the sixty-degree air temperature felt wonderful.  Unfortunately, that warmth soon became a problem.  During the hours of my ascent and my unexpected hangout time with the college students, the snowpack had softened.  What had been as hard as concrete now grew mushy.  Worse than mushy:  slushy.  I soon found myself ankle-deep in snow as soft and wet as a Sno Cone.  Even so, I didn’t feel concerned.  My boots might get wet, I noted, but under these conditions––warm weather and a short hike––there would be no risk of frostbite.  I would surely reach the car in an hour or so.

◊    ◊    ◊

I didn’t.  The farther I descended, the more I floundered.  Soon I was knee-deep in snow.   Sometimes I sank even deeper––up to my hips, my waist, my chest.  The situation grew alarming.  I found that making any progress at all was awkward, laborious, and often counterproductive.  Sometimes I would slog just a few steps, then bog down again.  I started to wonder how deep I might go.  If the snowpack were ten or fifteen feet deep, would I sink all the way to solid ground?  Even if I sank only far enough that the surface was a foot or so over my head, what would happen to me?  I had some snack items in my daypack––grain bars, chocolate––so I wouldn’t have to cope with hunger . . . at least for a while.  I wouldn’t die of thirst with all that snow around me.  I would be able to breathe, given the open air overhead.  Staying warm would be another matter:  I would surely be subject to rapid chilling down there in my private icebox.  Hypothermia might well become a serious threat.  As I made repeated attempts to wallow my way out of the snowy morass, and as I floundered time after time, digging a series of inadvertent foxholes, I started to see what I was facing.  To be alone on that huge expanse now seemed far less appealing than it had just a short while ago.

At one point, standing there up to my armpits and gazing out across the brilliant, almost metallic glare of Quandary Peak, I realized that I was the only warm thing present.  Everything around me consisted of tiny bits of ice.  I felt as if I’d been cast overboard into a sea of snow.  A fifteen- or twenty-minute drive north of where I stood at that moment, tourists were no doubt lingering over lunch in the chic restaurants down in Breckenridge.  Neither that town nor anything else of human origin was visible to me now; and if it had been, its proximity would have made no difference.   I couldn’t see them.  I couldn’t reach them.  I may as well have been living in another country or even on another planet.   What time was it, anyway?  Late morning? Early afternoon?  I glanced at my watch:  eleven thirty.

It occurred to me that if nothing else, I could probably solve my problem––my Quandary, so to speak––simply by standing there for a long time.  The sun would traverse the sky and would eventually set beyond the western expanse of peaks I had admired from the summit.  Night would fall.  The temperature would drop.  The slushy snow all around me would cool, congeal, and harden once again.  Patience would allow me to escape:  I could eventually climb out of my pit onto a surface of the same tarmac-hard consistency present earlier that morning.  But how many hours would these changes require?  Eight, ten, twelve?  And as the snowpack solidified again, how low would my body temperature drop during half a day of standing there while waiting for my exit ramp to solidify?  Although I now grasped the likelihood of an eventual exit, I grew more and more concerned about the risk of hypothermia as I contemplated a long wait in the snow.

white stuff 09

Some things to ponder while stuck up to your collarbone in a snowfield:

  1. The abundance of snow.  There’s a lot of snow in the world.  And, as we all learned during childhood, no two flakes are alike.  (Who, tell me, performed the comprehensive, flake-by-flake comparison of all snowfalls throughout the planet’s entire history, thus determining the truth of this standard assumption?  That has never been revealed.  Neither has the methodology necessary to complete that process.)  In terms of Quandary Peak, which has a surface area of approximately eighteen square kilometers, an average depth of four meters of snowpack would add up to about 72,000 cubic meters of white stuff.  Small wonder that finding yourself embedded in the snowfield might leave you feeling stuck.
  2. The splendor of modern telecommunications.  You have a cell phone your daypack, but attempting to use it quickly proves what you’ve feared:  No Signal.  The skiers and tourists in Breckenridge will be yakking away on their phones, but your chances of connecting with the Summit County 911 service, thus reaching the local backcountry rescue team, are basically zip.
  3. Various psychosocial aspects of getting lost in the wilderness.  The only option that might have suddenly changed your situation would be the arrival of one or more off-season hikers as they trek up the mountainside.  That possibility isn’t out of the question, but it doesn’t seem likely at this time of day.  It’s the middle of the week, and most climbers start out in the morning anyway.  You feel surprisingly ambivalent about the possibility of being “rescued.”  If you were in extremis at that point—sinking deeper and deeper into the snow, perhaps, or suffering from early-stage hypothermia—your thoughts would be more straightforward.  But to have a party of hikers come snowshoeing up the slope:  you prefer to bide your time a while longer.
  4. The varieties of retrospective self-retribution.  Nevertheless, you soon start kicking youself for the miscalculations that have landed you here.  You’re an experienced hiker and mountaineer, but you’ve violated the first rule of back-country travel:  never travel alone.  The fact that you have hiked in this area for almost five decades and have climbed Quandary Peak in the past offer no excuse.  You’re aware of the need to assess the conditions during each hike on their own terms.  You’ve set aside years of experience and have forgotten how dramatically snowpack can change.
  5. The options for prospective marital freakout.  If this dilemma continues much longer, your wife will be worried sick.  Where are you, anyway?  Why haven’t you called yet?  Since she knows you’re on a backcountry hike, she’ll be wondering if you’ve suffered an accident on the mountain.  Maybe a car wreck on the drive back to Denver?  A heart attack, even?  You’ve put her in a terrible position.  Your inability to resolve this dilemma leads to genuine anxiety on her behalf . . . not to mention some degree of concern that once you make it back to civilization and phone home—assuming, of course, that you succeed in getting out—she will be not just relieved but also (and appropriately) angry.
  6. The big picture.  You’re still up to your sternocleidomastoids in snow.  As far as you can tell, you’re the only human being on the entire mountain.  Nothing anywhere around you has any awareness of your presence, much less any interest in whether you live or die.  Not since your foolish but non-calamitous solo trek in the north-central Peruvian Andes back in 1971—an experience now almost thirty years behind you, thus handily written off as youthful bravura—have you found yourself in such unforgiving isolation.  To complicate matters, you are under-equipped and less than adequately attired for the conditions; you have only about two ounces of subcutaneous fat on your body, ergo no insulation at all; and you’re chilling rapidly.  This Not a Good Situation.

These and other thoughts, analyses, conjectures, worries, ruminations, fantasies, and speculative decision trees sprouted, grew, and branched throughout my mind for a long time.  If the circumstances had deteriorated—if clouds had moved in, for instance, and rain had started falling—I would have shifted into yet more alarmist, even paranoid modes of thinking.  Was the situation stable, thus justifying a measured response?  Maybe so.   I certainly wasn’t facing a crisis on the level of what Aron Ralston faced a few years later, when a loose boulder in Canyonlands National Park pinned his right arm to the canyon wall he was climbing, a dilemma that prompted him to conclude after several days of isolation that he could survive only by amputating his own arm as a first step in making his escape.  Nothing in my situation bore any resemblance to that level of emergency.

 Gustave Doré, illustration for Canto X of Dante Alighieri's Inferno.  Source: The Princeton Dante Project:  http://etcweb.princeton.edu

Gustave Doré, illustration for Canto X of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Source: The Princeton Dante Project: http://etcweb.princeton.edu

All the same, I felt as fully and perhaps eternally stuck in this snowy hole as Farinata in his infernal sarcophagus:  no way out.  (Even Farinata benefited from visitors now and then, as when Dante and Virgil stopped by to chat.)

◊    ◊    ◊

At some point during the tedious minutes of standing in my chilly foxhole, I examined my surroundings more closely.   I confirmed that I was completely surrounded by snowpack.  No outcroppings of granite had been exposed yet as the winter’s accumulations receded, which left me without any alternate surface to use as an exit ramp.  I noticed patches of scrub oak, however, only a few dozen yards downhill from where I stood.  These thickets are typical of the Colorado alpine ecosystem above timberline:  essentially shrubs that can survive at higher altitudes than trees.  The scrub oak wouldn’t offer any assistance to me as such, but they suggested that the snow might be shallower down there than I’d expected:  branches of this species generally grow about five or six feet tall.  Spotting them gave me hope.  If I could just work my way down there, perhaps I could wallow further with less difficulty.  I also noticed that the scrub oak bushes cast shadows onto the snow between them, which might create a less-soft surface for me to walk on.

One other insight:  my pack, which I had taken off and placed at the rim of my foxhole, rested there without sinking.  It weighed just fifteen pounds or so—about a seventh of my body weight—so this wasn’t surprising.  But seeing it there prompted me to ponder another aspect of the situation.  Bantamweight though I may be, my hundred and fifteen pounds all bear down on the soles of my hiking boots.  What if I could distribute my bulk more evenly?  Would the snow support me?  If I could lie on the surface and somehow move downhill, could I work my way over to the alpine shrubbery?  This gambit would be the equivalent of what I’ve heard about people caught in quicksand:  you ease onto your back, float, and slowly “swim” to safety.  It seemed worth a try.

What followed was a laborious, strenuous, ungainly, and often ridiculous effort to work my way downhill.  Just climbing out of the foxhole took four or five minutes.  My next steps after that weren’t auspicious:  all I did was sink in again and climb out again, sink in and climb out again, over and over.  I considered scrapping the whole effort and reverting to Plan A:  waiting.  Eventually, though, I managed to make the method work.  I didn’t swim, exactly, so much as purposefully flounder.  Motions appropriate to water or even quicksand, such as kicking and stroking, weren’t effective.  Slithering only dug me in again.  Anything that disturbed the surface of the snow tended to be counterproductive.  Rolling, though:  rolling had possibilities. Scan My backpack proved to be a problem until I discovered that holding it over my head shifted its weight away from me and avoided impeding my motion.  Progress was unpredictable and awkward.  Sometimes I gained only a foot or two before sinking.  Sometimes I gained a few yards.  Soon my jeans and jacket were soaked—not a good development.  But after a sustained push I realized that I would succeed in reaching the stand of scrub oak.  Then surely my struggle would ease.  That wasn’t entirely true, as the snow between the shrubs proved no more solid than all the rest.  I could pull myself forward by grasping the branches, however, and doing so helped me progress from one patch to another.

A long time later—what seemed at least three or four hours—I succeeded in working my way down to timberline.  There, among the pines and spruces, I reached an expanse of snow that had been covered by the trees’ shadows through the morning and afternoon hours.  The surface underfoot was soft but able to sustain my weight.  What a luxury:  to walk upright!  To take steps without plunging into the snow!  Soon I was able to proceed at a normal place.  I descended through the forest.  Moving fast now—both to keep warm and to make up for lost time—I strode off the mountain and, feeling a huge sense of relief, reached my car.

I stowed my soaking-wet pack in the trunk, changed into dry clothes, and prepared to leave the base of Quandary Peak.  At some point I checked the time:  not quite 1 p.m.  Despite my perception of having floundered for many hours on the mountain, only about ninety minutes had passed since I first bogged down in the snow.

I returned to Breckenridge.  I phoned Edith to tell her that I was fine despite the delay in calling.  Since I’d now completed everything I’d set out to do during my week in Colorado, I drove back to Denver for my flight back to New Jersey.

Later, on the plane, I considered my quandary on Quandary.  Getting mired on the slope didn’t come close to a near-death experience; all the same, it was a frustrating, disturbing crisis that could have gotten much worse before it got any better.  I love snow, but finding myself stuck in it up to my armpits gave me too much of a good thing.  And the strangeness of looking out on the world—on the vast curve of the mountainside, on the entire upper reaches of Breckenridge Valley, on the mountain range beyond, and on the perfect, empty dome of the sky above—that was close to overwhelming.  It’s inevitable in such a place at such a time to feel insignificant, almost non-existent.  The inevitability of that sensation doesn’t make it any easier.  What, then, could I make of the jolt this experience had given me?  Where should I “file” it?

 Viewed from space:  Breckenridge and surrounding area, Summit County, Colorado.  Source:  NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

Viewed from space: Breckenridge and surrounding area, Summit County, Colorado. Source: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

I found myself turning back almost against my will to one of the greatest American poems, “The Snow Man,” by Wallace Stevens—a poem that has long prompted me to regard Stevens as a closet Buddhist. [1]

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

*     *     *


[1]  Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man.”  Harmonium.  New York:  Alfred P. Knopf, 1923.

Plop! (Part 1)

The property on Hyland Hill includes a little pond.   Forty or fifty feet in diameter, it’s located in a hollow halfway down the slope right where the meadow meets the woods.  A rivulet keeps it filled; an outlet notched into the opposite rim empties the overflow through a narrow trench and down the steep hillside.   Though man-made, the pond is so well landscaped that it looks completely natural.  The water and the setting are lovely in their own right, and this tiny ecosystem is congenial to wildlife that wouldn’t be present otherwise––minnows, peepers, dragonflies, and frogs.  The pond seems to have been present here forever.   Its presence out of sight from the house makes it feel separate and mysterious, a realm apart from both the meadow and the forest.

pond 01

There’s one other aspect of this place that draws me.  When Edith and I took the introductory ramble that first sparked our desire to purchase this property, I immediately perceived the pond as a splendid spot for a meditation shack.  I could go down there daily six months of the year to sit in stillness.  I could meditate in a quintessential Buddhist setting.  Of an evening, I could contemplate the moon.

Even during our first summer on Hyland Hill, however, we decide that the pond seems sick.  The water has grown turbid; the smell is heavy.  A few feet below the surface, wispy aquatic plants have bloomed in great profusion.  Wild irises mass along the far shore like tourists waiting on the dock for the Nantucket ferry. pond 03 Frogs are clearly thriving in that environment, but I see no signs of the trout and perch that Paul and Doris stocked during their years of ownership.  When autumn arrives, maple and ash leaves stream down from the nearby trees, float on the surface for a week, then sink out of sight.  I gradually begin to grasp what I’m witnessing.  These changes are all part of eutrophication, a natural sequence of changes that will gradually fill in, dry out, and convert the pond into just another part of the meadow.  The pond isn’t really sick at all; it’s just . . . changing.  From Edith’s and my standpoint, however––the standpoint of human beings intent on having an attractive pond on their property––the process amounts to a terminal disease.  It’s advancing rapidly.  By our second summer on Hyland Hill, the water has grown dense with aquatic plants and smells more and more fetid.

The issue quickly moves beyond diagnosis to treatment.  We consider the options.  Chemicals are one possibility.  Algaecides would quickly kill the bloom, but they would also sterilize the water, kill most other plants and many animals present, and potentially endanger people and creatures downstream of the outflow.  The state of Vermont has rightly banned this type of treatment.  What, then, are the alternatives?  I pose this question to Jeff Moran, the local excavation contractor who dug the pond for a previous owner back in the 1970’s.  “Well, you could always muck it out,” he tells me.  What would that involve?  “You’d pump out the pond and get an excavator down there to scrape out the plants.  Then you’d let the rain fill it up again.”  The cost?  “Oh, maybe a couple thousand dollars.”

Other projects immediately take precedence.  Edith and I have at least three dozen tasks on our list that have priority over spending $2,000 to upgrade the pond.

Yet the situation continues to deteriorate.  By late summer, the water has turned a hazy green-brown.   Worse, it looks less like water than like a vastly intricate mass of vegetation, soft and filigreed, with little more than a thin, flat, transparent surface encasing it.  To call this a dying place would be inaccurate.  It’s very much alive.  Mosquitoes, water striders, dragonflies, and other insects clearly thrive here.  Minnows dart about in the shallows.  Frogs reveal their presence by their calls—cut cut cut cut—and by plopping into the pond abruptly when I approach the cattails.  But these critters are clear signs of a transformation that we still hope to forestall and, if possible, to reverse.

pond 05

And so the question becomes: what should we do, and by what means, to preserve the pond?