Jet Skis,
Progress, and
A Minnesota Lake

I feel surrounded, these days, by Big families. They drive jeeps and four-by-fours. They ride around the lake with ninety-horsepower motors whose wakes erode the shoreline. They fertilize their lawns to resemble a city park and pump phosphorus runoff into the water.

Robin and I are spending a week at the lake. We sit on the porch playing fiddle duets. A loon calls.

"It's funny, when I was growing up here we said this lake was too overpopulated to attract loons --- there were about fifteen families and a couple of fourteen-horse Evinrudes."

"It was too busy for those loons," Robin answers.

"Huh? "

"The loons of your childhood. These loons have evolved. They now tolerate jet skis."

Will I be able to?

At night I lie on the sleeping porch and look at the constellations and think, my great-grandfather slept right here. Up on the hill is a Norway pine planted to celebrate my father's birth.

Now the neighbor comes out with his weed whacker, making an intolerable racket. And since he's a year-round resident, winter will bring snowmobiles and whatever new contrivances they invent to destroy the tiny delicate hairs on the whorls of inner space.

"A week at the lake": this is a Minnesota phrase denoting a retreat into mystery, indisposition, vacation, or retreat. It's our all purpose excuse and explanation. We have no missing persons in this state, they're presumed to be "at the lake." People from outside may puzzle about it: "What lake? Where?" We don't even know how to process these questions, which interrupt our retreat into mist, otherness, wrensong, somewhere "up north."

This week the wrens can seldom be heard above the buzzing and screaming from jet skis and high-tech water toys. When I was growing up (for this was a place I spent every summer till I left home), our nearest neighbor lived in a shack up the hill. But now a new family has covered the whole lot next door with House. In order to induce their children to savor country life, the parents have invested in satellite dishes, four speedboats of different kinds, a fleet of cars. There is some new thing called --- and honestly I do not know what it is --- an "off-road vehicle" that has been tearing through the woods behind our cabin. I picture it as something like the Star Wars tank toys my children used to play with. In the spring, I went back there and dug out the beheaded trilliums and other mashed ephemerals this new machine had done in and tried to reroot them on our land. Technically, I could be arrested for moving wildflowers.

In summary, I have spent a day at the lake in a rictus of fury at my new neighbors. Every time the blond twin sons roar off on matching jet skis I wish them, at least, the ruination of their blowdried hair. With luck, they will "shear a pin." I hope the new motors are not immune to this disaster. In the old days of fourteen-horse Evinrudes, a sheared pin was our all-purpose explanation for fishermen not returning at suppertime.

Now the neighbors are spraying their land with herbicide and the haze drifts over our quarter acre. This is as much as I can stand, and I commence ranting and ruining the mood of my gentle companion, so slow to indignation, righteous or not.

"What if you were to consider these people to be your dearest spiritual teachers?" he suggests. "Anyway, how do you know it's herbicide? Maybe it's liquefied organic compost."

That's enough to make me storm off into the woods. Thay [her Zen master] would agree with Robin, of course; still, Thay never saw a jet ski. How could these obnoxious people be my spiritual teachers?

When you read some wisdom in a book, or assent to a dharma talk, it seems so attractive and logical. If you are of an imaginative temperament, you are already there, a realized soul. It's like reading about a new diet or exercise program. Exercising merely the mind's eye makes you svelte.

But my spiritual self is not very shapely at the moment. Thay had to deal with the Vietcong and the Green Berets. I can't even deal with screaming water toys.

These mornings I've been reading a little from Brian Walker's translation of the Hua Hu Chi'ng, outtakes (as it were) from the oral teachings of the Taoist master Lao-tzu. Pondering Robin's suggestion, I come upon this reflection:

    Do not imagine that an integral being has the ambition of enlightening the unaware or raising worldly people to the divine realm.
    To him, there is no self and no other, and hence no one to be raised.
    His only concern is his own sincerity.

What humbling words. I have spent a Sabbath blackening my reality and my companion's mind with hostile words about my neighbor; my neighbor, by contrast, has spent a better day: entertaining his children and improving, according to his best guidance, a plot of ground.

One of my wacky friends used to have a cosmic theory that troubled me a lot at the time (1968). It represented a kind of scorched-earth quietism: everything, he believed, was exactly as it should be. Hitler was as he should be, for example, and as valuable to the cosmic puzzle as Gandhi. Thus, nothing should be resisted.

I never succumbed to his logic, if only because resistance is my manor contributions to spiritual ecology. But it gives me plenty to think about. Any good idea, given free reign, creates disaster, I've noticed. So it's healthy in the spiritual ecosystem to have opposition and contrary forces balancing each other. My neighbor, for example, looks well-to-do, and perhaps his money will have the power to do some good. Surely this lake will work its own gentle transformation on him, on his blond twins, and on their investment plans.

And our little cabin, looking now so out of place in the developing suburb, speaks too. When people around the lake ask where I live, they often register pleased surprise at my answer. They comment on the peace and serenity of the tiny white house with green trim on its big stretch of conifers and oak --- as we sometimes look out the car windows at Amish farms and wonder how people can live with so few toys. Of course, as they honor our cabin's simplicity, they contemplate how much better it would be if we would add another story, a deck on the front. "Why don't you tear the cottage down?" they boldly say sometimes. "It's such a good lot."

I long for Americans to be converted to simpler lives, simpler structures, and preservation of open space. But how do deep, radical conversions come about? Not because some righteous neighbor scolds about herbicide, but because one feels the relentless gnawing of one's own soul. Because one is spoken to by a little house or a great blue heron, or by the offhand remark of a happy person at peace with herself. Some deep bell in the self reverberates to a bell struck outside. Anyone who comes to any level of ecological understanding has done so after a long internal process. I ruefully remember the days when my dad had one of the biggest motors on this lake, a scandal to many, though it was puny by today's standards. My sister and I did our share of tearing around on obnoxious waterskis, and wearied the neighbors with our relentless efforts to teach a succession of cocker spaniels to surfboard.

Next day, Robin and I stop to visit an elderly woman friend in her little house on the "branch." She's a biologist who has spent her retirement years educating people about the lake ecosystem, the effects of lawn fertilizer on the water table, and so on. She's put in her time haranguing county officials and getting to board meetings at inconvenient times of night, but mostly she works with children. She'll jump into any running water, try her horny feet against any sharp bed of freshwater clams, to pull out some oozing creature for a crowd of preschoolers, then explain its role in the system Hitler or Gandhi? --- to the eager listeners. "Get the children," is her advice to me. "Don't worry the old people. They grew up within a different frame of reference. But teach the children."

And feed your own peace, she tells me without words; leave your neighbors alone.


--- From The Barn at the End of the World
Mary Rose O'Reilley
2000 Milkweed Editions


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