Saturday, March 29, 2014

February, Part 1

February, Part 1

LAST NIGHT, not content with the flats already seeded, I stepped out to the greenhouse and planted two hanging baskets with cilantro, and a gallon pot with chives. I have been running low on potting soil, so I built up the bottom layer in these containers with sphagnum moss, then a few inches of soil, then broadcast the seeds, then shook all down, then covered seed with a thin layer of peat, then watered gently. I hung the baskets on twenty-penny nails driven into the rafters, sorted pots, then swept the herringbone-patterned floor. I also brought in last year's planter of lavender and trimmed its dead growth; perhaps there's still something doing down in the roots. 

The night is restless; there's a storm front in the area, boiling in beneath the jet stream from somewhere near Hawaii. Waves are undoubtedly smashing a little higher than usual at the cape, and in the mountains new snow is covering the tracks of the more venturesome animals. I find myself visualizing this, then the image shifts to a close-up of blood on the snow: a vole taken up by an owl, perhaps. If I hoped to find peace in the night, well, I may have brought my own unrest with me. There are sharp doings in the world; so many of us wishing ill upon so many others.

I have just finished proofreading Montaigne's essay on "Coaches," in which he strays magnificently into a critical analysis of the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru, implying throughout that the Europeans had, by means of technological advances only, conquered a culture equal to or better than their own in almost every other way. He recounts the torture and death of the Inca king:
The king, half rosted, was carried away: Not so much for pitty (for what ruth could ever enter so barbarous mindes, who upon the furnished information of some odde piece or vessell of golde they intended to get, would broyle a man before their eyes, and not a man onely, but a king, so great in fortune and so renowned in desert?), but for as much as his unmatched constancy did more and more make their inhumane cruelty ashamed, they afterwards hanged him, because he had couragiously attempted by armes to deliver himselfe out of so long captivity and miserable subjection; where he ended his wretched life, worthy an high minded and never danted Prince. At another time, in one same fire, they caused to be burned all alive foure hundred common men and threescore principall Lords of a Province, whom by the fortune of warre they had taken prisoners. These narrations we have out of their owne bookes, for they do not onely avouch, but vauntingly publish them. May it bee they doe it for a testimony of their justice or zeale toward their religion? Verily they are wayes over-different and enemies to so sacred an ende.
I suspect that we, as a culture, have not much improved upon this model.

I remember that during Desert Storm I overheard two friends discussing their dismay at realizing how little "progress" had been made in building a civil and humane society. They described to each other the behavior of so many of their fellow citizens that had derided and even attacked dissidents in the nearby city.

Their surprise surprised me.

Perhaps, I thought, we ought not to expect too much from a civilization dependent upon massive consumption of oil, electricity, metals, plastics, fats; upon television and its steady bombardment of a largely captive population with promises of instant gratification of cynically inculcated wishes.

My two friends, and Beloved and I also, had spent many years in a small valley in the mountains, among neighbors who had built homes of rough lumber with cedar shake roofs, and with recycled windows through which to view the rain falling among alders and cedars, and watch the deer grazing unharassed in the homeyard. We had had many, many days in which to make our kind of social progress by baby steps, pulling on rubber boots, walking up the gravel road to visit one another over steaming cups of home-grown herbal tea.

The outside world, rich or poor, in pursuit of its varied manipulative or manipulated agendas, had not had, or given itself, the opportunity to discover that life.

There is a Paul Reps poem that goes something like: "drinking a bowl of green tea/I stop the war." I remember thinking, when I was a Vietnam War protester, that this was a naive approach. But whom did I convince, with all my activism at that time, to think differently than they already thought? An action taken that is in itself peaceful, on the other hand, is never wasted.

At times like these I am reminded that Plato wrote the definitive critique of material modernity and its consequences, over 2300 years ago. In the second book of the Republic, Socrates upon having been asked to define justice, does so by describing his ideal of a just state, with its underpinnings of a just culture:
Let us then consider, first of all, what will be their way of life, now that we have thus established them. Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means ... (Jowett, tr.)
Glaucon, who has elicited this description, however, seeks a description more like Athens.
Yes, Socrates, he said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?
But what would you have, Glaucon? I replied.
Why, he said, you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas, and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style.
Socrates responds by shifting from a description of agrarian simplicity to one of what is in effect a consumer society:

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured.
True, he said.
Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want; such as the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colours; another will be the votaries of music --poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also makers of divers kinds of articles, including women's dresses. And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now? They must not be forgotten: and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them. [Emphasis added.]
And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?
Much greater.
And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?
Quite true.
Then a slice of our neighbours' land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?
That, Socrates, will be inevitable.
And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not? [Emphasis added.]
War is, says, Plato, the inevitable consequence of consumerism. If this analysis is correct, and we do not wish war, what ought we to do? Would it not be to plan a shift in society away from consumerism?

One of two things has to happen to Western civilization soon, or it will be superseded.

The first choice would be to harden ourselves to defend "our way of life," which hardening is, in itself, especially as it involves giving up constitutional freedoms, a contradiction of that very way of life. Yet this has been a very popular choice of late.

The second, and to me the more rational approach, is to adopt, to the extent possible, the simplicity practiced by Zen monks and by the society proposed by Socrates as most just because least acquisitive.

Socrates specifically states that the families in such a society must live within their means, and here I elided, but will now add back the end of the sentence: " ...having an eye to poverty or war."

In other words, if you are consciously doing simplicity you need not call it poverty.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

January, Part 4

January, Part 4

In January, here, it can be gray and rainy for weeks, as in December, but often it will clear up and be sunny and almost warm for several days, a condition known as a Blue Hole.

On such days I sometimes take my little green kayak over to the nearby reservoir for exercise. Unlike large motorboats and sailboats, kayaks tend to enforce a bit of solitude, which can be a good thing, I think.

At this time of year the lake hosts from hundreds to thousands of Canada geese, mallards, mergansers, and coots. The black coots, with their stubby beaks, are fun to watch, especially while landing on the water. They crash-land, skittering along on the surface tension of the water with their wings folded, until they stall out in their own bow wave and seem about to flip forward just as they come to a stop.

A few days ago, I came across a dying mallard. I realized, as if I had never thought of it before, that every wild duck, as do all of us, must die sometime.

She had been paddling, a bit lamely, in the same general direction as I had, but as I came up to her, several hundred yards from shore, she seemed to give it up. I thought at first she might be settling in for a nap. But napping, for a mallard,

involves turning one's head about on that long neck and using one's back for a downy pillow. She had her head extended before her, and her face in the water, blowing bubbles, lifting weakly from time to time to inhale. I waited with her, about ten feet away; she showed no reaction to my presence and eventually her head sagged beneath the surface film a last time and the bubbling stopped.

Dogen tells the story of Great Master Zhenji, who met with a newly arrived monk.

"Have you been here before?"

The monk said, "Yes, I have been here."

The master said, "Have some tea."

Again, he asked another monk, "Have you been here before?"

The monk said, "No, I haven't been here."

The master said, "Have some tea."

The temple director then asked the master, "Why do you say, 'Have some tea,' to someone who has been here and 'Have some tea,' to someone who has not?"

The master said, "Director." When the director responded, the master said, "Have some tea."

Dogen concludes that "the everyday activity of buddha ancestors is nothing but having rice and tea."

Here in the West, when we, or at any rate some of us, read this sort of thing, we tend to get very excited by it, and to visualize becoming Buddhas ourselves by trying out this kind of everydayness -- sounds easier than sitting with our legs painfully crossed. But, of course, there's a trick to it, as one might suspect from reading of the long years Dogen put in, sitting cross-legged, before he felt himself to be, and was certified by his own master as, qualified to say something on the subject.

On the one hand, it's very hard to come to one-pointedness of mind (everyone says so), and on the other, nothing could be easier (everyone says that too -- as one master commented, "here I've been all these years selling water right by the river."). Dogen's genius, though, is that he doesn't try to mystify us by embracing either the difficulties and complexities of practice nor the easiness and simplicity of practice. He demystifies, by telling us to relax and simply do what's next. If you want to be a Zen nun or monk, you may begin anywhere, such as having a cup of tea -- that's a start, nothing to be ashamed of. Little steps. Come, he says, patting the tatami and the seat cushion. Sit.

I made soup in the crock pot and baked some bread. The soup is rice, tofu diced small, onion from the winter garden, green vegetables, peas, tomatoes, water chestnuts, thyme, basil, rosemary, spring onion greens -- garlic greens too. Threw half the tofu and onions and garlic into the soup, the other half into the mixing bowl ...

... to which I added a dollop of oil, tablespoon of salt, sixteen ounces of warm water, 1/4 cup of honey, a small handful each of miso, bran, and oatmeal, teaspoon of yeast, stirred, then added a cup of white flour, and several cups of whole wheat flour, stirring until too thick to stir, then floured up my hands a bit and kneaded, adding flour occasionally, until the dough "felt right." Covered the bowl and set it on top of the crock pot to stay warm and rise. You can flip the glass lid upside down and it's a stable enough warming shelf.

Looked out: it was raining heavily. Jasper Mountain completely obscured. Went over the supply of seed left over from last year's garden. I have thought that this year I might try to get some greens going early, so last month I cleaned up the potting shed/greenhouse. There's an old radio suspended from the ceiling, tuned to the classical station; it's a soothing place to work.

I put on a coat, hat, and rubber boots, slither out to the shed, fire up the music (Mendelssohn's violin concerto, I think), pick six old, cracked flats, load them up with potting soil, and spread seeds. Romaine lettuce, Black-Seeded Simpson lettuce, Red Russian kale, bunching onions,, Detroit Red beets (for the greens, really), spinach.

Each packet I broadcast round the flat, then cover the seeds with peat, set the flats in the window and dose them with rain water.

Music off, close door, back to the house, boots, etc. off, check the dough, grease the cookie sheet, shape the loaves, put them on the sheet.

Jasper Mountain is somewhere beyond the window. External fog, internal fog. Wind, rain, and typos. When the bread has risen some, bake (in this oven) 40 minutes at 350 degrees.

Have we been here before?

Have some tea.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

January, Part 3

January, Part 3

This is a good month for clearing the potting shed.

Ours is the remnant of a decrepit lean-to, which the previous owner constructed out of whatever was handy, and used mainly to store trash and to indulge, with the use of a perilously derelict woodstove, in melting lead for a lifetime's supply of sinkers and split shot. As we stood looking at this structure, which had helped by its presence to bring down the asking price on the property, the neighbor, a stout and cheery farm woman who had befriended us in our first week with a gift of raspberry starts, fetched up on the other side of the boundary fence.

"You are going to rip down that eyesore, aren't you?" she asked. "First thing?"

So we felt we had an obligation, but once inside, we found the former owners had used solid beams, each eight inches square and sixteen feet long, for framing the roof. We are no longer young, and the prospect of dismantling those massive rafters dismayed us. Suddenly we thought of the "eyesore" as the "barn and potting shed," and within days began installing walls, windows, and doors. A coat of red fence stain on the barn boards of the walls, and cheery green trim on the window frames, produced a pleasing enough effect that our neighbor has never called us to account on our unspoken contract. At least, that's our interpretation!

One side of the building, about two-thirds, is given over to Beloved's ducks and her retired show rabbits. We put down straw bedding over the bare earth, and change it periodically; this becomes our favorite mulch and top dressing, as it is rich in duck and rabbit manure but not enough so to burn plants noticeably.

It is pleasant, every morning, to go hunting for eggs in the tiny barn. The ducks, Khaki Campbells, produce almost an egg a day each, which they never look at again, but they do like to build their communal nest in a different spot each night.

The other half of the building is the potting shed, which we also call the greenhouse, but that's stretching things a bit.

To construct this space, so necessary to the garden, we began by removing the south wall and framing in rafters for three sliding glass doors, which had been donated by a friend. These lean against the building and form a kind of large greenhouse window. The east wall, against the duck room, is for tools. Before doing anything else, we gathered the tools, old friends that had gardened with us on four previous sites, and hung them along the weathered gray boards: two round-point shovels, one square-point, one d-ring spade, a garden fork, a hay fork, two toothed rakes, one mattock, two stirrup hoes, a pry bar, a splitting maul, a bow saw, machete, lopping shears.

A comforting sight, these, lined up, waiting for orders. Even in the dead of winter we sometimes go out to look at them and touch each one.

The floor was a matter of concern. Former Owner had laid out some of the precious beams directly on the soil and covered them with 1/2 inch plywood. Dry rot and carpenter ants had made of this area a serious ankle trap. We asked our oldest boy and his friend if they wanted exercise. With the pry bar and the maul, they made a joyful noise and large chunks of erstwhile flooring flew out the door for about half an hour.

At first we considered using the bare earth, but as we knew we would be watering plants inside, we looked about for something more suitable. Bricks were what was wanted, but used bricks go for a dollar apiece hereabouts. I mentioned this, in a woebegone manner, to a friend.

"Well, I might have just the thing. There is a dangerous chimney on the house I use for an office building, which would cost me a fortune to have taken down by masons. If you can do the job I'll pay you and you can keep the bricks."

I thought this was a godsend and took our pickup truck and a rented forty foot ladder to the site. This turned out to be, to my horror, a two-story house with a sixty-degree pitch. I'd need the whole length of the ladder to get at the thing -- forty feet doesn't sound like much but just try it sometime -- but the bricks, the bricks!

Greed overcame good sense, and there I was, a million miles above the earth it seemed to me, plucking bricks from midair (the mortar was completely shot) and tossing them at random over my shoulder into space. They made a lovely truckload, though, and with the aid of our nine-year-old daughter, the next day, I laid them in a herringbone pattern, just like the ones pictured in garden books, and they made exactly the length and width of the room.

In the west wall we installed wood-framed windows in a row at table height, then dragged a suitable "bench" from the garage and painted it green ( for good luck? Why do we insist on green potting benches?). Using roofing nails, we covered the top of the bench with linoleum. The bench had been a kitchen cabinet once, but had long since lost its doors and hinges. We installed it along the west wall beneath the windows, and filled its shelves with clay pots, green plastic pots of all sizes, and tomato cans. With the addition of a watering can, two trowels, and a couple of bags of potting soil, the shed was done! Beloved ducked out.

I envisioned opening the door through the years, admiring the herringbone pattern of the bricks, the row of waiting tools, the sun shining in through the greenhouse window on ranks of flats bursting with lettuce, broccoli, chard...ahhh.

"Hello!" said Beloved, returning. "I need to put the duck feed, the rabbit feed, and the geese's cob in here."

Excuse me? Three large-size garbage cans? But there's no arguing with fate. Soon other items, large and small, came marching in, like animals into the ark. Boxes, lengths of hose, "white buckets" (even the green ones are called "white"), old pillows (she uses these to kneel on while working in the earth), you name it....

So now, in midwinter, when it's as dark as an eclipse all day anyway, is the time to clean out. Find out which things can go in the garage instead. Find all the broken plastic pots and move them out. Sort and stack the ones that are left. Take the edged tools, one by one, to the garage to be wire-brushed, filed, oiled, and have their handles linseed-oiled. Slowly the shed will begin to look useful. Even some of the beautiful floor begins to appear. But I don't think I'll ever get rid of those huge trash cans. They have made themselves At Home.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

January, Part 2

January, Part 2

There is another small mountain about two miles from here that is covered with a network of trails, and is the centerpiece of an attractive county park. The mountain's south slope is a steep meadowland, interspersed with copses of black oak, and dotted with wild plum trees. The north slope is forested with second growth Douglas fir and carpeted with an understory of sword ferns, viney maples, and filberts gone wild.

We like to hike to the top, though each year we find the going a little harder. We look about. Below, two rivers come together after dodging round the mountain toward each other. With binoculars we can find, in season, fishermen seeking steelhead and salmon.

To the north there is considerable urbanization; we can see at one glance the second largest metropolitan area in our state, but it is not unattractive as cities go, and we forgive its noise and bustle for its not being any worse (yet) than it is.

To the south and east is the valley of one of the rivers, opening out of the foothills of a substantial and still very wild mountain range. In winter the eastern peaks are dusted white with snow, and present a dramatic and lovely scene; but our interest is generally drawn to the near view.

At our feet we find a succession of habitats: the eastern ridge of the mountain, with Douglas fir forest to the left and oaks to the right, with perhaps a herd of deer placidly browsing in plain view; the meadowland within the park boundary, with a few pear trees left over from some farm venture in the previous century; the wetlands with its dark patches of sedge and the occasional blue heron.

Beyond are pastures, woodlots, filbert orchards, and fields used mostly for corn, hay, and grass seed farming. Threading among these, we see, are narrow roads along which are some two hundred houses, on properties of anywhere from one acre to two hundred acres, with their barns, outbuildings, and accumulated belongings left to the winter rains and summer sun: trucks, tractors, harrows, drift boats, and an occasional stove or washing machine. Most of us in this valley are not especially poor, but we are a thrifty people, many only two or three generations descended from pioneers, and we make but few trips to the county dump.

Who here can earn a living from farming now?

We are an amalgam of loggers, retirees, and commuters. The commuters are of two classes: 1) the professionals -- doctors, dentists, and the like -- and 2) everyone else. These are mostly school teachers, store clerks, office workers, retirees, and the chronically underemployed.

Regardless of category, almost every household has a garden. We can see the gardens from the mountaintop: at every house, a brown patch within easy access of the kitchen door. Some of us have enough pasture for a horse or two, or a few steers; at our place we have room for a flock of ducks and geese; but if there is nothing else, there is a garden. Gardens here have a priority over lawns. This is a thing that we greatly admire in my neighbors.

If, like the people in our valley, you want to grow things, it can be a good idea to first try to get such an eagle's eye view.

If no mountain is handy, try a map. Most gardeners know the dates of frost in their "zone," but there is much more to know. Find out the direction of the prevailing winds, the angle of winter sun, the temperature of June nights. Know the depth of the water table in August. All this is changing now, but the changes are still slow; the knowledge still matters.

From the mountaintop we can see that the valley runs east and west, and that the river is nestled against the northern hills; among these is Jasper Mountain, which looks much smaller than from here than from our garden.

Our own little piece of land is in the middle distance, on the long glide of slope from the south hills to the river. There is a seasonal creek through the property, dry in summer and a raging torrent in winter. This means that we're in a low-lying spot, subject to the movement of air. In winter the wind comes from the southwest generally, in the form of Pacific storms laden with incessant rain. These winds chill the soil, and the water that drops from them saturates it and renders it clammy. Pools lie on the surface in winter with no place to drain away to; the water table is very near the surface. Dig a post-hole anywhere and it fills to overflowing. So gardens tend to be planted late, well after the dates recommended on seed packets.

In summer the water table drops to ten, twenty, or even thirty feet, while the winds are continual, shifting daily from north to south. This is because of our mountain ranges. The sun heats the slopes, and air rises, drawing air away from the river bottom. At night, this air cools and sinks back down along draws and creek valleys toward the river.

Gardens in this drainage must be almost continually watered, as the tender plants are subject to drying out. Watering is more frequent than the books recommend; corn begins wilting within a day of its last soaking. At night the wind stops, but heat radiates away quickly beneath glittering stars, and temperatures can drop into the forties (Fahrenheit) by morning, even if it's been close to a hundred degrees during the day.

All this gives tomato lovers fits.

But we persist.

The wiser among us build wooden fences, or hedge their gardens about with shrubbery or even hay bales, to combat the winds and the heat loss. A heavy mulch would help, but the main mulching material is straw. The straw available locally contains a lot of weed seeds, and it invites tremendous armies of slugs and snails of all sizes. No one seems to care for black plastic, which takes a lot of fiddling with in the shifting winds, or newspaper, so most of the gardeners keep their soil bare and cultivated. The majority use herbicide to control grass, which is the primary weed.

"Beloved" and I have reason to believe herbicide is the greater evil in this case, and use the straw mulch, trying to stay just ahead of the weeds by piling on more.

It's January.

Most of us here have not had much chance this New Year's, to think about gardening. We have had record rains, with some manual gauges registering ninety-three inches. That other river, the one you can see to the southwest from the mountaintop, recently jumped its banks and flooded two hundred homes, making the national news.

The creek on our place, which doesn't even exist half the year, rose to the foundation of the house and flooded the potting shed, which we'd thought of as standing on high ground. Three fences were destroyed, and tons of earth moved in the general direction of the Pacific.

But the garden was spared.

The vetch that we planted last fall for green manure is intact, as are the piles of leaves and the compost bin. The wintered-over red chard is still useable, and our Detroit Red beets are superb. Meanwhile, our first harbingers of spring -- elephant garlic, growing from those tiny cloves that stay in the soil when we pull the crop -- have sprung from the cold, heavy soil, dotting the view from our kitchen window like randomly dibbled irises. And on the rainy nights, between the gusts of Pacific wind, we can hear the first chirruping choruses of the green tree frogs. We found one once in high summer, napping as it were, on the shore of a pond of water in the angle of a sunflower leaf. Their sound is a promise of sunflowers yet to come. We fall asleep to their frantic cheeping, and dream of green things growing in the sun.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

January, Part 1

January, Part 1

WE HAVE a handful of garden chairs stacked in the porch area of our country home, and from time to time we lift the topmost two from the stack, dust them off, and carry them through dew-spangled grass to a point below the fruit trees and above the garden. A vista opens across the neighbor's field to a bluff, or ridge, locally called Jasper Mountain, in the distance.

The ridgeline has changed shape a bit over the years, due to human activity. There has been intermittent logging over the last century and a half, beginning with the harvesting of giant Douglas firs, some over eight feet in diameter. These were cut by pairs of men with long handsaws known as misery whips; you can still see notches in stumps where the men stood on springboards while making the cuts. Now the cutting is more mechanized. Second-growth or even third-growth timber is efficiently reduced to second-grade lumber and "fiber" by highly capitalized and industrialized systems requiring generous doses of petroleum for their operation.

A few houses have appeared on the mountain's slopes, no doubt built with lumber hauled from somewhere far removed from the ridge and its sometime groves. These homes are expansive, two or even three stories in height, with cupolas and dormers, with each a large veranda and no doubt a swimming pool in the back. These testify to the power of bundled debt – while that lasted.

To get to these homesites, roads several miles long were added to the existing network of what were originally logging access roads, removing still more forest cover from the steep slopes. The roads added to the burden of silt in the numerous rivulets working their way down from the ridgeline to the river below.

The river is stressed -- not nearly so much so as at the Big City, a hundred miles or more downstream, with its three-eyed fish -- but where running water is concerned, such stresses are cumulative over distance. Wherever we find them, it is possible to regard them with interest.

We can also see changes in the massive promontory that gives the mountain its name.

The rock there is relatively high quality, a greenish basalt that makes good gravel for roads and construction sites. A quarry has been built into the face of the mountain, and a road, discreetly hidden among the remaining firs and big-leaf maples, provides access for huge dump trucks and wide-bladed dozers with gigantic diesel engines. These we cannot see or hear from our place, but from time to time an explosion gently rocks the valley, and for a few minutes the mountain resembles a small volcano as the powdered stone drifts along the ridge and down to the long line of cottonwoods along the river.

The quarry does not much spoil the looks of the promontory, because from this distance -- or even up close -- it looks like nothing so much as a natural scree slope somewhere in the higher mountains east of here. But this, too, with its road and its heavy equipment, adds to the burden of silt, with trace hydrocarbons and heavy metals as well, in the watershed.

All too true. And as we look closer to home, watching the chromed and painted monsters passing in front of the house, breathing out their noxious fumes, and noting our own such beast reposing in our driveway, and thinking how soon we will be mowing the grass under these fruit trees with yet another poisonous machine -- and from here we can also see our electric meter with its merrily spinning kilowatt-counting disk -- We're as aware as ever of our part in the curious web of capitalized destruction that has been devised and substituted for what might have been Western civilization.

And yet we're feeling remarkably cheerful.

That cheer, we recognize, is hardly justifiable. We're the privileged, an American couple in a not-poor neighborhood, which makes us part of the most massively consumptive minority in history. Nevertheless, the beauty in the scene before us, of sky, clouds, trees, stone, and the neighbors' ewes and lambs, costs nothing in itself; the price of viewing Jasper Mountain, which, with all that has happened to it, is well worth looking at, is zero.

Now, on the one hand, we have "bought" the right to look; the ad said, "country house with view." On the other hand, when we were younger, and had no land, no car, no family to support, and were living out of backpacks and our feet were our transportation, we saw just such views, and they were just as beautiful then.

Ownership is perhaps the most overrated concept in Westernism.

Busy-ness is a close second.

By sitting here, there are several things that we're not doing. We're (at the moment) not driving to the mall, not shopping, not eating a hamburger, not watching a car commercial. We're not tooling around in an outboard runabout, or on a jet-ski or snowmobile. We're not attending a football game, auto race, or rock concert. I could build quite a list here of "nots," but -- not to worry -- you can think of more of these, and never mind that yes, sometimes we do choose to do some of these things; attend a conference in the Big City, say.

But we are actively choosing to do fewer things, and less consumptive things, not as avoidance, as in "oh, mustn't do that," but as seeking out activities that have the inestimable value that viewing Jasper Mountain has -- partaking of the quality of being that, because it has no price in consumerism, barely has a name, but which every person in the "third world" who is habitually freer and happier than we -- and there are many -- would immediately recognize.

Disengaging from the error of capitalized gratification by thinking of it as error, by focusing on the negative, is a project fraught with stresses, pitfalls, failures and depression.

We're too deeply enmeshed, many of us, to take the bravest positive approaches, exemplified, in recent history, by so few: Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, Peace Pilgrim, Jane Goodall, Mother Teresa. These challenge us, and it's easy to focus on their commitment, conclude it is somehow unachievable for us, and drift back to our potato chips and our cable news, feeling vaguely depressed, wallowing in a gray fog of discontent with ourselves and our little self-defeating ways.

The good news is that none of them would condemn us for starting out with smaller goals.

A positive approach is not less positive for lasting for only a few years, or days, or even seconds. It is never a matter of scale.

Every moment of viewing Jasper Mountain is its own eternity of getting it right, and no one can ever take that away from you.