The Life of a Babbling Brook
The Setting of the Solitude ProjectKeywords: metaphor, water flow, nearby nature, eco-solitude, creek, Atlantic Highlands
THIS COASTAL MOUNTAIN with its twin-lighthouse is often the first sight of land for sailors approaching New York Harbor. It is the highest natural point along the two-thousand mile expanse of the Atlantic Seaboard from Maine to the Yucatan in Mexico.
The People first came here 10,000 years ago to hunt bison. They camped in the mighty oak forests by these streams and estuaries and feasted on oysters. It was from this high place the People watched the first light of the day rising from the revered Great Waters and warming the land. They held Vision Quests on this sacred highlands site and honored the grandfather spirit who lived in these hills.
Springs flowed like endless fountains from the dark inner chambers of the mountain. These were considered holy sites by our ancestors-in-place who led deeply religious everyday lives and understood the world through ancient ritual and symbols.
For thousands of years, the forest creatures and the people shared the same path on their daily visits to the nearby spring. On the banks of this stream, the life stories of countless generations of men and women and children unfolded.
Little did I realize what I would learn from this stream.
Part I: BIRTHPLACE
December 7, 2009 (Two Weeks till Winter) On the Path
Walking up the hillside bluff, with the dull roar of the ocean to my back, I pass a water spout where the ancient Lenni-Lenape People drank and where Henry Hudson’s crew came ashore to fill their wooden water caskets. At the top of the ridge I enter an oak forest filled with the leafy smells of late Autumn. Turning to my left I descend into a bowl-shaped hollow whose contours have been delicately revealed by last night’s dusting of snow.
The Source of Many Mind Creek, the babbling brook near my home, is only a short stroll down this side of the valley. These deep slopes of tall oaks and scrubby mountain laurel form a giant basin that collects much of the rainwater that falls on these hills. From these headwaters, cool fresh water springs forth. It has been purified and stored in the pockets of rock beneath the ridges and hills.
Pristine water oozes from the moss and roots of a giant oak like a nourishing gift from the mountain. A small wooden footbridge eloquently marks the birthplace. The headwaters gather speed and glisten as they tumble150 feet down the south side of the deep hollow. Many Mind Creek has begun the journey of its life.
Soon there is a startling sequence of events. The stream loses its focus after ¾ of a mile.. It abruptly takes a hard right turn and starts to flow in a new direction. Then it renounces that mid-course correction by twisting right and heading westward for a half mile. At this point it turns again taking dead aim at the bay and streaming for another half-mile before bursting out onto a sunny beach. It is a dramatic and quirky ride!
The first English settlers noticed the Creek’s eccentric behavior as they built cottages along its path. They observed its dramatic two mile lifespan from mountain source to ocean merging. The stream certainly did keep changing its mind along the way, so they decided to name it Many Mind Creek.
Today I came here to follow up on an ancient conversation between a student monk and a Zen Master. It took place around 870 AD on a path near a Buddhist monastery in a remote mountain area in southeast China.
Monk: Where can I enter Zen?
Master: Can you hear the babbling brook?
Monk: Yes, I can hear it.
Master: Then enter there.
This time of year the monks would have been observing Ango, a two-thousand-year-old annual Buddhist practice. During the rainy season the monks would cease their traditional wandering and settle in for an intense period of study and meditation until the rain stopped. If the monks had lived here, the stillness of winter would have offered them some of the deep sense of vastness and clarity they valued. The creek’s flow would have taught them about change and impermanence. The many-minds of the creek would have reminded them how their own “many-minds” tried to chatter away during the quiet of their zazen meditation practice.
During this Ango I have decided to continue this venerable dialogue to see where it leads. For me, “listening to the babbling brook” means paying attention to the flow of nature. There’s nothing more flowing than water. This place is a natural portal to solitude for me.
These headwaters are a perfect place to listen and enter the flow. The murmuring brook is a sound of silence – you must be very quiet to hear it. Listening is flowing.
Solitude seems to grow well in this season of quiet. In winter, snowy forests become spacious sanctuaries with the stillness of a remote monastery. In this solitude I feel the flow. I must follow the stream.
I fill a clear glass carafe with the cold creek water. I want to take something tangible home as a reminder about the flow during the winter.
January 7 (18th Day of Winter) On the Path
I walk beside the brook as it flows through the quiet winter landscape. Many Mind wanders through a neighborhood thick with homes and backyards. It passes under streets and intersections and gurgles past apartments and businesses and parking lots. At points it sinks into oblivion among tall reeds and old diversion channels. Parts of the creek become visible in winter without the usual thick screen of undergrowth.
It takes less than a half day to walk from the Creek’s source to the finish. Much of this time is spent confronting side streets with dead ends and fences and muddy swamps. Walking is a fragmented experience rather than a flowing whole. At home, my glass vessel holds water from the babbling brook, but not its flow.
January 21 (32nd Day of Winter) At the Headwaters
I return to the Creek’s source once again on this blustery winter morning. My footsteps in the frozen forest echo as I enter the hush of an empty natural amphitheater.
The creek babbles as the blasts of wind roar overhead through the towering branches of the great oaks. Something twirling catches my eye and lands on a small mountain laurel beside the path. It is a feather, a sturdy one whose quill is longer than my hand, probably from one of the fish hawks soaring around this mountain coastline in winter and nesting far above.
I imagine how this rugged feather could sail all the way down to the sunny beach at the mouth of the Creek. What a glorious adventure that would be! Humans just weren’t the right size for taking a trip on this creek in its present state. I impulsively place “Lone Feather” into the stream, as a way to follow the life of Many Mind Creek.
The moment ends abruptly. After only a few yards in the stream, the feather snags in a tiny sand island formed by the exposed roots of a small holly tree. But soon, thanks to the ever-flowing current, it clears its first hurdle. Lone Feather has begun its quest.
Part II: THE MORASS
January 22 (33rd day of Winter) On the Path
It didn’t take long to realize what a harebrained idea it was to send Lone Feather on this convoluted voyage full of diversions, detours and blockages. As it limps along downstream it will be caught in the muddy eddies and marshy grasses, becoming deteriorated and frail.
This gloomy prognosis becomes more troubling when I learn that the Lenni-Lenape called the Creek “Cu-pa-nick-i-nu”, “obstructed stream”. Further explorations downstream reveal a morass of thickets that could clog the flow as effectively as the blockages doctors found in my coronary arteries. Many Mind Creek and I both had some challenges and distractions. My own social claustrophobia helped me know the feeling of being snared by entanglements.
Was it a frivolous waste of time to walk these empty woods, sending an innocent feather down the cluttered stream? Running deep in my veins are the Protestant work ethic and Methodist social activism. But in recent years I have followed my decision to live a life with more solitude and flow. For me this has meant paying closer attention to the nature around me, and having fewer social involvements. This intentional choice has transformed and enriched my life. It has encouraged me to explore our fuller spectrum of connections to our natural surroundings.
January 30 (41st day of Winter) On the Path
During the long winter chill, I have been accompanying Many Mind on its journey to the sea by visiting points along the way. Downstream, the first change of direction brings the creek into grassy marshes full of muddy cul-de-sacks and sad accumulations of litter. Here, in the creek’s middle age, the flow is sluggish and stagnant and full of detours from the flowing current.
At home, the carafe of creek water rests peacefully on my window sill. It gathers into itself the vast background of ocean and sky and delicately glows in blue luminescence.
Part III. LIBERATION
February 15 (57th day of Winter) The Merging Place
This bright winter morning I walk further downstream to where the Great Merging begins. This is the place where Many Mind Creek’s fresh water begins to merge with the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean. We are entering a new reality, where life begins to dramatically change.
It is an ignoble spot. After struggling through the swampy land behind the Foodtown and the dark lifeless channels buried underneath Route 36, Many Mind comes dripping out of a large concrete drain partially clogged by wet leaves and debris. For half a century, a small coal-tar processing plant operated here polluting the stream with contaminants.
But the mood quickly lightens. Two pairs of ducks happily bob around in a sunny stretch between a pair of small wooden bridges. Soon we arrive at the spot on the stream where Lenape families once gathered to cook and eat together, discarding so many oyster shells that the white deposits still remain.
It is a strange Alice in Wonderland world where old rules of reality are turned upside down. New forms of life begin to appear out of the nourishing waters, and some even sit by the stream making croaking sounds.
The flow of the creek reverses direction and falls under the irresistible spell of the inhaling and exhaling tides. With the regularity of monastic bells, a still point is reached four times a day when the currents are temporarily balanced.
Something big is about to happen.
March 20 (last day of winter – 1st day of Spring) Many Mind Creek Beach, 9:30 am
On this small sandy beach Many Mind completes its two mile lifetime of twisting and turning, going forward and reverse. It has grown to fifteen feet wide as it flows out of the tall grasses and enters this sunny space.
This winter I have witnessed the birth, a lifetime of diversions, and now the final moment of Many Mind Creek. The stream has become a living flowing organism to me.
Maybe even Lone Feather will someday complete its voyage, as frayed and worn-out as any of us would be after the long journey downstream. Dead-ends and detours would have distracted us, but the water just keeps flowing and moving us along.
The creek is temporarily swept clear by yesterday’s storm. The downpour in the steep hills to the east has sent rainwater surging downstream while the storm tide has rushed in from the bay.
Many Mind meanders across the beach to become part of the Great Waters again. A soft loitering breeze brings moist warmth to my face and tells me that the creek is becoming rainwater again. It is beginning another cycle of flow from Source to Source.
Namaste, Many Mind Creek. And goodbye, Lone Feather, wherever you are.
March 21st (2nd Day of Spring) Many Mind Beach, 6:47 am
I awake with a vivid scene in my mind. A single feather appears in a blaze of sunlight and a crescendo of fluttering gulls. It flows into an ocean that sparkles like joy itself.
* * * * * * *
To trace the history of a river or a raindrop…is also to trace the history of the soul.
– Gretel Ehrlich