Chapter 16 – Like a Song
Attain the utmost in Passivity,
Hold firm to the basis of Quietude.
The myriad things take shape and rise to activity,
But I watch them fall back to their repose.
Like vegetation that luxuriantly grows
But returns to the root (soil) from which it springs.
To return to the root is Repose;
It is called going back to one’s Destiny.
Going back to one’s Destiny is to find the Eternal Law.
To know the Eternal Law is Enlightenment.
And not to know the Eternal Law Is to court disaster.
He who knows the Eternal Law is tolerant;
Being tolerant, he is impartial;
Being impartial, he is kingly;
Being kingly, he is in accord with Nature;
Being in accord with Nature, he is in accord with Tao;
Being in accord with Tao, he is eternal,
And his whole life is preserved from harm.
(Lin Yutang’s translation, 1955)
I have just returned from a week of hiking in the South Lake Tahoe area, with one day on the lake in a boat. Since that experience is fresh in my mind, I would like to work it into this post. I will start with the name.
The Washoe people took this area as their summer home for hundreds of years before the first Americans – Fremont and Carson and their expedition – passed through in 1844. Tahoe seems to be a mispronunciation of the Washoe words “Da ao,” which look and sounds a lot like “Tao” but mean something like “deep water”; or “Da ao a ga,” which means the “edge of the lake.” Beginning from that tie to Taoism, I am going to indulge in a couple of metaphors.
The lake was formed thousands of years ago when a mountain range was essentially split in two. Fault lines, which still exist, thrust upwards on the West, creating the Sierra Nevada, and on the East, creating the Carson Range; while down dropped blocks created the Tahoe Basin in between. In the millennia since that movement, more than 190 square miles have filled with water – to an average depth of more than 1000 feet – creating what we know as Lake Tahoe. The lake is the home of various fish, like trout and the kokanee salmon that leave the lake and run up Taylor Creek during spawning season in late September and early October. Around the lake are fir and aspen and pine trees, including the majestic sugar pine, the world’s largest species of pine, with its huge cones. Those forests are home to bears and bald eagles, beaver and osprey, squirrels, chipmunks, mink and many other animals.
Thus, like the Tao itself, we see the one (the original geologic uplift) giving rise to the two (the mountains to the East and West) creating the three (the mountains and the lake basin) which bring about the 10,000 things (all the flora and fauna).
One of the most beautiful areas in the basin is Emerald Bay, near the Southwest corner of the lake. In the mountains above Lake Tahoe there are many lakes that were formed by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Emerald Bay was originally one of those lakes, but its glacier kept pushing to the East until it broke through to the big lake.
Again, like the Tao itself, separation became unity.
Turning from those metaphors to this Chapter 16 of the Tao Te Ching, we must consider how things rise up to activity and fall back to repose. As my wife Cathy and I hiked the Sierra Rim Trail and the Desolation Wilderness area, we reached altitudes of 7000-9000 feet above sea level – thousands of feet above the lake. It was early September and in those mountains some aspen leaves were beginning to turn gold and the ground cover showed patches of red and yellow and orange. We did not see any bears, but their tracks were occasionally visible. We knew they would stay active until the salmon had finished spawning and then prepare to hibernate for the winter. We saw several waterfalls with only a trickle of moisture which we knew would become raging torrents in the spring. The cycle of the seasons is activity and repose.
One day as we were climbing to another mountain lake, a tune popped into my head – John Stewart’s “California Bloodlines”; and especially the verse that goes:
Have you wondered where we were before we were born?
Rollin’ round the heavens like a song.
I know it’s then I saw the big Sierras,
Saw a California sunrise comin’ on.
Even if you are not familiar with John Stewart the recording artist, you probably know his songs. His works became hits for groups as diverse as the Kingston Trio (“Chilly Winds”), the Monkees (“Daydream Believer”), Roseanne Cash (“Runaway Train”) and Fleetwood Mac (“Gold”). Stewart left the Kingston Trio in the late 1960s and began what looked to be a successful solo career.
His first solo album was called Signals Through the Glass, and it was a good indication of what was to come. Stewart wanted to capture the feeling of the American heartland that he saw in paintings by artists like Andrew Wyeth. He spent hours looking at slides of those paintings as he wrote his songs. The most haunting song from that collection is “Cody,” telling the story of an aging pioneer who is dying as the West he knew dies around him. There were other masterpieces like “Pirates of Stone County Road” and “Mother Country” with its vivid portrait of E. A. Stuart, an old horseman, now blind, driving one last time behind the old campaigner, Sweetheart on Parade (easily the finest horse the good Lord ever made).
One of Stewart’s songs that I often think of as reflecting the Tao is “Spinning of the World,” in which he asks: “Is it wrong to be so much in love with a girl/That you can’t tell her voice from the spinning of the world?” I can imagine Lao Tzu replying, “I can’t either.”
By the mid-1970s, though, his popularity had begun to wane. Away from the big crowds and rock star status, Stewart’s voice turned harder and a bit raspy. He maintained a cult following for decades while the Americana music he embodied was commercialized by artists like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp.
John Stewart suffered a stroke and left this world in early 2008. His songs, of course, are still rolling around the heavens and fit perfectly with the big Sierras. This is another example of a kind of rise, a fall back to repose and a return to Destiny.
Lake Tahoe and its surroundings illustrate the principle on a larger scale. The sugar pines which flourished there for centuries are now dying from white pine blister rust, which is a non-native invasive fungus. Looking to the distant future, the mountains will erode and there will be changes due to earthquakes along the faults. A million years hence, you and I won’t even recognize the place. Still, it is Nature in accord with the Tao; eternal just as it was, just as it is.