Last night, Clif and I went to Waterville for a Cinema Explorations meeting. (Cinema Explorations is a community-curated film series that runs from January through March at Railroad Square Cinema. Clif and I are on the planning committee.) As we sat at the long table in Buen Apetito and drank margaritas and ate chips with salsa, we talked about the 2015 film series. Overall, it was a success, and there will be a 2016 Cinema Exploration film series.
Once business matters were settled, we moved on to other topics. I sat across from Sam and Alan, who manage Railroad Square, and we talked about the glorious spring we are having. Perhaps it’s no nicer than any other spring, but after the hard, cold winter we had, this spring seems especially sweet.
Sam said, “Alan and I love to go to a swamp not far from where we live and listen to the peepers this time of year. We went the other night, and the peepers’ song was so loud. I am always moved by it.”
I knew what she meant. “It is the oldest story in the world,” I replied, “but somehow it never gets old.”
Each spring, after the quiet of winter, life bursts out in every direction: leaves and blossoms on the trees, flowers in the garden, unfurling ferns, and the green flush that spreads across the lawns and fields. Insects emerge—some welcome, others not so much—and the small frogs sing their loud, ardent songs.
At the little house in the big woods, I wait for the return of certain birds that have come to seem like old friends. The loons, with their wild, lonesome call, have returned to the Narrows, and we live close enough so that we hear them almost every day. Yesterday, when I was hanging laundry, I heard a hermit thrush, a modest brown bird with the most piping, ethereal voice. Soon the humming birds, with whir of wings and flash of color, will return, and I will hang out their feeder filled with sugar and water.
For thirty years, I have been rejoicing when the loons, hermit thrush, and hummingbirds return. This familiar cycle never gets old or stale. It never loses its charm. I suppose you might even call this rejoicing beginner’s mind, a Zen Buddhist concept “where everything is fresh and new,” even when it isn’t.
My friend Barbara Johnson, who has been dead for ten years, was the perfect example of someone who had beginner’s mind. Barbara was a keen observer of the natural world, and she studied it with the zeal of a true naturalist. One time, when we were driving somewhere—I can’t remember where—Barbara suddenly cried out, “Oh, stop, stop!”
She startled me so that it’s a wonder I didn’t drive into the ditch. Somehow, I managed to safely park the car on the side of the road. On the other side of the road was a snapping turtle laying eggs. The car had barely stopped when Barbara jumped out, racing across the road to observe the turtle.
How many times had Barbara observed a snapping turtle laying eggs? Many, many times, but with Barbara this event was as fresh as the first time she saw it. Truly, Barbara had a beginner’s mind that a Zen master would envy.
When it comes to spring, it seems to me that most people have a beginner’s mind. With sheer delight they greet the return of leaf, flower, and bird, even though they may have seen this return many, many times.
As William Wordsworth wrote, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”