(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2013)
“Your life is the fruit of your own doing.” Joseph Campbell
One of my favorite stories from Joseph Campbell is of a wise man introducing his young son to one of the great mysteries of life. They are sitting together under an enormous banyan tree, which is a tropical fig tree, and the man asks his son to pick a fig and cut the fruit in half.
The boy slices the fig in half and his father asks him, “What do you see?”
“I see thousands of tiny seeds,” says the boy, marveling at the innards of the fig.
“Now take one of those seeds and cut it in half,” says the father.
With some difficulty, the boy manages to extract a single seed from the fig and cut the tiny thing in half.
“What do you see?” asks the father.
“I see…nothing,” says the boy.
“From that nothing came this great banyan tree,” says the wise man. “From such nothingness came the entire universe.”
I often think of this story when I am planting rows of lettuce or carrots, the seeds so small and seemingly insignificant. Of course I know there is something inside the tiny seeds from which will sprout, under the right circumstances, shoots of life that will grow into scrumptious heads of lettuce and sweet carrots, but that something is so tiny that until very recently in human history we lacked the means to see that something was there inside the seeming nothingness.
“Where every something, being blent together turns to a wild of nothing.” William Shakespeare
Yesterday as I was walking through the Harvest Market parking lot in Mendocino, I saw an astounding scene. Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say I saw a scene that astounded me. The scene might not have astounded someone else and thereby would not have been universally astounding. In any case, here is what I saw.
Parked between, and dwarfing, what I had theretofore considered a large Volvo station wagon and a large Mercedes-Benz station wagon was a humongous green pickup truck mounted on a massive tubular suspension attached to four gigantic tires such that the bottom of the behemoth truck was elevated a good seven feet off the ground. And as I was trying to imagine why anyone would want to suspend a truck so high off the ground, a man inside the cab of the truck opened the driver’s side door and climbed down the several silver rungs of the ladder/stairs used to access the cab from the ground and vice-versa.
The man—I guessed he was in his late twenties—was wearing camouflage fatigues, brown boots, and a green Australian outback commando quasi-cowboy hat. He was not a big man and seemed positively tiny juxtaposed to his enormous truck suspended high above him atop the massive tubular suspension affixed to the four gigantic tires. He came around to the back of his truck, pointed a remote control device kin to a television channel changer at the tail of his vehicle, and another ladder of silver steps was slowly extruded from a slot just below the bottom of the tailgate and came to a stop about a foot off the ground. The young man then climbed up the ladder/stairs and opened the tailgate of his colossal rig.
At first I thought his tailgate would open downward, as does the tailgate of my itsy bitsy teeny weeny pickup truck, but the young man’s tailgate was split in the middle and each half could be opened out like the door of a refrigerator. I stood in frozen fascination as the young man opened the right side tailgate door and in so doing revealed that the mammoth bed of the gargantuan truck held nothing but a small green plastic box from which the man extracted a big red dog biscuit. The man then closed the plastic box, closed his tailgate, descended to the ground, the silver steps were sucked back up into the tail of the truck, and the man returned to the driver’s side door of the truck. He then climbed the silver steps, opened the door to the cab, and gave the dog biscuit to a tiny dachshund.
“One must bear in mind one thing. It isn’t necessary to know what that thing is.” John Ashberry
I love how when we thank someone in Spanish by saying Gracias, the response is usually De nada, which means It’s nothing, but which might also be translated Of nothing, which suggests to me that embedded in the language is the humble acknowledgment that all the gifts of life spring from the same nothing from which the universe was born. Perhaps I’m reading too much into a simple figure of speech, but I don’t think so.
When I was twenty-one, I was the translator for a marine biologist and his family traveling from California to Costa Rica and back again. We were a low budget expedition, to say the least, traveling in a large International Harvester delivery truck that we remodeled to sleep eight people, so we only needed access to a bit of level ground for our nightly accommodations to be complete. Thus every day in the late afternoon, wherever we happened to be, my job was to find us a spot where we could bivouac, and I would do this by hailing someone I liked the look of and asking if he or she knew of a good place in the vicinity where we might camp.
I made this request of men and women every afternoon for the six months we traveled in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica—more than one hundred and fifty times—and virtually every time I asked, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a dondé podemos acampar?” the person would reply without hesitation, “Yes. I will show you a good place.” or “Yes, you may camp here on my property.” or “Yes, come to our village.” Sometimes our hosts were poor, and sometimes they were wealthy, relatively speaking. Sometimes we stayed on farms, and sometimes we stayed on the outskirts of villages, but no matter where we stayed the people always brought us gifts, usually of food.
A man in Nicaragua invited us to camp on his beautiful farm and gave us as a going away present a huge bunch of green bananas that ripened slowly and sequentially so we had perfectly ripe bananas every day for weeks. A family in Mexico gave us a place to camp right next to their small adobe house, and in the morning before we departed they insisted we pick vegetables from their big garden. A fellow in Costa Rica took us to a camping spot on the banks of a crystal clear stream in which there were thousands of tiny silver fish, and that evening the fellow and his wife and children came to visit us, bringing with them a pot of delicious turtle soup to share. And once we stayed in a village where the people were very poor, yet two children were sent to us by their mother to present us with a little basket containing three freshly made corn tortillas.
We always thanked our hosts profusely, and we often invited them to join us for supper, though such invitations were rarely accepted. I also always offered to give our hosts a little money in thanks for their generosity, but very few people, even those who were obviously poor, would accept money for the help they gave us. And every time we took our leave and I said to our hosts Gracias mucho, the reply was invariably De nada accompanied by smiles and Buena suerte—good luck.
I know things have changed greatly since that expedition in 1970. Today, eight scruffy gringos in a yellow milk truck would probably not be treated so kindly and generously as we were treated in those countries forty years ago, but I still marvel at how willing so many people were to invite us into their lives. And I wonder what I would do if tomorrow a van pulls up beside my garden where I’m weeding and watering, and a scruffy fellow leans out the window of the van and says, “Excuse me, but do you know of a good place around here where we can camp tonight?”
I would probably suggest they try a nearby state park or private campground, though those places are no longer the bargains they used to be. Or I suppose I could invite them to make their camp right over there by that little stand of redwoods on the corner of our property. They wouldn’t be in our way and they’d be gone tomorrow. I could give them some vegetables from our garden, vegetables that came from nothing, and I could ask them where they came from and where they were going. I could do that, I suppose, though I would have to like their vibe. No, I would have to love their vibe, and only then would I open our place to them.