(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2012)
“Things filled men with fear: the more things they had, the more they had to fear. Things had a way of riveting themselves on to the soul and then telling the soul what to do.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.
Marcia and I recently watched the marvelous documentary The Salt Men of Tibet, and if you’ve been feeling jangled by modern life, I think you will find this movie a helpful antidote to that jangling. The pace of the movie reflects the pace of life for these nomadic salt men who leave their womenfolk and children to walk with a great herd of yaks, forty yaks per man, to a remote salt lake from which they harvest salt to trade for barley so they and their people may survive another year. Walking to the lake takes the men and their yaks a month or so, with the return trip—each yak now burdened with two large sacks of salt—taking forty-five days or more. Thus three months of every year in the lives of these men is consumed with going and getting salt, and each minute of those three months is part of an all-encompassing sacred ritual.
The film begins in a hut in a mountainous wilderness in which there are no trees. A woman is singing to the salt men, her song the story of Lord Buddha and the events composing the spiritual basis for the reality these men and their families inhabit. The salt people are devout Buddhists and believe their salt lake to be an intelligent and emotionally sensitive being who is deeply influenced by the actions of those who wish to gain the boon of salt from her.
At the conclusion of the woman’s song, the spiritual stage now set, preparations for the incredible journey begin. What we soon realize is that these people live without electricity and motors, their fires fueled with yak dung, their clothing and rope and blankets made from yak wool, and that every aspect of their lives is consciously spiritual, for they believe that everything—every step they take and every word they speak and every animal and object they possess—is presided over by gods and spirits and Buddha to whom they speak and pray and sing throughout their days.
“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” Shunryu Suzuki
The day after we watched The Salt Men of Tibet, I went out into the garden to harvest our garlic crop, and when I realized I was rushing to complete the task, I thought of the salt men, took a deep breath, and slowed way down. And as I slowed my actions, many blurry things came into focus. I became keenly aware of the beauty of the roots of the garlic clinging tenaciously to the soil as I pulled the dying plants from the ground, which tenacity and beauty reminded me that I was harvesting the children of the marriage of the garlic plant with the soil, children I would soon be eating so I might go on living.
Blessings on the soil and rabbit poop and compost and horse manure and rain and microbes and time and sunlight and darkness and gravity and air and all else constituting the fabric of life wherein our holy garlic flourishes.
“Before the whites came, no one in Australia was landless, since everyone inherited, as his or her private property, a stretch of the Ancestor’s song and the stretch of country over which the song passed. A man’s verses were his title deeds to territory. He could lend them to others. He could borrow other verses in return. The one thing he couldn’t do was sell or get rid of them.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.
I am currently reading The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin’s classic about the aboriginals of central Australia in the late twentieth century. The book was first published in America in 1987 and is by far my favorite of Chatwin’s works. This is my third reading of The Songlines, my first in a decade, and I’m finding the text wholly new, which is both pleasurable and perplexing. How could I have forgotten so much of this fascinating information? If you have not read The Songlines or if it has been some years since your last reading, I highly recommend the book as another good antidote to the frantic pace of modern life that so grievously obscures our perceptions of the infinite nuances of Nature—the aboriginals of Australia believing that for anything to exist, it must first be sung into existence.
“A ‘stop’, he said, was the ‘handover point’ where the song passed out of your ownership; where it was no longer yours to look after and no longer yours to lend. You’d sing to the end of your verses, and there lay the boundary.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.
In 1964, when I was fifteen, my family and I went on a Sierra Club trip to a high Sierra base camp on the North Fork of the San Joaquin, a seventeen-mile hike from the last trace of what might be called a road. Joining us at this remote base camp were thirty other people, and one of these intrepid souls was an elderly Italian man who had played the clarinet in a famous symphony orchestra for most of his life.
Every morning he would rise at dawn and climb to the top of a rocky knoll overlooking our camp and sound the breakfast bell, so to speak, by playing on his clarinet a gorgeous rendition of Oh What A Beautiful Morning; and rain or shine his music ushered in the light of day as I lay in my sleeping bag listening to those voluptuous tones giving form to the formless void and filling me with desire to get up and live.
“Richard Lee calculated that a Bushman child will be carried a distance of 4,900 miles before he begins to walk on his own. Since, during this rhythmic phase, he will be forever naming the contents of his territory, it is impossible he will not become a poet.” Bruce Chatwin from The Songlines
One of the many things I appreciate about The Songlines is that Chatwin resists the impulse to portray the aboriginals as heroic and the Europeans as villains. Each person in the book, regardless of skin color, is presented as an individual with flaws and virtues, beauty and ugliness, so that my own tendency to lionize the indigenous and villainize the colonists is constantly derailed by Chatwin’s fairness, which allows me to surrender to the unspoken message of the story that each of us is the creation of the culture in which we are born and raised; and the most remarkable people are those who practice generosity rather than selfishness, regardless of their particular cultural programming. Indeed, the book is full of little acts of kindness and generosity without which life would be no fun at all.
“All things considered there are only two kinds of men in the world: those that stay at home and those that do not.” Rudyard Kipling
Another thing I love about The Songlines is that the book is a jumble of ideas and anecdotes and theories about human behavior set against the backdrop of a rough and tumble journey through the outback in search of places sacred to the aboriginals, which turns out to be almost every place. At one point in his outback odyssey, incessant rain traps Chatwin in a remote outpost for several days, a time he uses to read through his many notebooks filled with stories about various nomadic societies and remembrances of his fascinating discussions with Konrad Lorenz (author of On Aggression) and Elizabeth Vrba, as well as several mind-bending theories about the evolution of human society in that long ago time when our ancestors were the favorite food of gigantic cats.
“A leopard at the kill is no more violent or angry than an antelope is angry with the grass it eats.” Bruce Chatwin from The Songlines
There is one scene in The Salt Men of Tibet I’ve thought about several times since watching the movie, and every time I think about this scene I feel grateful for the wisdom it imparts. For the purpose of saddling the yaks, one of the salt men is gathering the big animals and tying them to a long assemblage of rope laid out on the ground. As the man goes to get one of the yaks, the big animal moves away, not wanting to be caught. The man follows the yak, but does not hurry. The yak eludes the man three or four times, yet the man never quickens his pace as he follows the yak and eventually catches him.
As I watched the scene, I found myself growing increasingly impatient with the man following the yak, and I nearly shouted, “Just move a little quicker and grab him!” But that is not the way of the salt people. Hurrying and grabbing might frighten or anger the yaks with whom the salt people have a profoundly symbiotic and respectful relationship. The salt people could not survive without the yaks, for these sacred beings provide the salt people with milk, butter, fat, fire, fabric, transportation, and warmth—life!