28 Feb 2013
The landscapes of childhood can mark us deeply, something we realize especially when we’ve been away for a time and revisit our native place. We often rediscover on such returns some familiar yet ethereal features we had forgotten, such as how the sunlight slants across the cityscape at just this time of year, or the particular quality of the mountain air or the scent of the breeze off the sea.
For the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “inscape” meant a landscape in all such irreproducible individuality. A poet sees in this way, but so does the sensitive native of a particular locale. There is a kind of innocent and gentle patriotism-of-place that results from consciousness of this inscape.
I myself have felt this influence of my native place in various ways and at different times, including one with an unexpected connection to meditation.
I grew up in a residential neighborhood at the top of Capitol Hill in Seattle, one block from a 40-acre parcel of public land called Volunteer Park. Until about a century ago, Volunteer Park had been a tangle of fir, cedar and vines on the undulating clay ridge between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. The city fathers of those days, eager to hasten the transformation of Seattle from the rough logging and shipping town it had recently been into something more sophisticated, contracted the country’s leading firm of landscape architects – the only such firm, in fact: the Olmstead Brothers.
The Olmsteads were artists whose canvas was the land. Following in the footsteps of their legendary father, Frederick Law Olmstead, they seemed to believe that while God had done a pretty commendable job with the earth, the place was not above a little aesthetic improvement. They cleared stands of trees and planted others where they thought they ought to be, filled in ravines, dug ponds, and created meadows. This was muscular gardening: why use a trowel when you can use a bulldozer?
For all their manipulation of the landscape, the Olmsteads wanted their designer’s hand to be unobtrusive. That meant working with native species and sculpting the land while not obliterating its natural contours. Like a good corset, an Olmstead park respected the natural curves – but enhanced them a bit. Although you could hardly say that the results were natural in the sense of wild and untouched, they were nevertheless remarkably serene and calming.
When I began meditating, this childhood impression returned to me of a landscape that, while full of natural and native elements, had also been tamed. Here’s why: Meditation is often described as a path; it’s a journey, as John Main and so many others have said. This enticing image of the path, however, may risk being conflated with the alluring (and characteristically American) myth of the open road, the idea that the way to deal with problems is simply to leave them behind. From foreign military adventures and environmental exploitation to personal relations and even spiritual life, when things get too messy, we can always just hit the highway in search of new, unsullied vistas.
The image of the path as a metaphor for meditation only works therefore if we understand it in the context of the inner landscape – our “inscape” – through which it passes. It can’t be a path of escape leading us away and over the horizon, but rather deeper into that interior homeland. And we soon discover that this terrain needs work: there are valleys to fill; rough places to be made smooth; crooked ways straight. Left in a wild state, it’s dense and impassible. (In the Pacific Northwest, the natural forest was a dark, damp, impenetrable place; the native peoples wisely kept to the river valleys and sea-beaches.)
There’s landscaping to be done, in other words, and it’s a project of Olmstead proportions. We can’t avoid this work, because this is our home; we have no other. But it can be done, with time, attention and fidelity to our practice of silence and stillness. Meditation is this work of sculpting our inner landscape.