Sunday, August 16, 2009

On the Margins of Civilization: Introduction to the Goat Path

I wrote this as the introduction to my column in the Gila Sustainable Community Forum, but decided to wait awhile before I posted it. Evidently I waited too long, because now I'm canceling my column due to lack of feedback. (There seems to be a pattern at work here, wouldn't you say?) At any rate, it's a good piece of writing, so I'm posting it here:

I have a confession to make: I’m no longer an “American” in any commonly-accepted meaning of the word. Though I was raised in the traditional American way, with Mickey Mouse, Elvis, flav-r-straws, pop-tarts, church on Sunday and insufferably boring school that taught me how to daydream if nothing else, as soon as I was able I took a different path that shaped me in a different way from anything that could be called “American.” I followed what I call the Goat Path, and I’m still following it. I know that there are others like me who chose their own version of the Goat Path instead of the Freeway Path. With the Freeway Path, it’s all mapped out: good education, good job, good benefits, paid-in-advance burial plan... wow, that was pretty slick, wasn’t it? How quickly life went by when you’re at the end looking back! With the Goat Path, on the other hand, you don’t really know if there’s a path at all. Maybe this is all just a waste of time? Maybe I’ve been lost all along? Is that a trail over there, or just a bunch of rocks? You’ve got to read the signs and trust the intuition, and even then you might be wrong. There are no guarantees. In the words of the bumpersticker on the back of my van: “I chose the path less traveled. Now, where the hell am I?”

One of my favorite pieces of writing back in the 60s was “Four Changes,” written by the poet Gary Snyder (with a little help from his friends) in 1969. Google it and read the whole thing; it’s great. Here’s one of my favorite parts: “We have it within our deepest powers not only to change ourselves but to change our culture. If we are to survive on Earth we must transform the five-millennia-long urbanizing civilization tradition into a new ecologically-sensitive, harmony-oriented, wild-minded scientific/spiritual culture... Master the archaic and the primitive as models of basic nature-related cultures -- as well as the most imaginative extensions of science -- and build a community where these two vectors cross.”

As a scientist with a mystical streak, I found that concept exciting. How very different from the conventional middle-class reality I had been exposed to until then! Imagine, an ecologically-sensitive, harmony-oriented, wild-minded scientific/spiritual culture! This sounded like something I could really pour my life into! So I did, and found myself doing literally megatons of heavy lifting, and enduring years of solitude, and a touch or two of madness, or was that the wind of God? Life on the margins of civilization isn’t for the faint of heart.

As Joseph Campbell said in his epochal book, Creative Mythology: “We today, willy-nilly, must enter the [pathless] forest... and, like it or not, the pathless way is the only way now before us... Precisely between their God and Devil, heaven and hell, white and black, the man of heart walks through. Out beyond those walls, in the uncharted forest night, where the terrible wind of God blows directly on the questing undefended soul, tangled ways may lead to madness. They may also lead, however... to ‘all those things that go to make heaven and earth.’”

Whoa, what did I sign up for, anyway? Wait, let me think about this! But it was already too late.

Somehow I learned to scrabble together a living while remaining as free as I was capable of. Sometimes I felt like the only one living this way, but that wasn’t really true.

This all might sound unbearably airy-fairy to some, but what I’m actually talking about is nothing more or less than reality, which is ultimately incomprehensible and is all right here, right now, with nothing hidden from those who have the eyes to see. As the Zen master Hakuin (1685-1768) said,

This very earth is the Lotus Land of Purity,
And this body is the body of the Buddha.

To me, this seemed in stark contrast to the traditional (and trivial) Western worldview of dominance and exploitation that is even today destroying what’s left of our planet.

I’ve been stumbling my way along the Goat Path for 40 years now, and from time to time I’ve written down whatever the Muse has info-dumped through my brain. These stories and essays aren’t so much descriptions of the Goat Path, as manifestations of it. I hope you will find them enjoyable, and confirming of your own Goat Path experiences.