In January, our minds turn to books about mindfulness. OK, maybe not all of us — but New Year’s resolutions and long, dark nights tend to incline readers in that direction. Two 2012 releases from Vermont authors explore the contemplative life in radically different ways. One is poetic and sometimes esoteric, studded with Chinese characters; the other is brightly illustrated and confessional.
Unlikely as it may seem, Vermont is home to two mountain-dwelling men named David who write poetry directly inspired by the sages of ancient China. David Budbill is perhaps the more familiar to locals. But David Hinton of East Calais is both a poet and a much-lauded translator of classical Chinese poetry and philosophy, including the Tao Te Ching and the Analects of Confucius. In 2004, we wrote about his innovative Fossil Sky, a poem in the form of 54-inch-square “lyrical map” that can be read in any sequence one chooses.
Now Hinton has produced Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, a slim paperback from Shambhala Publications that, like Fossil Sky, is several things at once. It’s a record of Hinton’s autumn walks on the titular mountain near his home. It’s a primer on ancient Chinese intellectual concepts — which Hinton calls “secular, and yet deeply spiritual” — with etymologies of the corresponding graphic characters. And, frequently, Hinton’s prose flowers from erudition into something resembling both poetry and prayer.
Take the chapter devoted to the concept of “cosmos.” It begins with Hinton seated on his terrace, “wasting time easily in the sun.” From there, he proceeds to a discussion of the character representing cosmos, which Hinton translates more literally as “space-time” or, even more literally, as “breath-seed-home.” But, just as Hinton begins drifting toward mystical reverie on the life force, he returns, as always, to the concrete: “Passing the garden, charmed by drunken bees dozing on the blossom’s sun-warmed whorl of sticky-sweet seeds, we look into a blazing sunflower’s huge gaze, keeping alive that moment the seed-lit universe first became visible.”
In his preface, Hinton notes that the Chinese sages’ worldview is “remarkably contemporary” and similar to concepts such as “deep ecology”; neither recognizes Western thought’s traditional separation of self (or spirit) from nature. Rather than being a static oneness, the Buddhist and Taoist cosmos is defined by flux — “possessed always of a restless hunger,” writes Hinton, who celebrates that deeper implication in Hunger Mountain’s name.
While Hunger Mountain isn’t always easy reading — the etymological sections can be slow going — Hinton illustrates oft-trivialized Eastern concepts with precision, beauty and power, tying them to our daily experience of the world. For the philosophically inclined, it’s hard to think of a better volume to bring on a daily mountain walk.
Christina Rosalie’s A Field Guide to Now: Notes on Mindfulness and Life in the Present Tense is illustrated in the literal sense: Rosalie, also a mixed-media artist, alternates text with full-color vintage postcards that she has transformed using vivid paint and collage. Also billed as a “field guide,” her book combines self-help format (definitions, activities for the reader) with memoir.
While Hinton’s book never delves into the author’s personal life, Jericho-based Rosalie’s is dominated by a confessional element. Long essay sections describe the author’s struggle to appreciate the present moment as she faces life’s vicissitudes: giving birth to a second child, weathering an economic downturn.
Accordingly, readers’ responses to Rosalie’s exhortations to “claim the day with gusto and bravery and longing” may depend on how well they relate to her personal story. But even those who find the narrative a mite self-absorbed will appreciate prose like the author’s evocative description of her young son, as she rubs his back and worries about his health: “His scapula are like sharp clay wings, and I can count each of his ribs like the hull of a canoe that is drifting away from me on feverish eddies of sleep.”
If these two books are any indication, winter is the time to take a long hike inside your head — while keeping your eyes open to the beauty of the frozen world.
Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape by David Hinton, Shambhala Publications, 145 pages. $14.
A Field Guide to Now: Notes on Mindfulness and Life in the Present Tense by Christina Rosalie, Globe Pequot Press, 181 pages. $18.95.