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It’s strange to be writing about mountains in central Iowa, one of the flattest regions of the country. Formerly tall grass prairie and teeming with wildlife, Iowa’s present land is a pale reflection of what it once was. Replaced by corn and soy crops in the Spring, Summer and Fall, it lies bare in the Winter months with little covering to support preexisting flora and fauna.
There is growing awareness of the need to “save the soil” through cover crops and prairie strips, and some farmers are taking this call seriously. Like many things, change is slow and requires a level of perseverance that few may be prepared to enact. The monocropping of the land doesn’t change the reality that I can drive for hours through cornfields that are as flat as a pancake. It also affirms a way of seeing the ground that, while having served humanity in terms of food production, is utilitarian. In other words, the land is not viewed as sentient and therefore (in our utilitarian oriented minds) entitles humanity to use it as we see fit. While proper stewardship of the land is a responsibility we cannot escape, I’d like to call into question the idea that land is dead or insentient. While some may argue right out of the gate that it is not inert because it grows corn and soy, I’d like to counter that by saying I find corn and soy fields largely uninspiring to look at. It’s not that they’re bad, nor are the farmers who put in a lot of hard work to cultivate the land, but my soul thirsts for diversity.
Where I trained in central Pennsylvania there is a very similar land ethic to Iowa, however, the terrain is quite different. There the soil is red, unlike the black soil of Iowa that has been singed by centuries of prairie fires. Perhaps the most striking distinction to the casual observer is the appearance of mountains. I could walk out the door of Mount Equity Zendo and see the mountains. Bald Eagle Mountain range was just off in the distance beyond the horizontal corn and soy fields. The level fields connected to the rising mountains in this area no doubt contributed to “Mount Equity Road” after which the Zendo was named.
Bald Eagle Mountain range was not named after the bird, as I once thought, but a leader within the Lenape (better known as the Delaware) tribe, a community of indigenous people that still exists today. This tribe has three clans within it, one of which is known as the “Muncy.” In the 1800’s the Lenape were pushed west by the expansion of the United States, and we find evidence of this westward movement by place names such as “Delaware,” “Muncy” (in Pennsylvania), and Muncie (in Indiana). The Lenape are perhaps better known for their “ceding” of what is now New York city and the surrounding Islands to settlers for a minimal price, yet their distinction from other indigenous tribes is often erased by the term “Indian.”
Bald Eagle Mountain range and other mountains like it comprise what is known as the Appalachian Mountains which span from Alabama all the way up to southeastern Canada. The Appalachian Mountains are considered older than the Rocky Mountains. Scientific studies of plate tectonics and sedimentation have revealed that these creatures (the mountains) were born some 480 million years ago and were once just as tall as the Rocky’s are today. Now, they are like old men and women with their hunched backs illustrating the Buddha’s teaching that no one can escape old age, not even a mountain. Yet to the common observer it may seem as though the mountains have always been the way they appear today.
Zen Master Dogen, in the 13th century on the mountainous Island nation of Japan, exhorted his students to observe the mountains “walking.” He was not privy to the extensions of the senses that technology has afforded modern humans. Meditation, rather, enabled him to see deeply into the nature of impermanence. Knowing that “mountains walk” with the intellect is not the same as penetrating it in the way that Dogen poignantly describes in his writing. Practice is seeing that we are those mountains walking. Dogen says:
The monk in this image is standing on the bank of a river (or maybe a field) and is contemplating the mountain walking. This requires a deep time view. It requires that we keep alive the question, what was here before any of us was alive? Or perhaps, who was here before us? Who was here before our great grandparents? The Zen koan that invites us into a deep time view is, “What is your face before your parents were born?”
Returning to central Iowa, nestled between the two mighty rivers – the Missouri on the western border and the Mississippi on the eastern side – and to the Midwest sanctioned by the Rockies on the western bank and the Appalachians on the eastern edge, I find it imperative that I invoke my imagination to see with deep time eyes, that these two mountain ranges have been playing a tug of war with each other as they rise and fall, and thanks to them our prairies, too, walk.