Regeneration and Deep Time

“At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us…..What is the history of things to come? … The Anthropocene asks of us the question memorably posed by the immunologist Jonas Salk: ‘Are we being good ancestors?’” Robert McFarlane (2019) Underland: A deep time journey.

In deep time, there is regeneration. At Kathy Whilden’s* suggestion, I am reading Underland by Robert McFarlane (2019). I read slowly sometimes just a page a day. Exquisite teachings require time. Sometimes, it takes years, decades, a lifetime for words/ideas/practice to become integrated into the heart/mind. Underland is the world below the light of day—catacombs,** roots, mold, fungi, caves, subterranean rivers. Negative spaces below ground teeming with life, communication, and regeneration all of which teach us about what is above ground. Think fungi networks, for example. We see individual trees in a forest but cannot see what lies below, an underland, a silent mutuality. of roots, rhizomes, fungi, and the chemistry of mother trees.**

This post asks if “regeneration” is useful in the human realm? We do not use the term regeneration in Soto Zen in the West, nonetheless, the general idea seems useful to me (and perhaps even, implicit in various of teachings by ancestors).

In my experience, being a zen student means following precepts in our lives with others. Relationships. Yeah, no kidding, this is hard. And, I am not talking about rude people who cut you off in traffic (and btw, why do we so often default to traffic. The driver that cuts you off or tailgates you is often the least of it). We all have had things that are hot in our lives. Maybe difficulty with someone (a co-worker, family member, near enemies**), frustration with a situation in which we find ourselves, or perhaps fear about what happens next with _________ (go ahead fill in the blank).

over land bamboo and red cedar

over land bamboo and red cedar

Regeneration according to Suzanne Simard,*** a forest ecologist, happens in the underland where mycorrhizal networks (hyphal) connect different species of trees across vast distances. We can’t see this. Scientists know it only because they track radioactive carbon from tree to tree. The networks turn out to be remarkably resilient. After the ultimate devastation, the atomic blast in Hiroshima, scientists discovered the fungi networks, perhaps boosted by the radiation, were an important part of regeneration of the forest ecology.

In zen practice, we often hold up the ideal of harmony, or as Dogen instructs, zen students should be like milk and water. I recall hearing a friend vow, jaw clenched, “I will be water, flowing around rocks.”

What are the conditions for regeneration that are underneath or beyond language? Does regenerative politics necessarily involve talking, mediation, silence, other activities?

the roots of underland sprawl above ground, note—human in the distance is in proper proportion to the mountains and rivers

the roots of underland sprawl above ground, note—human in the distance is in proper proportion to the mountains and rivers

Here’s Ryokan’s opinion (he felt there was, in general, too much talking):

“Talk is always easy

Practice is always hard

Its no wonder people try to make up for their of hard practice with easy talk

But the harder they try, the worse things get

The more they talk, the more wrong they go

Its like pouring on oil to put out a fire

just foolishness and nothing else.”

from Great Fool, Zen Master Ryokan (Abe and Haskel, 1996, University of Hawaii Press)

This is the end of the post. If you want to know a little more about why this post, and links from the post, please continue below. .


Note 1: I’ve wanted to write about what is now a common-place feeling of “us versus them,” the feeling of being aggrieved, sorrow/disappointment about X, Y, or Z, the feeling of being diminished. Between individuals or groups, sure, mediated conversations may be helpful, training in right use of power is indispensable. What if the process of the foregoing dead ends, or worse, deepens rather than repairs? What if the difficult relationship is not personal, but structured or shaped by habitual social practices of gender, age, hierarchy/authority, cultural difference, etc?

Note 2: To be honest, I am sometimes uncomfortable with the perception that dissonance is always interpersonal, and, can be managed as individual difference. At worst, I worry that invocations of deep time, true reality, may inadvertently gloss over the historicity of now— the specific conditions of culture, faith, difference, inequality, terror that shape our lives. How to mend the ultimate with the now?

Because of the above, though it is possible to do so, I’ve hesitated to emphasize how McFarlane’s text is like Dogen, or vice versa. However, that said, I am aware that one could claim that McFarlane provides the science, exploratory adventures, and affective life of being in the underland to several Dogen fascicles (Mujo-Seppo comes to mind, as does Uji or “being time,” and many other fascicles)*. However, let us not belabor making underland like dogen or vice versa.

Note 3: The concept of deep time shares kinship with geologic time, and with other constructions of historical time for example, the longue duree (Annales School, and, F. Braudel) and, even the economist notion of Kondratieff cycles.

* Kathy Whilden is a priest and heir of Katherine Thanas (Monterey Bay Zen Center) and founder of Brown Bag Zen.

**Boomeria, Santa Cruz (now closed to the public) is my personal nightmare—catacombs, narrow passage ways, trap doors, in which one feels their way in utter darkness to an exit or just stays lost for hours.

***Suzanne Simard is a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia and you can learn more about mother trees and her work in the link below

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