The hill and the lake

John Daido Loori (1931-2009), former abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York State, wrote:

Living on this mountain, I can’t help but realize that my body is completely integrated with the body of the mountain. Every time I drink the water that spills out of it into the mountain stream, the cells of my body assimilate it. My body is now largely composed of the water that comes from this mountain. We grow our food in the mountain’s soil. The plants start out as a single seed and, by taking water, light, and minerals from the mountain, eventually manifest themselves as fruits, vegetables, flowers. Thus, we take the mountain into our very being; we consume it. Our septic system even returns our waste to the mountain. How could we feel separate from it? (1)

I think of this passage often, as living where we do has made us very aware of the tight cycles of water and minerals we are part of, and of how inseparable our bodies have become from the hill and the lake. Our water comes not from a mountain stream, but from Saint Mary Lake, at the foot of the hill. The lake water is treated by a government agency and pumped up to a reservoir at the beginning of our driveway. We, too, use a septic system, and the septic field drains down the hill, back into the lake. If we used laundry detergent with phosphates (which we don’t), these would drain down the hill into the lake and exacerbate algae blooms. If we use antibiotics (which we try to avoid as much as possible but need to, occasionally), these kill not only the bacteria we don’t want in our bodies, but also the bacteria we do want in our septic tank. I fear antibiotics can also be found in the fish in the lake from the accumulation of traces in septic drainage.

View across Saint Mary Lake

Summer droughts are common on the island and living on the top of a hill makes our garden even drier than average, so we have learned to be very careful with water. We have two big rain barrels, for example, and saving the water from rinsing produce has become second nature. The water level in the lake is monitored carefully and, when it gets too low and water restrictions are announced, we put a big Rubbermaid bin in our bathtub and stand in it to take our showers. Using only natural soap and shampoo, our shower water (after it cools down) is fine to use on the ornamental plants, and the tub makes it easier to transfer the water to watering cans. It was a little funny at first to smell our soap on the plants, but now it is just another reminder that our bodies are integrated with the body of the hill.

Rubbermaid bin in a bathtub

Loori comments that his ideas on interconnectedness are similar to those of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I can’t be sure what writing inspired Loori the most, but I certainly see strong connections with this passage:

We cannot determine with what molecules the brain begins and the rest of the body ends. Further, we cannot tell with what molecules the body ends and the external world begins. The truth is that the brain is continuous with the body, and the body is continuous with the rest of the natural world. (2)

I hear Loori’s question as: “How could we feel separate from the mountain if we know we absorb its matter and it absorbs ours?” and the answer is in the question. Knowing rationally that I am continuous with the rest of the natural world is much easier than really letting that knowledge sink in and living in accordance with it. If I felt that my body is part of the mountain and the lake as much as they are a part of me, how would I live my life differently?

(1) John Daido Loori, The Eight Gates of Zen: A Program of Zen Training (Boston: Shambhala, 2002), 159.

(2) Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1967 [1933]), 225.