Nebraska, Nebraska!

In the morning I wanted to do a hike, but Päivi was itching to get on the road while traffic was low (she was not enjoying the 385 quite the way I was), and she won. The road actually started to get tamer than the section we had entered on, but it was still a beautiful run. The Black Hills are like a miniature version of the Rockies – the mountains are less high, the valleys and peaks are closer together, but the vegetation and general appearance is similar. The air was cool and freshly scented with pine, though many of the trees were falling prey to mountain pine beetles.

We made our first stop at the Crazy Horse Memorial. This is an incomplete mountain sculpture several times the scale of Mount Rushmore. Whatever you may think of the practice of carving mountains to human likeness, you can certainly choose your sides in the white man – Indian conflict here. Having become increasingly disillusioned with American political culture over the past decade, we visited Crazy Horse and left Rushmore for another time.

By the time of Crazy Horse, the mid 1800′s, the fate of the American Indian was becoming clear. Those tribes that still had the will and resources to fight, the Lakota, or Western Sioux foremost among them, were in their death throes. Crazy Horse led the Sioux in battle for some years, but ended up surrendering, but was apparently uneasy in captivity, and was killed, unarmed, possibly while resisting (accounts differ), at Fort Robinson in what is now Nebraska. The monument we were visiting was commissioned by surviving Lakota tribe leaders some decades after things were settled.

Päivi and I talked about what the monument meant while having lunch in the visitor center cafe. Many Americans, myself included, will speak with regret about how the Native Americans were treated, but we are here now, and it’s unclear what other outcomes were possible. And it seems to be a basic fact of human history that cultures overcome other cultures, whether physically, as in North America, or linguistically and socially, as in South America, or with the spread of Indo-European speech long ago in Europe. The reasons for victory are not always the same. The well-known book Guns, Germs, and Steel gives the named reasons, as well as availability of food crops and animals for domestication, for the spread of European cultures in the most recent half-millenium, and some propose that the Indo-European language, ancestor of nearly all the languages spoken from Europe to north India, spread with farming.

Although the process must be said to be a natural one in human development, the results are not always optimal. In recent times we’ve seen the Han Chinese spread to Tibet, creating the diaspora of a uniquely spiritual society, and we’ve seen Russia spreading across the Asian continent, and a large part of Europe as well. (And almost more of Europe, a subject rather sensitive to my Finnish wife.) And while it might not always be physical aggressivity at work, it seems there is often a certain “pushiness” in the cultures that do win out. We can wonder whether this is a unidirectional process, so that cultures get pushier and pushier over time, or if there is a kind of waxing and waning in which the pushy winner softens up after a while, eventually to be replaced by another no more pushy than it originally was. The example of the Roman Empire (and for that matter, the much shorter-lived Mongol one) seems to suggest this.

At any rate, we had to leave these topics and get back on our motorcycles. We headed down, next through Wind Cave National Park, which is actually not what you would expect. You might think it’s a place with rock formations carved and sculpted by the wind, including some cave-like portions. But actually it’s a traditional underground cave system formed by trickling water. Some 140 miles of passageways mapped so far, all found at multiple levels beneath just a square mile of surface. We did not grant ourselves the time to wait for and take a tour of the cave, because it would have taken up the whole afternoon and kept us from getting to Nebraska today. But we did stop and gawk at some of the buffalo herd that has been introduced to the national park lands.

Sometimes it’s unbelievable to imagine what American man in the 1800′s was able to accomplish. Not only was he cutting down vast tracts of forest in the east, but he was slaying millions of buffalo in the west. It’s hard to see what the populations of the time could possibly have done with all that wood, or understand why all these animals had to be killed.

We left Wind Cave and carried on down through the last bit of South Dakota into Nebraska, where we’d make our way over to Chadron and Chadron State Park. After all that we’d been seeing today it might seem that Nebraska would be pretty boring, but that was not the case. It was flatter than the prairie we’d been seeing lately, but also a little greener, and there was precious little to interrupt the view looking out from the road. It really felt like we had space; room to roam.

In the state park the hilliness returned, punctuated by rock outcroppings and scattered pine trees. Päivi went for a swim, and I headed out on a run up into the hills. The evening sun lost its glare and then set altogether, but the air remained warm, with brisk, cool breezes washing through up in the higher areas.

There was something intoxicating about the terrain here. Kind of like a rolling prairie with occasional rock outcroppings and occasional groves of trees. I felt like I could run forever through it, and somehow this mental energy translated to physical ability, since I ran far better than the shape I was in should have allowed me. As I mentioned before, a broad view on the prairie is a different matter from one on the ocean, or in the desert. In the ocean, you are tied to your boat, a big unwieldy contrivance (even something as big as a car is considered clumsy if it drives like a “boat”); without it you are dead. In the desert, you can go simply on foot unimpeded in any direction, but in most of those, again, you do not live long. The sense of freedom is not there.

And in fact the freedom you can feel in the prairie is related to the Buddhist state of enlightenment. One view or aspect of enlightenment is to be free of karma. This may sound strange. Karma as we have said is the result of cause and effect operating in the external world — how can one be free of that? But in Indian traditions, there is not necessarily an “external world”, and so more is under one’s own control than one may think.

How is there no external world? We have all heard the brain-in-the-vat thought experiment, or of Plato’s cave, in which all that we see, hear, and feel is just imagery projected on the wall of a cave, like a film. We sit immobile in the cave, thinking we move muscles and act in the world. But it is all the film, being adjusted to our every action and impulse. Or in modern terms, our brain is sitting in a vat in some superior scientist-being’s lab, and computer-generated electrical signals are fed in to the sensory nerves, while machines read the output of our motor nerves and adjust the computer’s signaling accordingly. Taken to an extreme, the entire universe that we can ever become aware of is contained within these signals. But if you remove the operator of the film projector, or controller of the nerve signaling machine, and put yourself in this place instead – identifying yourself with the divine – then you must accept that the universe is contained within our consciousness. This is sometimes called the microcosm-macrocosm identification.

So in the Buddhist view karma is not really a physical law, describing how bouncing billiard balls (people, atoms) interact, but a mental one, describing how past thoughts (or thoughts that become actions) affect future thoughts.

But let’s take a detour and think for a moment, of a leaf that has fallen into a stream. It is swept along by the current, bobbing up and down, flexing, stretching. Every such movement affects the internal structure of the leaf – perhaps a xylem or phloem passageway is broken or permanently warped, maybe a cell wall is ruptured. Or maybe even subtler changes take place, at the molecular level. Perhaps the orientation of a number of polymer bonds within some of the cellulose is reversed, for example. Any of these changes will affect how the leaf reacts when pushed by a microcurrent within the water immediately around it, which may then affect which way the leaf turns, or whether it dives below the surface at this particular moment, or stays on it. It may determine which larger current or eddy within the stream catches the leaf, and where it gets taken.

It might be said that our brain and therefore our mind is like the leaf, far more subtle since it receives sense impressions from so many more diverse sources, but essentially the same in the respect of past experience having its (complex, indirect) effect on future behavior. But when you combine this with the microcosm-macrocosm idea, you see this is karma.

And it is the Buddhist view that this is not a mandatory, required property of how the mind operates. It is something fungible, that can be overcome through a special kind of mental discipline. One can learn to act independently of past experience – or of worry over future fate – purely on the basis of the present situation. Of course us lower beings scarcely have a chance at that. We can only catch a scent of it, when finding ourselves in a situation with many options, whose consequences have little relation to our past or effect on our future. Like for example when finding oneself out in the middle of the prairie, with a pair of running shoes, on a clear day in the early evening.

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125 miles.

About ABR

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One Response to Nebraska, Nebraska!

  1. Jarrett Cooper says:

    If “pushiness” is the means by which cultures expand, we’d all be New Yorkers. Wait a minute…

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