Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Same and Not the Same

"Wholes and not wholes; brought together, pulled apart; sung in unison, sung in conflict; from all things one and from one all things...As the same things in us are living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old. For these things having changed around are those, and those in turn having changed around are these...Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not." - Heraclitus

When my parents, my father's grandparents, and I visited Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser in 1970, I remember it as an unassuming "mound" with steam coming out (before the awe I felt upon witnessing its eruption for the first time as a 10yo!), nestled slightly beyond a small walkway from Yellowstone's famous old faithful inn (built in 1904). There were no main thoroughfares, no parking lots (save that for a relatively small one near the inn), no boardwalks. We parked our car right by the geyser, walked out to Old Faithful, waited about 20 minutes or so for it to erupt (it was a bit more regular than it is now, thanks to myriad small earthquakes over the intervening years that have affected subterranean water levels), and were on our way. My, how times have changed! Or have they...?

Nowadays, the area around Old Faithful resembles more a small town - with a major parkway leading into it, several huge parking areas, lodging, shopping, a nature center, and more boardwalks than Coney Island and Atlantic City combined (or so it seemed) - than some "not easy to be discovered" marvel of nature. One could be forgiven for missing the geyser entirely, given the voluminous activity swarming all around it, passerbys appearing more interested in licking ice-cream cones and texting their friends back home about how "great Yellowstone is" than waiting for Yellowstone's patient sentinel to burp its superheated water for a few minutes. More than once did I hear a child ask her parents, "Where is the geyser, mommy?" while standing almost directly in front of it!

While it is easy to lament the "loss of innocence" (I lamented a different, more personal, loss in my last blog entry) associated with the development of any natural park designed for public consumption (the deepest personal lament of this kind may arguably be ascribed to Ansel Adams, who - in revealing the stupendous beauty of Yosemite Valley to the public - also rendered it forever impossible to experience as an isolated wilderness, I will not dwell on this aspect of our experience of Yellowstone; instead, I will muse on what I found at Old Faithful in more general terms of what it says about the impermanence - and permanence - of reality.

On the crudest level, Old Faithful remains "Old Faithful"; i.e., it is a geyser (located about 17 miles west of West Thumb Basin) with a more-or-less regular eruption schedule (about 65 minutes in 1940 to 90 +/- 10 minutes today). The dynamics of its eruptions has remained the same, even as the individual molecules of water continually change from eruption to eruption. But as I've just described, the visitor's experience of Old Faithful is dramatically different from what it once was (and was for me in 1970). Where, in decades past, one could view the geyser in relative isolation (if one so chose) - a communion, of sorts, between civilization and pristine nature - such a communion is now all-but-impossible, as Old Faithful must compete with impatient swarms of jostling and always-chattering bodies, not-so-distant belches of diesel-powered RVs and trucks, and an occasional screech of tires as cars and buses attempt to avoid wandering hordes of tourists lost -or soon to be - in vast parking lots. Meditation helps, of course, to refocus the mind on the Old Faithful; and, truth be told, the sheer wonder and delight of seeing a massive 150+ foot column of super-heated steam and water suddenly erupt from a hole in the ground never gets old. The child-like state of innocence I wrote about in my previous post was, during this trip, perhaps easiest to realize at Old Faithful, where one cannot help but stand slack-jawed in awe of nature's magic. My experience of the erupting geyser - sans surrounding noise and clicking cameras - was essentially what I remember it being 42 years ago.

But, in the end, what do we really mean by "Old Faithful"? Is it the geyser? the geyser erupting? the water underneath the geyser? the surrounding area? the "experience" of watching "it" erupt? the tourist-driven infrastructure that envelopes "it" (and all surrounding geysers)? What has remained the same, and what has really changed? Labels, labels, and more arbitrary labels, all pointing to "something," and yet none describing anything of lasting meaning or value. 

And so, how fitting it is that an old "faithful" wonder - the same and yet not the same as it once was - sagely reminds this self-professed observer of wonders of the folly of wondering about the labels of things. "Old Faithful" is as an imprecise, imperfect label of a "geyser" in Yellowstone as "Andy" is an essentially vacuous label of a "photographer on an RV trip to Yellowstone with his family." Impermanence bleeds from words and arbitrary attachments; and permanence is but an impermanent illusion. All things are the same and not the same. And Old Faithful is no "thing."

"We are like the spider.
We weave our life
and then move along in it.
We are like the dreamer who dreams
and then lives in the dream.
This is true for
the entire universe." 

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