Mindfulness in the Woodpile

by Barbara Barnett

I came to the retreat with a mind very much like the leaves being blown every which way in that strong warm wind.  It was hard to settle.

I had learned an exercise in contemplative photography from a good friend, a professional photographer and longtime Insight Meditation practitioner.  Take your camera out, be still, and wait to see what calls you.  Then stay, stay for an hour or so, and see what emerges.

I took my camera out on Saturday morning.  The woodpile called me to see what I was seeing. Stillness in the midst of that wild warm wind.

I was drawn first by the texture of the bark – but as I paid attention I could see whole worlds, landscapes, textures, colours.

And in the midst of that beautiful hypnotizing richness, I saw surprises.

This little beauty would soon be blown on her way.

But this one had been here for awhile.

And this one for even longer, living on the bark, long before the tree had been cut down.

And who knew what beings had found their home, deep in this ancient trunk, leaving traces of their passing.

This tree had grown for more than 130 years before it was cut down.  I could see the years of drought, the years of rainfall, and the traces of another being.

Just a woodpile – a time of stillness, of seeing what I was seeing, of seeing more than I believed it was possible to see. And since then, a time of reflection.  These words from All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, wandered into my mind. He is writing about coal, but shifting the time frame, and the substance, the concept still opens the mind and the heart in wonder at the interconnectedness  and impermanence of all beings.

Consider a single piece glowing in your family’s stove.....that chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago,.....or maybe one hundred million.....Every summer for the whole life of that plant, its leaves caught what light they could and transformed the sun’s energy into itself. Into bark, twigs stems.  Because plants eat light, in much the same way we eat food.  But then the plant died and fell, probably into water, and decayed into peat, and the peat was folded inside the earth for years upon years – eons in which something like a month or a decade or even your whole life was just a puff of air, a snap of two fingers.  And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up, and the coal man brought it to your house and maybe you yourself carried it to the stove, and now that sunlight – sunlight one hundred million years old – is heating your home tonight.

What an insight to hold when you are seated by the bonfire, fed by that tree.

Barbara Barnett