The maples are still blazing outside my two-room flat in suburban Japan, and the skies, in mid-December, are still blue, blue, blue, warmer and clearer than those of California. The temperature is higher than it usually is, and yet winter is often inexplicably warm and invigorating here in the outskirts of the eighth-century capital of Nara, where the center of town is given over to twelve hundred roaming deer and a temple. Besides, the lesson of the autumn, every year in Japan, is that everything is moving, aging, falling away, and nothing is really changing, deep down. Every year brings the same autumn in the midst of shifting (and enduring) circumstances.
Wherever I go on my travels, people are telling me about freaks in the weather. In California, where my mother lives, they’re all wondering where the rain has gone. A forest fire came within two miles of her house last August — smoke rose above the hills for two months and my car got so coated in ash that its roof corroded — and threatened to raze to the ground the house that she had built after a previous forest fire wiped out our home and six hundred others. In the Himalayas, where I’ve spent some of the year, people don’t know what to do with the crops and cycles that have sustained them for centuries, now that the temperatures are so unnaturally high. In Jerusalem, where I go tomorrow, there has been concern for millennia about how to get the inner thermostat right, and try to keep fervor, passion, and conviction alive without excessive heat, the kind that destroys as much as a forest fire might.
Our outer environment can only begin to be healed by our inner, and I’m not sure we can ever truly tend to our polluted waters, our shrinking forests, the madness we’ve loosed on the air until we begin to try to clean up the inner waters, and attend to the embattled wild spaces within us. Action without reflection is what got us into this mess in the first place, and the only answer is not action, but, first, clearer reflection. A peace treaty signed by men who are still territorial, jealous, or unquiet — Jerusalem tells me this — is not going to create any real peace at all. A commitment to the environment based only on what is outside of us forgets that the source of our problems — and solutions — is invisible, and that “nature” is a word we apply to what’s within as well as without.
How to find the right heat that can bring focus and determination and light to the issue, without raging out of control? How to keep some cool, too, some sense of proportion, that reminds us that our seasons are all mixed up, and it is a sense of cycles as much as of progress that we need? Things don’t necessarily go forward; they come around.
I make my own small efforts to play my part, living in a small room in the middle of nowhere, with no bicycle or car or printer or iPod or cell phone. I try to keep myself clear by not bringing newspapers or magazines or TV programs or World Wide Web into this space. I turn off lights and make the tiny gestures that, if more of us do them more often, can make a tiny difference. But mostly I try to think how cleaning up my own debris and setting the thermostat within can finally be the best contribution that any nonspecialist can make. Take care of the roots, and the flowers will take care of themselves.