In Tibet they practice celestial burial. The deceased’s body is cut up into pieces small enough to be fed to the gathered vultures, who, because of this practice, are considered sacred birds. In our part of the Adirondacks we see few vultures, but, in part, a like ubiquity of rocks drives certain practices here.
During our early family summers on the edge of Adirondack wilderness, we children dreaded being assigned to bury the garbage. Waste disposal still decentralized in the early 1950s. To find where you could dig a hole deep enough to inter garbage was a serial ordeal of trial holes frustrated by hitting nonnegotiable rocks.
I was fourteen years old the last year we buried the garbage. My friend Larry Strausbaugh came up to the cabin with my parents and me. Given the choice of cleaning the privy – more on that and rocks later – or burying the garbage, Larry leaped to choose garbage detail. I knew I could whip through – however unpleasant – “cleaning the John” in 30 minutes. Larry would still be poking the spade at trial holes. Celestial garbage disposal would make more sense. But instead of vultures we would attract black bears.
You’d need a backhoe to bury garbage so an opportunistic black bear couldn’t get it. Today, garbage disposal and recycling entails complex rituals – pre-printed labels, bag fees, and an overseer at the landfill some 10 miles’ drive from our cabin.
Perhaps pioneering a paperless society, Zen monks have long wrestled with the koan: “Does the shitstick have the Buddha nature?” As community service ritual, cleaning the John approaches celestial burial. Even the redoubtable Ralph Waldo Emerson asked: “What of the divine in a barber’s shop or a privy?” Like celestial burial, our method of cleaning the John is grounded in ecological determinism. If you can’t even bury camp garbage, how could you dig a pit toilet?
We use the “hay ball roll method.” There is no pit. The first to arrive at the cabin lays down dry hay inside the John and out its open back as a 12-foot carpet. After you use the John, you sprinkle a partial cup of wood ashes on the pile and apply a handful of hay as covering. When the two-holer gets full-ish, more ashes and hay are applied. You rake the accumulated hay mass out the back, rolling it up in its hay carpet to let it compost. The late ecologist Anne La Bastille, author of the Woodswoman books, told my mother Alice Zahniser that ours was the sweetest-smelling outhouse she’d ever encountered. Large red raspberries fruit behind the John, but we counsel guests and young children against eating them.
Celestial burial or hay ball roll outhouse: The point is rocks and a dichotomy. Some Adirondack rock ranks among Earth’s oldest exposed rock, but the landscape may be even newer than Tibet’s Himalayan upthrust. The late Pleistocene unpleasantness, the Ice Ages, withdrew here less than 10,000 years ago. (Some who winter here say it has yet to withdraw, despite climate change.) A surge of cooling in the 1700s caused starvation in Switzerland. At Glacier Bay, Alaska, huge ice sheets drove coastal Tlingit Indians from their ancestral homelands then and created — gouged out — Glacier Bay. The earlier Ice Ages’ legacy, even in the south-central Adirondacks, is thin topsoil. Rocks and prodigious sand masses abound. Given the raw materials, stone foundations were the norm for buildings.
“Where the wilderness begins,” proclaimed Paul Schaefer’s August 1946 telegram announcing the success of my parents’ purchase of the cabin. Mateskared is the last place at the end of a two-mile road out of Bakers Mills. Were this the account of one of my grandfathers, neither of whom lived to see our place, it might read: “Ours is the fourth from last place on the road north out of Bakers Mills that goes on over to the Chatiemac Road.” Years before, at least three more subsistence farms pushed against the wilderness just uphill of our place, and Edwards Hill Road made a right-angled turn eastward to the Chatiemac Road. A few weeks earlier in 1946, my father had first seen the cabin and plot of land. He was taking a last walk uphill with Paul Schaefer on the last day of our family’s first Adirondack sojourn that summer, “Rough untillable acres” also figured in Paul’s telegram. Indeed! It was a subsistence farm then owned by Pansy and Harold Allen.
The young couple had bought the land the house sat on as a piece blocked off from the much larger farm of Pansy’s parents, John and Hester Dalaba. Her parents had named their daughters for flowers — Pansy, Daisy, Blossom, Fern, and Carnata – and their sons for trees – Oliver, and Linden. Two years after John Dalaba died in 1951, Hester sold my parents a few more acres down the hill. This was necessary to clear up the informality of the earlier Dalaba-Allen transfer of the property.
“Part of your barn is on me.” John Dalaba had once confided to my father in the intimate language of a farmer who farmed as much with his hoe and footsteps as with his horse-drawn machinery.
The southeast corner of the cowshed Pansy and Harold built onto their small hay barn encroached on the Dalabas’ Hillmount Farm. Even into the early 1950s the Dalabas ran their cows on our place, fencing our cabin in to keep their cows out. Bovine fence breachings were common. On our arrival at the cabin, us kids’ first chore was to pick up the cow pies inside the barbed-wire fencing. Old pies were no sweat. Fresher ones were great temptations – for flinging at your siblings. There is no running water at Mateskared. The hand pump Harold and Pansy had connected inside the cabin to the pipe from the spring across the road did not convey with the property. The nearest swimming holes are not within walking distance. Cow pies could become brief accretions of personal and family history.
Celestial burial would not have developed in the Adirondacks even in the absence of Christianity. There are too many trees. It is a constant fight now, even with resort to chain saws, to keep some of our once grazed-to-the-nubbin subsistence farm free of trees so our summer sojourns can have their moments in the sun. Ample log funeral pyres would stand in for the sacred birds.
My wife Christine Duewel and I live in the Potomac River town of Shepherdstown, the next town upriver from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. At our church there on one communion Sunday, I was contemplating the parable in the Gospel of Luke about the wise man who built his house on a rock. This parable was later co-opted as the children’s example-story of the “Three Little Pigs” and the wicked wolf who huffed and puffed until he blew down all but the third little pig’s brick house. The third little pig was evidently a theological Calvinist devoted to the work ethic. Taking communion, I was struck – for some reason or unreason – with how Tibetan celestial burial shared the ecological imperative of Adirondack rocks that drives Mateskared’s outhouse methodology.
I first saw photographs of celestial burial in a coffee-table book about Tibet. At first I found them gruesome photographs. Reading the captions helped what I know about mountain environments to kick in and to begin to negotiate with my gut reaction. And as I took communion that Sunday, it struck me that at Mateskared we too practice a ritual transubstantiation not unlike the transfer, in reverse, from the corporeal to the celestial made through the agency of the vultures as sacred birds. “This bread and cup are for us all” had been the sermon theme. So, too, in much of Tibet, sooner or later, celestial burial is for all.
Christine and I lived at Mateskared from late April into early October one year. I set right in to growing a small garden. Preparing it from sod on the small flat right above the cabin was one of the most laborious, tediously methodical projects I have ever undertaken.
“Did you have a garden that summer?” people would later ask.
“Yes, I built one.”
Removing rocks, or at least the rocks I could remove, proved the easy part. I had to leave one tip of a rock where its probable boulder placed it – the farther I dug down around it, the larger the rock seemed to become, as though in some sorcerer’s apprentice nightmare it actually grew in response to my attempts to remove it. I could not dig down to any point where the mass seemed to begin to lessen rather than simply spread below me.
Perhaps our luck with that garden came because it perched atop a pyramid, although the efficacy of pyramids supposedly relates to focusing energy within them. (Even convoluted thoughts provided scant entertainment as I built the garden.) I was not shaving that summer, so I didn’t test this evidently pyramidal rock’s ability to keep razor blades sharp.
To enlarge the garden at its east end I carried buckets of loose soil scrounged from the nearby woods and in and around the barn. At that end of the garden the ground fell off below a rock larger than a hassock footrest. Getting all the dirt out of the root masses of the turf clumps was as tough as separating cotton. The topsoil was far too precious to let go to the compost pile. To garden was to unearth the Ice Age. Pulling back the topsoil’s thin veneer of shallow geological time you met the unfathomed bed of sand deposited by the great, grinding ice masses.
By May 15, striking the sod with the spade produced swarms of blackflies. Their pestiferousness made me wish for a return of the Ice Age – much as gardeners suffering early fall burn-out may surreptitiously pray for a killing frost. Acadians have the best name for blackflies: bruleurs, “burners.” Christine fashioned head nets for us on our brimmed hats, using old curtain material. They worked fine except that, because the curtain fabric was white and reflective, at certain angles to sunlight they blinded us. It turns out that commercial head nets are usually dark green on purpose.
Years after this blackfly-besieged garden building episode I learned the saying of certain Zen monastics: “Nothing to do but to sit and to sweep the garden.” The verb to sit stands for sitting meditation, their focal practice discipline. All other aspects of maintaining life are sweeping the garden. When the poet Gary Snyder studied Zen at a monastery in Kyoto, Japan, he brought his Oregon small-farm, Mr. Fix-it gospel of efficiency to the daily monastery chores. The other monks politely acknowledged his suggestions for efficiencies but never adopted a single one. Finally in frustration Snyder asked why not?
“All we have to do is to sit and to sweep the garden,” one of the monks explained. “If we get better at sweeping the garden, we’ll have to spend more time meditating.”
In deference to faster garden building, I would have gladly spent more time meditating.
Photo of Mateskared by John Warren.