An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of February 2, 2007
Issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

THOREAU, CHINESE LANDSCAPE
PAINTING & BITTERNESS

Thoreau wrote:

Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.

I thought about these words this week when I enjoyed my first solar-cooker meal at this location -- those snipped-up chard, beet and cilantro leaves. Having no seasoning, just cooked in their own juices by the sun, actually they were a little bitter. But, it was a good bitterness, a clean, honest acrimony somehow just right for a chilly day in upland, semidesert Mexico, and for me being where I was, the way I was. I leaned back in the grass and ate a whole bowl of bitter greens, one chopsticked-mouthful at a time, loving every second.

It's too bad that the general impulse in our culture is to accept that the sweeter, the saltier, the greasier, the more industrial-strength pizzazz a food has, the better it is, and that everything else in life is best if it's comfortable, cozy and mellow.

Ancient Chinese landscape paintings famous for evoking sharp nostalgia and esthetic appreciation very often portray the craggiest and most severe of landscapes. Our culture's stereotypical pleasing landscape is one that's pastoral with gently rounded hills and grazing cattle. Could it be that the Chinese masters knew something we've forgotten? Might the old masters agree with Thoreau that a good dose of being cold and hungry and weary raises the spirit? Maybe even that, under certain circumstances, bitter herbs taste good?

For my part, I'm sure of it. Hardness, negation, bitterness all have their place. A whole life of these things would be awful, but disciplining oneself with occasional dosages of them... that can be delightful, even necessary for happiness, good health and deep insight.

Who knows why this is so? As a balding white-beard who has thought a lot about the matter, I'll just say that I believe that Thoreau, the old master Chinese landscape painters, and my solar-cooker all got it right. So I'm passing along the insight to you.

You up there in the north with all that coldness, the dark skies, the deadness of things... Rejoice! Take a walk and breathe it all in. Let yourself indulge in it to the point of pure misery.

Then, once you're warm again and with your cup of hot chocolate before you, correct me if I'm not right that now your spirits are much higher than they would have been without the little dose of misery. Facebook Icon.