Prairie Precept

Prairie Precept

by Susan Downing

When my sister and I were growing up in Northern Illinois, our mother often talked about wanting to go across the country in a Conestoga wagon. She’d grown up in Southern Illinois amidst the vast expanses of fields there, and something about that landscape called to her, drew her to explore it further.  My sister and father and I would always respond by remarking on the impractical nature of such an endeavor.  But the country isn’t open prairie any more, we’d tell her.  It’s full of highways, and where it is open, there are fences. How would you make your way?  It never occurred to me to think about what it would actually have been like to travel across the country in a Conestoga wagon.  I never thought about that until a couple of days ago when I stood on a path in an area of restored Minnesota prairie at the Carleton College Arboretum.

Some of you may recall from reading my earlier blog post, Epicenter of Joy, that when my daughter Emily and I visited Carleton last fall, I felt an unexpected and deep joy being on the land there in Northfield.  I read about the 800-acre Arboretum and for some reason, when we returned this week, to settle Em in for her first year of college, I could hardly wait to seek out the patches of prairie there.

When I did, I was amazed – prairie grass is so tall!  I don’t know what I’d been expecting.  Somehow I imagined it would be about 18” tall.  Why would I think that?  After all, it’s called tall prairie grass. But there I stood, on the edge of the path, next to spiky grasses that were as tall as I am.  Five foot tall, purple-tinged grass, with smaller, bushier plants and a multitude of wildflowers interspersed.

I made my way along a path through this prairie, and in the direction I was walking I could see no signs of modern civilization – no power lines, no houses, just the far off trees lining the edge of the field.  I heard cicadas and crickets and grasshoppers, and monarch butterflies kept flitting around me.  Then I saw a downy woodpecker land on the woody stalk of a tall flower that had already died.  Although I was only about 6 feet away from him, this woodpecker was oblivious to me.  He began pecking at that dried stalk, intermittently at first, and then with growing intensity and speed, the stalk swaying with each little peck.  He’d peck a few times, pause, move up to a different spot and peck some more.  I watched him do this for about five minutes, until he flew over to another nearby plant to continue his work.

I was mesmerized by that woodpecker, amazed by his persistence in the face of what seemed to me such a daunting task – drawing sustenance from such an unlikely source.  But clearly he knew what he was doing and knew that bugs could still be living inside that stalk.  Even so…

Seeing the woodpecker working so diligently prompted me to consider what it might have felt like for pioneers  – including some of my mother’s ancestors – who did venture across the open prairies in wagons.  So I stood right at the edge of the path and imagined myself entirely surrounded by this tall grass, these birds and bugs and plants and flowers.  I imagined having set off across this land with my family and a wagon and whatever provisions seemed necessary, but not knowing at all what we might find or what dangers faced us, whether from the environment or animals or illness or other humans or our own fragile health or state of mind.  That was a sobering thing to consider.  And for me, that tall, tall prairie grass was like a symbol of the difficulty of such an endeavor.  What would it be like to move through that grass, hour after hour, day after day, month after month, without any idea of what awaited or whether you were adequately prepared?

I couldn’t imagine wading through this grass for even one entire day, much less for as long as it would take to get to a spot, many hundreds of miles away, where you could take a chance and decide to settle.  And how would you choose such a place?  Would there be enough water? Would the weather turn out to be unsuitable?  But, stick a spade in the earth in the middle of the prairie to dig a spot where you can have a house and plant some crops, and you’re pretty much committed.  You don’t just up and move to another town if things aren’t quite right. Not after all that toil and perseverance against the backdrop of the endless prairie and all the devastating weather and threats that can roll in toward you from its edges.

And yet, standing there on the edge of that piece of prairie in Minnesota,  I felt inspired and at home.  Something about it called to me.  Its vastness? Its pristine beauty?  The possibilities and freedom it seemed to offer?  I’m not sure what it was, but I felt so moved by those who had trekked across it. And it occurred to me that  they had certainly exemplified Mikao Usui’s fourth Reiki precept: Just for today, devote yourself diligently to your work.  Of course they were not thinking about him – he hadn’t even been born yet!  But they were pursuing their own purpose with a fierce diligence.  What prompted them to head off along this difficult and dangerous path, with no guarantee whatsoever that they would reach whatever goal they held so deeply in their hearts? I’m sure that for each person who snapped the whip to start up the team of horses pulling their wagon, that goal and purpose was slightly different.  And yet, they shared the perseverance and focus that allowed them to move forward, instead of being defeated by the challenges that awaited.

I think of Usui’s fourth precept as the prairie precept now: you find a life’s purpose worthy of your devotion, and you move ahead with it, no matter what.  Each of us moves across our own, individual prairie, and the prairie’s landscape changes as we pass through it.  Maybe it’s a prairie of military service, or a prairie of beginning a new and exciting (but daunting) phase of life – as a college freshman or a new parent – or having a big transition come upon you unexpectedly, like the death of a loved one or friend.  But although these life events may appear different on the surface, they are alike in their prairie-ness: full of the unknown, of possible threats and dangers and challenges, but full also of the potential for great growth and joy and happiness and liberation as we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the pursuit of this uncharted path together with others who are as committed to this life’s project as are we.

Thinking of the prairie, and moving through it, that way, I felt I had a better understanding of my mother’s desire to cross the prairie in a Conestoga wagon.  She was eager to find a larger purpose for her life.  Although she never managed to head West in a covered wagon, she did make her own pioneering journey when she headed to Thailand to join the Peace Corps after retiring from her career as an English teacher.  At the time, I didn’t quite get what that was all about.  But the other day, as I stood in the prairie, filled with a deep peace and joy and feeling of being at home, I did get it.  Thailand was her prairie.  I have the prairie of my spiritual path and my commitment to helping beings end their suffering.  As vast and challenging and unpredictable as it is, as tall as the metaphorical grasses are along this path, I keep moving ahead.  The prairie is where I feel I belong. It is my home.

May you find your own prairie and the strength and resolve to move across it to the joy that awaits you there.

1 Comment »

  1. MountainZendoAndHealingCenter.com Blog » Reiki-Induced Climate Change said,

    February 10, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

    [...] Prairie Precept (Just for Today, Devote Yourself Diligently To Your Work) [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment