Ritual disciplines attention and encourages people to develop their powers of discernment and discrimination. Yi-Fu Tuan, Passing Strange and Wonderful: Aesthetics, Nature, and Culture. P.51.
Some years ago when I was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar in the USA, while visiting some friends in Reno, Nevada, we were taken to see their newly acquired land—a lovely expanse of sprawling high country stretching mostly into the California side, for around 40 odd acres. There were many craggy hills, rocks overhanging wild forests, and to top it all a beautiful stream gushing from the high lands cutting right across the land, running down to join the Truckee river. And because it was early December the stream had frozen over in many places and in the several pools and lakes the water lay glistening silver under the exquisite blue of the sky, icy cold to the touch. Many trees stood as sentinels and frightened deer crossed our path at many places dashing from amidst the bushes and then melting off into the shadows that were already creeping up on us as the sun went reluctantly over the mountaintops.
We walked in one file--all five of us, mostly meditative, silent, as if held spellbound with awe at the bounteous mountain land. Occasionally our host would say something about the land and share his delight at having managed to take possession of such a great place, and discuss the great plans he had in mind about how to maintain it wild and beautiful. All of us marveled at the pristine wildness and beauty of the land. For some of us it was a miraculous experience walking in the high mountains sharing the silence of the bitter cold and snow—especially for my Chinese friend – visiting scholar and eco critic--and myself. I whispered occasional bits of poetry that floated across my mind.
Above all, the experience was indeed poetic. At one point Scott Slovic, Professor of English and Environment at UNR turned to me and said: I am sure this experience of snow has altered your perception a great deal. Earlier, perhaps you had looked upon snow with the simple amazement and wonder of a scholar from the tropics, and snow had basically been a romantic experience, something to be thrilled about. But now, I am sure you will look upon it as a different order of reality—something that calls for a great deal of struggle and resistance!
I did not reply immediately, but simply shrugged my shoulders helplessly lost in my own thoughts almost frozen over. The cold was immense and immediate—it crept in through the layers and layers of clothing that I had on me. My hands were cold inside my warm mittens. My earlobes had lost any semblance to being attached at all to a sentient creature. When I tried to run my fingers over the most exposed part of my anatomy—my nose—I could hardly feel it—what was perhaps left there was a mere bundle of cold sense—a blob of icy being! I kept pace along with the others—I knew that I needed to keep moving in order to be warm inside.
Once or twice I couldn’t resist stopping to admire a deep precipice or the distant vision of the rosy hued alpine glow of the mountain’s spine. The experience was remarkable and something that passed all powers of verbal expression. And I could not think and verbalise my thoughts. Nevertheless I knew and felt deep within me that the experience of snow in the Alpine mountains or even in the Arctic could not have been quite much different from this one. I said to Scott: Perhaps, the experience of snow is like the experience of age: it is often what you feel inside that matters. Some people feel cold easily; for others even the Arctic or the Antarctic or the Alaskan cold would mean nothing. It is how you internalize the sensations that count. Mountains, the sea and the desert are all what one has within! They are the extensions of our inner being.
We came back into the pleasurable and most welcome warmth of our friends’ fireplace and peeled off our warm clothing one by one. Usha was already perched near the blazing hearth beaming and brimming over in happiness and beside herself in all joy. She had opted to come off half way through the walk finding the cold and snow combined with the altitude of the place much too much for her—she had hitch-hiked her way back earlier. It was altogether an evening of tremendous beauty.
What is cold? What is the touch of snow? Cold and warmth are the touch of the elements that awaken you to your own senses. Do we forget ourselves? Don’t we awaken in the middle of a deep night’s sleep all of a sudden only to realize that the fire had died out and the blistering cold had nudged us awake? We shiver and sit up. We are awake and alert and alive even if our physical body might be tired and drowsy. The same is true of a warm tropical summer night when the aftermath of the sun’s rays refuse to part from the surface of the earth and don’t allow us to seek the comfort of sleep. In the woods, said Emerson, we return to reason and faith. Yes, the touch of snow too awakens in us reason and faith. Reason tells us to pull our heavy woollens a little closer to our bodies in order to retain the body heat within, and faith lets us realize the touch of the elemental being!
Robert Frost has written of fire and ice, relating them to an eschatological vision of either being burned up in passion or shriveled in the coldness of hate. Either way, the extremes of heat or cold could lead us to realize the fragility and evanescence of our human’s being. However, there remains another interesting aspect of such an elemental experience that could be traced in a deeper sense of culture and history. Human beings have responded to extreme heat and extreme cold in their own various ways in different places on earth. There is not only individual variance but also cultural and historical differences in confronting extremes of weather. Snow and cold need not always bespeak of a harsh and antagonistic nature over which the artful individual exerts his or her will and brain in an ultimate struggle for existence; neither does the extreme weather of the desert induce such a human-nature contest.
It could also be seen as a coming to grips with one’s own nescience a sort of journey into self-hood. The human being clothed adequately to ward off the extreme weather has come to understand the earth a little better: it is not that he/she has overcome the external element! The touch of snow actually bespeaks of the artful space within and without. Perhaps this is the essential meaning of ritual in the east. Ritual disciplines attention and encourages people to develop their powers of discernment and discrimination, writes Yi-Fu Tuan. How true!
A sense of Ritual is a sense of space and a sense of time-- a sense of authentic being. Perhaps the origin of ritual can be in a touch of snow or under the extreme heat of the sun in the tropics. Fire and ice are the elemental cornerstones of inner understanding-- antaschamatkara (or inner expansion) as the Sanskrit aestheticians have put it.
Ritual is the authentic human experience of inner awareness, and ritual in the broadest sense is the outcome of the elemental touch of the artful universe. One could experience the anguish and trauma of the man struggling to build a fire in Jack London’s story of that name, or one could also wander lost in the Himalayan wilderness in search of the elusive Snow Leopard that Peter Mattheissen writes about. One the one hand it is the struggle to survive and overcome the harshness of the environment, while on the other it is the slow awakening of a clearer understanding of the self. Or is it that the experience of heat and cold are like the experience of one’s age. Some feel it some don’t. Either way a touch of snow tells us a lot—about the self and culture and history.