I lived in Georgia from 1990 through 1993. Each New Year’s Day, I rode on horseback in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, four hours north. My chosen steed was a chocolate bay Arabian mare named Ariane. Her regal head was sculpted and massive, her every gait supple and smooth. A few years earlier, she was rescued starving and terrified from a neighboring farm whose owners were divorcing. What Ariane endured there stretched her naturally taut psyche to the breaking point. She never fully regained her equilibrium, but she had enough good days to forbear my inexperience in the saddle. On those good days, she gave me long hours on her back traversing the slopes of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in the Appalachian Range.
January 1, 1991 on the trail was sunny and warm despite our altitude. The far-off scent of woodfire reminded me we shared this vast, silent space. With Ariane in the lead – where she absolutely had to be – a group of us traveled a wide level path skirting a pine-covered slope that banked to our left. She stopped abruptly, and looked uphill. I followed her gaze. Just above us on the steep incline lay a pine sapling, staking its tender claim, nearly crushed beneath a rock that had rolled downhill. Its slender trunk bent far over. Ariane studied this for a good 30 seconds, then moved us on.
The first day of 1992 dawned cloudy and damp on the mountainside. It rained for days before our ride, and the rich aroma of damp loam fattened every inhaled breath. For safety’s sake, our guide suggested we travel the same wide level trail, reckoning the narrower mountain paths might have washed away. Again, Ariane led the pack, and again, she suddenly stopped. We found ourselves looking at the same young tree, which I had forgotten. The young sapling not only survived, it grew. Farther up the slope, larger trees lay toppled, released by the drenched soil, but this little tree stood rooted and firm. Its thickening trunk now curved up and around the rock that nearly flattened it. Ariane and I took another good long look, and she led us away. I marveled not only that the tree was still alive, but also that the horse stopped again at the same place.
January 1, 1993 was the first day of the year I left the south. My ending there was bitter, and all I could see were the failures. It was a good day on the trail, though. A smaller group of us traveled the same wide level path. It was cold and clear with snow on the ground, and the trails were frozen crisp. Bracing, pine-infused air opened our lungs, and Ariane exhaled silver clouds that disappeared in seconds. All I could think about was the tree. Memory can refract our sense of location, so I scoured the slopes to my left as we climbed. I needn’t have worried; we arrived at the spot, and Ariane stopped once more. What I saw took my breath away. With a year of growth the tree had dislodged the rock, which now lay on the ground alongside its distinctly curved trunk. I placed an open hand on my horse’s neck and told her I wished we’d been there together the moment the stone rolled away. She acknowledged me with a backward shift of her enormous brown eyes, and carried me on down the mountain.
Our gradual descent and Ariane’s easy gait lulled me into pondering. The pine tree’s misfortune became its distinguishing feature. The rock’s assault left a scar – a permanent downhill cantilever in the tree’s young trunk – that suited it perfectly to life on the unforgiving pitch of a mountainside. This was one outcome I had not foreseen.
Another unforeseen outcome was the painful sundering, two years later, of the same household that rescued Ariane. In June of 1995, the woman who saved her called me in Ohio. Everything was falling apart. A barn burnt down. The farm was losing money, and there wasn’t enough to rebuild or even maintain the place. The strain broke her relationship with the woman who helped her run it all, and she had to sell or rehome sixty horses. The heartbreak was audible in her voice as she offered me Ariane for $1500. It was a steal, but I lived in an apartment in Cleveland then, and my good days were years ahead of me.
Ariane would be 38 today, so it’s likely she’s gone. I still wonder what drew her to that tree. I still wonder what she saw, and what she reckoned, if she did. In my wondering, I can glimpse a tendency to ascribe noble motives to her. I imagine, for example, that she taught me a lesson about survival. Or that she showed me her own survival. Even that she recognized a kinship between herself and the tree. The facts are simpler and more compelling. Alert as she was, something caught her eye, and she stopped to look. That’s what horses do. Pinned under a rock, the tree did what trees do – root down for food and foundation, and grow toward the light.
What do humans do?
What I call my life is a series of characters and events that occur in apparently random order. As it turns out, though, there’s a design. Within those plot elements lives a pattern that has resonance – if I remember to stop and look. The horse, the tree, and the rock all have meaning because I was there too.
Perhaps what humans can do is to pause within our lives and look for evidence of a design. So every experience has value. So everywhere I go has meaning because I am there too.
A horse’s alert stillness along a mountain path thirty-one years ago revealed a design. I was there too. The path exists because I do, yet it neither begins nor ends with me.
for Thich Nhat Hanh