On Reflection

By Peter Halstead


“Go home,” said our newfound friend, the lama:
“Don’t make indecision such a drama;
Untended soils tend to harden:
Go home, and cultivate your garden.
If the soul is a window it
Doesn’t mirror, but transmit.
Don’t try to find yourselves abroad:
The tourist mantra is a fraud.”
How un-Siddhartha-like his words—
A Tibetan maxim for the birds.
I must admit we barely listened
While the Himalayas glistened:
The truth we found in Thyangboche
Was that truth is often sotto voce:
To go somewhere and learn
The trick is really to return?
How trivial the monk’s trite yang:
Revelation is no boomerang.
We’d left our families to unravel:
The secret lay in foreign travel.
The very fact of revolution proves
That meaning is a thing that moves;
Bodies we regret in
Want to be, at heart, Tibetan—
Atoms bombs that blow apart,
Unlike the muscles of the heart,
Which continue to insist
That equal forces coexist.


In fact, that journey to Nepal,
Nostalgic now with dirt and dal,
Like the time we first got kissed,
Is noted for the goals it missed:
One day in Hunku when the night
Had turned the woods to sheets of light,
I wasted hours taking shots
Of forests full of limpid dots:
The filter neatly filtered out
The retroflective diamond grout,
Preserving all those icy tricks
As just so many backyard sticks:
To find domestic explanations,
Best not look in other nations.


And so today back home it rains,
Just enough that some remains,
Leaving on each leaf two drops
That sparkle when the raining stops,
Until, like jewels in a room,
The woods are full of liquid bloom—
Microscopic rods of dew
Don’t just grow in Kathmandu:
The sparks I missed in Pheriche
Flood the woods here every day:
That exotic solar shard
Appearing daily in our backyard:
So maybe finally we roam
To unearth the worlds back home.

Tippet Alley
September 16th, 1994


Trying in my Catholic way to prove unproveable things like God, or that love is as individual as snowflakes, as twined as energy exchange between split particles, may require clever footwork, or wordwork. But as Humpty Dumpty says, “When I make a word do a lot of work like that...I always pay it extra.”

Thinking of the snow leopard, which our tattered group, in the tracks of Matthiessen, had been hoping to encounter on high passes in the Khumbu in 1964, only, back in New York, to discover that the Bronx Zoo had six or so in captivity; mindful of how the high-flown quest was deflated by its down-to-earth resolution; and thinking of how my friend’s quest for spiritual salvation on the glaciers had been savaged at Thyangboche monastery by the Rinpoche, who told us that, if everyone were happily at home with their families, there would be no unhappiness in the world, and we should therefore seek to cultivate our own gardens (a polite way of telling us to go home), a very Western message which undercut the touristic Buddhism of my friend, reminding me further of Oscar Wilde’s mantra, “a gentleman never looks out of the window”; but combining it all, I was struck to find the echo of such distant revelations in my own life near at hand, finding the leaves that I had “photographed away” one morning below the Mera La in Nepal, where my polarizing filter cut out the sparkles, sparkling again in our woods in Colorado.

I had seen an article in the New York Times about “sylvanshine,” where condensation on the waxy surfaces of leaves (known as a “bloom”) forms a lens which bounces back, or retroflects, the observer’s own eye energy. The concept of such eyebeams was mentioned in “The Ecstasy,” by John Donne, published in 1633:

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string…

This reflective light, or heiligenschein, accounts for the shining eyes of cats and bicycle reflectors, and the shine of forests in the night, most often noted in the European Alps. Looking directly at such a leaf causes a reflection; but an indirect angle can double the intensity of such a bloom.

I often try to disguise my no doubt old-world embrace of home in more rigorous venues (not to deflect the truth, but to inspect it), to create a certain equation of language where, for a moment, the pain of modernity is diffused in the science of hope, a science which now and then proves effective.

I wrote the first draft in the Cherry Creek Mall in Denver, mulling being a natural defense against malling.

Tippet Alley
September 16, 1994