Throwback Thursday: The Merchants of Silence

Seeing Star Wars with Ginsberg and Burroughs

I had gotten good and stoned and gone to see Star Wars in May 1977 with a crowd of friends, along with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in attendance. It had been five years since I’d gone to live in the woods by myself. Standing on 13th Street and College Ave in Boulder outside the Fox Theatre after the show, while Allen held a captive audience in his sway, pontificating on Star Wars and how it was a breakthrough in filmmaking and philosophy, I looked up at the Flatirons towering over the city. I had once lived up there by myself for several months with my dog, Mon Cul.

Seeing Star Wars with Allen Ginsberg


Allen had helped co-found the Naropa Institute, now called Naropa College, with Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. Allen taught at the school’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics Department and brought in numerous beat poets as visiting teachers: Burroughs, Anne Waldman, John Cage, among others. Of course, I never took any of these courses, even though I’d met many of those writers, but I did take Tai Chi at the institute, which I still practice semi-regularly today. Ginsberg was a practitioner of Buddhism most of his life and he lived the way of it. “Howl”, his most famous poem, composed in pieces from 1954 to 1956, denounced (among other things) materialism and the destructive material forces the United States practiced. I had read “Howl” in book form in the sixties and went to see him once at a reading in Denver. He brought Buddhism to the mainstream in America in his own way, and I guess if it hadn’t been for “Howl” I might never have made it into the woods by myself. That book sowed the seeds, so to speak.

Seeing Star Wars with Ginsberg and Burroughs

As I listened to Allen holding court, along with that loud explosion of Star Wars still ringing in my ears, the silence of the woods returned in a rush, like the way you get after a hit of good hash. I just wanted to get away and find my place of solace; the quiet, the silence. Life was getting noisy again. I recalled reading Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods, by the stream that tumbled down the mountainside, trickling past my perch in the sun, shielded by the canopy of the soughing of pines.

The Silence, My Audience

Five years ago, give or take a few months, I was well into my second month of silence and beginning to feel in tune with my home in the woods. With every passing day I came to think of the boulder I slept under as my house, and the forest around me as my lawn; the silence, my audience. No better way to enjoy the quiet than having someone like Lao Tzu or Thoreau talk to you from the stillness of the page. No better place here in the wilds to delve into these two masters.

Tao Te Ching

I had recently read the The Book of the Way by Tao Te Ching and, even though some of the passages made sense, others didn’t. It is the nature of the book. The learning, if one can call it that, seemed always to be hidden just out of sight and, if you turned away from it, it came to you suddenly. If you concentrated too hard, it slipped away like a trout in a slipstream. The book was contradictory and direct, confusing and enlightening. I knew it would take many readings just to begin to break the surface of understanding. Most likely, a lifetime of reading of the text at various stages of my life would shed much-needed light. But that was all right. I was ready to at least start on The Way. Out here in the wilderness. I wasn’t searching for Nirvana, just wanted to reach a place of silence so I could begin to understand the world and my place in it.

The Book of the Way by Tao Te Ching

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was a slightly different breed of cat than Lao Tzu, yet similar, as though the two resided on different sides of the same coin. Both were merchants of solitude, selling the quiet around them to the masses living in the waiting rooms of a tumultuous world. The original hippies of their times. Reading Thoreau prompted me to get out from under my comfort zone and experience the different sides of life. If you don’t try something outside your comfort zone you’ll never know what it was you missed, and, consequently, you may never grow outside your own self-imposed boundaries. Going out into the woods alone for three to four months gave me this experience. If I hadn’t, I would have been a different person; not necessarily better or worse, just different than what I would have been before. It’s all related, related or not. You gotta try things, different things, in order to grow. This is why I went out there and lived on the edge, turned one side of my life to a life lived on the other side. Made my usual side more rich because of the experiences on the unusual side. When I embarked on this journey, I didn’t know if I could last four months alone. But that fear dissolved. I really believe you have to face your fears, your demons, as we say it today. No matter how steeped these fears are embedded in the fabric of your life.

A Snake Named Garp

I remember at one time in my life I was deathly afraid of snakes. So, in order to see if I could get on the other side of my fear, I bought a Rainbow Boa, named him Garp, lived with him for years, until he died of old age. We became friends, that snake and I. He often rested around my shoulders and neck, never squeezing hard. He was very sensual and his skin soft to the touch. Once I had gotten to know and be with him, I didn’t fear him. My fear of snakes melted away.

Bringing it Home

Back on 13th Street, standing in front of the Fox Movie Theatre, the group broke up. There would be a rousing party tonight at someone’s house and everyone would be there. Drinking and smoking and carousing, maybe hits of acid. Poets and wannabes, hangers on. Music. But I politely declined the invitation. I went home and sat on my back stoop, watching the river pounding past the wall in my backyard. Here was the thunder of silence. Here, I became quiet again. It was like being with Garp wound around my neck. Like being back in the woods. I had been able to bring back the solitude I’d found in the woods. I rolled a joint and lit into it, sat back and exhaled, watching the river. That wonderful sound of water, the sound of The Way.

The Nature of the Way

During my time in the woods, I came to understand that, out there, time flows with the cycle of the seasons, the temperatures rising and falling, the changing colors of the trees and grasses. I had no calendar that told me what month it was. No timepiece to tell me the time of the day. I knew I was deep into August, raging with its heat and blue skies, afternoon thunderstorms. September was standing at my doorstep, knocking at my door. The pot plants were thriving, growing tall and leafy, carefully tended by my loving hands. Soon I would harvest them and cull the buds, then sit back on my rock next to the stream before Haggis came to fetch me. I’d partake of their mysteries, grown in the silence of the forest. I could smell their deep, resinous odor. I could smell the passage of time. I could smell the Nature of The Way.

Next Up: The Harvest


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