Up on Hartley Hill

by Gordon Korstange
 For years, copying other people, I tried to know myself. 
From within, I couldn't decide what to do. 
Unable to see, I heard my name being called. 
Then I walked outside. 
Tvery year I go along with a group of students on an 
 outdoor winter week in the Adirondack mountains. There we stay in 
one of the "great camps," built by 19th century railroad magnate, W. W. 
Durant. We spend most of our daylight hours skiing, hiking, and doing ropes 
course activities, but the highlight of each day comes at 9:30 p.m. Then, 
exhausted from a day spent entirely outside in the cold, when we would all 
like to tumble into our sagging bunk beds, we bundle up in layers of wool 
and synthetic clothing, get into line and march out the door for a night 

The night may be cold. -20 F. was the coldest one I've been on. It might be 
pitch dark. It might be raining. Whatever the conditions, we go-single 
file, wordless, down the path past the snug, lighted cabins, past the 
deer-feeding area, and into the woods. Silence is strictly enforced. After 
10 minutes we stop. The "swish, swish" of our movement subsides. We listen. 
Then we move on, further into the woods. 

On the last night, after we are well out in the woods, the leader of the 
line motions each of us, one at a time, to get off the path and to sit in 
the woods. There we remain, for at least 20 minutes, gazing up at a full 
moon, listening to the wind, feeling the cold. This past January, after a 
warm day, the sap was re-freezing and the woods were echoing with sharp 
cracks almost like gunfire. 

All of us, students and adults, never fail to be affected by this time. 

After returning from this unforgetable experience, I tell myself that I 
will continue to do night hikes. After all, there are trails just five 
minutes down the road from my house. It would seem rather easy to step 
outside-but as soon as I lift my eyes to the door, a host of demons throw 
up a barricade of fear, sloth, and comfort. The older I get, the higher the 
barricade seems to grow. On my first night hike, the one in -20 degree F, 
the full moon was almost too brilliant to look at. But while we two adults 
stood there in a meadow filled with a quality of light we had never seen 
before, wondering what response was appropriate, the kids (13-year-olds), 
simply flopped down into the snow, spread their arms out, and lay there 
silent, "moonbathing." It felt like a spontaneous act of homage, of 
surrender, one which wouldn't have occurred to us old ones. 

 The Persian poet, Rumi, loved to write about this: 

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. 
Don't go back to sleep. 
You must ask for what you really want. 
Don't go back to sleep. 
People are going back and forth across the doorsill 
where the two worlds touch. 
The door is round and open. 
Don't go back to sleep. 
How does one step outside? Sri Aurobindo stepped outside in a prison cell. 
"Shaking with the terror of being overcome by insanityŠI called upon God 
with eagerness and intensity and prayed to him to prevent my loss of 
intelligence. That very moment there spread over my being such a gentle and 
cooling breeze, the heated brain became relaxed, easy and supremely 
blissful such as in all my life I had never known before. Just as a child 
sleeps, secure and without fear, on the lap of his mother, so I remained on 
the lap of the World-Mother. From that day all my troubles of prison life 
were over." (Tales of Prison Life, p. 61) 

Mirabai, the 16th century Rajput princess, Stepped outside her palace to 
spend the rest of her life singing love songs to Krishna on the road: 

Dancing before him! 
To whirl and to spin! 
Charming his artistic passions, 
testing old urges- 
O Dark One, beloved, I fasten my anklets, 
true love is drunk. 
Worldly shame! family decorum! 
who needs such virtues? 
Not for an instant, one eyeblink, 
do I forget him- 
he has seized me and stained me, 
that Dark One. 

(For the Love of the Dark One,  
Translated by Andrew Schelling, Shambhala)  

In fact, stepping outside is really stepping inside-turning away from the 
thousand-and-one snares of the flesh and mind, turning toward the unknown, 
unworldly, dark mystery. 

Tn our night hikes there is a sense of danger, accentuated by the imposed 
silence-a fear of getting lost, perhaps, or getting frostbite, hypothermia, 
moon-madnessŠI do not like to be the leader on these hikes, because I want 
to give myself up to the night, the moon and the shadows, to abandon that 
conscious, decisive state of mind which I would need to lead 10 people out 
and back in. Twice I've gotten us temporarily lost, even in brilliant 
moonlight. That is the danger: to lose oneself, either into madness or the 

Another night without sleep, 
thrashing about 
until daybreak. 
Friend, once I rose 
from a luminous dream, a vision 
that nothing dispels. 
Yet this writhing, tormented self 
cries out to meet 
her Lord of the outcast. 
Gone mad, gone crazy, 
mind and senses confused with unspoken secrets- 
Oh the Dark One 
holds life and death in his hands, 
he knows Mira's anguish. 

(For the Love of the Dark One, op. cit.)  

For some, like The Mother, stepping outside simply happened of its own 
accord. Nirodbaran recalls the times, while he was attending Sri Aurobindo 
after his "accident," when Mother would suddenly go into trance during a 
conversation with Him, and Sri Aurobindo would patiently wait for her to 
come out of it so that they could continue. For one, like Herself, so 
attuned to inner callings, "stepping outside" was natural. 

For me, however, stepping outside must be a conscious act, a deliberate 
rejection of the temporal ties that grip tighter as I age. "So many (books, 
movies, articles, phone calls, discussions, etc.) so little time." I can 
stay on that path into the woods for a while, but then comes a twinge, an 
alarm bell from my ordinary mind that says, "Here is something calling me; 
there is duty, ah comfortable duty." 

This might explain why even in a community oriented toward the spirit, like 
Auroville, people feel the need to go off on retreats and pilgrimages. I 
tried a Vipassana (Buddhist meditation) retreat once, while a resident of 
Auroville. Ten hours a day of sitting meditation, each session 50+ minutes 
long. Ten days of no talking. Focus on the breath, on the body. But even 
though I attained a state of heightened awareness and energy, I wasn't able 
to step outside my normal range of consciousness. The focus on the physical 
was intense, as was the atmosphere in the room where fifty people sat like 
myself. During breaktimes, I looked longingly at the fields and hills 
beyond the retreat center. 

Walking in the woods, up on Hartley Hill, I feel the daily 
obsessions slip away, feel myself wending my way toward a 
grateful forgetfulness, not attentiveness. This has been the path of the 
Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Mary Oliver, since she began skipping her high 
school classes to walk alone in the woods. 

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may 
happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in 
drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom 
seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes 
solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the 
ticket-taker. It isn't that it would disparage comforts, or the set 
routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. 
Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness 
that is beyond the edge. 

(From "Of Power and Time," in Blue Pastures, by Mary Oliver, 
Harcourt and Brace, 1995) 

Tn the evening now on Hartley Hill, the sun is poised above 
 the western rim of the valley, about to disappear. I have been 
walking for forty-five minutes, and, at last, realized what I should have 
said to Janet this morning during class and what I will have to do about it 
tomorrow. I'm hungry. I have yet more work to do at my desk tonight. 
This is now a time for me to decide to step outside-after I have exhausted 
my small mind's story-to keep walking into silence and forest noises, to 
risk losing (and loosing) myself in a night hike among the trees. Who is 
interrupting me from doing this? Only myself. My small self. 
As Mary Oliver says in that same essay, "The most regretful people on earth 
are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative 
power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power or time." 

Lesson plan for a poem 

Now class... 
you have to listen 
for its whisper 
  out there 
the playground of thoughts 
pushing and shoving each other, 
the field trip-back in time for school's end, 
the lure of an 'A' from a teacher's red pen. 

If you wait and pretend to do something else, 
a calling card appears 
with a first line, a phrase. 
Then the hard part-leaving the door open 
for a few minutes, hours, days, years 
until the poem appears 
like a deer on the edge of the clearing, 
testing the air. 

-Gordon Korstange
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