Not knowing

There is a story of a Zen farmer who wins a horse. His neighbors say, you are so lucky, you won a horse! He says, we’ll see. One day, his son falls off the horse and breaks a leg. How unlucky, the farmer’s neighbors say! We’ll see, he says in reply. War breaks out in the region, and all young men are sent to their deaths as soldiers. The farmer’s son can’t go because of his broken leg. The neighbors say, what luck. The farmer says, maybe. This story and this skill helps me remember that the future is unknown, as much as we have models that help us predict it based on what’s currently known.

I’ve found not-knowing a useful resting spot. A home base that I can return to when I’m tired and scared. It also helps me leave the door open for possibility, for miracles to happen that my small human brain didn’t imagine and couldn’t have imagined yet.

For example, I would never have imagined that the United Technologies purchase of Coyote Ridge for missile testing would mean that, 60 years later, this property by Morgan Hill could become the last remaining refuge for the endemic and endangered species, checkerspot butterflies. Diversity of life is such a precious thing and how to support it, still such a mystery.

California plantains are the butterfly’s chosen host plan, but the plantain has mostly been crowded out by invasive grasses covering the hills we see around here. Serpentine rock is a refuge for the plantain because it evolved strategies for filtering out the rock’s toxic metals. The majority of serpentine rock now lies under the 280 freeway and housing developments up and down the Peninsula (including my own).

Had Coyote Ridge not been preserved as a sound buffer, those involved in its conservation believe it too would have been paved over. A Stanford researcher won significant funds to preserve the land for public use during negotiations to expand the 101 freeway.

Former missile testing buffer zone.

Former missile testing buffer zone.


I learned this story as part of a California Naturalist training program I participated in this past Spring. Hiking up to Coyote Ridge, our class crested a small hill and saw California goldfields for as far as the eye could see. Through our binoculars, the field of flowers fluttered with thousands of checkerspots; feeding, visiting, flying about, and being completely magical.

Encouraging everyone to imagine a positive future is so important, it's absolutely critical, and we can't do that—no one will feel the freedom to do so—if we're always talking about the worst we fear in the language of inevitabilities.