Sunset In The Queen’s Garden

In what was an impressive track record for last minute booking, the husband booked a trip, that flew us into Las Vegas and from there onto the beautiful sights in Utah. In one week, we had been in 4 states: California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah.

Sitting in the car that bright morning as we drove past Zion national park into Bryce Canyon national park, I felt the familiar stirrings of wonder. Nature often has this effect on me. The magnificence, brilliance and grandeur of nature never fails to instill awe. Always partial to trees, rivers and mountains when it comes to scenery, I could not help thinking how nature had once again jostled me out of my familiar likes and dislikes and opened my mind to appreciate beauty so different and so breath taking.

As Johannes Kepler says in his book, Mysterium Cosmographicum

The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment. 

Buddha in Lotus?
Buddha in Lotus?

We had driven past Zion national park early enough in the morning to go on to Bryce Canyon National Park. We received the first glimpse of hoodoos in Dixie national forest. Set against the bright blue sky, they looked like statues from another world sent here to evoke an art that stuns and astonishes. We were listening to a Harry Potter audio book: a series that nudges even the most reluctant thinker into imagination, so it was no wonder that my mind buzzed with actors from another world setting the stage for the impressive hoodoo theatre.

“What should we do at Bryce?” asked the husband

“Well… the Queen’s Garden trail comes highly recommended, so that and a few other trails ought to do it.” I said vaguely, and continued musing.

Would the Queen’s Garden be as poetic as its name?  Would there be any hoodoos?  Little was I to know that Bryce Canyon hosted an entire amphitheater of them, and that we would be able to walk amidst them.

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One of the things I like best about road trips through the National Parks in the USA are the poetic names every point is given. Take for instance the Queen’s Garden. Instead of saying Rock Point or Hoodoo Lookout, the trail was given a mystifying  and satisfying name: Fairy Loop through the Queen’s Garden in the Amphitheater. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Apparently, one of the hoodoos resembled Queen Victoria in the setting sunlight’s shadow.

Could there really be a weird coincidence of having one’s silhouette set in stone that gives us a clue as to which human beings live on in name and fame? Or do we only assume likenesses to those already living on in name and fame?  Hoodoo musings are quixotic.

The day at Bryce Canyon was beautiful and as other-worldly as it is possible to get in so short a span of time.

Meandering through the park, we found ourselves washing up near the Queen’s Garden trail towards day’s end. The trail itself looped from Sunrise Point dipped via the Queen’s Garden and came back up near Sunset Point. If the point had not been named Sunset Point, would we have stopped to take in the grandeur of the sunset over the Amphitheater like setting of the valley? I am not sure. I do not think the sunset is any more spectacular here than at any other point in the Canyon, but simply by naming a point Sunset Point, we were encouraged to wait for the hues of the setting sun to unleash its marvelous palette of colors across the skies, thus bathing the amphitheater before us in surreal colors.

The setting sun took its time. It first peeked behind a hoodoo and then cast its fading light slowly upon the horizon.

As we stood there bundled up bracing for the sudden dip in Winter temperature after the sun sets, I could not help thinking of Ray Bradbury’s thought on the Happiness Machine in the book, Dandelion Wine: A Sunset is only beautiful because it doesn’t last forever.

While it lasted though, it was magical.

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“Doesn’t it make you feel poetic?”, I said gazing mesmerized at the hoodoos in the amphitheater before us.  “This Queen’s Garden hike reminds me of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole. This is a Wonderland. The gargantuan arches of orange and pink beauty beckon!”, I said theatrically, flourishing my hands wide and raising my face heaven-wards. It is imperative at moments of impetuousness such as this to ignore teenagers inserting the practical note into life.

“It is just erosion.”, said the daughter bringing me back to Earth in a thud, but I saw her smiling happily and taking in the horizon.

Without art, science would be as useless as a pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber. Without science, art would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional quackery. The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous. -Raymond Thornton Chandler 

http://www.zionnational-park.com/bryce-canyon-trails.htm Quote below:

The Queen’s Garden Trail leads hikers past wonderful rock formations, including Gulliver’s Castle, the Queen’s Castle and many that are unnamed. Man-made bridges are scattered throughout the trail. At the end is Queen Elizabeth’s garden and the Queen herself, standing on a backward facing camel, calling out orders to the ships in the garden. The queen can also be seen from Sunrise Point.

Standing there under the rays of the setting sun, waiting to unleash another cold night, before rising again, the daughter and I imagined the place as it would have been millions of years ago, with underwater life teeming in its depths, crafting the very hoodoos for us to delight in today.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” — Lao Tzu

If only, we let Nature go on its course without hurrying to leave our indelible imprint on the canvas, I am sure something even more remarkable can be handed down to generations after us.

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Can Mammoths Stop Thawing Arctic Permafrost?

“Let’s not watch this – it is depressing, and some of that stuff makes my blood curl.”, I said as the daughter suggested some gothic fiction. It was the week-end before Halloween, and we were picking our Friday evening entertainment. Never an easy task.

“Fine! What do you want to watch?”

Cosmos” I said without flipping a heart beat. (Watch the you-tube video introducing Cosmos here)

To her eye-roll, I said “No really! You see, there are so many things in there that I wanted to understand as a student.  I plodded along to the library and I got to admit, the Physics books in there. “ I gave a shudder here, and I fully meant it. “I suggest you curl up with one of those tomes in our library looking jaundiced, pale, and excellent cures to Insomnia. I thought some of them needed vitamins, sunshine and exercise to regain what Doctors call a healthy glow. “

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So, we sat together and watched a Cosmos episode by Neil deGrasse Tyson on global warming. In his slow, sure voice, he rumbled like the volcanoes on Venus that set the poor planet into an irreversible green house cycle.

The World Set Free (Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey)

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/cosmos-a-spacetime-odyssey/episodes/the-world-set-free/

We have twenty years at the current rate to stop us from going into an irreversible state like Venus.

The daughter gave me a significant look .I gave her a more sig. look, and we sat there looking like stuffed frogs with s. looks etched on our faces digesting the info. “How could you think this was okay to watch, but that movie was too scary. This is the scariest thing I have ever seen. How do you think it will all end?” said the daughter sounding worried, and deeply stirred.

 

A few days later, I read out a passage from the book I was reading. Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures. (Related post: Mankind trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth by impregnating Asian elephants with mammoth genes.)

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Pleistocene park  – Using 160 square kilometers of Siberian Tundra given to him by the Russian government, Zimov’s goal was repopulating the area with modern equivalents of prehistoric animals that had adapted to Arctic conditions (moose, Yakutian horses, Finnish reindeer and even North American bison.) … To re-create the effects of the Woolly Mammoths on the land, he’d bought in a World War II tank …. Punching holes in the snow, … , using the tank treads to mimic the continual stomps of Mammoth feet, he’d worked the land, year after year. And along the way, he’d accumulated data that were staggering in their implications.

Within his 16- square kilometers refuge, he had lowered the permafrost temperature by an average of fifteen degrees. 

We change the world just be being. I remember watching a video by National Geographic in which they chronicle how 41 wolves introduced in the Yellowstone park, changed the ecology and even the physical structure of the park.

Introducing Wolves in YellowStone National Park – National Geographic Video

If that was the case with 41 wolves, what would introducing Mammoths do? Would it save us from the brink of extinction or introduce problems of the kind we hardly envisioned?

We never know the ramifications of our creations. I mean we are a species who has unintended consequences from a ‘Like’ button on Social Media.

Squirrels, Berries & Fringe Myths

We had been on a trip to Crater Lake over the summer. Among other things, we hiked a little bit around the lake, taking in the marvelous view. The lake is a mesmerizing sight sparkling in its deep, pristine blue. We indulged ourselves in small hikes that afforded us beautiful views of the lake and the surrounding Cascade mountains merging into the Sierra Nevadas in the South. It was one of those places where nature cures, nature soothes and all that. The son is my ardent nature companion, and the pair of us went looking for pinecones and acorns.  It was steep going.

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We stopped at one place to take a few breaths at a spectacular rock placed there for the purpose and we saw a little squirrel. We may have been nervous during the hike, but it did little to wrack the squirrel. Up close the son noticed that unlike the squirrels near where we live, these fellas were smaller and had stripes across their back. He said in his excited voice that these were the ones that had helped Rama build his bridge and nearly gave the poor squirrel heart failure with his excitement.

I peered closely, and so it was. Here were little squirrels that looked like the squirrels mentioned in the ancient myth of Ramayana. According to the story, the little squirrels were helping Lord Rama’s army build a bridge from India to Lanka so that he could save his kidnapped wife, Sita, from the clutches of the evil demon-king Ravana, in their own small way, with little rocks and acorns.  Lord Rama was so impressed with them, that he picked one of them up and stroked its back lovingly. The legend goes on to say that is why squirrels have stripes. The son had heard the story before, and  was understandably excited when he saw the stripes the squirrel’s back. I suppose the story must have sounded silly to him when it said, “That is why squirrels have stripes on their backs.” Because the ones he sees do not have stripes on their backs, and that is the sort of discrepancy that will keep the fellow puzzled and curious for days.

<Squirrels with stripes on their backs>

Chipmunks or Squirrels
Pic obtained via google search

I was reminded of that little story when I read the news items that Remains of the Day had won the Nobel Prize. Remains of the Day examines the concept of work, and why it is an important factor in man’s life. Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 10.08.53 AMHow often have we been asked our names, followed by a what-do-you-do? How does one attach a sense of importance to one’s work, and feel purposeful about it? Sometimes, it is by means of attaching ourselves to the goal of the entity you work for like the squirrels did. But maybe, it is to the concept of work that we need to attach our purpose to like the bees do.

This year Deepavali – the festival of lights came like the coat-tails of a comet after a string of tragic events – fires, shootings, floods: catastrophes both man-made and natural shook the populace. But now is a good time to throw our mind back to these oft forgotten little mythological tales, the fringe stories that provide food for thought. I must remember to tell them the hilarious tale of the old lady, Sabari, tasting the berries before giving them to Lord Rama.

I looked forward to the chat with the children while drawing up a rangoli outside the house using colored chalk. It is a beautiful feeling of light. The triumph of good over evil, a call to nurture our inner light and so much more.

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Mythology, fairy tales, and magic are all so beautifully interwoven in our magic of story-telling. Heroism and quests for the inner self are never jaded. Starting from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Avatars of Vishnu,  Ramayana & Mahabharatha,  Odyssey & Iliad, the Bible and right down to Harry Potter, it is a story line that always enthralls, and is ever relevant.

I’ve come to the conclusion that mythology is really a form of archaeological psychology. Mythology gives you a sense of what a people believes, what they fear. George Lucas

In all these millennia, it seems little has changed, and so much has.

Please share some of your favorite fringe tales – I would love to hear them.

Sailing The Solar Winds

“So, you are saying that we have no method of seeing the images on the CD now?”

“Not without a Windows machine. We have an external CD drive that we can mount, but if you do not have a Windows machine, you cannot install the software to load those particular images – yes.”

The husband looked sheepish. He is the tech enthusiast between the pair of us – a mellow one compared to some of our friends, I will grant him that. But I felt sorry for the fellow as he said we will not be able to install and retrieve the images on the disk. He is the one who feels elated when a new breakthrough happens that will disrupt storage as we know it, and all that lark.

I was holding a CD that contained some images that could be retrieved by the software also on the CD. I had been given the disc in 2017, and I was attempting to see the images in 2017. I could not. I live in a home spotted freely with software engineers. We trip over cables, hunt for laptops and so on.

I looked at the CD disc in my hand, and burst out laughing.

To think that we sent the Arecibo message to a star cluster some 25,000 light years away hoping that extra terrestrial life will receive and interpret it. Carl Sagan and an impressive set of folks came up with a message that showed humans, a double helix, numbers, elements and so much more. Read all about it here:

Arecibo Message

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Image attribution: By Arne Nordmann (norro) – Own drawing, 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365130

How confident we are that if intelligent beings do receive some radio messages, they will have the technology to extract it in the format we sent it to them in forty years ago. Just for fun, I’d like to see what would happen if that dratted message were to flop back onto Earth because of a series of mis-bumps along the way. We would first drive ourselves into a tizzy that beings of another planet reached out to us, and then I am not sure we would be able extract our own message.

I was reading an article recently about human beings sending a probe to our nearest galactic neighbor, Alpha Centauri.

$100-Million Plan Will Send Probes to the Nearest Star

The article talks about using “light sails” to ride those beams to other stars. I quote:

Although they have no mass, the photons in a sunbeam do carry momentum. In sufficient numbers they can push objects around in the vacuum of space. Bounce enough photons off a large reflective spacecraft and light alone can continuously accelerate it without the need for any onboard fuel, much like a sailboat catching a ride on the wind. Such spacecraft are called “solar sails.” This elegant idea goes back more than 400 years, to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who noted that a wind seemed to blow comet tails away from the sun, and that it might someday be harnessed to push a celestial vessel through the “heavenly air.”

The explanation makes my head swim somewhat. They plan to send the probe that will zoom past Alpha Centauri in 20 years time, and hope to see images of an earth-like planet orbiting the star.

But hopefully we catch something worth catching, since as Stephen Hawking so elegantly put it:

Stephen Hawking explained his support for the project as less about science and more about survival. “Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking says. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Now what took me on this interstellar, intergalactic quest you ask me. This is where you see me scratching my head, looking goofy, and mumbling something about googling on how to see images in a CD that I hold in my hand.

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The Mountain of Greed

Hiking through the rolling hills one day, I noticed one hill that had the touch of our greed all over it. It was probably a quarry. Set against a state park, this stark mountain made me wince. It was visible from many points in the park, and I moved my eyes away from it as though it was a raw, open, visceral wound. I noticed later in the dozens of pictures I had taken that day, I had deliberately cut this mountain out from my lens. Like my cutting out a mountain from the frame will remove it from my conscience. But it didn’t. I can still see its jagged unnatural edges in my mind’s eye – edges that have been scraped by metal against rock abruptly, not shaped by wind and water over time.

A sight like that got me started on the book called Biomimicry by Janine Benyus, for we have devised a way of life that is not sustainable.

 

 

Our corporations, keen on profitability, raced each other to figure out the best ways in which to make us consume more and more. But we have taken the race too far. It is time we stepped away from the treadmill.

As I gurgled on in this vein, I could not help noticing that there was a spring gurgling nearby. I stopped chattering like a monkey and quietened down, and as I did so, I felt a queer feeling seep into me and fill my being. Could it be happiness or gratitude? Whatever it was, I liked it. When birds, butterflies, rabbits, pinecones, free flowing water, trees and mountains jostle in friendly ambience in the early morning sunshine the way that Gaia intended it to be, it is refreshing.

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Please read this marvelous article on The Sound of Silence – Brain Pickings

I looked at the vegetation around me, and I found I did not quite know the type of trees or the plants around me. Gone were the days when I could tell you which berries were good, which ones made you itchy, and which flowers you could sip to get a wisp of nectar. How do animals know instinctively what works and what doesn’t, while we do not? I thought of the chimps in Gombe Stream National Park, the most studied species in the planet thanks to Jane Goodall’s work.

Quote From Biomimicry by Janine Benyus: Observing a chimp in Gombe Stream National Park, anthropologist Richard Wrangham, says: A chimp I was observing had woken up sick and instead of rolling over for more sleep, she got up and made a beeline. Twenty minutes later she stopped at an Aspilia plant [a cousin of the sunflower that grows as high as 6 feet] She suckered up her face and swallowed a dozen leaves before she moved back to her troop. It was obvious from her grimace that this was not a taste treat. Though chemical analysis of the ingested leaves showed no conclusive proof of medicine, he saw that a spike in leaf swallowing behavior coincided with the months of host tapeworm infection.

We too had this kind of instinctive knowledge with us, and instead of adding to its repertoire, we have accidentally followed another path.

Most frightening of all reports is that one in four wild species(including all taxonomic categories) will be facing extinction by the year 2025.

All this huffing up hills takes a toll on amateur knoll-climbers, and on the pretext of admiring a giant pine cone, I stopped to regain my breath. The pine cone was beautiful: It’s tough exterior, perfect symmetry and overall shape made me look at it and wonder why we cannot build jam jars like that pine cone.

It is hardly the first nor the last time I will come across a Mountain of Greed. We have made extraordinary progress in areas pertaining to the skies, the seas, connectivity etc, but seem to grapple with the simple fact that we have one finite resource on which to live. There are no garages to be built for Earth. No extra closets. This is it.

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I sound extraordinarily sententious in this post, so maybe what we need is a reward system for eco-sustenance, so each of us can tap into the Naturalist nestled in us.

To see a world in a grain of sand
To see a heaven in a wild flower
– William Blake

 

Good Food Mood

This article was published in The Hindu 

Some of my articles, especially ones that involve the night sky have me pondering on the nature of our existence and how minuscule we are in the scheme of things. The precise sequence of things that led to this particular form of life on this planet and so on. Generally, the night sky is simply a becalming experience that inspires humility, and some vague musings.

The scale of the universe is one that is awe inspiring. We are minuscule compared to the universe, but we also contain millions of minuscule particles compared to our own size. As far as the microbes are concerned, we, each of us: deer, goose, humans are a universe unto ourselves. There is something deeply spiritual in that : we contain multitudes and we enable multitudes. The diversity and beauty of the microbial world is immense, and one that is still emerging in our understanding of it. With the sound of rain pattering outside, I was sitting snugly inside reading I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong, stopping every now and then to read out an interesting piece to the children.

Ayar padi maligaiyil thaai madiyalil kanrinnai pol
ஆயர்பாடி மாளிகையில் தாய் மடியில் கன்றினைப்போல்
maya kana thoongugindran thaalaelo
மாயக்கண்ணன் தூங்குகின்றான் தாலேலோ
Avan vaai niraiya mannai undu mandalathai kaatiya pin
அவன் வாய் நிறைய மண்ணை உண்டு மண்டலத்தை காட்டிய பின்

Roughly translates to: Here is little Krishna, sleeping like a little calf after eating a handful of mud and showing us the universe within it.

The son played the video for the nth time on the television, and the daughter said, “Oh no – not that again. How many times will you see that video?”

“See…see here – when baby Krishna opens his mouth, his mom can see the whole universe inside it. The whole universe!” he says his eyes widening, quite unable to comprehend why this fact is not as astounding to his elder sister.

“Yes – but you said that already.”

“I always watch what you are seeing!” said the fellow stung at this accusation of hogging the television. His sister scowled, the toddler tensed and I sensed it was time for dinner before the situation escalated, and rivers of tears joined the gurgling rivers of rainwater outside.

Inside the house, we sat down around the dinner table with hot food and slurped at it. We kept getting interrupted by alerts giving us flash flood warnings, and it increased the gratitude for being inside, relishing warm food and enjoying one another’s company. Minutes into the meal, the situation had considerably lightened and the children were rolling off their chair giggling at something inane. I watched them bemused.

Countless writers have written about the effects of good food. Jerome K Jerome from Three Men in a Boat goes on to describe the effects in great detail:

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep”. After a cup of tea(two spoonfuls for each cup, and don’t let it stand for more than 3 minutes), it says to the brain, “Now rise and show your strength. Be eloquent and deep and tender; see with a clear eye, into Nature, and into life: spread your white wings of quivering thought and soar, a god like spirit over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!”

What is it with food and mood? Is there a direct connection between the gut and the brain?

It turns out that there is. In ‘I Contain Multitudes’, Ed Yong goes on to write that there are now studies directly linking gut bacteria with mental well-being. We have a long way to go in understanding the role of gut bacteria.  Some studies indicate reduced symptoms of depression in people with irritable bowel syndromes after consuming certain types of probiotics.

If research advances enough to diagnose certain types of borderline psychiatric patients and is able to treat them with specific types of probiotics to enable well-being, would that not be great?

An excellent article on the topic by Maria Popova here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/10/i-contain-multitudes-ed-yong/

The future could hold in store for us enough advances in microbiology & genetics, to enable personalized treatment options that aims at holistic healing. That is a promising, if distant, future to strive towards.

Quote:
It is estimated that every human contains 100 trillion microbes, most of which live in our guts. By comparison the Milky Way contains between 100 million and 400 million stars.

Maybe the mud that baby Krishna swallowed contained bio luminescent bacteria that made the universe inside of him light up when he opened his mouth.

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Whatever it is, like Jerome K Jerome says: “We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach, Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach and diet it with care and judgement. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart.”

Nothing For Something

We were listening to the audio books of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy over the numerous trips we took during the holidays. There is a section where the Earthlings manage to meet the creative team that designed Earth. The designer walks out very proud of his latest fjords in a section resembling current-day Africa, and I remember being awed. How marvelous would it be to think up new concepts, new colors and new landscapes. What shades to give the acacia tree bark? How about the Palm tree bark? Rustic brown or brown acacia sparkle? How about hay? Should hay’s shade be different from the dried grass bundles?

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I suppose it will be a salutary task for everyone to create something beautiful from scratch just to see the myriad choices and decisions one is faced with. There is beauty in creationism. Much more than in consumerism.

Henry David Thoreau would have been pleased indeed that his words about the world being a canvas to the imagination, was taken to heart.

The activity we had chalked out for New Year was painting the daughter’s room, and talk of shades of colors was ripe. I never knew that this many shades of light blue existed with such exotic sounding names.

If somebody had given me the list of colors from the paint section of the hardware store, I could have stumped my audience in Crocodile-Crocodile. Those of you who have not had the pleasure of playing Crocodile-Crocodile should do so at least once to experience the joy of looking up new colors. “Crocodile Crocodile, may we cross the golden river?” is a stellar game in which the crocodile has to catch a person who is attempting to run across the river (strip of land) if they don’t have the color on their persons.

Crocodile, crocodile, may we cross the golden river?

Yes you may. If you have Turquoise Blue.

What is Turquoise Blue? Is it the color of a turquoise? Is a turquoise a turtle or a tortoise or a porpoise or just a turquoise who is blue?

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Anyway, once the paints were in, the smell of fresh paint along with the envisioned end product of a beautiful, clean wall was enough to get us going. There we were, looking ebullient and hanging off the walls at various angles and heights with rollers in our hand. Music played in the background and talk turned to various topics, including the dumb painter, Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture, Tom Brown’s School Days, the Asian Paints advertisement featuring a boy who looked remarkably like a cross between Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and R.K.Narayan’s Swami which of course led to Mark Twain’s short story of Tom Sawyer and his friends painting a fence.

After a few hours, I noticed that the toddler son had taken a break from painting. I asked him what he was doing. ‘Nothing.’, he said. ‘Just sitting and seeing you paint,’ . There he was sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce on the floor with his cheeks cupped in his hands looking enamored with the soothing aura of activity around him and content to absorb.

It is an answer I love to get from children. In their world, it is okay to say they were sitting, and doing nothing. It is those of us who have bought into this idea of being busy who loathe the term.  Sometimes, nothing is good. Maybe we all need to carve out worthwhile moments of doing nothing, so we can do something worthwhile.

“I soon realized that what I really wanted was time to ruminate, time to observe, and often time to be alone.”

Miss Read, Early Days

It reminds me of this drawing that occurs often in Brain Pickings articles : Everybody should sit quietly near a stream and listen.

Everybody should sit by a little stream and listen
Everybody should sit by a little stream and listen

In fact, I think it would be phenomenally better for our current President to do nothing at all. That will be something, and something is better than nothing.