By TINA HE
A legend says that if a couple walks around the entire perimeter of Beebe Lake while holding hands, the two are destined to be engaged.
It’s 7:00 and I am sliding my feet into my sneakers. Ferociously sleep deprived — a ubiquitous state of being for Cornell undergraduates — I choose the lake over my bed, and set out without telling my boyfriend.
The air is still misty. Dew rests on the tips of the grass; the sun hasn’t started radiating heat. Every freshman walks by Beebe Lake at least once a day, crossing the bridge to get to their classes. I choose to take another path.
The steep slope between Helen Newman Hall and the lake is landscaped with Crown vetch. As I venture down the stairs, heading towards the South, I start to spot great blue herons and goldfinches. My friends have told me about Canada geese too, but I have no luck yet.
I smell the lake the moment I see it. The antique smell is a peculiar mixture of sugar maples, hemlock and oak, old trees that stand tall and construct a barrier separating the trail from the rest of the campus. In the 1990s, students found respite from the heat in the lake on summer day. Several drowning incidents did not deter them from swimming in the holes, getting drenched in the waterfall or jumping off the “Lover’s Leap” north of the Lake. In the winter, they skated, played hockey on ice, and tobogganed.
A professor in the 1920s wrote a letter to The Cornell Daily Sun: “Beebe, besides being the most beautiful recreation ground at Cornell University, is a beauty spot all through the open season that we cannot afford to lose.” The newspaper commented: “It would be difficult and distasteful to conceive of Cornell in the winter months without its tobogganing, its skating, and its hockey … three invaluable sources of recreation that should be maintained at any cost.”
Beebe Lake was created in 1832 by Ezra Cornell in order to provide power and water to
mills along Fall Creek; before that it was a swamp on Erza’s farm. It has been more than 180 years since its creation; the bustle has turned into this serenity that I indulge in. It is no longer merely a source of recreation. In fact, Beebe Lake has been transformed into a sanctuary, a spiritual shelter, a means to transcend, as if all the joy and fun and laughter that it has brought have been a ceremony celebrating its ultimate purpose.
In 2007, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, visited Cornell. He gave a speech in Barton Hall, which was packed with 5,000 people. He told the people that world peace begins with individuals finding their own inner peace. “Genuine peace,” he declared, “must come from internal peace.”
By the time he came, the Johnson Museum of Art had completed a sand mandala. Millions of grains of sand were painstakingly placed on a flat platform over a period of days; then the mandala was dismantled in order to release the blessings into the world. They dismantled the mandala on the day of the Dalai Lama’s departure. They then threw all these sands into Beebe Lake.
The practice of creating and destroying the mandala serves as a metaphor for impermanence — all of existence is transient, or in a constant state of flux.
“Everything will go away eventually.” Priscilla said, gazing at the water and said.
A yoga and meditation instructor at Cornell, Priscilla jogs around Beebe Lake almost every day when the weather is still amiable. Priscilla was there to witness how the delicate and intricately patterned mandala got destroyed in seconds. She particularly cherishes this encounter with the Dalai Lama; the impact still lingers.
“Beebe Lake is not only beautiful,” she said, “it’s a powerful aid to reach the peace of mind.” Priscilla has mentioned several times what a privilege it is to live on this campus, to be surrounded by such astounding beauty. For Priscilla, the lake is also a constant reminder of impermanence.
She pointed at the orange leaves floating on the lake and said: “The color you are seeing now will be different from the color you see tomorrow. They used to play hockey and do all the crazy stuff here, but not anymore. Everything is changing, and you have no control over it; you just gotta embrace it.” A small whirlpool behind some rocks sucked down the leaves as she finished her sentences.
A Buddhist herself, Priscilla also mentioned a Jewish practice that takes place every year by the lake. On the High Holy Days, the Jewish New Year, the Yudowitz Center for Jewish Campus Life at Cornell organizes Tashlich at the north shore of Beebe Lake. Tashlich comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to cast,” referring to the intent to cast away sins. Prayers are recited next to a body of water, preferably one that has fish, because they believe “just as fish may be caught in a fisherman’s net, so, too, we are caught in the net of judgment.” After the prayers, they shake their clothes as a tangible act to achieve the spiritual goal of shaking sins from the soul.
A small stone bridge comes into my sight, and as I cross I see fish chasing each other under my feet. Trees start to get sparser. The outline of the gothic style architecture emerges from the hazy thin air. I have been unaware that the lake is organically connected to the rest of Cornell; I feel as if I am walking out of a church.
The different religious practices and meditative activities — Buddhism, Judaism, Atheism, and more — centered on Beebe Lake have made it a symbol. It has become a constant reminder of the different facets of our existence: the impermanence of our being, the need for refurbishment of our minds and the unification of diversities and variations. Meditating by the lake, one is easily left in awe of what nature is capable of doing.
Cornell was founded as a non-sectarian school in a time when most universities had specific religious affiliations. The founders of the University wanted a liberal environment for intellectuals from all backgrounds regardless of gender, race, or social class to acquire education and exchange ideas. And the lake that was built on this campus upon a swamp represents a profound simplicity that is so close to our hearts.
A couple cuddling by the water reminds me of the beautiful legend that has brought me here. The lake shivers in gold and silver.