Zen Center Day 4 – Trees of Liberation and Prayer

I sleep in on Wednesday, which means I linger in bed until 6:30am. It’s easier to wake up at the zen center because everyone goes to bed between nine and ten every night. The rhythms of nature are the alarm clock, and people seem content to follow that. I clear trails again today with Carlos, Heidi, and a young man named Reed who is at Green Gulch for a six month term. September is his last month, and he seems to know the place well. He’s one of the glassy-eyed folks around the center who seem to be living in a dreamlike state.

The trail we are clearing leads to a spring, and more than half of the water that Green Gulch uses comes from this natural upwelling. There are periods of drought where nearly all their water flows through pipes down this path. The trail is overgrown, and it feels important to clear a way to the source of so much life. The work is easy for me because I have gas-powered tools to use, and I spend the morning weed-whacking behind the others as they clear the sides by hand. The path is secluded and feels jungle-like because the trees nearly form a canopy over our heads. About halfway up the trail we come to a clearing, and there is a sense of hushed sacredness about this area that is largely due to a massive bay tree growing on the side of what was once a creek. I mentioned in an earlier post that my tree-awe would only increase as the week drifted by, and despite the amazing arbors I’ve seen so far, this tree, called The Liberation Tree, stands out as the pinnacle. It doesn’t reach as high as the redwoods nor is it as big around as some of the trees closer to the houses, but the amount of ground that it covers dwarfs anything else. It has branches, all as thick around as a small car, jutting out all over this clearing. It’s the kind of tree you could build a large house in, and it’s covered in a beautiful emerald moss that feels like shag carpet. The leaves, though not the edible kind we drop in soup, have a delicious aroma that is further complicated by the mass of pine needles draped all over the forest floor. This is a place of worship if ever there was one.

img_1694Furthering the sanctity of this area, there is a path that branches away and leads up to the grave of Alan Watts. Alan Watts is a well known zen practitioner who has managed to find a somewhat mainstream audience. His books are accessible, and when he was alive he recorded multiple guided meditations that you can find on YouTube. He’s an interesting man, and despite his lifelong pursuit of peace, he allegedly died from alcoholism. I wish I knew more, but I visit the site where his ashes are scattered anyway. There’s another bay tree up here, and while it isn’t as large, the shape of it is almost perfect. Following the blackened path (and I don’t know whether the blackness comes from the ashes, which would have been scattered decades ago, or is simply the color of the ground here) leads me to a marker of four large stones that probably weigh 500 pounds each. I can’t imagine how they could have img_1695been hauled up here without a helicopter. They are arranged so that three lay on their longer sides, with the remaining one standing straight up in the center. Before I even think about what I’m doing, I sit on one of the flatter stones, and it doesn’t occur to me until I’ve stood back up that I had possibly disrespected the site. But the view from that stone is beautiful, and there is a sense of calm sitting there, looking out into the trees and feeling the sunlight dapple across my face. It doesn’t feel like a desecration.

At lunch, I have a lengthy conversation with a middle-aged woman named Liz. Liz used to run the farm at Green Gulch and still comes back every year for work weeks and general volunteering. She seems to have a lifetime’s worth of knowledge about plants and landscaping and this becomes more and more apparent as the week progresses. Liz reminds me of someone who works at a zoo or who has lots of cats; or both. She’s kind and cheerful and I enjoy talking with her while we eat.

After lunch, having finished up the trail work, I work with a young lady named Simrit. Simrit is tall and lanky and reminds me of a friend of mine in such a strong way that I wonder if they aren’t long lost twins – or at least sisters. There is a guardedness to Simrit that I have trouble with, myself an often guarded conversationalist, and we spend time in silence uprooting some dying flower bushes. Simrit is at Green Gulch for the week with her mother, Ardas, and they are here by happenstance having meant to work at the Tassahara Zen Center south of here. The fires in southern California pre-empted that experience, and there is a sense of worry among many of the residents of Green Gulch about what could happen to their sister community.

The bush clearing doesn’t take long, and I spend the rest of the work day hauling large rocks from one side of the center to another. I’ve always been strong in body, and I’ve always enjoyed demonstrating that strength. It’s egotistical, and primitive to be sure, but seeing the surprise on someone’s face, and the hint of admiration, as I lift 200 pound rocks up has always punched my ticket. Sukey doesn’t trust me with the placement of the heavy objects and calls in a team of Mexican landscapers who are working in tandem with us for a few days to wrangle one particularly large rock into place. It’s clear that they know what they’re doing and make a good, coordinated team, and I am amused watching Sukey boss them around; kindly, like only an old white lady can.

After another dinner that fills me up in body and spirit, I explore the beautiful gardens. The variety of plants suggests that the gardeners are trying to pack as many things into the space as they can. Unlike the farm, the gardens only purpose seems to be aesthetic. There are apple trees, set up in clear tree guilds, but the rest is ornamental. Some of the apple trees look ancient, gnarled and knobby like an older fisherman’s hands. The only other thing I recognize is white yarrow, but is it native?


There is a pond nearby, but it’s nearly dried up. I later learn this is an intentional method for the irrigation of the farm. I am positive that there is permaculture at Green Gulch, though I never hear it named. Everything is done organically, which is a practice pre-dating permaculture, but the spirit of the word lives here.

img_1641I find a prayer tree, hidden away in a sitting area that I return to a few times over the week. The tree is unreal, with lovely purple bark and prayer flags dangling from lots of the branches. All along the trunk there are circular ridges, which I would learn are created by woodpeckers knocking holes into the wood to get at the sweet sap underneath. We visit the tree again later in the week and Sukey tells us that it’s a Japanese cherry tree, and that the wood was used in an older Japan to fashion beautiful boxes to mark the birth of special girl children. She also tells us that the prayers are part of a special ceremony for children who have died, and I even see one scrap of paper swinging in the wind with a photograph of an infant. Another prayer hangs from a dead branch, and I wonder what that means for the child in question. The harsh cry of the crow that continually flies around Green Gulch has no answer. There is a bamboo grove adjacent to the prayer tree, too dense to walk through but creating a perfect privacy screen, and I sit on a bench beneath the cherry tree for a long time.

Other areas of the garden are cut off by more traditional Western style hedges, and indeed several circular gardens remind me of more traditional English arrays but dotted here and there with Buddhist prayer shrines. There are so many hidden sit spots to ponder at that I spend much of my night testing them all.

The evening ends with a dharma talk by a woman named Wendy Johnson. She speaks about food, as it is national food awareness month. I find the talk kind of boring, but it is funny to hear so many familiar names in her memories of Green Gulch and of a life spent farming and meditating: Wendell Berry, Humberto Maturana, Masunoba Fukuoka.  Many of the figures I’ve studied and respected in the past few years have ties to Green Gulch. Even in the bookstore I find books by Natalie Goldberg, whose Writing Down the Bones I’d finished days before. It seems in some ways like Green Gulch is a place I needed to visit. img_1647

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Day 2
Day 3
Day 5
Day 6

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