Returning Home

Reconnecting with the spirit of nature
puts a new light on an old place

One of the articles in Living With The Land (IC#8)
Originally published in Winter 1984 on page 15
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

BY CERTAIN STANDARDS, the California ranch where I grew up was a large one: it included nearly 5,000 acres of land, some owned, some leased; 1200 ewes, 200 cows, and several hundred acres planted yearly in oats or barley. Yet despite the size of our operation (or perhaps because of it), we were by no means self-sufficient. Aside from the beef and lamb we slaughtered, we bought what we needed at the supermarket in town, just like everyone else, and I don’t believe it ever occurred to my parents to put in a vegetable garden or plant fruit trees. Ranching was considered a business, like any other business – a fairly profitable one in those days. My mother spent time working in the garden, but she went in for lush lawns and ornamental shrubbery, not food. "Crops" were my father’s department. Like many housewives of the postwar era, she had a passionate attachment to prepackaged frozen vegetables, which were a novelty then, with the result that I was something like nineteen years old before I discovered much of a difference in taste between broccoli and brussel sprouts (fresh).

Years later, after my father and grandfather died, there was no one around to take over the ranch, and the once- prosperous business fell into ruin. Chunks of land were sold to pay taxes and debts; leases were given up, livestock sold; eventually the last 400 acres were leased out to strangers. They treated the land as people often will who use it on a temporary basis: they overgrazed the pastures, let culverts wash away, neglected the fences and water systems and outbuildings, and in general accelerated the process of decay.

My husband and I spoke of going back and ranching the place ourselves. We’d lived there in the first years of our marriage, and both remembered that time with fondness. My husband had come to feel the same way I did about the beauty of those low, rolling hills, the yellow-green fields of oats ripening in the spring, the husky call of a ewe to her lamb in the fog of a winter morning. And though the house we’d lived in had been sold, and we’d moved away, living for a time in Mexico, then Taos, New Mexico, and finally settling in the Russian River region of Sonoma County, the possibility of returning to the ranch had always lingered in the back of our minds. We read books on the subject of organic farming; we experimented with bio-dynamic, French intensive gardening methods in our back yard. Our vegetable garden expanded each year, but still could not keep pace with our four growing children. Every time my fourteen-year-old son sat down at the table, I felt a little surge of panic at the rising cost of food. We began seriously calculating the advantages of milk cows, chickens, a freezer full of lamb.

But when we went to the ranch to look things over, and saw everything so utterly neglected and falling to pieces, we came away depressed, unsure. So much time and energy and money it would take to fix that place up! And it wasn’t as though I were the sole heir to the property – there was no real guarantee that we wouldn’t get the place going again, only to have it sold right out from under us. At California real estate prices, buying out the other owners was not a likely alternative either. How could we plan and do the kinds of things a farming family does with future generations in mind: planting fruit and nut trees, practicing conservation, building houses and barns to last a hundred years?

Then we took a good look at the town nearby. In recent years, tract homes had gobbled up most of the irrigated cropland that once surrounded the community I’d known as a child, transforming it into a sprawling, traffic-choked suburb: a place where one’s sense of community was nurtured and symbolized, not by the town plaza, not by the civic center, but by the fancy new shopping mall with its skylights, its artificially controlled temperature, its endless array of glitter and pseudo luxury. Fighting despair, we stood there watching the shoppers, their wallets evidently bulging with credit cards, their faces inexplicably weary and devoid of animation.

The whole atmosphere was quite different from what we’d known in Mexico or Taos, as well as our present life on the River; so much so that it was difficult to imagine finding people in this town who would share our interests. Would we end up driving back to Sonoma County for friendship and social life? How well would our small daughters adjust to the rigors of the suburban school system, with its emphasis on fancy equipment and elaborate testing procedures, after the low key atmosphere of their school on the River?

The more we turned these questions over in our minds, the more confused we became. Just when we’d all but decided that the potential profits of the ranch outweighed the drawbacks of the town, one of us would say, "What profits – if the place gets sold in the near future?" After more discussion we’d decide we were willing to take that risk, for at least the experience would be valuable… and a chance stop at that glittery shopping mall would plunge us back into a state of discouragement.

Then we underwent an experience that changed everything. During the summer, we heard of a workshop in Huichol shamanism to be held at Mount Shasta. When I spoke on the phone to Brandt Secunda, the man conducting it (a New Yorker trained by the Huichols of Mexico), he said there would be other families coming and he urged me to bring all four kids. This sort of response being outside the realm of my everyday experience (lots of people tend to back off at the mention of that many children), I began to suspect that there might be something special in store for us at this workshop. On the spur of the moment we packed everyone and headed for Mount Shasta. We were not disappointed.

In the course of our week there we did sweat lodge ceremonies, prayer circles, a hike partway up Shasta to leave prayer arrows to the dreaming god and goddess of the mountain. One night we each went out and slept alone in the woods while Brandt, assisted by Rob Menzies (horticulturist, author of The Star Herbal), babysat the kids back in camp. We returned in the morning full of dreams and visions to share with one another. Toward the end of the week, we held an all-night ceremony on the banks of a beautiful lake, watching the moon rise and set, drumming and dancing and praying.

I had read about such things, just as I’d read people’s theories about all of nature being alive. But my experiences at Shasta were more direct and personal than a reading experience can be; I came away from there knowing that my whole relationship to the Earth had been awakened and energized.

Even my doubts about the ranch were dispelled, primarily as a result of a dream I had while I was there. In this dream, I’m telling Rob Menzies all about the ranch, the run-down conditions, the tremendous amount of work… "A place in need of healing," he says.

"Also," I say, "I have my doubts about raising meat animals for money. I do eat meat myself, though. Especially lamb."

"It’s not eating meat that has to change – it’s your attitude toward the animal and the land that produced it. You’re going to have to do things differently, with more love, more reverence. And don’t forget, every time you take from the Earth, you should give something back."

"Yes," I say, just a little impatiently. "But the problem is, we don’t really own the place."

He smiles. "Of course not. Who does? Ownership is an illusion, a convention of our society."

"Maybe, but the money it’ll cost to get things going again is no illusion."

There is a pause, then he says quietly, "Then focus on the healing and don’t think about money. If you have love for the land in your heart, if wherever you go, your concern is to love and heal the body of our Mother, the Earth, the money to do it will come."

In the dream I believed him, and later, pondering the matter, it made sense. I saw that it was time for me to stop paying lip service to the idea of ecology and begin the actual work of healing – starting right now, where I was at. There were other places, perhaps, more desirable places, but I was intimately familiar with the ranch, and already had a lot of emotional energy invested in it. That seemed the logical place to begin.

Further meditation exposed to me the pettiness of all this sweating and stewing over long-range profits, all this worry about who would end up eating "my" walnuts and almonds twenty years from now! I stopped thinking in terms of sowing in order that my own children might reap, and began to see it as simply caring for the Earth so that She might go on feeding us all – my own children, and the children of everyone’s children – indefinitely.

I realized that the earlier deterioration of the ranch, though painful for me at the time, had been a healthy thing – the natural decline of one particular way of relating to the land to make room for a new and hopefully better way. It was impossible to imagine bringing to that land the sort of care it required, the awareness, the knowledge of detail, if we’d still been dealing with 5,000 acres. It was impossible to imagine constructing the kind of self-contained, "permaculture" unit we had in mind, and still be running to town to buy all our food, as my parents had. The collapse of that big business had pared things down to a manageable size, and Brandt’s workshop had given me a clearer vision of what our new relationship to it would be.

Someone at Shasta had also suggested I read The Magic of Findhorn, and that book helped me to recognize some of my hidden reservations in regards to this idea of healing. It seems that whenever I thought about moving "back to the land," there was a certain mental image that superimposed itself over that of the ranch: a lush green meadow encircled by trees, the babbling creek flowing beside the little log cabin with blue calico curtains, etc. So deeply was this image embedded in my mind that I unconsciously considered that scene, that idyllic perfection, to be the only legitimate setting in which to embark upon the Great Healing Task. My gut response to the description of Findhorn in its early years was "God, how could they stand it!" The place was so bleak and cold – so depressing!

But the founders of Findhorn were able to stand it because they were following the promptings of the Spirit, not seeking the ideal spot in which to "do their thing." Their stupendous gardening successes were attributed to the intensive communion with the Spirit which preceded them. And that’s what Mount Shasta was about, for me – learning to be aware of the Spirit within nature. Without such an awareness, I think it’s difficult to experience anything beyond the most superficial relationship with land. On the other hand, once one achieves even the merest glimpse of this spiritual aspect of things, the possibility of using land for superficial purposes – exploiting it – is out of the question.

So I’ve given up my search for the perfect piece of land, the perfect "enlightened" community, and decided to begin with what’s close at hand. Perhaps we’ll stay on the ranch a long time, perhaps not; we’ll stay until we sense it’s time to move on. But I’m not worrying about whether I’ll be around long enough to eat walnuts from "my" walnut trees. If the Earth is truly our Mother, a living entity with spirit and feelings and intelligence, as I believe She is, then what I sow in one place I can reap in another. For the Earth remembers those who love Her, and She will always find a way to feed and shelter Her own.

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