Crossing this continent, then the Atlantic, by plane, I disembarked in Paris to take a speed rail to Bordeaux, on the coast of southwest France. From there a local train took me to Sainte Foy de la Grande, where I was met by a brown-robed monk and driven to Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s famed international retreat center. It was mid-July in the Dordogne River Valley, where sunflower-filled fields and forested groves were already casting their spell of generations of cultivation, peace, beauty and wellbeing on the land. I have come because this Vietnamese monk’s presence at Green Gulch Farm moved me so deeply that not doing so was not an option.
I waited with a small group of Westerners for our first meeting with our teacher, fondly known as Thay. We were addressed in a small outdoor amphitheater like so: “If you Westerners do not even understand Christianity, you have no chance of understanding Buddhism. When you go back home, please look deeply into the spiritual traditions you came from.”
Decades earlier, declining a fellowship to study philosophy at the graduate level, I opted out of academia and into the San Francisco counter-culture, where the study of Buddhism and art-making in community and historical contexts—Impressionist painting, traditional Japanese ceramics, pre-Columbian burnished blackware—were believed to offer more. In cultures that produced art in family or community settings, I felt at home, welcomed as a woman.
The irresistible invitation into a rooted culture, however, came through seeing a summer tomato planting at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center led by a student of Alan Chadwick, a master horticulturist widely credited with founding the organic farming and gardening movement in California. A visit to Alan’s teaching garden at the University of California, Santa Cruz followed, revealing the most beautiful sight I had ever seen; that the garden was also growing delicious, healthful food, flowers and herbs biodynamically doubled the impact.
I moved to Green Gulch to study with Alan. A novice, I tentatively began a relationship to the earth herself. I learned to grow plants, harvest vegetables, work in silence. The garden eventually allowed me to touch my own humanity and that of others. Each day alone on the fields, my koan was, ‘What is the role of man in Nature?’
This May in West Marin, Sappho’s fragments from the sixth century B.C., from Sherod Santos’s Greek Lyric Poetry, express the mood: “When you return from Crete, meet me/ at the apple grove, our little temple/ Its leafy altar incensed with/ the mineral scent of your soapy hair./ Drifted over blue lakewater/ a cool wind empties out the apple trees/ a cidery, heavy-eyed drowse/spills from the branches and murmuring leaves./ Where the pastured warhorse grazes/ the meadow is awash with spring flowers/ a serried, wind-lapped lake of blues.”
In California, prior to European conquest, Kat Anderson, author of Tending the Wild, relates: “the Foothill Nisenan women wore fresh flowers in their spring dances. Men, women, and children of different Yokuts groups wore crowns of flowers… flowers were plucked and danced to with special songs…” May 1, known as Beltane in Celtic lands, was lit up with great bonfires in Scotland, Wales, Sweden and Bohemia. The winding and unwinding of colored streamers as children circled the Maypole in delight evoked the presence of flora.
Florales Ludi, the Roman festival of flowers, is said to originally have been a movable feast on the land, dependent on the condition of crops and flowers. Here in West Marin we have similar tastings and feasts as we offer visits to farms and vineyards.
Romans worshiped the goddess known as “she whose flowers would become fruit: those of vines, olives, fruit trees and honey-bearing plants.” To gain the goddess’s protection, games were instituted and played day and night, involving pantomimes, theater and stripteases. People of all classes donned their brightest clothing decked out in flowers; even animals were garlanded, and goats and hares let loose.
I asked Jeffrey Creque, a land stewardship consultant who studied and applied Alan’s ways in his Bolinas garden, to comment on the tradition. “I’m remembering Chadwick’s lectures—‘studies’ they were called—as an impassioned mix of European paganism, Greek myth, horticultural genius and Shakespeare, delivered in high theatrical form,” he said. A student of Alan’s could well have written a poem like the following, an anonymous expression of the cosmic implicit in the biological:
“And nothing in nature, more than the pear in bloom/ seems to say: Here! embrace me, lay me down/ here beneath the heavy scented orchard bloom/ on the soft bed of last year’s leaf, in the/ deep of the spring grass greening…/ Love me here in the thick bee-driven scent of an April afternoon.”