Driving into the Santa Cruz mountains at daybreak in November 2018, my heart was tight, my eyes burned, and it was hard to breathe. A bloodshot sun rose red over the smoky coastal range. Two hundred miles to the northeast, the mountain town of Paradise, California was burning out of control in the most destructive wildfire in state history.
I was on my way to lead a weekend retreat on Zen and writing at the Ben Lomond Quaker Center with author and peace activist Maxine Hong Kingston. For almost two decades Maxine and I have made this pilgrimage to be on retreat with veterans and members of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing sangha.
November 11, 2018 commemorated the centennial of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” On this same day, we observed the fourth anniversary of Thich Nhat Hanh’s massive cerebral hemorrhage in Plum Village, France. This year we were also honoring his recent decision to return home to Vietnam and live out his days in Tu Hieu temple, where he was ordained as a novice monk 76 years ago at the age of 16.
As the retreat unfolded, war and peace veterans gathered in the center’s sanctuary with family, friends, and caregivers. Brand-new meditators practiced alongside experienced sitters. For the first time in my memory, children of American and Vietnamese soldiers sat down together to write in community, listening to each other without notions of good and bad or liking and disliking.
A few days before the retreat began, my son, Jesse, a fire captain in the Marin County Fire Service, was deployed to the front lines of the Paradise wildfire along with thousands of other firefighters. These two events, a Zen peace retreat and burning wildfire, unfolded in parallel time.
In its early hours the Paradise wildfire was insatiable, devouring 80 acres of desiccated land a minute. By the end of November 250,000 acres, or 240 square miles, of urban and mountainous terrain had been incinerated to bone-gray ash, with 86 people confirmed dead and hundreds still missing.
Without turning away from the apocalyptic war zone of climate-driven wildfire, members of our veterans retreat sought refuge in the redwood forest surrounding the Quaker center. We meditated in silence, writing in pristine groves heavy with the scent of balsam. The light at the floor of the forest was rich chestnut charged with gold. High in the overhead canopy primitive redwood needles filtered the acrid air, purifying it of toxic wildfire smoke.
With ancestral forest trees as her witness, Maxine offered basic writing encouragement. “Tell about a time when you experienced real peace,” she urged us, “real peace—nothing fancy. Stay simple. Choose one peaceful moment and write from there.”
I remembered a summer night at Plum Village in 1987, sitting in the dark with Thich Nhat Hanh and members of what we then called the Floating Sangha. Thay, as he is more familiarly known by his students, was talking in soft tones about the turbulent era in Vietnam at the end of the French occupation. He was describing how peace, human-made or environmental, is made up of non-peaceful elements.
During our first afternoon of writing I received an emergency call from two close organic farming friends, Amigo Bob and his wife, Jenifer. Jenifer’s mother, Erica, had just been evacuated from her home in Paradise. With fire roaring all around her, she fled by car with her three cats and pet chicken. Although Paradise was lost, Erica was strangely calm. On her way out, she picked up her neighbor. As if in a dream, at the boundary of their town the two women turned together to look back and see their cherished sign, “Welcome To Paradise,” burst into flame.
I made sure that Amigo and Jenifer had Jesse’s contact information so that he could update them from ground zero in Paradise. Later the next day, my friends called again to thank me: Jesse had gone behind the fire line to confirm that Erica’s property had burned to the ground—all that was left standing was the chimney of her house and a statue of Saint Francis. Although it was hell to hear, Amigo assured me that it was a gift to receive this news directly from Jesse, whom Amigo had known since Jesse was a little boy. I spoke to Erica then for the first time since the wildfire. Real peace, though caused by non-peaceful events, was on the line between us. “How are you?” I finally asked. “I’m alive!” she exclaimed, full of joy and innocent surprise.
For the next few days, I immersed myself in the daily practice of our veterans retreat. The sangha was strong, inoculated by silence and deep writing. On our last night together, we stayed up until almost midnight in the meditation hall, sharing our writing with each other. I can still hear their words, like music from paradise.
At dawn on Armistice Day, our last day of practice together, we held a special precepts-transmission ceremony for both young and seasoned students of the dharma. This transmission was followed with prayers for the burning landscape of California and a full peace ceremony of bell-ringing and blessings to honor one hundred years of armistice.
By late afternoon on Sunday, I was finally ready to leave the center. Everyone else had already returned home. I went down by myself at the edge of dusk to the oldest grove of redwoods at the center. I turned to face the northeast, in the direction of Paradise on earth, and recited this favorite Zen poem by Soyen Shaku (1860–1919):
Built on the whole universe
From there I can see mountains, river, and good earth
As my own garden.
Once I was annoyed with human language
Of good and bad, liking and disliking.
I can hear those voices from here
Like the music from paradise.
The Paradise wildfires destroyed almost 19,000 structures, causing some $16.5 billion in damage, and the recovery has been slow, hampered by unprecedented environmental contamination. Heavy metals and dioxin pollutants clog the watercourses of the region, while bare charred earth has given rise to toxic bacterial and parasitic contamination. The entire infrastructure of this vibrant mountain town was incinerated in a matter of hours, leaving longtime residents to ponder the prudence and possibility of return.
Despite justified despair and daunting environmental challenge, a veteran clan of seasoned organic farmers nationwide has been investigating how we might help re-vegetate Paradise. Led by Amigo Bob and Jenifer’s family, who lost everything in the November conflagration, we hatched a plan.
Amigo Bob is one of the primary founders of the national Ecological Farming Association, which hosts a huge farming conference every year in late January. This winter, to celebrate the 39th anniversary of the EcoFarm Conference, we set aside an evening for farmers to help restore Paradise.
In honor of this gathering Amigo Bob secured a generous donation of six varieties of wildland seed selected by Hedgerow Farms and gathered from the Paradise area. Hedgerow Farms is an innovative conservation farm and seed company dedicated to landscape re-vegetation planting. Their mission is to promote pollinator insect health, pest management, and water quality infiltration in native soils and limit erosion and weeds.
On January 24, 2019, more than 300 organic farmers gathered for our annual seed swap and Paradise re-vegetation program. It was my pleasure to lead us in a three-hour-long process of creating seed balls stuffed with locally native seeds to be spread out over California’s burned landscape. To our surprise and honor, Amigo invited two organic farmers who lost their Paradise farm during the wildfires to join us. Without a trace of pity or defeat, this brave couple initiated the seed ball process.
I came to the conference with all of the ingredients needed for this ceremony: buckets of forest-leaf mold and rich clay farm soil, a quantity of top-notch compost and a lone pail filled with forest-fire ash collected from the burn area. We gathered around a giant wheelbarrow as the Paradise farmers mixed the soil ingredients with raw seed that spanned the range from elegant clarkia to gum plant, mixed with wild milkweed, yellow ray goldfields, evening primrose, lacy phacelia, and golden lupine seed.
Amigo Bob and Jenifer drizzled sweet mountain water over this potent mix. Then the assembly rolled damp soil into small round balls the size of miniature dark chocolate truffles stuffed instead with hundreds and hundreds of wildland seeds.
The grounding principle of this practice is profoundly simple. The little clay seed balls are formed and allowed to dry out until they harden. Next the seed balls are collected in backpacks and taken to remote burned areas. With prayer and panache these seed balls are tossed far and wide across the singed landscape. The hard clay-soil mixture protects the seed from hungry birds and rodents. Once rain begins to fall this protective covering melts, allowing the seed-inoculated clay to infuse the burned landscape until spring germination occurs, blanketing burned ground with new life.
It was late when we finished cleaning the assembly hall after our seed rolling ceremony. Tray after tray of dark seed balls gleamed in the back of the hall. I imagined Amigo and Jenifer heading home to fiery earth with a hardy crew of veteran farmers, ready together to spread raw peace made of non-peace elements across the mountains, rivers, and good earth of Paradise.
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