I remember practicing walking meditation in the Redwoods of northern California in the 1980s with Thich Nhat Hanh and members of the fledgling Community of Mindful Living. “We human beings are a young species,” the Zen teacher mused, gazing up into the curved dome of the forest. “We were plants, we were trees, and now we have become humans.” He put his hand on the thick bark of a redwood elder to remind us, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”
This teaching has come back to me frequently since the autumn of 2017, when Diablo winds gusting at 70 miles per hour ignited one of the worst fire disasters in California history. More than two hundred thousand tinder-dry North Bay acres were consumed by infernal fire. Seven thousand structures burned to charcoal dust in a conflagration that took more than 40 human lives.
During these apocalyptic fires, hazardous levels of industrial and chemically fueled smoke darkened California skies for 100 miles. We worked for days to clean the damage. For consolation, a close dharma sister promised me the gift of a silent Zen writing retreat in northern Washington, and a week later I arrived in the Pacific Northwest bearing the faint odor of creosote and wildfire smoke. My friend and I locked down in parallel practice, writing and eating in silence. It rained every day.
After several long days of writing, we escaped on pilgrimage to the heart of the Olympic wilderness. The ancient, cloud-clad mountains of this remote ecosystem rise in a ragged circle out of some of the most jumbled plate tectonics in the Western Hemisphere. Pristine rivers fed by 200 inches of annual rainfall roar out of the glacial fastness of the Olympic Range, flowing in a radial gyre to the Pacific Ocean.
We entered this wilderness, following the curve of the Sol Duc River, or “Sparkling Water,” as the First People still call their ancestral river. We sat zazen beneath towering red cedar and Douglas fir trees. Amid the dank stench of fungal rot I imagined invisible mushroom filaments revitalizing acres of old-growth soil, remembering that the first life-forms to emerge after the atomic firestorms of Hiroshima were ancient matsutake mushrooms pushing up out of scorched ground.
At dusk, we journeyed to the Salmon Cascades on the Sol Duc River to witness the spawning migration of threatened coho salmon in their home watershed. I have waited more than 30 years to see wild salmon spawn, but nothing had prepared me for the raw glory of encountering run after run of huge red-sided salmon hurling themselves at the river. The fish flew at the falls, leaping out of the water. Once they were fully airborne, their dorsal and caudal fins fanned the misty crest of the torrent. When these iconic fish die after spawning, their rotting flesh nourishes an entire forest ecosystem.
It is February now, Buddha’s parinirvana season, when the World-Honored One died and entered final nirvana. The scars of the North Bay fires bulge like shadow arteries under the membrane of winter. At dawn this morning, I walked among the old-growth redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument along the banks of Redwood Creek, the southernmost spawning habitat of endangered coho salmon. In the low light, I caught the flicker of newborn salmon moving through the dappled pools of their natal river. Fish and forest have evolved together, renewed by fire and the fungal network for far longer than humans have inhabited these lands. Here, at the roots of the old world, I think of Thich Nhat Hanh’s words once more. For one brief moment I awaken from the illusion of separateness and take refuge in my true home.
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