Every summer for the last 20 years I have made a pilgrimage to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center with my dharma sister of three decades, Annie Somerville, executive chef of Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. We offer a rambunctious retreat weekend of applied Zen: two full days of cooking and gardening deep in the mountains of the Ventana Wilderness. Seasoned with the silence of daily meditation, peppered with long walks on the ragged edge of the California Coastal Steppe, this retreat follows the dragon veins of undomesticated practice.
We roast slim-ankle leeks, wild herbs, and licorice-scented fennel with waxy fingerling potatoes in an old grill fashioned out of a converted 55-gallon oil drum filled with clean river sand and fiery coals. In the garden I resist planting butter lettuce or frail twining cucumbers in favor of robust beds of pollen- and nectar-rich native insectary plants to feed the beneficial and pestiferous bees, moths, butterflies, beetles, birds, and bats. These creatures make possible the reproductive health of 90 percent of the flowering plants and one-third of human food crops growing in the gardens of the wild and cultivated world.
This summer when I arrived for our Tassajara retreat I was startled by a tornado flush of West Coast Lady butterflies rising in a dense orange-and-smoke- brown spiral from the floor of the valley. Standing in that whir of wings, I remembered a vivid pollinator encounter with my daughter Alisa many seasons ago when she was eight years old.
We had come together to Tassajara that summer for the cooking and gardening retreat. Alisa was Annie’s faithful assistant, always eager to poke sizzling vegetables. In her third-grade class she had been studying pollinators, reminding me that one out of every three bites of food we eat depends on the work of a pollinator. For her end-of-the-year project Alisa was rearing a small clutch of West Coast Lady butterfly chrysalids, Vanessa annabella, in a little cheesecloth cage she had rigged by herself. Just before leaving for Tassajara, she noticed the telltale orange-and-black wing pattern of the butterflies showing through their casing. The butterflies, so close to hatching, accompanied us to Tassajara.
In our cabin we set their cage up by the window, not far from a kerosene lamp, which we lit at dusk to keep the chrysalids warm. Alisa was mesmerized as the butterflies began to move and pulse beneath their translucent, elastic skin. Just at dark the seam line of each chrysalis tore open as one glorious insect after another emerged in the falling shadows of the June night. There were three new butterflies, their wings wet and glistening. We watched in mute wonder as they turned in their netted cage, pumping their bodies full of oxygen, moving their wings like tiny soundless accordions. Finally they settled to rest on the slender branch that Alisa had placed in their cage, and we fell asleep together in the soft summer dark.
I awoke a few times in the night to hear the butterflies moving restlessly in their cage. We had agreed to free them into the pollinator garden first thing the next morning. All night long I heard them flutter in the dark, marveling at their fierce strength. When I crept out of the cabin for morning zazen, the newborn butterflies were strangely still. Returning at dawn, I woke Alisa, and we recoiled together in horror at the carnage now visible in our cabin. In the night a single mouse had gnawed a hole in the cheesecloth cage and consumed all three butterflies while we slept. Scattershot wing fragments littered the windowsill where we leaned and wept in the rising light.
It has been 15 years since this experience. In its stark finality Alisa and I are joined. The fate of these West Coast butterflies has marked my Zen gardening life. Without a shred of sentimentality, I continue to sow stands of nectar- and pollen-rich plants every summer at Tassajara for the rising tide of pollinating insects flowing along the backbone of the Northern California coast. And although I keep on my shelf Walt Whitman’s poetic reminder that “a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,” I frankly prefer the curt Jesuit Zen grace offered before taking food: Eat and be eaten.
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