Photograph by Brian Hagiwara/Getty
Photograph by Brian Hagiwara/Getty

This morning on the dragon coast of Northern California I smell winter in the cold bowels of the earth. Broken-necked zinnias rot on moldy stems while our prize Atlantic Giant pumpkin suffered its first hungry-rat attack last night at sundown. In the thrust of this harvest season, 100 eager young meditators and I are preparing to plant a memorial apple tree for the Kenyan environmentalist and peace activist Dr. Wangari Maathai, who died of ovarian cancer in late September in Nairobi. She was 71. In 2004, Dr. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her lifelong commitment to environmental sustainability and the empowerment of women. Under her determined leadership more than 30 million trees have been planted across rural Africa by the Green Belt Movement, Dr. Maathai’s grassroots organization, which has trained some 900,000 women over the last three decades to work on behalf of social and economic justice, nonviolence, and earth democracy.

Now it is our turn to plant for Wangari Maathai, our modern-day bodhisattva. During the annual Family Day of Mindfulness, to be held in a few weeks at nearby Spirit Rock Meditation Center, we will dedicate an herbal arc of rosemary and lavender plants to grow near the memorial apple tree. Zen practice discourages overt glorification of the things of the world that Wangari Maathai ministered to with diamonds-ceptered presence and persistence. Still, offering homage and gratitude to certain Lavender for comfort, rosemary for strength totemic plants like rosemary and lavender may serve as an extension of awareness practice. These two powerful herbs of antiquity evoke and express the dual qualities fundamental to effective meditation and engaged practice: deep-rooted wisdom and wide-reaching compassion.

In the autumn of 1983, when we established the original hand-worked organic gardens at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, we planted both sides of the road that bisected the garden with dramatic full-length borders of intensely fragrant English lavender. At the back edge of the garden, tall and upright blue-flowering rosemary plants were set out. I still remember our British garden mentor, Alan Chadwick, extolling

Photograph by Frank Krahmer/Getty
Photograph by Frank Krahmer/Getty

the merit of these cherished herbs. “Lavender for comfort, rosemary for strength,” he would intone, running his large bony hand over the noble plants whenever he was in their presence.

With royal Shakespearean aplomb Alan recited a narrative tribute to rosemary and lavender drawn from his mystical Christian roots. In portentous timbre he reminded us that the first humans in the Garden of Eden were watched over and guided by the stars until they began to rely too strongly on reason and intellect. Then two stars descended to earth to guide Adam and Eve just as they were being driven out of Paradise. The first star raised a medallion and said, “I represent the King of Fishes, and I am Strength,” while the other raised a medallion and announced, “I am the Queen of Crops, and I represent Comfort.” Assuming the physical form of two classic herbs, rosemary for strength and lavender for comfort, these stars accompanied Adam and Eve on their journey beyond the gates of Eden, into the unknown world outside the garden.

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