BRUSH AND INK paintings of Chinese landscapes show endless misty mountains molded by running water, or still lakes reflecting raggedly clouded peaks. These landscapes are never solid, never static. Always in motion, they move just below the rolling fog. The great thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen writes in his Mountains and Rivers Sutra that the green mountains are always walking and that they travel on water as well as across land. The mountains and rivers of this time and place are also never only what they seem to be.
I first read Eihei Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra in 1975 at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Tassajara, a seasonal monastery and retreat center in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest, is a branch of the San Francisco Zen Center. I copied the sutra out by hand and read it every year. “Although mountains belong to the nation,” wrote Dogen, “mountains belong to people who love them.”

When I slow down and read the Mountains and Rivers Sutra carefully, or when I step up close to a Chinese scroll, I always find a tiny human figure tucked between the folded canyons of the green mountains, meandering with the aid of a crooked pilgrim’s staff through the shallow backwaters of rivers without end.

The first time I saw San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm, about a half-hour north of the city, I was on foot and feeling like that tiny pilgrim lost in a Chinese landscape painting. When Peter, not yet my husband, and I decided to leave the mountain wilderness of Tassajara in the autumn of 1975 to help San Francisco Zen Center establish a small organic farm at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, we decided to make the pilgrimage to Green Gulch on foot.

I had been working in the garden at Tassajara and I did not want to leave, but Peter was eager to move. He loved change. So, in high spirits, he led our hike out, while I followed like a reluctant exile. The Tassajara tomatoes were just coming into color and I was walking out. The dark opal Japanese eggplants were finally growing plump and ready to harvest, and I was walking out. I had dedicated numberless hours of precious Zen meditation to plotting the layout of the Tassajara garden: “touchon” carrots sowed in early April in the lower garden would follow the winter crop of Chinese cabbage. By late July the carrots would be pulled and followed by a sowing of rhubarb chard for next autumn’s kitchen. A blood sample taken from any part of my body would have confirmed the bitter truth: I carried in every corpuscle the incurable obsession of gardening.

It took us three full days to walk out of the wild and geologically young mountains, the age of the Himalayas and just about as sheer. Eventually I picked up my pace, the call of the coast pulling me now through the Ventana Wilderness. It was almost dark on the third day when Peter and I finally pushed out of the chaparral underbrush into the dark redwood canyons of the coast above the Big Sur River. We smelled of the loneliness of walking for hours on unmarked trails. Woodsmoke from our nightly fires filled our hair. I was repeating lines from the sutra to myself as we walked, as a magical incantation so that I would never forget Tassajara. “If you doubt mountains walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that you do not walk, but that you do not know or understand your own walking. . . at this moment, do not doubt the green mountains’ walking.”

I REMEMBER the cool winds coming up from the redwoods of the Sur River canyon as we headed northwest to the coast. We heard the thick blood of the river pumping through the granite veins of the canyon. Far in the distance white shorebirds circled in slow hypnotic gyres below us, calling and sailing on the updrafts, the ocean a scant five miles away. It was almost dark by the time we finished our descent to the river canyon. We made a fire of broken redwood branches and oak leaf duff and cooked the last of our carrots and potatoes into a stew. We had a little hard bread left over and a heel of leathery Parmesan cheese. We ate without speaking, too tired to talk. I lay down and watched the stars appear at the top of the ancient redwoods. Peter rolled out our sleeping bags while I tracked the appearance of the north star in the dome of the night.

In the closing hours of the night, when the coals of the stars were banked in the soft gray ash of dawn, we were wakened by the thunderous sound of a redwood tree falling in a steep side canyon of the river. We heard the tree creak and break, fifteen or sixteen loud reports like cannon fire, and then the long downward surge of the falling giant. The sound went on forever as the tree crashed down through other redwoods and finally fell on the thick duff litter of the forest floor. Silent, we leaned together against a redwood tree until the sun began to burn red and yellow along the jagged tip-line of the Sur canyon conifers. I remember our walk along the steep sea meadows of Partington Ridge and the final vertical drop down to the ocean not far from Sea Lion Cove. The mountains and rivers of the Ventana Wilderness were behind us.

We hitchhiked to Carmel along the coast road, and from there we caught a bus to San Francisco and hitched again to Marin County, along Highway One where the ocean spread out before us. I was a stranger here. I didn’t know the coastal plants under my boots. All of our possessions were on our backs in our old, smoky, ripped Kelty packs. At the top of the crooked road leading down to Green Gulch Valley we stopped under the shelter of towering eucalyptus trees to look over the lowlands. Below the coastal hills seared brown by the fiery oven of Indian summer was a lush brocade of irrigated crops.

Peter was looking off to the west, where we could hear the waves booming on the beach. The sky hung huge over us, pale blue and pressing down on the soft swell of the sea. The tail of a river stirred the sea with autumn languor. Green was alive in the stepped scales of the valley, iridescent sea-foam green and durable hunter’s green, all intertwined in the cells of the crops. We started down the long road to our new life.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .