This summer in our coastal community of Muir Beach, dharma friends and neighbors are planting a medicine garden of wild and cultivated sage. The summer soil is alive and hungry. The planting proceeds freely, without a thought-out pattern or design.
With more than 900 members in its august family, sage, or salvia, from the Latin salvere, “to be well,” serves as both an herb of the hearth and home pantry, and a potent medicine in the pharmacopeia of old Europe and the Mediterranean region. Sage has long been held in the highest esteem of the ancients: the saying “Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?” goes back to Anglo-Saxon times.
I first thought of planting a medicine garden in January, around the time of the 2017 presidential inauguration. The weather in the Bay Area was tempestuous, the West Coast submerged under an atmospheric river of torrential rain. Still, more than 80 activists, artists, and meditators convened at Point Reyes National Seashore to convene for an alternative inauguration in the eye of the storm.
We walked along the San Andreas fault line to Kule Loklo, a recreated Native Coast Miwok village. There, we stood in a sodden circle as ceremonial leaders started a fire the traditional way, using a fire drill. The drill’s hollow center, packed with dried plant fiber, leaped to flame once an ember from the friction met it.
We circled around this fire for over an hour, offering white sage, or Salvia apiana, to the flames to strengthen our resolve and resilience. At one point the winter sun emerged briefly from behind the storm curtain to illuminate a full rainbow spanning the sky. Then, just as suddenly, a volley of icy sleet pelted down from the heavens, ending the festivities. “All hail to the Chief!” someone yelled out irreverently as we scurried for shelter.
When the sky cleared, we walked three miles to the village of Point Reyes in silence to dedicate a peace garden in the middle of town. We planted a young white sage plant in the garden’s center. Revered as an herbal savior for its many uses, white sage is said to open the memory and to generate truthfulness. It also stimulates and cleanses the liver, supporting blood filtration while aiding digestion.
After the inauguration, the sage family continued to work on me. I began to save seeds and cuttings from more than 13 distinct species of sage, growing them all in our tiny Dragon Coast greenhouse. While I worked, I often thought about the two meanings of the English word sage: derived from salvere, it refers to the plant; but a homonym derived from sapere, “to be wise,” refers to the sage teacher. Salvias, like sagacious human guides, further our capacity to perceive and generate discriminating wisdom.
When it was time to prepare the soil for the medicinal sage garden, the new farm apprentices from Green Gulch joined me in Muir Beach. The earth was still heavy with rain. We layered the raw soil with old issues of the New York Review of Books, pages lovingly placed on the ground, facedown, so that land’s microbes could digest well-written analyses of the overworld. We covered our paper trail with last season’s wind-whipped prayer flags and applied wheelbarrows of ripe compost to the ground, finishing with drifts of blond rice straw.
While we worked, the apprentices bantered about the koan they were studying at Green Gulch, Case 87 of the Blue Cliff Record, in which Yun Men addresses his community: “Medicine and disease subdue each other. The whole earth is medicine. What is your true self?” A perfect koan for these times, I thought, imagining salvation without a savior and gardens before gardening.
Now, it is summer and 13 herbal plants from the greenhouse cuttings are ready to enter the earth. Before we plant, I step into the greenhouse alone to offer white sage. A simple altar is set up on an overturned wooden crate at the back of the propagation house. A molded concrete Shakyamuni Buddha figure, another true sage, sits there quietly, solemn and unperturbed. Perched on his left shoulder is a sky-blue plastic dragon rescued years ago from the rot and ruin of our compost pile. As sage begins to burn, the dragon hisses into the Buddha’s long-lobed ear: “Medicine and disease subdue each other!” Implacable, the discerning Sage of the Shakyas responds, “The whole earth is medicine.”