“Where land is dry the soul is wisest and best,” wrote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus in the 6th century B.C.E. If so, the arid land and soul of California is sparking flint, adamantine and diamond bright.
2015 has been an infernal year for California agriculture, expected to be the hottest and driest on record. Satellite photos of the American West reveal the evaporation and depletion of 63 trillion gallons of groundwater weighing almost 240 billion tons. Close to a third of the nation’s produce is grown in the Central Valley of California, where fossil water 20,000 years old is now being extracted for irrigation. Groundwater depletion has caused the Sierra Nevada to buckle and lift, farmland to sink, and tectonic plates to rumble with seismic seizures all along their fault lines.
In the garden we continue to practice under all circumstances, training in an old horticulture grounded in the Zen admonition to “practice constantly, as if to save your head from fire.” Zen gardeners plant perennial polycultures of drought-hardy fruit. We taper tillage to sequester carbon in the living ground. Precious water is mindfully harvested from roof runoff and coastal fog. To break the fever of a warming world we rig shade, spread mulch, and grow green guilds of kindred plants while facing the undeniable truth of warmer winters, premature springs, incandescent summers, and fruitless falls.
To ease the terror and heartbreak of this growing season, I practice walking meditation on the western edge of the continent out at Muir Beach. The vast Pacific Ocean covers 46 percent of the earth’s surface area with a living web of water. Not only vast, the Pacific is also abysmally deep, dropping down almost seven miles to the ocean floor of the North Pacific Mariana Trench.
Walking the beach, I chant a favorite Mahayana mantra from the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra:
Eyes of compassion
observing sentient beings
assemble an ocean of blessing
No ocean of blessing, however, is deep or wide enough to be exempt from the global climate challenge. Offshore, a persistent high-pressure ridge has deprived California of precipitation for more than two years. Thick, warm ocean water 1,000 miles long and 300 feet deep is pressing against the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Mexico this season, raising water temperatures by a record two to seven degrees Fahrenheit and wreaking marine havoc.
In August I read a provocative book, Antifragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “Some things benefit from shocks,” the author writes, “they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love risk, adventure, and uncertainty.”
Not long after I read this passage the skies above Muir Beach darkened with 20,000 or more Sooty Shearwater seabirds flying south to their ancestral nesting grounds. These seabirds have never been seen before at Muir Beach in such numbers.
No other category of bird is more endangered than the seabird. The Sooty Shearwater is an ancient creature, akin to the primitive albatross, and subject to massive volatility and threats from nesting habitat degradation, warming oceans, and lack of proper food. Yet there they were, plummeting into the ocean at Muir Beach, guided by hunger and the accuracy of a primordial internal compass indicating nutrient-rich veins of cold water. The seabirds feasted in the briny waves, their exultant cries filling the summer air.
It is November now, the beach vacant and still. All Zen gardens are forgotten, sown to cover crop and abandoned until February. Ocean and sky merge in the old Mind of winter. On the slate-dark waters, phantom shadows of seabirds flicker and fade, assembling an ocean of blessing beyond measure.