The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, May 15, 2008


The grass is cut, and the beer is gone. It's time to think about... Gardens! A friend sent me this article from which I'm posting an excerpt. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article in the NY Times. You'll want to see their slide show. Enjoy.

Dharma in the Dirt


AS a proudly Birkenstocked Zen gardener, Wendy Johnson can mindfully muster up affection for many of the earth’s species, with the possible exception of persimmon-devouring gophers.

But poison hemlock holds a special place in her heart.

Without the presence of this pernicious carrot look-alike, a potent vertigo-inducing poison that when ingested can cause death, she reasons, her garden would be all cloying lilac- and lily-scented perfection — boring, in short. The innocent-looking malevolent weed, which she allows to flourish for its capacity to draw rich minerals from the soil for compost, “gives the garden its punch,” she said, “snapping me back to my senses.”

Like her beloved hemlock, Ms. Johnson has deep taproots in California. Her own garden, bordered by a mountain creek with a view of the Pacific Ocean, lies down the road from the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, where she helped pioneer the concept of organic gardening in the United States. Now the farm’s unofficial gardener emeritus, she lived at Green Gulch for 25 years, marrying, raising her two children and growing produce for Greens Restaurant, which was founded by the Center in 1979.

Long before Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver wrote best-selling books about eating foods grown locally, Ms. Johnson, with a long-necked English watering can perpetually in hand, was cultivating an awareness of how lettuce grown au naturel can also feed the soul.

“You should taste this place,” she said, offering a visitor dried lemon verbena tea from the garden, her wide eyes bringing to mind a surprised lemur.

It is a clichĂ© to say that gardening is meditative. But few have meditated as long and as earnestly as Ms. Johnson, who arrived at “the Gulch” with a sweaty Kelty backpack in 1975 after trekking much of the way from Tassajara, a rugged Zen outpost in the Ventana Wilderness. In her new book, “Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World” — part memoir, part Sunset Magazine sitting on the floor mindfully eating a raisin in the zendo — she ponders such questions as whether it’s O.K. for life-embracing Buddhists to crush snails (ask forgiveness first) or to trap gophers (breathe deep, then fence instead).

For Ms. Johnson, who occasionally waters the Buddha statue in her greenhouse to, as she says, “bring him to life a little bit,” gardening is about far more than Gravenstein apple trees or David Austin heirloom roses. It is to literally know “the heart and mind of your place,” and in so doing, to know your own heart and mind as well. “I am often most alert and settled in the garden when I am working hard, hip deep in a succulent snarl of spring weeds,” she writes. “My mind and body drop away then, far below wild radish and bull thistle, and I live in the rhythmic pulse of the long green throat of my work.”

Her looks betray her place: an unapologetic 60, Ms. Johnson has earthmother-y white hair, liver spots, knee socks and gnarly rose-scratched hands that horrify her two fashionable younger sisters in New York and Los Angeles. (“We’d look like you if we didn’t take care of ourselves!” they tell her — lovingly, she insists.)

Her primer on meditation and gardening is similarly steeped in northern California, a place where, since the 1960s, cultivation of the land and the self have been intertwined. Less widely known than Chez Panisse or the zen center’s own restaurant, Greens, the farm has influence that has nevertheless extended far beyond its terroir, a fertile dragon-shaped swath of what was once compressed ocean bottom at the foot of Mount Tamalpais.

From it germinated a movement toward “conscious eating and conscious growing, linked with the ethic of taking care of the land,” said Randolph Delehanty, a San Francisco historian. The organic Buddhists, led by Ms. Johnson; her husband, Peter Rudnick; and two influential teachers, Alan Chadwick and Harry Roberts, were “among the first people to take the idea of stewardship of the land and make a lifestyle out of it,” said Fred BovĂ©, the former education director for the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society.

As a gardener, Ms. Johnson combines the conventional and the not-so. She grows roses and apple trees but also advocates compost and manure teas to boost the immune systems of plants (add 2-3 cups well decomposed compost or live manure per gallon of water; steep for 3 days). A columnist for Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine, she occasionally lapses into the woo-woo in the book, defining “inter-being” as “looking mindfully at broccoli and beet plants” and knowing that you are all one.

In her own garden, which she describes as “wild and bestial,” a hot tub deemed ugly on the deck is concealed by tangles of jasmine, narcissus and other plants, including several opium poppies. “The bees love them,” she observed of the poppies. “They’re medicating themselves right and left.”

The hot tub overlooks a pond filled with rainwater where otters occasionally do the backstroke and frogs make chirping sounds at night (she holds the phone over the pond to comfort her daughter, Alisa, a freshman at Bard, when she is homesick). Ms. Johnson meditates daily here, sitting on the cushion she stores beneath the living room sofa, where the cat sleeps (“stray cats target Buddhist households,” she said).

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