Redwood Sangha

By Wendy Johnson Many years ago Thich Nhat Hanh walked through the filtered light of the redwood trees in Muir Woods National Monument and reminded us that West Coast Dharma students were practicing in the protection of a true "Redwood Sangha." Just as the stately sugar maple of eastern Canada gives color and form to Maple Village 'Sangha on the outskirts of Montreal, and the gnarly, drought-hardy manzanita defines the lines of Manzanita Village in the Anza-Borrego wilderness of Southern California, so does the old growth redwood of the Pacific Northwest sustain and deepen the Dharma practice of those of us living in the remnants of the Redwood Empire.

This empire once stretched in a vast, 2000-mile arc from Icy Strait on the North Alaskan panhandle as far south as the forested flanks of Monterey Bay in central California. When Europeans first entered these forests in the 1700s, they walked into woods that had grown undisturbed for millennia. The dominant conifers of these forests- western hemlock, Sitka spruce, noble fir, western red cedar, Douglas fir, Port Orford cedar, and coastal redwood- are all ancient trees, some growing to a height of 200-300 feet. By a million and a half years ago, these conifers had established their dominance on the temperate Pacific Slope where they have grown undisturbed since the dawn of time.

In the 1870s, commercial West Coast logging began in earnest and these forests came under the saw blade of a booming timber industry . Now, only a scant four percent of the original two million acres of old growth redwood remains. Loss of this ancient forest signals loss of life and habitat for numerous inhabitants of the forest including microscopic mycorrhizal fungi, the endangered Pacific giant salamander, the coho salmon, the California black bear, the red tree vole, the northern spotted owl and the elusive, threatened marbled murralet.

Old growth redwoods have been my home and my teacher for 25 years. Every winter at Green Gulch Farm we dedicate January and February to caring for these trees and plants. Each February since 1987, we have a Family Day of Mindfulness during which we plant and tend seedling redwood and Douglas fir trees. Some of our original trees now stand eight feet tall with their long limbs stretched to the sun. Children who attended our first plantings come every year to visit their young Redwood Sangha.

Over the last two years, I have joined many people in speaking out for the protection of our remaining old growth forests. In particular, I have been involved in the peaceful and steady campaign to protect the last stand of old growth redwoods on private land, the 60,000 acre Headwaters forest owned by Pacific Lumber Company in southern Humboldt County, California. Ten years ago, the company was taken over by Charles Hurwitz. In order to repay his sizable junk bond debt, Hurwitz has ordered that a massive swatch be cut out of this irreplaceable 2,000-year-old redwood empire.

When I ponder the loss of this ancient forest, I remember Thich Nhat Hanh's words, "We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?" I keep this statement on the wall of my closet. They help me slow down and think about what I am doing as I prepare to dress and go out to work in the world.

Last month a group of us from Green Gulch Farm organized an evening prayer vigil in Muir Woods in honor of the Headwaters forest. People came together in Muir Woods to pray for the nonviolent protection of the forest. We practiced walking meditation under the vast canopy of the old growth trees of Muir Woods, stopping for a long time near a huge, freshly fallen redwood tree that was hundreds of years old. In the last light of the day, our prayers were carried through Muir Woods and out to the Headwaters forest, some 250 miles north.

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A week after the prayer vigil I drove north with two young women friends to make a pilgrimage to the Headwaters forest. We camped with about 125 nonviolent activists on the banks of the Van Duzen River, sleeping, eating, speaking, and meditating in the shelter of a towering Redwood Sangha. Every night, we sat up in the dark with our backs against giant redwo.od elders. In the quiet of the forest we invited the bell of mindfulness and listened as the tones carried up to be received by the lowest limbs, some 50 feet above our heads.

David Brower, the founder of Friends of the Earth and an environmental activist of 70 years, has called for "CPR" for the old growth forests--conservation, protection, and restoration. I thought long and deeply about these values as we sat in the presence of the Headwaters Redwood Sangha. I wondered what action I could take to protect the life of these trees that would not also polarize and pit loggers against environmentalists. I took the time to compose a letter to Charles Hurwitz about his unique ability to offer CPR to the Headwaters forest and to the world by preserving the legacy of the ancient redwoods.

At the same time it was clear to me that I could not stand by and permit the logging of these trees . This wo.uld be disengaged mindfulness and unacceptable behavior. To stand by and do nothing would be true civil disobedience rather that obeying the civil call of thy forest. So, after much thought, my two friends and Ijoined about 15 other women in a peaceful action to block a main logging road leading into the forest. In the middle of the night we filled our pockets and backpacks with balls of colorful wool yarn and went to the road leading into the heart of the woods. All across this lonely road we wove a bright, thick web of wool to block the entrance to the forest. We worked in mindfulness and in joy, sending prayers to the loggers and to the trees, and receiving strength from the dark presence of the forest brooding just beyond the gate.

A web of wool can be slashed apart by a sharp knife, which is just what happened when the Pacific Lumber guard encountered our work. But we continued to weave and to send love to the forest and to this guard. We sang and prayed as we worked. One brave woman even crawled into the guard's car and wrapped his gun with a web of gossamer wool. We were not angry, although the guard was. We treated him with respect and determination as he slashed down our web, again and again. Finally he called the sheriff who arrived irate and determined to flatten the now huge web that blocked the road. In the headlights of the sheriff s truck before he drove into the web and tore it down, we saw a shining net of mindfulness spun with love and attention to protect the trees from danger.

Now I am home again in our Muir Woods watershed, with the image of the Headwaters Redwood Sangha strong in my heart and mind. This image is deepened with the practice of mindfulness. I continue to work for CPR of the forest in whatever way I can, because I know that if I forget about this Redwood Sangha then I am truly lost. Just a few days ago I went with my daughter and friends to the heart of the financial district of San Francisco where more than 100 people gathered at Senator Feinstein 's office for a candlelight prayer vigil in support of the forest. Rabbis and ministers spoke and I offered the evocation of the Bodhisattvas' names in honor of the forest. We closed the prayer vigil with a spirited group chanting of The Metta Sutta (Discourse on Love).

Recently I celebrated my 49th birthday by practicing walking meditation with my family and close friends at daybreak in Muir Woods. The dawn was warm, lit by the soft red-gold light of late Indian Summer. Far above us the small cones opened their primitive scales in the warmth and shook free their ripe seed, showering us with a rain of wealth. I knelt with my seven-year-old daughter Alisa in a cathedral grove of redwoods and gathered waves of cinnamon-brown seed. "Mama," Alisa whispered with earnest intensity as we worked, "if we have to, we can replant the Headwaters forest with this good seed."

Dharma teacher Wendy Johnson, True Compassion Adornment, was the head gardener at Green Gulch Farm in Northern California for 20 years. She is currently writing a book about meditation and gardening.

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