A native of San Diego, California, Georgie Birch remembers playing in the local wildflowers and shrubbery as a kid. Her kinship with nature blossomed into a passion for gardening and learning about endemic species. Today, Georgie is a volunteer gardener at Deer Park Monastery.
“I firmly believe what Thich Nhat Hanh believes, which is that there’s no peace unless there is peace inside. I’m an outdoor person, a very physical person, and nature gives me a sense of peace.” Georgie is learning to balance the inside with the outside, and the net result benefits not only her practice, but also the natural environment at Deer Park.
After being introduced to the monastery by Laura Hunter, Georgie began attending Days of Mindfulness and soon found herself part of the Deer Park community. She works with the monastics to create a plan for protecting the local habitat. The community aspires to harmonize with Escondido’s desert environment, where average annual rainfall is a scant fifteen inches. “Our main focus was less water use. We’re trying to incorporate water harvesting, hand-built berms to capture water for the plants, and mulching. The initial idea was to plant native plants to keep water usage down.”
In addition to using water mindfully, Deer Park’s Earth-tenders pay close attention to all forms of life. “So many species depend on the habitat,” Georgie explains, “including the native pollinators. Caterpillars have to reproduce on certain host plants before they can be butterflies. Certain birds need certain plants, and the loss of those plants dictates whether they’re going to survive. We’ve tried to incorporate a lot of host plants for the butterflies and birds.”
One Plant at a Time
Deer Park is home to many native plants, including manzanita, ceanothus (wild lilac), several species of ferns, and blackberries. Deer Park’s beloved oak grove is one of the last remaining oak riparian areas in Southern California; its Engelmann oaks are endangered, so “it’s very precious,” Georgie says. “Many organisms depend on the oaks, from the mammals down to the tiniest micro-organisms that live in the wood itself.”
Although many people love the non-native green grasses that grow beneath the oaks, Georgie explains that these grasses destroy the soil ecology and stress the trees. The health of the oaks is also compromised by parking cars on their roots, trenching near the roots, unskillful pruning, and lack of rain.
When non-natives are weeded from beneath an oak, the tree’s health can improve within a month. Georgie hopes the Sangha can begin to restore one or two oak trees to good health. When faced with ecological challenges, she says, “we work on one plant at a time and take joy in its thriving.”
Oh, the Love
As she works to improve the landscape at Deer Park, Georgie finds herself changed by the activity. “When I first worked at Deer Park, I worked a little more frenetically.” Georgie recalls a time when she was on a planting crew with monastics. “They were probably looking at me and thinking, ‘Mindful work?’” I was trying to get things done quickly. It’s taken me a long time to integrate a more mindful sense of being.” Over time, she has learned to work mindfully and joyfully, “without the thought of ripping through something and getting it done.”
Georgie has learned a lot “by association,” working in close proximity to monastics. Seeing them walk past mindfully as she is gardening, she learns about being present. “Sister Dang Nghiem, every time she’d pass by me, she’d say, ‘Oh, the love, the love!’ One time I threw a big rock to get it out of the way, and she said, ‘Be mindful of the creatures down there.’ That was something I wouldn’t have thought about before.”
Georgie educates others and enjoys planting butterfly gardens with children. She’s grateful to be part of a group called Friends of Deer Park, which supports all aspects of the practice at the monastery.
Natascha Bruckner, True Ocean of Jewels, lives in Santa Cruz and practices with the Heart Sangha. Special thanks to Maggie Mills for her assistance with this article.