Gratitude to Black Mountain Circle

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In these last hours of 2020, a long year of global pandemic and political unrest comes to a close. This is a time of racial reckoning, accelerated climate catastrophe, and economic inequity. In spite of this truth, I am grounded in gratitude for the gift of life and for the awareness of the brevity of this gift of life.

During this challenging year, I have gathered almost every Friday for a morning of “Za-Zoom” communal meditation with forty or so dedicated friends and practitioners from the Heart of Compassion Zen sangha, based in Point Reyes, California. Point Reyes is a true spirit home for me, deep in the heart of ancestral coast Miwok territory. Our two children were born and welcomed into the world by compassionate physicians and midwives from the Point Reyes Clinic. And over the past decade, from 2009 to 2019, in mid-March my heart has been strengthened by engaged involvement in the iconic Geography of Hope literary conference sponsored by Black Mountain Circle and Point Reyes Books.

In these perilous times, just reviewing the themes of the eight Geography of Hope conferences that I fully participated in has helped me cultivate resilience and ecological renewal. “Pilgrimage Redefined,” “Resilience in Nature,” “Ancestors and the Land,” “Call of the Forest,” “Women and the Land,” “Igniting the Green Fire,” “Reflections on Water,” and “Writing on Farming and Rural Life” are part of my creative circulatory system.

Perhaps because it was my first Geography of Hope conference, I vividly remember participating in the 2009 “Writing on Farming and Rural Life” event. Some 150 participants gathered in Point Reyes on Friday, March 20, 2009, for an afternoon of pilgrimage before the formal literary conference began. We fanned out across West Marin, choosing from a range of cultural and agricultural adventures: a walking tour of historic Point Reyes, a hike on Black Mountain, a tour of Drake’s Bay Family Farms oyster and beef operations, or of Straus Organic Dairy. Our afternoon also included an immersion in Star Route Farms and Gospel Flat Farms in Bolinas or a visit to Worsley Organic Farm. All of these events featured land-based authors and local environmental leaders in conversation. Poetry and wild language wove us together in a tapestry of land and water appreciation.

Tree Planting

By early evening on Friday, we returned to Point Reyes for an art walk, visiting local studios throughout the town. At sundown, we convened in Toby’s Feed Barn and sat on sweet alfalfa hay bales for a glorious locally-sourced supper of enhanced arugula salad, Drake’s Bay beef stew or veggie hash, and braised local greens galore, finishing the meal with a sumptuous West Marin bread pudding.

The 2009 Geography of Hope conference was initiated with welcoming words from beloved organizers Steve Costa and Kate Levinson. The event was enlivened by the honorary conference chair, writer, and organic peach farmer David Matsumoto and his family, Marcy Matsumoto and their daughter, artist, farmer, and Taiko drummer Nikiko.

In particular, I remember the Matsumoto family following with drum and story the opening remarks of chairman Greg Sarris of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. Chairman Sarris welcomed the assembly to the unceded territory of Coast Miwok and southern Pomo lands with unsparing truth and raw language. The evening unfolded and ran into the dark hours of the Point Reyes night with story and tribute from five renowned local authors.

The next day, Saturday, March 21, 2009, we hosted full-on literary panels featuring some fifteen authors and local land activists. The topics ranged from “Planting the Seeds of Story” to “Farming as Personal, Farming as Political,” and the evening ended after a wonderful meal with “Stories from the Land.”

The conference closed on the spring equinox, Sunday, March 22, 2009. A potent panel of local Point Reyes artists, storytellers, ranchers, and farmers regaled the community with local history. It was my pleasure to convene this dynamic panel, beginning with a vernal equinox ceremony and introductory words from chairman Sarris. West Marin representative and dairyman Bob Giacomini, with family roots in the Swiss mountain region of Northern Italy, conveyed stories of his long Point Reyes ranching history. Bob then introduced neighbor Vivian Straus, who entertained us with spicy and savory tales of her iconic dairy parents, Ellen and Bill Straus. Vivian was followed by local poet and fifth-generation cattleman Sam Dolcini, and then by poet and fifth-generation organic farmer Peter Martinelli. Next came beloved elder Phyllis Faber, who as a distinguished wetlands biologist helped to found the Marin Agricultural Land Trust alongside her lifelong friend Ellen Straus. Our morning ended with lively stories and dairy tales told by next-generation leader Lynn Giacomini Stray, who helped to diversify the Giacomini family business of cheesemaking.

Just as this community session began with chairman Sarris, so did it close with his remarks advocating the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Indigenous sovereignty, calling for a fresh geography of hope grounded in ancestral landscape and language.

Brother David Steindl-Rast reminds us that gratitude is the heart of prayer. Raw and grateful prayer for the health of the human and more-than-human world infuses the continuous practice of Black Mountain Circle. Gratitude gives rise to a fresh geography of hope and to the broken-open heart of compassion. In these tumultuous times of radical uncertainty, may we be grounded in friendship, service, undomesticated art, and the enduring truth of the living land.

Photo credit: Carlos Porrata

  • Wendy Johnson

    Wendy Johnson is a lay ordained dharma teacher in the Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh and the San Francisco Zen Center. She lived and trained at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center from 1975 to 2000.

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