A Native Son of Spanish New Mexico
Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman stands with an attendant before the zendo altar, exuding massive concentration under the burden of heavy formal robes in the heat of an Albuquerque summer. As scores of guests crowded into Hidden Mountain Zen Center for the Buddha Eye Opening dedication ceremony look on, he slowly drops a pinch of incense into a burner. It bursts into a fragrant cloud. Then the new Zen center’s abbot, Sensei Alfred Jitsudo Ancheta, a native New Mexican, takes his dharma brother’s place at the altar to perform a memorial service for their late teacher, Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi. Ancheta executes the ritual movements with exquisite care. “Right here now as this river-mountain-sky-desert-swamp-ocean Roshi!” he declares. “Why don’t we see your body here in this zendo?”
And so, on a July morning in 1996, this 110-year-old brick house on a downtown side street officially became a new Zen center. It was a watershed moment. Ancheta has the rare distinction of being a Hispanic teaching the dharma in America. His decision to take up residence in the land of his ancestors signals a homecoming, the belated return of a native son. At a time when many U.S.-born Buddhists openly worry that Buddhism is becoming too much an Anglo, middle-class phenomenon, Ancheta is sharply conscious of the need to present the dharma to a wider audience. At fifty-three, he has a focused manner and an unexpectedly searching, almost hesitant way of speaking. His deep-set brown eyes, under black, bushy eyebrows, vacillate between penetrating, hawklike intensity and avuncular warmth and humor. Says Ancheta, “I have very strong pioneer roots.”
Pioneering—literal and metaphorical—has defined Ancheta’s journey away from home and back again. He was born in Embudo, New Mexico, a tiny spot along the Rio Grande on the road to Taos, yet like thousands of other New Mexicans of the postwar generation, his father found work in southern California and the family relocated to the suburban sprawl of Long Beach. Young Freddy Ancheta spent summers with his maternal grandparents in the village of Velarde, a quiet place of orchards and hayfields along the river where it spills out of a deep canyon.
Just south of Velarde lies San Juan Pueblo, where Don Juan de Onate established the earliest Spanish settlement in New Mexico in 1598. Chafing under religious and economic repression, the people of San Juan and most of the other Pueblos rose up against the Spanish conquerors in 1680 and drove them from the territory. Spanish dominion was restored only in 1692, when Don Diego de Vargas returned at the head of an army. According to family lore, Ancheta’s mother was descended from de Vargas.
His father’s family came from Silver City, in rugged southwestern New Mexico. An ancestor, Nepomuceno Ancheta, arrived in the territory in 1856 fleeing the Mexican Revolution. His son Joseph, who became an attorney and a member of the Territorial Legislature, was assassinated on the floor of the state senate, the unintended victim of a plot to murder territorial power broker Thomas B. Catron. “He caught a stray bullet,” Ancheta says of his great-grandfather.
Ancheta’s maternal ancestors were shaped by northern New Mexico’s Catholicism, a conservative, strongly devotional faith, honed by centuries of isolation from the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. New Mexico Catholics preserved a deep belief in the intercessional powers of the Virgin Mary and the saints. It was a worldview that did not encourage people to look elsewhere for answers. “When I was involved in Christian churches as a teenager, I can specifically remember hearing people say Buddhism was for idol-worshipers,” Ancheta says. “ï¿½They bow to Buddha—they bow to images.’”
But by his mother’s generation, she and some of her siblings were attending Protestant churches. “My mother’s personal commitment was to spirituality, not religion,” Ancheta recalls. “She encouraged me to go to as many different kinds of churches as I wanted.”
Ancheta wants to offer Buddhism to New Mexico’s burgeoning Hispanic population. In most American sanghas, he notes, “you don’t see many minorities—one or two. If you’re hungry, you don’t have a chance to look into other forms of philosophy or religion.” He envisions taking advantage of his ethnic heritage, both by teaching the dharma to Hispanics and by reaching out to kids in trouble.
He tells of a teenage boy he’s been working with who’s struggling with the temptations of joining a gang. The boy’s mother, suspicious of the shaven-headed stranger, had a friend look into his family’s background in Velarde. “She called me to let me know she’d been checking up on me,” Ancheta says. “She said, 'Your uncle can’t praise you enough.’”
Many Hispanics, with their strong Catholic background, shy away from Buddhism because they feel it clashes with orthodox Christianity. At Hidden Mountain, Ancheta continues, “we have one lady who has been struggling with herself whether she should do this or not.” He has encouraged her to consult Pat Hawk, a Catholic priest who also teaches Zen and who travels from his home in Amarillo, Texas, to work with students in Santa Fe.
Ancheta’s maternal aunt, Zoraida Ortega, and her husband, Eulogio, live in an old adobe house in Velarde. “Aside from Thich Nhat Hanh, if I’ve ever met a saint, it’s my uncle and my aunt,” Ancheta says. “They’re filled with gentleness and an extreme humbleness about what they do.”
When Eulogio retired as a school principal, he took up the traditional practice of carving santos—painted wooden likenesses of the saints. This craft dates back centuries to a time when territorial churches could not obtain plaster statues from Europe. The tradition lapsed after railroads arrived in the late ninteenth century and opened the region to the outside world, but it has been revived over the past twenty-five years as an expression of spiritual renewal. Contemporary santeros carefully study the techniques of the old masters. Some even try to replicate the traditional paints made from locally available natural pigments.
“When I was young, I wanted to be a schoolteacher so I could be like him. Way back in the 1950s, he started doing hatha yoga,” Ancheta remembers. “He told my father about the benefits of standing on his head. By the seventies he started practicing zazen.” Ancheta and Eulogio exchanged books on Zen for years.
“The things he says are very Buddhist to me,” Ancheta muses. “He says he takes a piece of wood and he sits with it and meditates with it. He thinks about the saint.” Because his uncle is color-blind, his aunt, a retired schoolteacher, has the job of painting each santo. “She says the same thing. She sits with the saint and asks him what color to use.”
On a winter afternoon, Ancheta hops in his white pickup and heads north to Velarde. Driving slowly along a dirt road leading into the village, he stops before a whitewashed Methodist church with a red tin roof and points to a small neighboring building, where he attended first grade. Turning down a narrow lane, he pulls up to a flat-roofed house. Eulogio Ortega, clad in denim shirt and jeans, his snow-white hair swept back, comes out to greet his nephew. A moment later Zoraida appears and gives Ancheta a quiet embrace.
Their small living room holds an exquisite collections of retablos—painted images of the saints—and santos, some carved by Eulogio, representations of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron of Mexico, along with crucifixes of the sort Eulogio has made and donated to local churches. The figures have elongated faces and limbs with moving, melancholy expressions. “Some of these old ones are very, very effective,” offers Eulogio. “There’s something about them. The old santeros could care less about the body dimensions. They were more interested in bringing a certain religious expression.”
His uncle gives Ancheta a Catholic magazine chronicling the late Thomas Merton’s encounter with the Dalai Lama in the 1960s. Eulogio, it seems, about ten years ago attended a Christian-Buddhist workshop at the Naropa Institute at which the Dalai Lama spoke. “I read a little about Zen,” he says modestly. “I’ve always been interested in Eastern religions.” He laughs. “I’ve always been interested in religion, you know? I do a lot of praying on my own.” Later, he and Zoraida put on their coats and take their visitors outside to the adobe chapel he built for her in their front yard fifteen years ago. It is filled with beautifully carved santos.
A spiritual seeker like his uncle, Ancheta took years to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. Seeking to avoid Vietnam, he enlisted in the Army in 1965 and was stationed in Europe. Later he studied sociology at California State University at Fullerton, where he met his first wife, and studied briefly with a Hindu teacher. After his military stint and the social and racial turmoil of the 1960s, Ancheta was lost. “All the things I believed in seemed irrelevant.” Somewhere along the way, he had read a little about Buddhism in a religion course. “It intrigued me,” he says. “What I was trying to do was understand myself: ï¿½Who am I? What is the meaning of all this?’”
In 1970, a friend in L.A. told him, “There’s a real Zen teacher here.” Ancheta first encountered the monk who would become his teacher when he entered the zendo at the Zen Center of Los Angeles and realized someone else was already sitting there—Maezumi himself. "'Taizan’ means 'mountain,’” Ancheta says. “When I first saw him, I just got this wave of 'This is a mountain.’ It just stopped me in my tracks.”
After two years of sitting weekends and sesshins at ZCLA, Ancheta and his wife moved to British Columbia, where they built a log cabin in the wilderness and tried to create a Zen community. Lacking electricity, the house was heated with wood, and they drew water from a hand-dug well. “I was very idealistic in thinking I could start a Buddhist community in British Columbia on my own,” he says. “But I very quickly saw my own immaturity and starting returning more and more often to Maezumi. By 1978, I was visiting British Columbia from Los Angeles.”
Ancheta took tokudo—formal vows—in January 1982. His father and uncle attended the ceremony. A few months later, Maezumi sent his new monk to a remote, 160-acre forested tract in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles. Ancheta, whose marriage was ending, threw himself into building what would become Zen Mountain Center. Mountain Center became Maezumi’s rural retreat, with Ancheta serving as administrator and viceabbot. Over time, it acquired a zendo, a Buddha Hall for dining and chanting, a dormitory and dokusan building, a bath house, and private cabins.
In an effort to raise funds and make Mountain Center socially relevant, Ancheta developed his Inward Bound program. There were two-day workshops to introduce guests—teens, psychotherapists, HIV-positive patients—to secularized Buddhist principles. “It was essentially teaching Zen practice without the jargon,” he says. “A lot of people who came to them became Zen students.”
In 1992, Ancheta received dharma transmission from Maezumi Roshi. He was now authorized to conduct daisan - formal interviews and koan practice - with Maezumi’s students, and to cultivate students independently. Meanwhile, Ancheta had remarried to a Zen student and schoolteacher, with whom he had a daughter.
But early in 1995, the sangha learned Ancheta had had an affair with another student. His marriage broke up, he lost his post as administrator and viceabbot and he was asked to take a six-month leave.
“I was very controlling,” he says, shaking his head at the memory. “I had a lot of leeway. I did a lot of things without asking for permission. This isn’t an excuse,” he continues. “What I did in having an affair was ignorance on my part—a lack of wisdom and a lot of ignorance. It caused a lot of people a lot of grief, and I regret that.”
In May 1995, Maezumi died unexpectedly. By that time, Ancheta had resolved to leave Mountain Center and establish himself as a teacher elsewhere. “It’s hard to say, but it’s the truth,” he says. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I had become so comfortable as a teacher that had I stayed, I probably would’ve become very dull. Having to shift and start over has been very good for me. It also made me see myself in a very different way.”
A month before Maezumi’s death, Ancheta bought a two-story Victorian house in Albuquerque. His board of directors consisted of two couples—friends who weren’t students of his. “I told them, whatever developed I wanted it to be bigger than myself,” Ancheta says. “They had to take an active role in leadership.”
The first test of the new arrangement had to do with the very location of the new Zen center. “I wanted a country site,” says Ancheta, who describes himself as “a hermit” by nature. But this time he acquiesced to the judgment of others. “The board of directors and I discussed it and decided we should be in the city.”
The old building needed an overhaul. Working with volunteers, Ancheta installed a kitchen; walls were knocked out and an oak floor laid for the zendo. Upstairs, bedrooms were converted to dormitory space for sesshins and resident students. Ancheta moved into a small cottage out back. By the spring of 1996, the opening of Hidden Mountain Center was advertised nationally. (Its name, suggested by a board member, had come from Dogen’s Shobogenzo.) The broad advertising was mostly to let former students know of the new location. Initially, Ancheta did not advertise in Albuquerque. “I didn’t do anything locally because I just wanted to see what would happen, just letting people find us,” he says.
In the year since its dedication, Hidden Mountain has attracted many local people, some of whom are doing koan practice with the teacher. Ancheta continually recalls the example his late teacher set. “He really gave of himself,” he says of Maezumi. “People used to ask him what happened to us after we die,” Ancheta says. “He’d say, 'If anything lives longer than us, it’s our vow.’”
Michael Haederle, guest editor of this special section, is a writer and Zen student who lives in Alameda, New Mexico.
“Here we have the Ground Zero Cafe,” says Bart Ives, gesturing toward a white frame building standing in the open center courtyard of the Pentagon. “It’s a hot dog stand.” Ives, a boyish forty-seven-year-old environmental protection specialist, flashes me a smile that acknowledges the irony of selling wienies right in the heart of the biggest military complex known to humanity. Trying to be polite in spite of being harried, he tells me he doesn’t know when the snack bar picked up the snappy nom de guerre, “but you can be sure it’s still somebody’s ground zero.”
Sitting in the epicenter of so much power, the cafe looks adamantly innocent and idealistic. It is plain and temporary-looking, as if some military precept dictated that making any design statement beyond the most faceless government-issue variety would be unseemly. The cafe has been there in one form or another since the building was constructed between 1941 and 1943, and the official designation always has been just the generic “center court snack bar.” This austerity reminds me that the military is an order apart from ordinary, profit-driven American life, and the Pentagon is its chief monastery.
It’s 11 a.m. on a balmy Friday in September, but no one in the courtyard is standing in line for a hot dog or even strolling about. Civilians and soldiers in immaculate uniforms hurry along the pathways that crisscross the courtyard, heading toward doorways in the five sides of the inner A ring. The Pentagon still seems to breathe that original air of emergency, that sense of urgent industry in defense against great danger that caused it to be built in the early days of World War II. “I liken it to walking into a hurricane every day,” says Ives. “It’s a very high-energy place that makes a lot of demands on individuals, and in this era of downsizing it’s even more intense.” For the past four years, Ives, one of the many civilian employees of the Pentagon, has been president of the Pentagon Meditation Club.
We walk the endless bare corridors of the “biggest office building in the world,” pass spools of fiber-optic cable as big as up-ended cars, and I learn there is enough such cable in the Pentagon to wrap around the earth five times. The atmosphere is all business; space is tight. There are pockets of polished-brass dignity like the “Hall of Heroes,” honoring Congressional Medal of Honor winners. Even the most casual observer knows, with the same precision that is the pride of the military, that the real power - like the famous subterranean War Room and all that fiber optic cable, once wired—is buried, not for show.
When the Pentagon was built, President Roosevelt stipulated that no marble was to be used in the construction. It was not to be a monument to war, not a Reichstag, but a headquarters of defense. Defensiveness—and a feeling of terrible scarcity—pervades the Pentagon like a gas. Connected to vast projects, people fret about downsizing and tough budgetary times. Housing approximately 25,000 workers and operating on a budget this year of close to $253.7 billion, the Pentagon buzzes with the message that they don’t have enough manpower or time or money to do everything that needs to be done to make the world safe.
“Some days,” Ives continues, “I’ll be sitting on the bus to go home and I’ll find that I’m shaking from the adrenaline that kicks in from the stress. I won’t even be aware that it’s happening to me but when I get home I feel like a balloon with all the air let out.”
Meditating at the Pentagon is a way of being sane in the midst of the madness. Approaching the chaplain’s conference room, where the meditation club meets during the noon lunch hour each Friday, Ives explains, “What I’m interested in now is using meditation as a vehicle to get in touch with my soul or my cosmic consciousness. A lot of the pieces of the puzzle would fall into place if we could make that connection with our eternal nature. So I’m trying to use meditation to make that contact or build that bridge.”
One advantage of trying to build that bridge at the Pentagon, according to Ives, is that the group’s private efforts can benefit many others. He calls the meditation club a “pilot light.” Typically drawing no more than six people to any one meeting, with another thirty or forty members (military and civilian) on the mailing list, the club’s presence is nonetheless a reminder that another source of strength, even a different order of power, can emerge when we dare to step back from the business of defense and just be.
“It’s very important for people just to know it’s here,” Ives insists. “I get phone calls from across the country and mail from people all over the world who are so heartened by knowing that this organization is here. A Buddhist writer I spoke to called it ï¿½a lotus in the mouth of the dragon.’ They see it as a vehicle for good, to help shape some of the energies that are here.”
Founded in 1976, the Pentagon Meditation Club claims no one sectarian or religious affiliation. Yet—presumably because of the affiliation between meditation and Asian religions, and also because so many modern Christians remain ignorant of the meditation traditions in their own religious history—the club has been attacked by fundamentalist Christians, and some fundamentalist employees have performed exorcisms in the meditation room. Ed Winchester, the founder of the club, was twice suspended without pay by a suspicious superior who, according to Winchester, was encouraged by the fundamentalists. These days, however, the same pressures that beset the civilian population, the pressures of too little time and too much to do, are more of an obstacle than fundamentalist Christians.
“This is a very transitory, high-pressure place,” Ives continues. “The fact that this group had a twentieth anniversary, small as we are, is phenomenal. We can’t advertise. I put up flyers and I come back an hour later and they’re torn down, as though people have nothing better to do but stand around and wait for them to go up.” The work of the fundamentalist Christians again? “Oh yes,” sighs Ives. “Meditation is the work of the devil, you know.” But the real problem, he concludes, “is that people don’t feel like they can spare an hour anymore to go meditate. People literally sneak away from their desks.”
In the Pentagon chaplain’s conference room, I am joined by Ives and three other members of the meditation club at the conference table while three others, one man and two women, sit in chairs near the door so that they can slip out without causing a disturbance. In this small, impersonal space full of greenish blue “low bid” carpeting and upholstery, echoing with the doorslams and footfalls of business—as-usual, we close our eyes. Ed Winchester, who still returns for visits since his retirement in 1990, leads us in the “Peace Shield Meditation.”
“I direct my thoughts to the world of my inner being,” he intones. “I forgive myself for all my perceived wrongdoing to myself and to others. I ask for grace to experience my true nature, the God within me, love....” After a period of time in which we are to repeat our “favorite name of God or Creator, Source, the Universe, etc.,” Winchester, a lean-faced man of about sixty, gently urges us to visualize “world leaders, friends and adversaries, joining together in fellowship to resolve issues, forgiving each other.” Through it all waft the sounds of the Pentagon workday, and when we open our eyes the three people closest to the door are gone. Based on the Christian Centering Prayer, the idea for the “Peace Shield Meditation” came to Winchester in a flash of inspiration one day in 1986. It quickly became the crux of an ambitious “spiritual defense initiative” that sought to link people inside the Pentagon and around the world in a unified force field of loving awareness.
Winchester, who was influenced by Transcendental Meditation and was a financial analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, had long sought to prove the value of meditation in the quantifiable terms the Pentagon respected. When a paper he wrote advocating the study of meditation in terms of improved job performance and cost-effectiveness received a cool reception, he persevered through the club, determined to transform consciousness at the Pentagon by teaching one percent of its population to meditate. Eventually Winchester was co-sponsored by the Department of Defense and the District of Columbia Department of Corrections to spend a year trying the “one-percent effect” project on the inmates of the Lorton Correctional Facility. Although hard data eluded him, Mayor Marion Barry’s wife, Effie Barry, the warden, and others encouraged Winchester to spend five more years teaching inmates and prison personnel to meditate. In 1986, he launched his Peace Shield Campaign, never losing faith that the effects of meditation could move the world in a noticeable - if not precisely measurable - way.
Over the next few years, Winchester and the meditation club worked hard, organizing lectures and distributing brochures containing Peace Shield instructions and “Personal Peace Treaties.” Although Winchester claims that the highest ranking military person he saw at a club meeting during this period was a colonel, “the fact is at one point I think there were about sixteen generals and admirals who were meditators—closet meditators: they did not allow that to be publicized.”
With the calm, bright-eyed intensity of a man with mission, Winchester opens a scrapbook of photographs showing a Soviet peace delegation attending a 1988 Pentagon prayer breakfast. Technically, Winchester won authorization to invite the Soviets by doggedly petitioning the Deputy Secretary of Defense, but he believes that the hundreds of military and civilian personnel who tried the Peace Shield meditation (though they represented far less than the hoped-for one percent) turned the tide. “The Peace Shield idea was working,” he concluded in a newsletter describing the event. Winchester claims that his meditation practice helped him transform feelings of being an embattled outsider, a “spiritual Rambo,” to feelings of closeness and friendliness even to the supervisor who twice suspended him without pay.
“I had an experience, an inner experience, of the Pentagon becoming my monastery,” says Ed Winchester. “I came to the realization that fighting against the system, at least in my mind, wasn’t working. Somehow I had to recognize that I was a part of the system and the system was a part of me. In the end, I got great satisfaction out of knowing that my little peace might be making a contribution to world peace.”
According to Winchester, who was once a brother in a Catholic order, this insight was enhanced by his struggle to bring meditative awareness into even thorny situations at the Pentagon. This kind of understanding is the process of deeper and deeper seeing and self-knowing. It can’t be faked.
“Everyone who meditates in this country is in the Pentagon Meditation Club,” I told my friends, after returning from Washington. Planning to lead up to the even bigger Buddhist idea, that the Pentagon too is the enlightened way, I couldn't help but remember the last time I heard the argument that we’re all part of system that feeds the war machine. It was the summer of 1977, and I was traveling to Boulder, Colorado, to meet Chogyam Trungpa at Naropa Institute. A friend from college, Rip Westmoreland, the son of General William Westmoreland, was driving me there in his rusty, beat-up VW van.
Rip Westmoreland was tall and skinny with a tangled mane of hair. He played the guitar and wrote and drew in a thick black journal with a fountain pen, and I thought he was a potential Jim Morrison (who happened to be the son of an admiral). Rip and I stopped to cook dinner one night and he asked me what I knew about Trungpa anyway.
I told him that I didn’t know anything about Trungpa except that he was supposed to be brilliant and wild, somebody to show me how to see myself with fresh eyes, how to connect with reality. I knew there was more to life, to me, than the purely verbal answers I had picked up in college. Turning my back on convention, lighting out for the West, seeking Trungpa, I was taking a brave new stand and reveling in it.
Rip Westmoreland reminded me that there was such a thing as a material world, that it was his van I was riding in, for example. “Your father helped you buy that van, so you bought it with blood money,” I said, with the cruelty of the truly ignorant. “It’s all blood money,” he exploded. “Don’t you know that? Everybody’s money has blood on it.” He made me question what spiritual search had to look like, what outer form it had to take. For a split second, he made me see that there is no “us” and “them,” no “there” to get to before spiritual life begins. It begins where you are.
I never did meet Trungpa. We made it to Boulder and to Naropa Institute. I peeked into a big bare room and a woman appeared and told me Trungpa wasn’t there just then. She asked me what I wanted and my mind went blank. I had never before felt so on the spot, so in question about who I really was and what I really wanted.
I ask Bart Ives if he ever felt like heading west, if meditating ever made him question what he’s doing working at the Pentagon. Sure, Ives concedes. He volunteers that it is conceivable that he could one day connect so profoundly with his ultimate nature that he would stop working at the Pentagon and join a monastery.
But in the meantime, “into the den of lions, as they say. Where are you going to have more impact? The group is more than just a symbol. In the midst of all the pressure I can have an impact individually, by meditating, by showing people that it can be done.”
To the Pentagon Meditation Club, sitting is taking a stand.
Tracy Cochran is a contributing editor to Tricycle and co-author, with her husband Jeffrey Zaleski, of Transformations (Belltower).
Reading the Mountain
I take a level course along a steep north-facing slope, the bag of acorns tied to my belt slapping against my outer thigh. Every three strides, I jam the shovel down through ash, open a crack in the brown loam, and push in an acorn. Then I press the soil down with my boot and walk on. Someday, I imagine, these slopes will be forested in fire-resistant oaks and a new chapter in the ecological history of Lama Mountain will begin. I switchback up to the ridgeline, planting the entire hillside in an hour. Then I head north to repeat the process on another ridge.
I first came to the mountain nine years ago as a retreatant at the Lama Foundation, a spiritual community sitting on the toes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. I was immediately taken by the place, its pretechnological lifestyle, hippie-era buildings, earthy food. Everything showed the touch of human hands and the aspirations of spirit. What it lacked, I sensed, was a clear vision of how to be sustainable. I offered to engage the community in a discussion of permaculture. Since that time I have taught permaculture courses at Lama, worked with residents and long-term members on master planning, and lived and worked in the community. Permaculture became the language through which my love affair with Lama was conducted.
Permaculture is both my professional and my spiritual discipline. The word was coined more than twenty years ago by two Australian ecologists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, looking for a way to describe human settlements, agricultures, behaviors, and cultures modeled on natural ecosystems. If, they reasoned, we could make our cities, farms, schools, parks, or businesses as rich, diverse, resilient, and productive as a forest or estuary, and if we could do this in a way that actually protected and enhanced the vitality of the living systems around us, then human beings might have some chance of surviving the ecological crises they have generated. So they developed a design process based on close observation of nature and utilization of simple, practical, and often very traditional techniques. Because it emphasizes effective actions that ordinary people can take to better their lives and regenerate their ecosystems, permaculture rapidly became a worldwide movement.
By calling permaculture my spiritual discipline, I risk violating its nature. Permaculture has always been a meta-discipline. It crosses national, cultural, religious, and professional borders. It describes a way of thinking based on discerning and establishing relationships among dynamic elements in a dynamic world. Everything is in flow—all matter, thought, energy changes continually. The objects we perceive are momentary traces of the flows moving through them. I could not exist as a living being if air, water, and food (not to mention gravity and a stable temperature range) were not continually flowing through me. In what sense am I and the air I breathe different? We are continuous.
Water flows through the branching conduits of a river as part of the planet’s hydrologic cycles. It climbs the sap lines of a tree and is breathed back to the air through leaf stomata. Water enters my body through my digestive tract and the pores of my skin. It pulses through veins and arteries, bathes each living tissue, exits through urine, feces, sweat, and breath. The river, the tree, the human body are each knots or eddies in the flow of water. These knots are characterized by order, organization, what permaculturalists call pattern. Take a snapshot of a flow, or look at the traces where it has been (the flotsam cast up by a flood), and you will be looking at a pattern. Learning to recognize, interpret, and apply pattern is the core practice of permaculture.
Over time, I discovered many significant patterns at Lama Foundation. It had been built at the joint between the tolerable slopes of the foothills and the steep slopes of the mountain itself. This placed it at the interface of several ecosystems and soil types and contributed to the geologic features that made possible a year-round spring, source of plentiful water for a residential community and the retreatants it serves. However, much of the site is steep, posing a variety of challenges. Because the placement of the buildings did not fully take into account the implications of slope, and because buildings were spread out over much of the foundation’s 100 acres, a network of trails and roads crisscross the site, creating erosion problems and eyesores. The worst of these turned out to be a logging road, built fifty years ago when the center of the property was clear-cut. The clear-cutting left an open meadow where the main community facilities are clustered. It also left an open wound, running straight down the mountainside, where water, soil, and the vitality of the land and people regularly leaked out.
This road became a metaphor for everything I thought wasn’t working at Lama. The community envisioned itself as low impact and ecologically responsible. Yet it was entirely dependent on that road for its food, energy, and income, as constant traffic proved. The community described itself as a sane alternative to a dehumanizing American way of life. Why then did residents regularly leave burnt-out, impoverished, and suffering the consequences of inadequate basic health care? In what sense, I wondered, is this sustainable? Doesn’t it depend on a constant stream of new, idealistic blood? How could anyone grow old here, raise a family, make this a way of life? We agreed to explore these questions as part of a mutual teaching and learning process.
A consensus-based community takes a long time to change its mind. For the next four years I visited occasionally, taught a course each summer, and assisted with a master planning process. We were developing a common language. Then Lama retained my colleague Tim Murphy to devise a conceptual plan for a more appropriate development of the site’s development. He recommended replacing most of the existing residences with centrally located, clustered, solar housing. He described the agricultural potential of the site (including forestry) and encouraged the community to diversify its sources of income and begin to self-provide some of its basic needs. And he suggested rerouting the old logging road as a switchback following the contour lines. Its new placement would halt erosion, provide sheet runoff to support shelterbelt tree plantings, create a simple and centralized access to the proposed new development (allowing inappropriate roads and trails to be reclaimed), and act as a firebreak to protect the core buildings of the community.
All hell broke loose. “A new religion is being snuck into Lama.” “This is a spiritual community, not an agricultural community.” “The existing buildings give this place its character—they resonate with the love and prayer that has gone into them over decades.” “New roads and new construction will only create further damage to the land.” “This landscape is natural and beautiful—it’s wrong to intervene.” The Lama community had begun the serious and passionate debate needed to envision a future. Within two years, hundreds of current and former residents had come to agreement about redeveloping their beloved home. The power of such a group, once aligned, is nearly unstoppable.
In 1995, the new road was built and construction began on a passive solar kitchen and dining facility. In 1996, Lama Foundation burned down in a 7000-acre forest fire. With one exception, only the buildings protected by the new road survived. Residences, offices, workshops, retreat facilities, and basic infrastructure were all destroyed in minutes by the firestorm.
By the time the fire came, I had moved to Lama to become a resident and participate in the new building program. Overnight I saw my dreams and the dreams of the community reduced to ash. Everywhere I turned I saw the traces of an awesome power: rubble, smoking ash, thousands of standing black trunks, the faces of my friends stripped of their personas, shaking and weeping and laughing from the shock. Even the television crews were visibly affected by the eerie silence of this smoking devastation and the strange miracle of the main dome untouched and the cotton prayer flags flying in the hot wind.
I stop my tree planting for a moment to take a breath and see where I’ve been. The trees and branches we laid down earlier in the summer to prevent all the soil from washing away in the monsoons have all silted up with black, ash-enriched soil. Scrub oaks, aspens, and grasses push up out of the ground in June and July, stimulated by fire, nutrients from the ash, and all those live roots with no leaves to support them. Now they’re going dormant as the early winter of high elevations approaches. The dead ponderosa pines are mostly gone, some cut for lumber to rebuild and firewood for the long winter ahead, some laid down to protect soil and the new saplings to come, some left standing as wildlife habitat. By next year, this place will be buzzing with new life as the pioneers move in. But it will be a while before we see a forest again.
Ten millennia ago, the first people to settle here used fire to manage and direct these forests to become more productive for people and wildlife. I’m using species selection to do the same thing, since I’m not sure fire is the best way to build soils in our brittle climate. I don’t know if I’ll succeed—it’ll take generations to find out, and I’ve learned to give in to the mountain. She’s huge, violent, beautiful, and I love her, for all my feelings of betrayal and loss. So I read her patterns, plant my acorns, scatter grass seeds, lay down brush dams and hope for the best.
Ben Haggard is a writer and designer living in Santa Fe. He is the co-founder of Permaculture Drylands Institute.