Katy Butler finds her spiritual ground
Every Wednesday morning when I can afford the time, I park at the foot of the valley I live in and climb Mount Tamalpais, my holy mountain. It is more sacred to me than any temple, and as powerful a place of practice.
My path is as ritualized as the stations of the cross. I take a wooden footbridge over a stream and climb through second-growth redwoods and past blackberry bushes, now sere and brown in the winter cold. My worries come with me: I chew on a conflict with my eighty-year-old mother, a disastrous visit home.
I climb steep railroad-tie steps to Cowboy Rock. My glutes and lungs burn, driving me into my body. I pant. I sweat. I take off my fisherman’s knit sweater, machine-loomed in England and bought at a local mall. Then up past the county water-tank and the dozen expensive houses built where the Flying Y Ranch used to be.
At ten o’clock, I breach a ridge and enter a vast bowl of unpopulated hills. Car sounds die away. Finches twitter in the chaparral. I follow the trail beneath a bay laurel, upswept by the winds into a clinging topiary. A madrone shows its red bones. “Mountains,” the Zen master Eihei Dogen told an assembly of Japanese monks in 1240, “are our Buddha ancestors”—our primordial teachers. Inside my brain, an invisible hand turns the volume knob down.
Now I am moving deep into the sock of the valley—the only visible human. Except for a ribbon of yellow-lined asphalt below me, there is no sign of human making. Beyond the last hills lies the Pacific.
An hour later I round a ridge and the peak of the mountain reveals herself, rising. I remember Mirabai, the sixteenth-century devotional poet who abandoned her aristocratic family and wandered India, singing, “I worship the mountain energy night and day.” The trail switchbacks take me down deeper. An hour after noon, I stop at a flat, thick wooden bench in a grove of old-growth redwoods that the loggers left behind. Here I sit zazen, robed in silence and filtered brown light. The natural world restores my soul. It soothes me like a mother. I rest my head on it and lay my burdens down before it the way some Christians rest their heads on the cross.
California is not my native home. I was raised in Oxford when England was recovering from the Second World War. The country had been a coal-burning industrial power for more than a century, but compared to the way Americans live today, we lived almost as frugally as Thoreau at Walden Pond.
Eggs and butter and meat were rationed. Shoes were polished and repaired. A big black dray horse named Flower clopped down our street twice a week, pulling a cart from which my mother chose vegetables to cook with dinner. Our cramped brick row house had no central heating, and white furry mold grew up the walls of the cellar. People took buses or walked everywhere. Even after our family bought a car, my father was one of thousands who mounted bicycles and flooded the city at rush hour like swarming bees.
My mother, who had no outside job, knitted sweaters and darned socks in the evenings before the fire. She had a washing machine but no dryer. Before she hung the laundry up to dry, she cranked it through the rollers of a mangle to squeeze the water out. Nobody called her “ecological” or understood that her daily work was an expression of respect for the natural world. But she was as frugal and attentive as the cook in a Zen monastery. One of her favorite phrases was “elbow grease.”
One day when I was very young, she stopped the car on a road through a great beech woods. It was autumn. All the leaves were golden yellow. The branches of the beeches met high above our heads, making an arched and open cathedral. The very air was yellow with the glory of the trees.