The Hermitage in spring
The drive from home is only an hour to the
hermitage. It is farther up the foothills leaning
closer to the granite of the Sierras. It is early
May and the hard rains of winter have barely
Every day the grass seems to grow by inches now
that the sun warms the earth. The broken limbs of
trees that crashed down in the cold winds are
drying out. The rock walls of the garden are being
repaired where they washed away. Yellow Jackets are
dancing at the windows far to early this year.
People speak now not about the continuing rain, but
a hot summer.
Through the old farm gate and on to the gravel
road that winds along the edge of the valley I look
out in the distance at Bullards Bar Lake
reflecting the deep blue of the sky. This road I
take to the cabin will pace my life twice each day
as I walk it and settle into to the quiet. Stands
of giant pines, fir, oak, ceder and madrone plot
the land before me.
The cabin sits up tight at the end of a ravine;
hand made from wood milled from the trees it stands
in. A peaked ceiling gives the one room breathing
space. Wide windows on every wall let in the woods
that surround me. The walk up and down to the goat
pasture is almost perpendicular causing heavy
breathing on every climb up.
To be alone in the woods for a period of time is
both an inviting and mysterious choice. It comes
for me from some deep hunger to feel something I
have not touched for a long time. We give over our
lives to schedules, activities, people and
responsibilities forgetting how to respond from
what we naturally feel. We lose the rhythm of our
bodies, the softness of our heart, the many changes
of light and the sounds of birds during the day,
the blossoming of flowers from one day to the next
and the moon coming full at two in the morning.
Remember the line from Thoreau, I went to the
woods . . . and see if I could not learn what it
had to teach . . .
So I am here to learn. I get up early and sit
for a while, I do yoga and take a long walk through
the woods and meadows. I have things to
contemplate, but mostly I try to just be with what
the senses of the body give me. I read and sit and
practice my circular breath on the didgeridoo. I
write and inquire and look out the windows into the
woods and then walk again and sit some more and go
to sleep. And do it all over again each day.
Sometimes the order of things gets switched around,
but I dont mind much. The day takes care of
The real work if there is any is a strange
mixture of watching both the inside and outside at
the same time. What I most notice is gratitude. I
have to jump start it sometimes to really feel it,
but it is easy here with this beauty all around.
Tears come easily as I think of all the good people
in my life. I pray and laugh out loud like an old
coot sometimes remembering how good life is to
o o o o
After a couple of weeks I am going back home. I
wont miss this place, although I have a deep
affection for this sweet little cabin. The woods
and the animals and the trees and the waterfalls
and the flowers all taught me to be a little more
of what Ive always been. What follows are
some reflections on that learning.
Skyline Hermitage May, 06
The Doe in Morning
Through the window as I arose from sleep a young
doe cautiously stepped into my view. Sitting on the
edge of my bed with the sun still an hour from
being up the doe slowly browsed her way across the
meadow, delicately placing hoofs in a slow rhythm
to the undulation of her hips.
The reaching of her neck arched and pulled
gently at the spring grass, but in her motion
resided her uncertainty. Her head with mouth
chewing the grass would jerk up swivel from side to
the side with ears tipping in and out, adjusting
her body, ready for any threat.
The repetition was clear. Four or five graceful
strides, stop, pull the grass, lift the head, look
and listen. In my quiet she never saw me, never
knew that I could be a threat. Of course, if I had
made myself known she would have bounded off, not
from the threat I posed, but from simply her built
in anxiety of what she really feared.
Daily I step lightly into my life browsing for
what food the world will give me. Pulling from this
and that, and from all those things that we are
told will give us comfort and relieve us from
Both the doe and I confuse the fear with
anxiety. The doe knows her prey and fears the
Mountain Lion. Her anxiety is the paranoia that he
is everywhere. I fear the approach to what the
silence of my mind will show me. The anxiety is
that the Silence will bust though my mind and be
everywhere around me.
Like the doe, all my caution will never protect
me from the final death.
Skyline Hermitage May, 06
Last night there was a large brown and yellow
moth beating its wings
Furiously against my windowpane
Trying to get to the light of my lamp.
The longing of my own heart is like that.
I furiously try all manner of tricks
To get to the light
But the pain of my soul separates me
From seeing it is always
Shinning somewhere in my heart.
I watched for a long time as the moth crashed
again and again at the windowpane.
The moth finally gave up and flew back into the
For some other way in.
Surrender says the wise ones.
Let go of your madness says the poets.
Get drunk on love says the devotees.
Practice with patience says the teachers.
But they all say that the doorway
Is through the Silence
That lies beyond the Darkness.
Skyline Hermitage May, 06
Sitting at the base of the falls with the roar
of the water spilling around me and the light and
the shadow dancing through the trees, a robin dove
over my head and swooped up to land on a rock at
the top of the falls.
The mist rising from the water flowed over him
as his body moved up and down in a rhythmic dance
of pleasure. For a long time this stately bird with
its golden chest did not move its legs or put its
beak into the water. His head slightly lifted
upward his body danced in the joy of this spring
mornings beauty. Then suddenly he flew upward
into the light.
I turned to look down into the pool before me
and saw that same light in my own eyes.
Skyline Hermitage May, 06
Thunder rumbles across the eastern part of the
valley like the old story of trolls rolling their
bowling balls down the ravines. With this thunder
there is no sudden crescendo of a brilliant crash,
but it is rather like the soft, fading sound of a
wave slowly washing up on a beach.
The first spring storm is moving from the Sierra
Mountains into the foothills where I watch the dark
clouds consume the blue of the sky. Birds have gone
quiet and a stillness of the leaves in the trees
awaits the first sprinkles of rain. Occasionally, a
break in the clouds sends a floodlight of sun on to
a patch of white lilac and they burst again into
The wind has come up and trees lean into it
testing their strength after the harsh storms of
winter. As the wind whips the leaves they shimmer
with the iridescent shades of green that mark their
Another low rumble and the splashing of
raindrops begin their beating on the tin roof of my
cabin. In these first few weeks of Spring the
brilliance and warmth of the sun has brought us the
promise of an easier rhythm of cloudless days and
warming nights. This rain tells us that the
fullness of the promise still lies ahead.
All the living things of this valley now stop,
turn inward, and huddle together as the rain washes
over us. Two does bound across the meadow to stand
together under the trees by the woodpile as the
rain comes in earnest. We all know that this is no
winter storm, for the sweet rich smells tell us
that the earth is alive drinking in what it needs
to blossom the land.
As the gentle rain continues through the
darkness of the night I stand at the doorway of the
cabin and realize that the earth is a rare perfumer
creating its pure fragrance from everything that is
Skyline Hermitage May, 06
I awoke in the night to an inky sky with a
pincushion of bright points dancing in the cold of
the clear air. The storm was over.
When light came I looked out at drifting clouds
that had a spotlight of gold passing over them from
a sun that was an hour from coming over the
mountains. In between the golden white of the
clouds and the pale blue patches of sky a gibbous
half moon drifted like a ghost soon to be forgotten
by this new day.
I will get up and begin my morning with sitting
for a time attempting to look into the sky of my
own mind. Like the sky of this morning, clouds of
thoughts will be interspersed with patches of clear
moments. A hoped for flash of insight will streak
through the mind from time to time, and that
convex, protruding eye of my heart will keep watch
for the eternal.
I have sat in the winter storms of my mind on
long retreats. This time alone in the hermitage it
has been gentle spring sunshine.
For about 20 minutes at morning light there is a
cacophony of birds like a bawdy chorus welcoming
the new day. The sound is like a great hurrah. No
melody only extended cheering. As it dies away and
the birds begin their morning ritual of finding
food there is a lone Robin in the ravine that sings
a most complex and beautiful aria. The sustained
high note on the last riff of the melody pierces
your heart. It is all at once a hymn to God and an
announcement of intention that life is beautiful.
It is sung over and over with great resolution.
After breakfast and a walk I sit again as the
morning rushes toward midday. The light is warmer
and more playful with the shadows through the
trees. This is a time for the hurrah and the hymn
to the universe. Gratitude, gratitude sings the
poets and wise ones of all ages. It is what sparks
my heart, floods my soul and gives juice to this
day. I hold the incense stick letting my heart rise
and follow the fragrant smoke as it disappears into
the ephemeral. A parade of family and friends come
and go in my mind with their individual concerns
and hopes. Tears streak my face for their happiness
and joy. Difficult people and pain filled misery
through out the world get bathed in a gentler mind.
Gratitude, gratitude is the resolved mantra in the
face of so much pain. The Dali Lama says the only
message is loving kindness. Some sittings all but
overwhelm the heart.
Sittings have changed for me over the years. I
noticed a shift happening this time in the cabin.
One Tibetan said, Rest, rest in natural great
peace. That has been the teaching of the
hermitage. Let the mind rest. Let it rest in
its natural peace.
As I walk from the cabin down the hill to the
goat pasture a pair of quail fly up.
Each day coming and going on the trail they rise
from the same spot in the ferns and separate as
they fly across the ravine into the bushes. It is
the buzz in the sound of their wings that gives
urgency to their flight.
Birds all over the valley are pairing up and
nesting. Doves fly from hidden nests among the elm
trees; Robins pick up twigs and fly off into the
oaks. Finches peck in the dirt and flit from branch
to branch together. Each pair cautious and secret
of anyone finding the hidden precious eggs that
continues their lives.
This pairing that we all do is the hidden secret
in our blood. Spring is when it drives us mad with
longings that we cannot explain, with urges that we
can only follow.
The wild male turkeys raise their wings and
pinfeathers and dance with fierce energy in front
of a female. Each male pushes the other one way in
a frenzy of desire to mate. These turkeys are long
in coming back since the fire swept the valley a
few years ago. But now they are here again to add
to the madness, to the joy, to the celebration of
the springtime of new life.
Skyline Hermitage May, 06
Thirty Turkey Vultures sit like a panel of black
robed judges arrayed across the branches of the
dead pine tree. Red baldheads move up and down
examining me to determine what to do now that I
have come before them. Several hop and jump from
limb to limb adjusting their perch, peering down
and pointing at me with their sharp red beaks.
I have ventured into a dark corner of their
world. Black feathers lay strewn in random piles at
the base of the tree. Their attention on me puts a
knot in my stomach. A feeling of fear moves into my
chest. I tense, unsure of what to do. My body does
not support the words of my mind that says,
Its okay. They wont hurt
you. Some very old memory is stirred in my
body. An ancient fear of beaks ripping flesh in a
carnal field in Tibet, of black vultures standing
to feed on the burned bodies in the ghats of India,
of Horus eye looking at me out of the tombs
As though commanded by some invisible voice two
old ones fly up and circle over me. One catches a
current of wind and flies away from me riding the
stream of air down the ridge. The other continues
to hover over me.
Impatiently several birds jump and jocky
themselves for positions on branches determining
their verdict of me as I stand in the meadow dock
below them. Then in a sudden motion they rise
together like black angels and adjourn into the
Gathering above the tree they begin to circle as
they make their judgment and spiral upward
following each other until the wind scatters them
across the valley to hunt other carrion than
Walking this hundred-year dirt road twice a day
I watch them fly in pairs and threes gliding
graceful in the currents of the valley. Along the
ravine where the road winds down to the valley
floor they will glide close by me. I see their eyes
turned on me, cold, clinical, examining how close
to death am I.
They are patient these judges of death. Their
job is to wait and consume the death, to remind us
that life consumes death, that this body is not
what is alive. That life continues seeking its
nourishment in many forms. What I see in their eyes
is that I am my own vulture consuming the carrion
of pain and fear that so often passes for my
Skyline Hermitage May, 06
The Goat Herds
Down the path from the cabin is the goatherd.
Every morning as I begin my walk I take my compost
down to the goats. There are seventeen goats and
two Auchbauch Pyrenees dogs, Justin and Bear. The
purpose of having the goatherd is to clear brush.
Put a herd inside an enclosed area and in a matter
of days they will strip all the vegetation to the
ground including the bark from trees. Because of
the fire four years ago blackberry bushes tend to
take over the terrain. To give natural growth a
chance the goats are sent in to clear out the
I see two herds everyday; the one here below me
in the pasture and the neighbors herd down
the road. The herd below has plenty of feed with
grasses high and is content most of the day to lie
around in the field. The herd down the road is more
interesting. They are a larger herd with about
thirty goats. The pasture herd doesnt have
lambs, but this herd does. They romp and play with
each other and bother the older goats by running
and bumping them and then running away. The younger
goats without horns challenge each other with head
butting. They stand a couple feet apart from each
other; rise up on their back legs and then lunge to
butt heads. They do this over and over with seeming
delight. This herd roams a wide area and has bells
on their necks. Their two dogs seem more interested
in moving the herd from place to place. Even when
you cant see where they are the bells tell
you the direction. The bells themselves are
discordant and off tune, but the sound still has
its own charm. They have a tinny, metallic tinkling
sound but the rhythm of the bells will tell you how
slow or fast the herd is moving. Evening time when
they are moving down the ridge in a single file
they look like a miniature camel train.
What most interest me are the dogs that stay
with the herds. They are beautiful animals. They
were bred in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain to
live 24 hours a day with a goatherd. They are
large, weighing 150 pounds or more. They have a
wide broad head with yellow and brown eyes like the
goats they tend. They have a very light tan fur
that can run to very heavy and long in the winter.
From a puppy they are pared with a grown dog and
put into a herd of goats to bond with the herd. The
older dog trains the younger dog how to be with the
herd. They will live with the herd all their lives.
Their job is to protect the herd. In this terrain
it is to protect them from mountain lions and bear.
To see their fierceness when a predator threatens
the herd is to see them turn from gentle herder to
protecting killer. These beautiful dogs will live
outside in any weather for the rest of their lives
devoted to the herd theyve been given.
Justin is the younger of the two dogs in the
pasture below me. He will greet me when I come up
to the fence now. At first when I approached he
would rise up and bark powerfully at me. Once he
got use to me coming and going I was no longer a
concern to him. Bear is the older dog that Justin
was pared with as a puppy. She whines when I
approach her at the fence. Or, if she sees me in
the distance coming down the road she will lift her
head and whine. The whine is a kind of whimpering
sound that says, "Give me some attention." When she
was hurt and sent to the vet for a few days she
whimpered continuously until they brought a goat to
stay in the cage with her. After having the goat
with her she didnt whine anymore.
The feeling around these dogs is
aware attention. They seem to lie
around just like the goats, often some distance
from the herd in the shade on a hot day. However,
if there is any movement, any approach, they are
immediately up and either rushing to the herd or to
All pet dogs were bred to do some specific work
particularly when we lived in agricultural
environments. I know few dogs these days that are
trained to work other than sniffer dogs, police
dogs or the Australian Sheppard. It seems the job
of the animals Ive had is to love and be
devoted to me, and to be my companion, but more
importantly to mirror me. Pets seem all too willing
to be bonded to my neurosis. They take on my mental
and emotional pain, my emotional quirks and easily
sacrifice themselves for me. In the course of this
great gift giving of themselves they to often lose
themselves. It is wonderful to see the independence
of these great goatherd dogs. They seem to stand at
the threshold of the wild and domesticated animal,
unwilling to give up either part of themselves.
Skyline Hermitage May, 06
I walk twice a day. I walk once in the early
morning and late in the afternoon or early evening.
My main walk is the mile or so down the road to the
gate. This walk passes by the goat pasture, through
the woods and down the great meadow that looks
across the valley past Bullards Bar Lake and
farther down the foothill range to the south.
Sometimes I go out the gate and turn and go up the
broken old asphalt road for another mile or two
that lets me wander back into the tall firs and
pines. My favorite walk is through the goat pasture
and down into the canyon where the waterfall spills
into a set of cascading pools. Mostly I walk the
Ive noticed that the purpose of walking is
walking. It can be for exercise, and I do it for
that reason being in the cabin most of the day. I
found, however, that I do it mainly to get out of
my mind. I do it to ground myself back to my body
to the here and now. A wise man once said that to
look within is to see the vast emptiness of
ones being. To look without is to see that
everything is being. To look within is to cultivate
wisdom. To look without is to cultivate love. That
has been the objective of my time in the hermitage.
Both seem impossible at times.
Walking blends the inside and outside for me.
Each requires an attention to be aware of my
experience. Both require the access to the silence
within the mind. Both require me to pay attention.
It is easy for me to be lost in my thoughts when I
am walking and not experience the walking or what
is around me.
To help me pay attention I carry a mala in my
right hand. A mala is a small rosary of beads that
traditions have used with their prayers, chants and
mantras. Mine is a hand mala. It has twenty-nine
small beads and a large one. As I walk I slip the
beads through my fingers. The purpose of my mala
is to remind me as I walk to be moment to moment.
The remembrance is to see everything from the trees
to the ants. It is to remember to feel the breeze
or the heat of the sun on my body. It is to smell
the lilac and hear the birds. It is first to let my
senses be full, but then to let my felt sense move
out and feel the space I am passing through, touch
the beauty with my heart, open to the glory that is
more than my senses can perceive. Sometimes it
happens in moments. The practice is to feel the
feet touching the ground and reminding myself with
the beads to be moment to moment. The big bead in
the mala helps. If my mind is drifting into some
cul-de- sac when my fingers bump into that big bead
it brings back my attention of remembering:
One good thing about walking the same path
everyday is that you can notice the subtle changes
that are happening in the world around you. On a
stump that I walk by everyday Ive noticed a
white bulbous growth against the black of the
charred wood. It caught my eye the first time I
walked past it because of the contrast between the
white and the black. For several days it remained
the same, but then one day I noticed that the bulb
of white beginning to split and open from the
middle. Today when I walked by most of it had
broken off and mostly withered away. That is the
story of spring here. Things bloom, flower quickly
and then wither away to give itself to the next
part of the cycle of life. One of the most dramatic
and sudden appearances was the wild lilac that
covers this part of the foothills. One day on my
walk the bushes were shimmering in their new
leaves. The very next day they had all burst out
with their intense white flowers. The hillsides
have been splashed now with a sheen of white. With
the lilacs blooming the evening walks are
wonderful. After the warmth of the day the light
fragrance of the lilac floats on the breezes
sweeping up the valley from the lake.
The morning walk takes me down near the gate
where the next farm is. The sounds coming up from
below are of the roosters announcing over and over
that the morning has come, of the sheep braying and
the tinkle of the goat bells as they head for
pasture. There is something in these sounds that
invites in me a longing for something outside my
normal experience. I notice this longing as I walk.
It is a pain in me of too many cars and plane
trips, of a rushed and stressed out pace of life,
and lack of daily quiet. When I hear these simple
sounds from the farm animals they set off within me
a resonance to the cord of joy in my heart that I
A couple of times Ive taken photographs on
my walks. I like to do the photos because it
sharpens my perception. It takes me deeper into the
world by forcing me to see it from different angles
as well as from a wide or narrow focus. The problem
after a while of doing this is that I am more
interested in the photographing than what I am
seeing. I lose the feeling of what is around me
with the camera in between myself and the world.
Ive played with that thought and realize that
my eyes are nothing more than cameras. In some way
Ive distorted seeing what is really here
before me. It gets filtered through whatever
conditions my mind is holding that day. Many
traditions say that we are living in a dream and
that the work of our lives is to wake up from it.
This is the problem Ive been up against all
The real mystery that has captivated me on my
daily walks is the sense that the immensity of
Awareness could actually be looking and feeling
through me. This has been the work of these days in
the hermitage. It has been the focus of my
contemplation and inquiry into the patterns of my
life and of my sitting. It has taken me many years
to accept that it is not some mystical experience.
The closest Ive come to direct experience of
this Awareness is a moment in which I hear the
silence from which sound is emanating. Or it is a
feeling that everything spreads out from me to
infinity moving from me in all directions
simultaneously. But most of all it is a remembering
to be consciously open to what is happening all at
once. The practice as I walk is to simultaneously
be conscious of the volume of my body and the space
all around it, at the same time to hear the birds,
be aware of the sun on my face, the thoughts moving
through the mind, the wind touching my skin and the
state of my emotion. After a period of this
practice I came back to what releases the effort
and is very simple and remembering: walking is
The Giant Oak
Down in the great meadow there is a giant oak.
It stands just off the road with no other trees or
bushes around it. It is probably 200 years old. It
would take four or five people holding their arms
and hands out touching each other to surround the
tree. Its height is a hundred or more feet and the
branches extend outward the same distance.
This oak reminds me of a gnarled old Zen priest
in the drawings from Japan. Ancient, strong, rooted
in life, sending out the reach of his wisdom in all
directions. Every time I pass the tree I stop and
bow to it. My eyes tear up and I thank it for all
that it has seen and remembered over its long life.
And I ask it to bless me. I dont know if the
tree hears me. Its presence is what commands my
respect and my tears. Having been in old growth
forests several times over the years I am
immediately confronted by the feeling they give me.
The largeness of the trees themselves are
impressive, but it is the feeling of what they are,
their presence, that they seem uncannily to
communicate. The Druids of our ancestors worshiped
these oak trees for this reason and believed the
trees could communicate directly to them. I can
believe it when I stand in the presence of this
So, I bow to this aged oak in respect. I speak
to it my thanks, and I salute the other trees
across the road from it for their good fortune of
being so close to it.
I dont know why I bow to it. It is
something that feels right to do. It is a form of
lowering myself, humbling my body to know the truth
of what I truly feel. In Soto Zen practice there is
much bowing. One bows going though doors, before
shrines, to ones meditation cushion, to fellow
priests and students. In Soto Zen the attention to
the form of the action is that it will take one to
no form to the emptiness of form. In bowing
we seem to bow to ourselves as well as the
I realize now in writing this that it is the
presence in me that I bow to when I feel the great
presence of that old Zen oak. It is his great
emptiness that I must feel in myself when I bow
with tears of gratitude.
The Long View
The pounding of the rain on the roof woke me
well before light. The rain played on the metal
like a fine jazz drummer with all cymbal and wire
brush. I lay awake listening for a while and then
drifted back to sleep. Out of a dream that I
cant remember I became aware of the pounding
of the rain again and saw that it was light. I got
up for my morning sit wrapped in my shawl looking
into the gray rain as it ran down the roof in front
of me. Mist had sunk down into the ravine with the
rain and the cocoon for me was complete.
After cleaning up the cabin, having tea and
dressing I took the compost down to the goats for
the last time. I would leave later in the morning,
but wanted to take my last walk in the rain or not.
Luckily, the rain had stopped and the clouds had
lifted, but mist still hung in the ravines and
valleys out to the horizon. When I got to the
pasture the goats and the dogs were at the far end
near where the road climbs up through the woods
toward the big meadow. All the goats and dogs were
huddled together under a cedar tree. When they saw
me with the bucket the goats as well as the dogs
came to the fence. I had put some treats from last
nights dinner in the bucket for the dogs and
they immediately smelled it and the goats stood
back while they ate.
I had decided not to walk all the way to the
gate, but just up into the big meadow where I could
see the full range of mountains to the south. On
the walk last night I had stopped and gave my last
bow to the old oak. I hadnt planned to go
that far, but the clouds and the mist and the
occasional flashes of sunlight breaking through the
clouds made the vistas spectacular. My feet seemed
to just keep taking me forward. And there I was
once again before the giant oak.
I did my thanks and bow once again, and then
turned with my back to the tree looking out over
the lake, and down range over the valleys and
mountains shrouded in clouds with streaks of
sunlight touching down here and there. I realized
looking at this view that this is what the great
oak has held through all the changes of
natures storms and fires, winter snows and
rains, animals being born and dying, and humans
nurturing and destroying the land. As I looked
south I realized there were millions of people
stretched out before me on these lands that
extended into the distant horizon. Like the tree
behind me with its out stretched branches I
stretched out my arms and prayed that all these
beings would find happiness, that whatever pain and
suffering they had would be healed, and that
somehow in the midst of all the doubt, confusion
and heart ache before me I would keep in my heart
the long view of the great oak and be of service in
some small way to the needs of the land and to the
Source: David T.
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