The Great Invitation: On Learning to Listen to Bats and Pangolins
It is a full eleven days since we arrived at our sanctuary ‘shelter’ in the California hills. In eleven days our business — a nature-based retreat center serving non-profits, yogis and nuptials — has nosedived. The first wave of cancellations was followed by a second, then the third. Within four days, almost a third of our annual revenue had disappeared and my husband, Jon, after no small amount of hand-wringing, shuttered the business. In a matter of days, reality as we knew it had come to a grinding halt.
Over the last eleven years, my husband Jon and I have slowly developed Bell Valley, a retreat center near Boonville in Anderson Valley, California. Receiving invaluable support along the way from the team of people working with us, we’ve largely run the business remotely, commuting here on weekends from our home-base in Berkeley two and half hours away. Our twin 10-year-old boys, Charlie and Ben, have anchored us in the Bay Area where we’ve felt the centrifugal pull of schools and summer camps, but Bell Valley has been a workplace we travel to on weekends they’ve grown up with, allowing us to raise our children as much as possible outdoors, away from screens.
There are too many stories to tell about the journey developing a rural retreat center. It started with the renovation of a historic toll house on highway 253 the year the boys were born. From those humble beginnings, (until a few weeks ago, at least), our team’s efforts over a decade helped to create a thriving rural hub for meaningful gatherings and reflection, accommodating groups of sixty in glamping tents, barn meeting spaces, along miles of woodland trails leading to a freshwater, swimming pond.
However, of all the stories to be told, one thread runs through them all – the thread that carries my love for the land here. As each season has passed over eleven years, (a dot in time compared to what the ancient oaks here have seen), my affections have felt returned to me in spades in a love affair that only seems to deepen with time. Over the years, no matter how busy I’ve been, (some days driving up and back on the same day), a spectacular canvas of clouds, ever-changing, like a vast, dynamic watercolor painting meets me where I park my car at the hilltop cabin. Each spring, wildflowers cast their symphony of color along the sides of the roads leading up there. Each dry august, the grasses crunch under our feet on our hikes, their prickles getting stuck in our socks as we witness the hills transform from a patchwork of green to gold. And each brisk October, the tired trees undress their many leaves one more time for the bare, prayer of winter.
There were years when the stress of trying to build from scratch a place for humans to gather here in this rural landscape made me want to walk away. There were years when I couldn’t see the beauty because my marriage was faltering, the demands of the project overtaking every corner of my husband’s life. But we survived and looking back, it almost felt as if the seasons carried us through. The last three years in particular, since that fateful November day in 2016, we have thrived.
I don’t think it was Trump’s election itself that triggered the change. It was bigger than that. Trump was simply a symptom of something happening in the world that began to feel like the beginning of a Great Invitation. When America and the planet started tilting off its ‘comfortable’ axis, exposing the many shadows created by a late-capitalist, white, elite ‘alternate reality’ long preceding Trump, that which has been long kept in the dark can begin to have a chance to see the light of day. Hidden deep in the disillusionment and chaos, in the heart of the despair and confusion, the outrage and grief is an invitation to re-discover oneself and one’s life, anew.
Shortly into Trump’s first term, I started to feel my love for this landscape as an ache in my chest, a pressure beckoning to me, like a new story waiting to unfurl, searching for the human words to tell it. On our weekends up here, my harried glance towards the hillsides and views spoke to me of home in a new way. Not in the traditional sense, but rather like I was home in a precious sanctuary, a church, replete with sermons, but the pastors were the tall, ancient oak trees, the prayers were the birdsong of the sparrows and robins, the sound of rain, its irregular symphony echoing through our tin-roofed cabin at night, was the choir. This landscape I had loved over eleven seasons, in short, was beginning to speak to me.
Where it started — whether the trees were speaking to me with an insistence, or whether my body itself signaled the urgency, I don’t know. I know only that I couldn’t resist the desire to listen any more than than I might the rousing invitation of a baptist choir or the solemn and sublime meditation of a Yo-Yo Ma performance. I was being invited into a conversation, that would require I learn a new language, and to learn it, I would need to slow down and listen. Listen as I’d never needed to listen before. Listen with the apertures of my ears, but also my heart and body-wide open in tenderness. I couldn’t bear being a foreigner in my own country any longer. Alongside the trees, the birds and the rain, I wanted to belong.
Since Trump took office, I’ve watched the smoke from the spate of wildfires that swept over California the following year engulf the sky across the valley. I’ve driven the two-hour drive back to Berkeley, past pylons in Santa Rosa on the side of the freeway still burning alongside big box stores and hotels, whipping in flames. Two years ago, a fine retreat center, much like ours, in a neighboring town was engulfed in these fall flames. Moving forward, there is no autumn that will pass without my daily prayers, no season when I will not notice the unsteadiness of unseasonable weather patterns here, the unreasonable heat of Januaries, the atypical hail and snow too late in springtime.
Most of all, through these past four years, I’ve relished a beauty, that, as yet, still reveals itself so generously without being asked and without demanding anything in return. A stunning homeland given, season after season, for free. And in this past year, especially, each time I have come here, I’ve just wanted to stay. Each drive back to the bay area, my chest would tighten in the car like an ambivalent child leaving home for school. I started counting down the years until my own children would graduate from their bay area lives so my husband and I could finally move here.
And then, of course — is it really just 11 days ago? — California schools were the first in the country to announce they would close for ‘two weeks.’ The day we heard, I scrapped my day’s plans in Berkeley and began to pack. I told the boys to set aside clothes for more than the customary weekend. Get socks, shirts and plenty of books. Alongside clothes, I packed the boys’ instruments, a guitar, a saxophone and, in lieu of our real one, an electric piano. I emptied out the fridge, packed up drawers of dried goods and moved on to extra shoes, two dog beds and several weeks of dog food. With two car-loads filled we arrived here late in the evening, surviving the guilt of our old dog Lulu’s initial foray into the dark wilderness on arrival. The next morning we woke to a blanket of snow. It was a dream come true. Except, it was built on a nightmare.
Three days later we got word of the ordinance to shelter in place. It could be up to 18 months, Trump said. Some eight years earlier than I expected, then, this sanctuary I had been yearning to move to would be our new home for the foreseeable future. Yet what a pyrrhic victory. Alongside our business, all around us, the world as we know was falling to its knees. Those far less privileged than we are, facing evictions, no money for food, and un-told complicated circumstances we may only learn about in the pandemic’s wake. As easy as it might be to take in the pristine contours of this sanctuary escape here, riding on the coattails of denial, we are here because of a global crisis. Our life, up-ended, has sent us to heaven but we got here on the hinges of hell.
There is no gift that does not behold the receiver in obligation. In the best circumstances, the obligation is couched in gratitude and love. This is my condition then. We are here not simply to escape an “enemy virus.” Nor are we here to ride out a “war” in privileged exile. Rather, we have been relocated to a landscape beckoning us to let go of what we have known so that we can finally begin to learn its tongue, finally learn to listen.
Because as devastating as this virus is, I cannot help but see it in the same category as Trump’s election, as part of the Great Invitation. In this form, it is not the enemy, rather, it is the body of the earth speaking to us. The urgency of our times, beyond the androcentrism with which we customarily meet the world, is not only for facemasks and ventilators — the things that will keep humans, and our kin alive. This urgency is a call to reflect on the world we have known, the world we have created, and all the worlds that are possible that we have forfeited in this unsustainable world we are living in at such an unsustainable pace.
News reaches me from Berkeley friends and beyond that, the invitation is reaching others, too, in cities. People are rediscovering their parks, waterfronts and hillside trails. They are tending to their health, noticing themselves, their own bodies, perhaps in ways, they haven’t for decades, racing past them to complete the tasks at hand. They are finding the space in their lives, away from what they have grown accustomed to, to meet the fresh air while we still have it. Off freeways we are clearing up the skies, getting a taste of what could be possible. Many of us are taking time in solitude sensing into our all-too-human vulnerability, acutely aware of global inter-connection on this earth. Could the invitation, even to those who are not eager to speak nature’s tongue, to learn her language, be any more clear? Like Tolkein’s great Ents, the gestures and corralling of our actions are guiding us towards an understanding of the message being ‘spoken’ from the earth.
Isn’t it beyond time to listen, after all? To begin unlearning something so we can learn to listen again within the matrix of mutuality our species knew until the amnesia created by the industrial revolution. Is this not the time we need to reconsider what we think we need to begin to see what we really need. Is this not a call to un-do ourselves, like the trees in winter, laying ourselves bare while the contours of our lives starkly change?
What if the urgency we feel really is the orchestration of a call from the earth to simply stop. To slow down. To suffer the anxiety we might feel in this sudden stillness and reach out from that awareness towards where we find support. Beyond the din of news headlines, spiking numbers in Italy, and the spin over Trump’s latest tweet, we can always open the window and listen. A virus of unknown origin is speaking, its words heard in the stress of a bat, snake, or a Pangolin sold at a wet market in China. An animal removed from its habitat and sold for the passing delight or appetite of a human’s pleasure is speaking, like the planet speaking through its own fevers and wildfires. The earth does not, itself, know how to hold back from rising temperatures to strike out the virus in its own midst — one which, if we listen more deeply, of course, we can only know as ourselves.
In the coming weeks, my husband and I will learn how to plant a garden here with the boys. We will learn to recognize the calls of the various birds, songs that in the past we have appreciated but never stopped to decipher during our work-filled weekends away from city life. We will get our food from Burt’s Boontberry Market, a lovable, small redwood shack in town with locally farmed food and handmade ointments and elixirs. We will live off less. We will learn how to clear trails, thin fir trees, and mix compost. We will nurse our old dog Lulu through her final days. We will play and fight. We will be scared, we will pray for others with far more to fear. Along with others, we will face the great creative void of the unknown. We will open ourselves up for the teaching.
When I have time, I will search for the human words that meet the new language we are learning here. In this way, the new story, at least as it unfurls in this space of shelter, will be written. We will listen, and together we will surely come un-done, learning how to live a different life.
On March 13th, after our children’s school announced a ‘two week’ closure, my family of four (plus one dog) packed two cars full to ‘shelter in place’ at our retreat center, on 600 acres in Anderson Valley. Privileged, isolated, my husband and I will learn how to become the ‘village’ that once helped raise our children. Along with the rest of the world, we don’t know how long we will be here. Facing that uncertain future, as time permits, I will write this pandemic diary.