My eyes were shut. Blackness. I opened them to the fading light of another day. The sky softened: twilight.
Around me the small world stirred. Crickets sounded, the wind moved. I heard the rustling of the grass. I lay upon my back, belly-up, drinking in the sounds of night. There is a way to lie down upon the earth, in idleness or in dream, where one becomes almost completely aware of the sky above. You watch clouds pass, make images of them with your mind, or you stare, lost in oblivion, at the many stars of a cold night’s sky.
And there is another way to lie upon the ground. You close your eyes and you head within. You reach, deep, deep, further back than you knew you could. You encounter blackness: the blackness of eyes shut, the blackness not of nightfall but of hidden earth. You sink so deep that you move beyond your bones and enter into a space of quiet. It is a communion.
I closed my eyes once more, awash with the humming of the night, and I found my way within.
For the past two days, I had been at Heartwood, a rural community in Northern California. To get here, myself and my friend Katie had driven hours of back-country roads in the ever-faithful Old Paint. Our aging station wagon jostled and bumped its way up the mountain. We wound further and further away from the world we knew, the flat earth, the streetlights, the forests, and the sea. That night, coming into Heartwood, we followed the headlights of another car, lamps that came and went like a lighthouse in the fog, disappearing and then reappearing as our twin cars curved along the road.
These two lights illuminated the night, showing us not only the road ahead but the darkness by which we were surrounded. Desert sage lay visible at roadside’s edge, but beyond that the world was a vast unknown, uncharted, unseen. Were there deer within the woods? Did the turkey buzzards still circle overhead? The earth and the sky swelled together, lost in the texture of darkness. And slowly, slowly, we approached our new unknown.
A new day. I walked the earth. Katie played mandolin to the winds, and together we wandered trails within the woods. We found an orchard, and found friends, four young people: Sean and a friend of his, Alexandra, and Aezana. They played reggae in the kitchen, or played guitar on the porch. Sometimes they traveled to the land next door, taking a walk through the hills.
We came to the community gatherings: a morning meeting, a moon circle among women at night. We walked a labyrinth set in stone. Throughout the light of day, the land seemed vacant. A large kitchen testified to the community of the past, where people had gathered, coming and going between classes, filling the skies, the roads, and the trees, with their laughter, their hopes, their dreams.
Heartwood had once been a massage school. Its rural location provided an immersive environment, and students embraced a lifestyle of healing. They lived within the wild and slept beneath the stars. They healed each other with touch. The grounds had sparkled with laughter, and the community, full of life, had been equally filled with purpose.
The library still held traces of this past. It was filled with titles such as Esoteric Anatomy and Anam Cara: guides to healing. It spoke, too, of an uncertain future. A heavy book with Heartwood’s logo (a celtic braid woven within a heart) contained glossy pictures of exotic trees and detailed maps of the crevices and microclimates of the land, as well as charts of rainfall and rough weather. This book was the map. Compiled by the permaculture wizards of the Bullock Brothers’ Homestead in Washington State, it charted out the planned development for the community’s next stage.
Looking to the future, “permaculture” was the word on everybody’s lips. There were grand plans: Palms would flourish on a reconverted air strip, and hillsides would run green with branches of fig, cherry, and apple. Young people would come, learning to live and grow food sustainably, and Heartwood would become a center for permaculture. A center, once again, for healing—but this time healing the relationship between human and earth.
In the long summer days I wandered across the grounds. A cob building lay in shadow, its door locked, its artful walls seemingly forgotten. I saw the silver gleam of the library’s roof atop the hill. Between the two, the land of shadow and the library’s light, there was a garden, eagerly tended to by three young interns.
Sean, his friend, and Alexandra shoveled dry earth and planted seeds, watching and waiting for them to grow. Fencelines were up; irrigation was laid. And a band of wild pigs came crashing through, bringing, in a single night, an irrevocable chorus of destruction. The wild hogs ate the lettuce, they rolled in the dirt, and, with their long snouts, they uprooted all the vegetables, undoing the hard work of the eager interns.
Bare ground lay hardened and dry. There were no crops, no vegetables. And this—a tiny patch of a two-hundred acre property. The dreams, that oasis of permaculture, hovered in the wind. And they fell, as so much dust. To these inexperienced youth, the grand visions of the great book seemed as empty as the abandoned buildings.
On this, my second evening on this ground, I lay upon that same earth, the land where dreams came to rest. I listened to the crickets, breathed in, closed my eyes as I encountered the serenade of night. I wondered, in spite of human visions, the entangled hopes, dreams, and disappointments, what the earth wanted for itself.
I cleared my mind of plans, documents, charts: the details which had become a staple of this community’s life. Instead of speaking, I listened. I lay upon that earth not searching for the sky but moving towards the darkness within. I moved into the earth.
Blackness. Nothing. Night.
Lying on the dull brown grass, I felt the dampness of my skin, felt the dryness of the earth. This was a dry land of steep slopes. The snows that came in winter and the rains that fell in spring seemed like a distant memory. Where a wet landscape would be green, lush with moss, with fresh leaves, this land was brown upon brown upon brown. It was dry. And it was longing to be wet.
As though I were a mother longing for a distant child, I felt this longing for moisture coursing through my veins. I held no visions, no maps, no plans—I felt within the living desire of the earth.