This journal focuses on the art, history, culture, and wildlands of the northern Big Sur coast. Periodic entries and documents appear at random here.



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Entries in Wendell Berry (3)


Why I'm an oblate...

When I first learned of the Camaldolese, I thought of the three-fold good as an actual map of an actual landscape. And I still think of it that way.

What also interested me from the beginning was the idea of a trail that would lead back and forth between the cloister and the wild.

(That's me in the forest hiking up towards the crest of the Apennines from beyond the open back gate of the Eremo.)

And so at Romuald Duscher's prompting, my friend Steve Chambers and I found the original homestead trail between the Hermitage and Twitchell Flat and then with Romuald and others we cleared and opened that trail again. This meant a direct and open connection between the Hermitage and the Ventana wilderness — such as there had always been for the Salinan people of this coast.

Raimundo Panikaar has said that...

"The salvation of humankind depends upon well-worn paths between huts."

And that has been my own conviction, too — a conviction that's also reflected in the spirit of the Four Winds Council.

Nor have I missed the irony in Dante having his St. Benedict praise Romuald for being a monk who "kept his feet within the cloister" since Dante knew that Romuald wandered everywhere and that when he did settle in a place he generally made sure to establish his own hermitage somewhere outside the monastery's walls.

That was Thomas Merton's intention later in his life, too — to create a "hermitage outside the walls," perhaps even on the Lost Coast of Northern California. It would've been a life that maintained his relationship with his monastery without being physically enclosed within it.

There are moments when I feel as if I'm living part of the life Merton might've lived had he returned from Asia.

And I've also been learning from the Chinese mountain poets that being a mountain poet doesn't mean a quietist withdrawal, but rather that it can be an act of political resistance.

In the mountains I don't feel like I'm getting away from anything (except from some of my own obsessions). Rather I feel that I'm connecting.


Wilderness creates community — it doesn't threaten it

Successful backfire along the Mescal Ridge firebreak during the Basin Complex Fire in 2008.There are good fights and bad fights. And it isn't even a matter of always having to play nice. But a basic, even if begrudging, respect is required — and a willingness to really listen instead of simply shutting down.

I recently heard the management of a sports team described as a "team of rivals." At one moment everything might look like it will fall apart in a tension of strong wills. And then the next moment some subtle shift, or even a spectacular breathrough, might have just occurred that no one could see coming.

Mid-Coast Fire Brigade captain Cheryl Goetz leading a fire meeting in Palo Colorado during the Basin Complex Fire.I also heard someone once ask Wendell Berry...

"But aren't there too many people in the world?"

"There aren't too many smart people," he answered.

Sometimes you just can't have too many bright and energetic people in a room.

Aftermath of backfire and Basin Complex Fire looking eastward from Skinner Ridge.On the other hand, if when you fight, you just want to make sure you leave enough sharp broken edges lying around on the kitchen floor afterward...

...consider holding a public discussion on wilderness in Big Sur.

Upper Rocky Creek residents doing fire clearance along the Rocky Creek road.With understandably heightened anxiety about wildfire in the aftermath of the Basin Complex Fire, it becomes easy to project a false dichotomy between wilderness and community, as if the two values really were opposed.

But here in Big Sur, wilderness in all its forms, including wildfire (with whom we must be ongoingly mindful, respectful, and far-thinking), doesn't threaten community.

It creates it.

The Overstrom homestead "Alta Vista," Jeff Norman's home on Michael Ridge. And that's the beautiful shepherd Shay in the gloaming light on the hillside. Photo courtesy of Boon Hughey.We should do what we can to reduce the suffering that comes with the loss of homes — and especially with the loss of life itself.

Alta Vista, July 8, 2008, "Still Smoldering" from the Basin Complex Fire. Photo courtesy of Xasáuan Today.(For a particularly beautiful reminiscence of a much-loved "Historic Big Sur Homestead Lost in the Basin Complex Fire," see Xasáuan Today's "Remembering Alta Vista," and Part 2 of that reminiscence, "More Alta Vista Memories.")

Trail sign attributed to Steve Chambers.But at the same time, if we lose the wildness of this coast, we will have lost everything. We will have lost the very nature of what it means to be here in the first place.


Wendell Berry: "How To Be a Poet"


"How To Be a Poet"

By Wendell Berry 

(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   


Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   


Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.