Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tassajara Grounds


As my good friend Ms. Country Mouse reported here, we both had the great pleasure of participating in the Wildflowers and Birds of Tassajara workshop in mid-May. What she did not report -- we try not to tell the world when one of us isn't home for a stretch -- was that I actually stayed on as a Zen student for two more weeks. It was a glorious time. I worked 6 hours or so making beds and helping in the garden (that rarely felt like work). I participated in the meditations and had an opportunity to drink in the quiet and truly let go of my busy life for a time.

Working the grounds and gardens, I came to truly appreciate the beauty of my surroundings and the good works of the head gardener and his crew. What strikes everyone first, especially after the harrowing drive over the very bumpy dirt road, is how the deep valley with the Tassajara creek and the hot springs stands out lush and green from the dry chaparral.

But not all is natural environment. Gardeners have planted here for over one hundred years. The first white people came to Tassajara to take the waters in the early 1900s -- after a 12 hour drive in a horse drawn carriage. Then came a time when drinks and merriment were more in the foreground, and driving time was 4 hours by car. The property was bought by San Francisco Zen Center in 1966 and converted to a monastery with a summer guest season.

With so many gardeners leaving their mark, trees include both native Sycomores and London plane trees, native big leaf maples, different native oaks, and conifers. Bamboo was planted for screening, below near the pool, and the bright green contrasts with the dusty hills in summer.


Cabins are surrounded by both native and non-native plantings. Here, a cabin with Woodwardia fimbrata (giant chain fern) in front and Calycanthus occidentalis (California spice bush) in the background to the right. The kerosene lanterns light the paths at night. Guest cottages also use kerosene lanterns. Having electricity only in the office and kitchen allows Tassajara to get most of its energy from solar.


Here a close-up of the spice bush flowers.


Across from the naturally heated pool are several California natives including Carpenteria californica and the wonderfully fragrant Philadelphus lewsii (mock orange), which just opened its buds on the day before I left. 


Here a close-up.


Suzuki roshi, the author of Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, loved stonework and beautiful rock walls are everywhere in Tassajara. Some were put in under his supervision and many more were inspired by him.


Suzuki Roshi also built a rock garden in front of the Founder's Hall and the head gardener hopes to simulate the moss that you would find in a Japanese rock garden with thyme and small succulents.


In addition to the grounds, which strike a balance between formal and natural, Tassajara also includes plantings if Iris and columbine in front of the meditation hall. In late May, the columbine is a fireworks of yellow and orange.


Tassajara also includes a small area for green vegetables and herbs and a fenced garden for cut flowers. The flowers, mostly exotic ornamentals including roses, peonies, astrolmeria, poppies, and so on were chosen for durability. Each guest cottage, the dining room, office, meditation hall, and each altar has a small vase with flowers and the garden staff picks flowers every morning and delivers them to the other crews.


While I was at Tassajara, the head gardener did a garden tour for the resident students and, as a special attraction, showed us the green Buddha that was hidden away in the fenced garden. It was easy to miss, and we were thrilled to "discover" it. 
After ten days of being a student, I returned to paying guest status and welcomed Mr. Mouse, who came down for Memorial Day weekend to enjoy the hot springs and relax in the quiet. We both felt refreshed after our time away from the troubles at work and were sorry to leave. Maybe I can go for a month next year?

6 comments:

Terra said...

What a beautiful place and I can see you enjoyed your retreat there.

Country Mouse said...

Ah, it brings it all back to me! I sat in the garden nook where the green Buddha is for over half an hour one day, and didn't notice it. It was only when someone else came up specifically to view the Buddha statue that I saw it!

grumblebunny said...

Sigh. I've wanted to go on a retreat at Tassajara for years. Lucky mouse!

Christine said...

I feel refreshed just reading it! It seems that their plantings are quite thoughtful and our course, very peaceful! It's a good balance between planting and ornamentation. Hope you get to return soon!

Jess said...

So, so lovely. Really need to get to that place one of these days. Thanks for sharing its loveliness!

Sue Langley said...

What a nice post Town Mouse! I like hearing about all the history of the garden there. Were the natives there or planted there. I imagine you had some great conversations with the gardeners. So enjoyable.

We have the California Vipassana Center right here in our tiny town. I looked into it and it's 10 days, sounds wonderfully refreshing and calming, however you cannot take in any books writing paper or cameras. A very simple 10 days.