Becoming Butterflies

When I am co-leading retreats at Tassajara, I feel that most of my job is to be the Tassajara translator – not just of the forms and guidelines, but also about the experience of living here, especially as summer guests are often curious about monastic life in the winter. I am rather embarrassed to realise these days that some of my stories about Tassajara are fifteen years old, and many of my best ones, to do with the 2008 fire, are ten years old now. Nevertheless, because the place has been such an important part of my life since I moved to California, I hope that my enthusiasm makes up for the datedness.

It was striking this year that my visit coincided with a number of other people who form a part of those stories being at Tassajara, for longer or shorter stays: Siobhan (whose car I drove in for her on my first visit in 2000), Laura, Tim, Tenku, Amy, Jess.

This year, there was a new story that I imagine will be told for a few years to come: when we hiked around the Horse Pasture trail on the first of the two retreats, we were struck by the number of chrysalises on various bushes. It seemed an auspicious thing to have got to witness, but then a week later, the inevitable consequence appeared at Tassajara: countless butterflies enjoying warming themselves in the sun and nourishing themselves by the creek.

Having already relaxed from a week of moving at human speed, and without constant digital distraction, I found myself even less stressed: it’s hard to feel cynical when you are surrounded by a cloud of butterflies – except, perhaps, when you see Stellar’s jays hopping around chomping on them seemingly for wanton sport. Even the ground squirrels eventually figured out they could eat them, though none of the predators had much impact on the overall numbers.

I was not the only one with stories this time around, either: on the first retreat we had someone who had been at Tassajara in 1970 when Suzuki Roshi had been giving the talks on the Sandokai that were eventually turned into a book.
Someone else introduced themselves at the opening circle by saying that his great-grandfather had been the person who had built the road to Tassajara and the hotel back in the 1880s; his father had grown up here, opening the various ranch gates for the stage journey, and he himself had last been there in 1954 – mainly he remembered the pool.

It felt amazing to have these connections to Tassajara’s past, although, as we acknowledged, the waters have been enjoyed by people for way longer than Europeans have been in this country. I saw that there was a gathering for the Esselen tribe due to take place at Tassajara this week, and was sorry not to get to witness that, and to hear their stories of the amazing land.


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