Every garden has its dragon. How could it be otherwise at the portal to such extremities? A flower falls, a weed flourishes. The hummingbird hovers, the cat pounces. The soil thrives on decay. To cultivate is to disrupt. Standing guard at the border of life and death, a being of great energy takes its place.
Such a dragon is Wendy Johnson, who took up her place at San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm over thirty years ago. Johnson actually realized her dragon nature at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center a season before, planting corn. Head down, peacefully absorbed in working down the furrow, she didn’t notice the blue jay robbing the kernels behind her back. Turning at length to see her work being undone, she charged the interloper with war cries. In that turn from peaceable to protective, she reflects, “My life as a gardener cracked open.” The language of the dragon—war cries, cracking, “trouble cropping up in paradise,” “fierce love and uncompromised passion,” “the frenzy of harvesting,” “incurable obsession”—echoes throughout the pages of this composition of memoir and manual, a clarion call to meditation and horticulture. Both enterprises share the paradox of observing what is while putting into realization what is to be. It’s a business of picking and choosing, requiring a good deal more of a person than a strong back. “Gardening is not for the faint of heart,” Johnson warns, and adds, “Neither is meditation.” A dragon’s tail flickers under these meditation robes.
We follow that tail, of a one-time political activist and “rabid” protector of the natural world, through the garden gate and into the garden: blossoms and thorns, fruit and failure, and a variety of prickly-sweet characters, Johnson’s mentors. One is Alan Chadwick, a Shakespearean-trained actor turned biodynamic gardener, an early guiding hand to Zen Center’s newly acquired farm property. Gentleness and acceptance were not, clearly, the qualities necessary to transform a windswept slope of eucalyptus trees into those early gardens, any less than they were to whip Zen students, fond of silence and stillness, into laborers. His garden was a battlefield, and the gardener a warrior of epic proportions. “Many were seared by the fire of Alan’s Old Testament rage and passion.” Rage and passion, evidently, are precisely what cultivation, whether of mind or matter, demands.
Another of Johnson’s mentors is Harry Roberts, part Yurok/part Irish and like Chadwick a counterpoint to Zen mindfulness and reserve. After several months of patiently instructing students in how to read the land in preparation for planting a hillside apple orchard, “Harry exploded with delight, knocking over his camp chair and leaping to his unsteady feet, poking the still hot air of that Indian summer afternoon with his jabbing crutch. ‘That’s it,’ he bellowed. ‘You saw it. You got it. Now go mark that spot, and we’ll direct you from down here.’”
Reading Johnson’s book, we may find ourselves on the edge of our own hillsides, receiving equally precise pointers from the author, also one who has watched her land a long time. There is nothing dogmatic or Buddhistic in her instruction: “I know nothing of gardening in general. I know only the specifics of the art of horticulture as I learned it from the living garden and from particular gardening teachers.” Herein are detailed directives on water, weeds, soil, bugs, the harvest, the kitchen, garden logs.
If the book has some qualities of a manual, it reads as anything but prosaic. Johnson, after a hard day harvesting pumpkins in the autumn rain, follows Redwood Creek to where the gulch opens onto the seashore, just in time to witness the creek’s yearly breaking through the sand to the sea.
I stood on the edge of the ocean at the mouth of the swirling torrent of Redwood Creek, the river boiling black and surly in its chute. The wolf ocean gnawed at the narrow sandbar that separates salt water from sweet. Cold needles of rain pocked the slate dark sea. High above, on the cliffs overhanging the ocean, the lamps of evening were being lit in the homes off Muir Beach. The reflection of these lights shook yellow and deep on the thick waves, like warm, dark pumpkins themselves bobbing on the black sea. I watched with my back to the rain, and when the river broke through the bar with a soft, heavy sigh and thousands of gallons mingled at the mouth, I walked home alone in the dark.
Just as she cultivates the garden (nothing in general . . . only specifics), in her cultivation of words there is nothing generic. Yet, as with any authentic teaching, there are currents and crosscurrents running under the surface that break through conventional categories: in these words, household lamplights bob like pumpkins on the waves, sweet meets salt, savagery mingles with softness.
To those of us who battle with contradictions—discipline and openness, Path and pathlessness, shaping and letting be, action and observation, activism and mindfulness—whether in the garden or the meditation hall or the study, there’s a dragon voice calling from these pages. It’s not a Western, fire-breathing dragon, or an Eastern dragon with its tail in the sea and its head in the mists; not a dragon that roars but one that sighs. Or perhaps it’s a dragon of all capacities: wild and cultivated.