Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Roof Under Spared Trees

Last week I visited a beautiful retreat called Four Springs in Middletown.  Their main lodge had recently burned down.  Based on the folks I spoke with, the lodge was a place of many memories and its lose will be something that will take some time to heal.  While the place clearly has its own ethos, it reminded me of several places I have visited in California as both a child and as an adult.

These retreats are literally what California poet Robinson Jeffers called "A roof under spared trees."  Something about this kind of place captures an enduring side of California life.  Tucked away in the forest, the retreat is a spiritual place with no discernible ambition to take its spirituality "on the road."  From all appearances what is taking place at this retreat is sustained largely on the power of the environment itself, both human and nonhuman. A worthy mode of operation.

Most of the cabins are simple and rudimentary in nature and serve mostly as sleeping quarters for the guests who gather at the lodge or other hubs located throughout the woods.  It has the effect of subduing the built environment while celebrating the natural beauty of the place.

Not all retreats are explicitly spiritual.  I can recall going to a retreat like this in the redwoods north of San Francisco as a kid and later as an adult my family and I journeyed to Camp Mather near Yosemite.  It is interesting to recall that a distinction of many early American protestant faiths was the concept of a meeting house.  This was  a radical departure from the more european catholic notion of a church and its designation as a "house of God."

As a child I remember being encouraged by many adults to acknowledge the beauty of nature as something spiritual and to be sure to get out "in it."  There was always this sense that if God could be found anywhere, the natural world was as good a place as any.  This early american idea that one did not need a cathedral or church to find God certainly resonates today in many of the faiths people continue to pursue here in the west.

In 1911 George Santayana wrote, "I am struck in California, by the deep almost religious affection which people have for nature and by the sensitiveness they show for its influence...It is their spontaneous substitute for articulate art and articulate religion."

It has been argued by far western writers like William Everson that to call nature a "substitute" for art and religion is to give nature less import than it deserves.  Whatever the case, it is my sense that Satayana was accurate in his observation of nature and the mythic role it plays in the far western collective unconscious.  This retreat is certainly a meaningful example of a spiritual space that possesses a dominant natural beauty.

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