The Understory

Pandemic Diary: The Great Invitation

Beyond the longing to “return to normal” a new future is waiting to be claimed — one more attuned to the natural world.

April 2, 2020
by Karin Swann-Rubenstein

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

It is a full eleven days since we arrived at our sanctuary ‘shelter’ in the California hills. In eleven days our business — a nature-based retreat center serving non-profits, yogis, and nuptials — has nosedived. The first wave of cancellations was followed by a second, then the third. Within four days, almost a third of our annual revenue had disappeared and my husband, Jon, after no small amount of hand-wringing, shuttered the business. In a matter of days, reality as we knew it had come to a grinding halt.

Over the last eleven years, Jon and I have slowly developed Bell Valley, a retreat center near Boonville in Anderson Valley, California. Receiving invaluable support along the way from the team of people working with us, we’ve largely run the business remotely, commuting here on weekends from our home base in Berkeley, two and half hours away. Our twin 10-year-old boys, Charlie and Ben, have anchored us in the Bay Area, where we’ve felt the centrifugal pull of schools and summer camps, but Bell Valley has been a workplace we travel to on weekends, where we can expose our children to the outdoors, away from screens and concrete.

The Toll House

There are too many stories to tell about our journey in developing a rural retreat center. It started with renovating a historic toll house on Highway 253 the year the boys were born. From those humble beginnings (until a few weeks ago, at least), our team’s efforts over a decade helped to create a thriving rural hub for meaningful gatherings and reflection, accommodating groups of sixty in glamping tents, barn meeting spaces, along miles of woodland trails leading to a freshwater, swimming pond.

However, of all the stories to be told, one thread runs through them all — the thread that carries my love for the land here. As each season has passed over eleven years, (a dot in time compared to what the ancient oaks have seen), my affections have been returned in spades in a love affair that only seems to deepen with time. Over the years, no matter how busy I’ve been, (plenty of days driving up and back on the same day), a spectacular canvas of clouds, ever-changing, like a vast, atmospheric watercolor, meets me where I park my car at the hilltop cabin. Each spring, wildflowers cast their symphony of color along the sides of the roads. Each dry August, the grasses crunch under our feet on hikes, their prickles sticking to our socks as we witness the hills transform from a patchwork of greens to rolling golds, and each brisk October, the tired trees undress one thousand leaves and more for the bare, prayer of winter.

Sun Rise

There were years when the stress of trying to build a place for humans to gather here in this rural landscape made me want to walk away. There were years when I couldn’t see the beauty because my marriage was faltering, the project’s demands overtaking every corner of my husband’s life. But we survived, and looking back, it almost felt as if it was the seasons, themselves, that carried us through. In the last three years in particular, since that fateful November day in 2016, we had been thriving.

I don’t think it was Trump’s election, itself, that triggered the change. It was bigger than that. Trump was a symptom of something happening in the world that began to feel like the beginning of a Great Invitation. When America and the planet started tilting off its ‘comfortable’ axis, it exposed more clearly the many shadows created by a late-capitalist, white, elite ‘alternate reality’ that long preceded Trump’s election. What was long kept in the dark by this trajectory has begun seeing the light of day. As with all dark nights, the invitation is extended to us, hidden deep in the disillusionment and chaos, in the heart of despair, confusion, outrage and grief, an invitation to re-discover ourselves and our life, anew.

Shortly into Trump’s first term, I started to feel my love for this landscape as an ache in my chest, a pressure beckoning me, like a new story waiting to unfurl, searching for the human words to tell it. On our weekends up here, my harried glance toward the hillsides and views spoke to me of home in a new way. Not in the traditional sense, but rather like I was home in a precious sanctuary, a church, replete with sermons, but where the pastors were the tall, ancient oak trees, the prayers were the birdsong of the sparrows and robins, the sound of rain, an irregular symphony echoing through our tin-roofed cabin at night. This landscape I had loved over eleven seasons, in short, was beginning to speak to me.


•         •         •


Where it started — whether the trees were speaking to me with an insistence, or whether my body itself signaled the urgency, I don’t know. I know only that I couldn’t resist the desire to listen any more than I might the rousing invitation of a Baptist choir or the solemn and sublime meditation of a Yo-Yo Ma performance. I was being invited into a conversation that would require I learn a new language, and to learn it, I would need to slow down and listen. Listen as I’d never needed to listen before. Listen with the apertures of my ears, but also my heart and body, wide open in tenderness. I couldn’t bear being a foreigner in my own country any longer. Alongside the trees, the birds and the rain, I wanted to belong.

Old Madrone

Since Trump took office, I’ve watched the smoke from the spate of wildfires that swept over California the following year engulf the sky across the valley. I’ve driven the two-hour drive back to Berkeley, past pylons in Santa Rosa on the side of the freeway still burning beside big box stores and hotels, engulfed by whipping in flames. Two years ago, a fine retreat center, much like ours, in a neighboring town, was destroyed by fire. Moving forward, there is no autumn that will pass without my daily prayers, no season when I will not notice the unsteadiness of unseasonable weather patterns here, the unreasonable heat in January, the atypical hail and snow too late in springtime.


Most of all, through these past four years, I’ve relished in a beauty that, as yet, still reveals itself so generously without being asked, and that does so without demanding anything in return: a stunning homeland given to us, season after season, for free. And in this past year, especially, each time I have come here, I’ve just wanted to stay. Each drive back to the Bay Area, my chest would tighten in the car like an ambivalent child leaving home for school. I started counting down the years until my own children would graduate from their Bay Area lives so my husband and I could finally come ‘home’.


•         •         •


And then, as if an answer to my prayers — was it really just 11 days ago? — California schools were the first in the country to announce they would close for ‘two-weeks’. The day we heard, I scrapped my day’s plans in Berkeley and began to pack. I told the boys to set aside clothes for more than the customary weekend. Get socks, shirts and plenty of books. Alongside clothes, I packed the boys’ instruments, a guitar, a saxophone and, in lieu of our real one, an electric piano. I emptied out the fridge, packed up drawers of dried goods, and moved on to extra shoes, two dog beds and several weeks of dog food. With two car-loads filled we arrived here late in the evening, surviving the guilt of our old dog Lulu’s perilous foray into the dark wilderness on arrival. The next morning we woke to a blanket of snow. It was feeling like a dream come true except it was built on a nightmare.

Three days later we got word of the ordinance to shelter in place. It could be up to 18 months, Trump said. Some eight years earlier than I expected, then, this sanctuary I had been yearning to move to would be our new home for the foreseeable future.

And yet, what a pyrrhic victory. Alongside our business, all around us, the world as we knew it was falling to its knees. Those far less privileged than we are facing evictions, no money for food, and untold complicated circumstances we may only learn about in the pandemic’s wake. As easy as it might be to take in the pristine contours of this sanctuary escape here, riding on the coattails of denial, we are here because of a global crisis. Our life, up-ended, has sent us to heaven, but we got here on the hinges of hell.

There is no gift that does not behold the receiver in obligation. In the best circumstances, the obligation is couched in gratitude and love. This is my condition, then. We are here not simply to escape an “enemy virus.” Nor are we here not to ride out a “war” in privileged exile until we can return to “normal” life again. Rather, we have been relocated to a landscape beckoning us to let go of what we have known so that we can finally begin to learn its tongue, finally learn to listen.

Because as devastating as this virus is, I cannot help but see it in the same category as Trump’s election – as part of a great invitation. In this form, it is not the enemy, rather, it is the body of the earth speaking to us. Beyond the androcentrism with which we customarily meet the world, the urgency of our times is not only for facemasks and ventilators — the things that will keep humans, and our kin alive — it is an urgency that is calling us to reflect on the world we have known, the world we have created, and all the worlds that are possible that we have forfeited in lieu of this one we have created that is reeling forward at such an unsustainable pace.


•         •         •


News reaches me from friends in Berkeley and beyond that the invitation is reaching others, too, in cities. People are rediscovering their parks, waterfronts, and hillside trails. They are tending to their health, noticing themselves, their own bodies, perhaps in ways they haven’t for decades, racing past them to complete the tasks at hand. They are finding the space in their lives, away from what they have grown accustomed to, to meet the fresh air while we still have it. Away from freeways, we are clearing up the skies, getting a taste of what could be possible. Many of us are taking time in solitude, sensing in to our all-too-human vulnerability, acutely aware of our global interconnection on this earth. Could the invitation, even to those who are not eager to speak nature’s tongue, to learn her language, be any more clear? Like Tolkein’s great Ent’s, the gestures of nature are corralling our actions, guiding us towards an understanding of the message being ‘spoken’ from the earth.

Isn’t it beyond time to listen? To begin unlearning something so we can learn to listen again within the ‘matrix of mutuality’, something our species knew until the amnesia of the industrial revolution and its post-modern aftermath. Is this not the time we need to reconsider what we think we need in order to begin to see what we really need. Is this not a call to us to un-do ourselves, like the trees in winter, laying ourselves bare while the contours of our lives starkly change.

Image by Signe Allerslev from Pixabay

What if the urgency we feel really is the orchestration of a call from the earth to simply stop. To slow down. To suffer the anxiety we might feel in this sudden stillness and reach out from that awareness towards where we find support. Beyond the din of news headlines, spiking numbers in Italy, and the spin over Trump’s latest tweet, we can always open the window and listen. A virus of unknown origin is speaking, its words heard in the stress of a bat, snake, or a Pangolin sold at a wet market in China. An animal removed from its habitat and sold for the passing delight or appetite of a human’s pleasure is speaking, like the planet speaking through its own fevers and wildfires. The earth does not, itself, know how to hold back from rising temperatures to strike out the virus in its own midst — one which, if we listen more deeply, of course, we can only know as ourselves.


•         •         •


In the coming weeks, my husband and I will learn how to plant a garden here with our sons. We will learn to recognize the calls of the various bird songs that, in the past, we had appreciated but never stopped to decipher during our work-filled weekends away from city life. We will get our food from Burt’s Boontberry Market, a lovable, small redwood shack in town with locally farmed food and handmade ointments and elixirs. We will live off less. We will learn how to clear trails, thin fir trees, and mix compost. We will nurse our old dog, Lulu through her final days. We will play and fight. We will be scared, we will pray for others with far more to fear. And along with others, we will face the great, creative void of the unknown. We will open ourselves up for the teaching.

When I have time, I will search for the human words that meet the new language we are learning here. In this way, the new story, at least as it unfurls in this space of shelter, will be written. We will listen, and together we will surely come un-done. With grace, we will find ourselves anew, ready to begin crafting a new story, a world informed by birdsong.

Twilight in Anderson Valley

More like this