The back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s produced a compilation of related products and how-to advice called The Whole Earth Catalog—resources for living off the grid, homesteading, organic gardening. Threading its way through pages of product information is a Bildungsroman for the hippie era—the journey of self-discovery of a young man driving across America in his VW bus (which he had named “Urge”). Floating from one chimera of fulfilment to another—communes, Height-Ashbury, psychedelics, free love—ending up thoroughly disillusioned with it all, the young man drives on to a small farm left him by a grandfather. The farm and the landscape all around have been devastated by strip mining, stripped of trees, the soil turned upside down. Gazing out over the wasteland, the young man sees his way forward: “Chicken manure!” his heart sings. He will dedicate his life to restoring the land. He will raise chickens and use their manure to fertilize the soil. He will plant and cultivate. He will give back to Mother Nature what has been so cruelly wrested away from Her—health and fertility and beauty.
My father came to much the same view from a reverent study of the Bible. The much misunderstood principle of man’s “dominion” over nature he understood as a God-given responsibility to care for the land which God had so lovingly provided for His creatures—to be a steward of the natural world. The small farm in Kentucky where my father and mother raised their three children came to them neglected, overgrown with weeds and brush, and littered with broken farm machinery and acres of rotting tree stumps. We were trained from an early age to help restore the land—weeding, planting, hauling away mountains of debris. “God has given us this good land,” my father would say. “Now it is up to us to make it worthy of His kindness.” If a tree died, he would plant two more. Every evening he would walk the neighboring roads, picking up trash—a modern-day Sabari, sweeping the forest paths in anticipation of the coming of the Lord. Nothing was wasted: All year we shoveled manure out of the stalls; in spring, a neighboring family came with tractor and manure spreader, loaded up the year’s accumulation, and distributed it over the surrounding fields. Gradually the land was transformed, the stumps pulled out, the fields sown in alfalfa for the cows, the grassy slopes mown and the grasses baled for the horses. “The Lord is my God,” my father would say, “and I am His ikon.” The land too he saw as an ikon for God, something beautiful and green and everlasting to honor the Giver of all.
Every few years I reread The Man Who Planted Trees—Jean Giono’s fable about a French shepherd who takes it on himself to reforest land that has lost its health through neglect and misuse. For decades he works alone, every day carefully selecting one hundred healthy acorns, then heading out into a new area with his iron planting pole to offer new life to the earth. Over the years, unknown, isolated, deeply peaceful, this good man continues his work. World War I comes and goes; World War II—through it all, Elzéard Bouffier goes every day to plant more trees. Gradually the land is covered with forest; wildlife returns, and with the returning creatures come other plants, other kinds of trees, their seeds blown into this now welcoming environment. Towns that had been abandoned are rebuilt. In the rebuilt towns and repopulated countryside, old animosities among the people fade away in the uplift of expanding life.
Yoganandaji saw God everywhere in Nature. His beautiful poems and prayers abound with imagery from the natural world:
A kindly, spreading, sentinel tree
Waved friendly arms to comfort me—
Consoling me with gentler look sublime,
Its leaves and branches swayed in tender lullaby-rhyme,
Conveying a message that I knew was Thine.
So intimate and loving was Master’s attunement to Mother Nature that whatever he grew flourished. Even a cut flower in a vase so loved him that it would turn to face him wherever he stood in the room. Yoganandaji, like Luther Burbank, had for Nature a “boundless spiritual reverence.” To two young monks moving a heavy landscape plant into position, Master cried out with compassionate concern, “Be careful! Can’t you feel? It’s alive!”
Ananda’s forest came to us suffering from overcrowding and the overgrowth of invasive and highly flammable shrubbery—the plight of much of the American West after so many years of fire suppression. Swamiji’s vision was of a parklike landscape, the forest thinned and groomed into health and beauty, made friendly to devotees walking or meditating in natural surroundings. In the forest itself, Swamiji saw the same attitude of service to God that he saw in every devotee—the willingness to sacrifice personal interests for a higher good, for the well-being of the forest as a whole as of the community of devotees as a whole. Spirit and Nature dancing together. As the work progresses, great care is given to protecting and creating growing room for the great old heritage oaks, the heart of the forest ecology. Small trees and brush too crowded together for healthy growth are ground into chips and scattered about the forest floor to decay naturally and restore the soil. Large fallen trees are left to break down slowly, in the meantime providing homes for countless small creatures. Small islands of shrubs and trees are left undisturbed to provide sanctuary and nesting areas. Where large trees have been removed, a small army of Ananda school children have swarmed over the forest floor, lovingly planting seedlings—a new generation begun, and begun with such a spirit of offering to the Divine in Nature that surely the devas will be drawn back to shower their blessings on God’s green earth.
In caring for the land, in giving back to Divine Mother in Nature, we open ourselves to perceive Her in every outer expression of life. Our littlest self-offering helps open channels through which God’s love can flood into our souls, awakening us, leading us into His presence:
O God Beautiful; O God Beautiful;
At Thy feet, oh, I do bow.
In the forest Thou art green;
In the mountain Thou art high;
In the river Thou art restless;
In the ocean Thou art grave.
In divine friendship,
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing
P.S. Dear Ones, we send you this 2019 calendar in gratitude for your service to God and Guru, and pray that their blissful light uplift you and fill your heart with joy in this holy season, and always.