By Una Nakamura
Carolyn Toben is a visionary educator, an earth friend, and my dear soul friend. She lives in North Carolina on Timberlake Farm. For the past two years she has actively been breathing life into a long held dream of creating and protecting a special place in nature that is a sanctuary and learning centre for renewing the human-earth relationship. Renewal has been a central theme of her educational career, focused through retreats, workshops and seminars for public school teachers since the early 1970's.
Sisters of the Sound Continuum (SIS) was invited to offer a benefit workshop/concert at Timberlake Farm. There was an immediate response that made it clear it was something we would do. Five of our group of eight, Nancy Beckman, Norma Cordova, Una Nakamura, Suzanne Parkhurst and Kellen Perry arrived full of anticipation Thursday evening, May 1st. Because we arrived after dark, awakening to the early morning beauty and sounds of Timberlake Farm overwhelmed our senses: an awe inspiring way to begin our adventure in transformation.
We spent Friday morning following Carolyn and resident Naturalist and Director of Nature Camp, Megan Olivia Lane, around some of the seven and a half miles of trails with a group of elementary school children who had come from a nearby town. One of their teachers is a member of Timberlake's Seventh Generation Teachers' Program. The groups meet at the Tree House, a recently constructed meeting house that was built around a tree. It's three graduated stories resemble the shape of a tree. Its deck, nestled in and among tree branches with its view of one of the Twin Lakes, offered a perfect spot for lunch before the children took their bus back home.
The children gathered at the fire circle next to the Tree House waiting for instructions. We came out of the Tree House with drums, rattles, flutes, bells and voices offering a welcome to Timberlake Farm. They were astounded to see a group of real live musicians singing and playing for them. Soon their delight overtook any shyness and they reached out to us, clapping, smiling, touching, cheering. Their welcome to Timberlake Farm had been confirmed.
We followed them around in small groups enchanted, along with the children at the natural beauty along the lakes and trails. The opportunity to slow down and simply be with nature was irresistible for all of us.
Highlights of the Nature Walk:
Being invited to walk slowly and softly so as to hear the sounds of the forest…
Speaking and walking softly so others can also hear the sounds of the forest
Looking for the moss covered entrances to fairy houses along the trail
Using a circle of yarn to find a tiny forest floor kingdom to explore with the aid of a magnifying glass
Thanking the earthworms at the garden with a song for all the important work they do
Farmer Joel's hayride to the barn and his singing "Jacob's Ladder"
The way the children hungered to be touched
The ways they were touched by Nature
The wonderful taste discoveries made in the organic Magical Garden
Finding a special place of beauty, using my hands to frame a picture and really noticing every detail within my frame, then stepping back and widening my frame, noticing again, then widening my frame once again and noticing what I can see that wasn't in my first picture. Then taking a memory snapshot of this moment that records not only what I see, but how I feel in the midst of such beauty. Then being reminded that I can bring that picture forward any time I want, especially if I'm feeling sad, and want to recapture all the good feelings of this moment.
Stopping at the Marsh Bridge to honor the Quan Yin sitting by the entrance. She's there to protect and bless crossings. The bridge goes over a boggy area in a zig-zag pattern so you cannot see where the bridge ends. Carolyn explains that there are physical crossings, emotional crossings and spiritual crossings. Quan Yin helps us with all three. So we find a small gift of nature from the forest floor and place it on or near her before we begin our crossing…one at a time with slow, thoughtful steps as we watched each other disappear into the marsh willows leading to the other side.
Making a wish at the Wishing Rock was a special moment. The rock lay at the shore of one of the Twin Lakes, next to a tree that reaches out over the water. Halfway up the trunk is the carved wooden face of a tree spirit … strong jaw, deep eyes, long flowing hair blending into the trunk of the tree. If you look imaginatively at the lower half of the tree trunk there is another tree spirit image naturally etched into the bark markings. Each child is invited to stand on the Wishing Rock and make a wish. Each child on the trail is invited to wish that their friend's wish comes true. What precious and magical silence moves with the breeze and easy movement of the water lapping the base of the Wishing Rock, blessing each child's wish.
It's lunch time back at the Tree House and the children spread their food out on the deck's picnic tables as we chat about our discoveries and delights. By special request, SIS offers another musical improvisation. Some of the children join us with rhythm instruments we provide for them. Suzanne conducts the kids with their own instrumental solos before playing her Native American flute. Nancy plays her Japanese shakuhachi as she moves to give the kids a closer look at her instrument. Kellen, singing, keeps the beat going with her hand held drum as Norma also sings, passing out instruments and weaving amongst the children with her rattle. I move from child to child with my Tibetan ting sha vocalizing a sound blessing for each one. The children are in wonder of the variety of ethnic instruments. Some tell us they have never seen a "real musician" before.
So, this is Timberlake Farm. Carolyn teaches interns and teachers to lead children into meaningful connections with nature as they experience it themselves through leading small groups of children on a discovery hike into nature. The invitation to feel the spirit of the land, to notice how quietly the trees whisper to them, naturally leads us into an experience of connection with life…all life.
For SIS, the Saturday workshop should have been titled, Lessons in Letting Go. Because we work so spontaneously, we had to have our time on Friday on the land and with the children, to absorb the energy of the place and get a feel for what Carolyn is doing with the Farm before we could really plan the workshop for the Saturday group of Earth Pilgrims, Timberlake Farm's supporting group.
When we sat down to do the planning Friday afternoon, everyone had strong ideas about what should happen. Feeling time pressures, we urgently tried to put out our ideas. People began talking all at once…I talked too long, trying to set up an ambience that we didn't feel. One expressed not feeling heard, another was bored. We weren't listening to one another. We had let our anxieties take charge. We stopped…we let go, and set our intention to be present and listen to each other. We worked hard and efficiently, and came up with a workshop plan that we felt good about, incorporating points each of us had put forth.
Carolyn joined us for dinner. We excitedly spilled out our ideas for the workshop. Her immediate feedback being that we planned enough for five workshops. People come to Timberlake Farm to simply be with Nature and to slow down. Okay! Deep breath! Let go…again.
Our priority must be finding simple examples of how they could listen to Nature in ways that would lead to discovery and deeper connection with the land. Then send them out to experience the deeper sounds of Nature. We each share examples of how we move into deeper experiences of listening to give them a sense of new possibilities.
Norma directs a relaxation exercise so we can feel more connected to our own bodies. Using breath we also invite everyone to bring live awareness into our feet, our primary support for ground of being…our conscious and grateful feet upon the earth. Then emptying our bodies and minds of tensions, assumptions…anything that constricts connection with our deep inner sense of being a vessel of spirit, we release fear consciously, relaxing as we breathe into deeper connections with the earth. Breath is life, the unifying source of all creation. We discharge blockage through releasing breath and sound. Releasing moves us deeper into listening.
We offer an improvisation to send the participants off into the woods, hopefully, more receptive than before, encouraging them to have their own experience of listening to nature and translating what they receive into creative sound expression.
When they return from their alone time in the woods, one man glowingly describes his communication with the trees with his ear touching the trunks and the actual sounds he heard. Another had never thought to use her own body and inner sensibilities as a connector to nature. It was a revolutionary shift in her perception of relationship and a reclamation of unity of spirit through her own body and deep listening. Norma felt the garden calling her during her alone time. Walking among the rows she discovered rue, an herb that is used for healing and clearing energy. It had deep significance for her as it is not commonly found, and she used it for a healing ritual later on.
We came back to the Sacred Circle of Trees to share and to translate our sharing into sound. We all made music together as an affirming conclusion to our afternoon, then took a two hour break for our picnic supper. The first drops of rain began to fall as we left the Sacred Circle of Trees.
Walking swiftly toward the outdoor chapel, we are trying not to feel hurried. Nevertheless, we're concerned about completing our visitations at chosen places for sound blessings before sunset.
Earlier thundershowers had forced us to release all our outdoor plans for the after dinner concert/sound blessing. With thunder and lightening echoing loudly, we agree to begin our Timberlake Farm sound blessing in the Farmhouse, choosing to begin upstairs while Carolyn prepares the group of 30 Earth Pilgrims downstairs in the Great Room. It seems appropriate to begin with silence.
Then comes the unexpected beat of the drum. Listening deeply and letting go, soft prayerful sounds begin wafting out around the open beamed rafters beginning their slow floating descent…down, down upon the audience. Voices building slowly, we gather around the open upstairs balcony that exposes everyone seated below. Slowly, we begin processing downstairs, spiraling the room until we five stand in the center of the Great Room, surrounding our table of instruments, as we are also surrounded by a circle of Earth Pilgrims. As we complete our opening blessing the rain stops and the clouds begin to lift. A brief skyward scan renews our sense of possibility that our original plan of blessings on the land can take place.
We make our way to the outdoor chapel overlooking the lake. Carolyn has taken the group to the Sacred Circle of Trees to prepare everyone for a silent walk through the woods to the chapel. The peaceful beauty of this place feels like a thin mask for the tension and anxious decision making we are scrambling to make. We had planned to begin with Nancy playing Choshi, a traditional shakuhachi meditative piece…followed by Norma's intimate singing prayer to Xiango. Will it take too much time? We discuss urgently whether it would work to do both together when the group comes into view walking toward us.
Someone whispers, "They're here! Just do it!"
The moment that the sounds of the shakuhachi come forth, we all relax. Then Norma's prayerful voice joins in, and it completes the magic. We all go energetically to another place that leaves behind all our concerns, our opinions, our separatenesses…the sounds meld us seamlessly. Each phrase begins like a match made in heaven, each pause invites us to go deeper into the silence, the perfection of each new musical statement leaving us convinced that it had been scored by angels. At the end, there are a few solitary sounds from the shakuhachi…ahhhh…!! We are awe-struck and silent.
When the silence feels ready to shift, we begin our silent, meditative walk to the next site, walking single file along the soft barked path. Members of the Earth Pilgrims are holding various instruments that we had laid out on the table back at the farmhouse. What will happen next? I had no idea. Would they join us and play the instruments? Would we be able to find the instruments we want to play when we want a particular sound?
"Let go, surrender to the silence, trust the unknown. Be present, listen deeply, be responsive." This is my moment by moment practice. Tears well as I walk through the woods, listening to the softness of feet crushing the bark shavings on the path. The dappled, multiplicity of patterned greens layered by rustling branches and the late afternoon light continually beckon my gaze upward. Shimmering leafy sounds punctuated by droplets breaking through the forest canopy create their own rhythmic song. Gentle wind whistles send quivering tickles of sound across my face as we emerge from the protective forest cover into the open pasture that houses the Magical Garden.
The garden is so symbolic of everything Carolyn is doing here. It is a microcosm of her vision, not only for Timberlake Farm, but for our planet Earth. She asked us to give special attention to the well being of the garden as there have been some challenges in manifesting the full potential of the chosen plant community growing in the garden.
We entered the garden with the members of Timberlake's Earth Pilgrims to offer a blessing in this magical place, drums beating and rhythmic vocalizing piercing the damp air. As SIS enters and scans the breadth of the garden area, I immediately see that I must exit the back gate to spend time in the compost pile outside the garden fence. This is the place on the fringe…just outside the garden borders. It is where the rejects, the garbage, the inedible scraps, the rotting, smelly stuff goes. It sits for quite some time, waiting to be mixed with straw, yeasting, so to speak, until its transformation into fertilizer is completed. It waits, doing nothing, but yielding to its natural process into new form. Then it is brought into the garden to serve as nutriment and support for a new cycle of growth for the Magical Garden's plants.
Thus, this is the place I must begin my honoring of Timberlake Farm's Magical Garden. I must also begin the blessing of my own soul's garden in the compost of my early memories of trauma. And, for me, it is the first place to honor in our search for a vibrant and healthy world Garden of Humanity. It can be a spiritual exercise to recognize the ecological value of every smelly scrap, person or situation that I would prefer to avoid or reject because of my inability to transcend my reactive interpretations of the moment. As I open my heart to embrace a spirit of inclusiveness, I recognize the one Light that inhabits each of us. It is the Light in me that illuminates my soul's recognition of the Light in others. These are some of the thoughts that occur to me, some of the blessings I offer at the compost pile as I inhale its rich, heavy fragrance…moist, loamy potential laced with wet straw.
Once the compost is blessed, I am free to return to the garden…to celebrate the varieties of life in many different stages of growth. The drums are loud, many sounds and rhythms seem to collide off each other as energy is released. For a time chaos seems to best describe our music. Gradually, that dissipates into more harmonious gestures and our wanderings about the garden converge, gradually melting our sound into the garden as we bring our blessing to its conclusion.
A vibrant life, like a vibrant garden requires moment by moment willingness to be present, an informed awareness of what feeds life, and an appropriate responsiveness to unique differences. Intention focuses presence and action. I ask that all this be empowered through the energies introduced to this place, now and in the future. May any leftovers serve as nourishing compost…I certainly have more than my share of recyclable material in my psyche!
Saying goodbye to the bulls munching in the pasture, we walk past the Sacred Circle of Trees, skirt the edge of the orchard, enjoying splashes of Rhododendron and Azalea color along the driveway to the Farmhouse. Boyd Toben's beloved copper frog sculptures smile their eternal welcome to all visitors to the Farmhouse. I can't help but smile every time I see them peeking out from behind a bush or tree. Thank you Boyd, for all the love you poured into this land over the past thirty seven years.
The moment we leave the Farmhouse behind us, we are instantly back into the woods, dipping down…walking toward lake's edge. The path curves around the lake and I take a deep breath as I approach the Mountain Laurel bush just coming into bloom.
Suddenly, we are in front of the Wishing Rock. Damp smells arise from the trail as we position ourselves around the swooping tree trunk that scoops down by the rock and turns upward as it reaches out over the water. The spattering lake surface tells us that it is raining, but we have an umbrella of trees keeping us dry. We close our eyes to tune into the thousands of heartful wishes that have been cast out towards the water in this place of peaceful promise. I'm feeling so safe, so protected, and deeply heard.
Our sounds reflect a childlike tentativeness, a gentle vulnerability, a quiet, secret delight, and I am remembering the expressions of the children as I watched them make their wish and return to the path. I feel a warm glow…so fragile, yet so full of promise. Our sounds maintain a delicate sound that skips the surface of the water, creating rings before they finally disappear into the lake. Such sweetness, like nectar…may these wishes continue to grow and manifest in the hearts of each child that has stood here.
My eyes are drawn towards Quan Yin, while my body is pulled downward. I find myself prostrate in front of her, my forehead touching the cool, damp earth. Suddenly, waves of sobbing go shuddering through my body. I am stunned. I don't know what is going on. I just go with it. I am aware of an enormous presence that humbles me with every quiver. I am aware of overflowing gratitude as I begin expressing the gratitude that continues to overflow alongside tears. Sounds begin rather haltingly as emotion creates an unexpected rhythmic pattern of breathy sound that slowly blends into more flowing sound. Gratitude and humility continue to overflow through vocal honorings. I am somewhat aware of others around me, supporting, complementing my sound blessing to Quan Yin.
Feeling as though I have just come back from a deep journey, I become aware of my surroundings and gently allow my honorings to complete themselves. A few moments of silence…and we begin to slowly follow Carolyn over the Marsh Bridge…yet another crossing.
Our silent walk takes us past a soft, damp section of the mossy trail protected by trees, then into the wide open expanse of the grassy knoll between the Twin Lakes. I again feel tears welling inside as I take in the serene beauty around me and feel the loving support of life everywhere. We arrive at the great stairway to the Tree House Fire Circle. As we make our way up the stairs, a great, roaring fire gradually comes into view. We circle around the fire pit and sit on the benches, grateful for the fire's crackling warmth.
Next day, still bewildered by my experience with Quan Yin, I asked SIS members what they sensed at the Marsh Bridge. Without hesitation, they agreed that I connected not only with Quan Yin, but she became a vehicle for my reunion with beloved ancestors. It was a reclaiming of heritage, roots, below the earth's surface connections with family in a large sense. I could not deny any of it. I often reflect on the compelling mystery of that moment, appreciating the interplay between knowing and not knowing.
The hypnotic spell of dancing flames captures all of us as we are drawn to the fire circle's crackling warmth. Clouds hang heavy in the sky with tentative rain-bearing weight. Occasional beams of light radiate out from behind cumulus billows, but darkness is threatening to descend as we begin our joyous rhythms with drums beating, rattles and bells following the lead. I am touched by the absolute respect and stewardship shown by the Earth Pilgrims carrying our instruments. None of them have played the instruments without permission throughout our journey through the forest. They had held back their desire to play until they were very clear that we wanted them to join in. Their entrance into the music making releases an explosion of joyous energy that continues to build along with the fire. SIS circles around the seated group, encouraging uninhibited expression. Such memorable radiant faces, bodies swaying, voices singing, drums pounding out rhythms, supported by shaking rattles, bells, chimes. One woman, arms stretching skyward, glows as she moves rhythmically. Others, more hesitant, slowly release their shyness as their smiles over take their faces. The music reaches a natural high before SIS sounds an Aum to shift the energy.
Aaaooouuummmm…brings us into quiet unity in an instant. The harmonies of elongated sound spread, melting, expanding, rising and falling, like the breath of Nature seemingly so present and participatory in our sound … reverence coming forward powerfully. As our Aum softly finds its own conclusion, there is a sudden burst of golden light that illuminates the entire sky and brings quiet gasps of awe into our midst. Nature completes our day's experience with a radiant golden exclamation point.