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Year in Yosemite: Zen Garden - Explore

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Year in Yosemite: Zen Garden

The neighbors. Photo credit: Nancy Casolaro.

Over the centuries, the Japanese have refined the art of the meditation garden. It usually involves a sentinel stone that symbolizes the Buddha and carefully raked smaller stones that represent everything from children to small animals to elves. So delicate and profound are the designs that these gardens are not to be entered. A bench is provided for meditation. Contemplation is the name of the game.

If you come to Yosemite National Park at this time of year, you can see Zen gardening Western style. There's nothing delicate about it. We're raking, but it's not stones and gravel being arranged to tell a story. No, this is big, brawny work that results in huge, massive piles of pine needles sitting helter skelter by the side of the road waiting for front loaders to come pick them up. If there is contemplation involved (and there is) it doesn't come from sitting and reflecting. It comes from taking action. Having a bad day? Grab a rake and go for it. The repetitive nature of the movement is sure to calm you down. Better yet, satisfaction is virtually instantaneous. It takes just minutes to pull the needles into large piles. Unfortunately, moving those piles from behind the house to the front of the house is not so satisfying. That's when another form of reflection comes in — how do I get my children to do this? Which would be more effective — the carrot or the stick?

So what's up with the piles? Well, nature may see them as part of the life cycle of a pine tree, but in Wawona they are seen as fuel. We live with thousands of pine trees so by summer, the ground around our homes is piled high with millions of needles. They are dry as brittle bones and fires, especially the out-of-control kind, love them. Hence, all the raking and loading. Last year, the county of Mariposa picked up enough pine needles to fill a football field. Wading across that stadium, you would have been four feet deep in needles. And that's just from Wawona, a place so tiny the word village is an exaggeration. We're really more like a hamlet — just a scattering of houses anchored by a library and a school.

Photo credit: Jon Jay.

So what happens to our needles? They burn them. Send them up in smoke, but in a very controlled way. Hearing that, I began to wonder if there were more creative uses for pine needles. Turns out there are. The Indian peoples who inhabited the area for thousands of years used them in all sorts of ways — from making exquisite pine needle baskets to making tea so rich in vitamin C it could cure scurvy. Local inhabitants (Indian* and otherwise) still use pine needles to make baskets, line their chicken coops, and to mulch their strawberries and other acid-loving plants.

Which led me to wonder if poor, cash-strapped Mariposa County could become the pine needle capital of the world. Think of the money we could bring in with our Paul Bunyan-size needle piles. Nope said the county. Seems it costs a fortune to get anything out of Yosemite National Park. Too far to drive. Too many fuel costs. Too big a hassle. (And they were kind enough not to add "too insane an idea").

I also learned that for a number of public policy reasons, the pine needle program may be on its last legs. If they are not going to be picked up, what are we going to do with all that spontaneously combustible fuel? Once my "pine needle capital of the world" idea went up in smoke, I didn't have an answer.

But I do know this. The Indians who lived here before us didn't have a pine needle problem. Ten thousand years before we came up with the practice of controlled burns, they regularly let nature have its way with fire. The result was healthier ecosystems and no pesky ground fuel. Of course, that's easy when the trees (and all those needles) don't surround structures you want to live and work in. Seems they had an answer for that, too. In Yosemite Valley, where their own homes sat, they burnt the forests to the ground to turn them into meadows. What likes meadows? Oak trees and deer—happily two of the locals' favorite foods. Obviously, this is no longer an option. Still, it makes me wonder if, while the forests burned, the Miwok people sat quietly watching, lost in deep reflective contemplation.

*Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I use the term Indian peoples or Indians because my Indian friends tell me they prefer it to Native-American. I’m just trying to follow their lead.

-- Jamie Simons

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Today she and her family have made the move to live for one year in Wawona, where her daughter attends the one-room schoolhouse, Jamie writes, and her husband longs for noise, fast food, people, and the city. (Though he's learning to appreciate mountain life.)

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