From Marin Independent Journal

March 21, 2008

Wendy Johnson works in the garden at Green Gulch Zen Center near Mill Valley. Sara Tashker waters plants in the background.

Green Gulch gardener reflects on the zen of gardening in new book

Leslie Harlib

Sara Tashker (left) hugs Wendy Johnson at Green Gulch Zen Center. The two are leading a panel on food farming for the future at Point Reyes Station. (IJ photo/Frankie Frost)

"Every garden is unique, quirky, distinct and disobedient, just like every gardener."
 - Wendy Johnson

In her radish-emblazoned black hoodie, faded jeans and muddy clogs, Wendy Johnson walks Green Gulch's gardens near Mill Valley with the rooted footsteps of someone who has spent more than a third of her life there.

 She moves calmly and steadily, a woman at the height of her talents, utterly secure in her work. Her hair is so white you can't tell where a falling crab apple blossom that lands on her head begins and ends. But the shoulder-length bob has the nacreous glow of a pearl in the spring sunshine. And her smile of pleasure at baby lettuces started from seed and now poking up from minuscule pots of organic soil, is as appealing as the recipe for a bowl of vegetarian "Beautiful Soup" that's included in her first book, "Gardening at the Dragon's Gate."

 Johnson, 60, of Muir Beach, spent 25 years living at the Zen Center with her husband, Peter (also a farmer and gardener). She raised her son and daughter there. Working with students and volunteers, she developed and grew the many acres of gardens that help sustain the center.

 And she's grown her book. "Gardening at the Dragon's Gate," released by Bantam Books earlier this month, took her 13 years to write. She shares the copyright with the San Francisco Zen Center, which operates Green Gulch Zen Center and farm.

 "I never stopped gardening during all the years I worked on the book," explains Johnson over cups of tea and chunks of organic caraway-flecked rye bread in the Zen Center's serene, airy kitchen. "I worked in meditation circles that took me away from here. I worked as an environmental activist. I was out in the world more. Now that it's finally published, it's a really big deal, I must say."

 She says she feels humbled by the writing process. " I feel privileged to have learned from some of the best and to be able to share what I've learned," she says.

 Johnson's book is filled with as much practical detail on how to create healthy soil, build an organic, vital compost heap and develop a relationship with garden pests (as well as yourself) in order to best control them, as it is packed with gentle stories and Zen reflections. You could read "Gardening at the Dragon's Gate" as a type of introduction to meditation using the natural world as your teacher, or even a guide to cooking and living more in harmony with the world. You could also take it as a useful how-to treatise on organic gardening and land stewardship.

 "I definitely feel like I'm carrying on some of the heritage of the traditional herb women, women of wisdom, made of the earth," the lay-ordained dharma teacher says. "I've been really fortunate to have encountered some of these women over the years. If you stay in one place long enough, remarkable people come over and visit."

 "Gardening at the Dragon's Gate" takes its unusual title from what the dragon represents in the Asian world: It's an edge - the meeting of the known and the unknown worlds.

 "When you're at the dragon's gate you're at the edge of what you do not yet know and what you fully know," Johnson says. "The agent of the book wanted us to find a simpler title. But the relationships I was writing about were much bigger than that. So they stuck with it."

 And Johnson stuck with the long years of writing, which she found to be much like gardening.

 "Writing is hard. It makes you think," she says. "At first the book flowed out. Then I began to think about the deeper wealth that was there, the slower pace of gardening. The words take you down into a kind of consequential ground."

 Arlene Lueck, the abbott in charge of Green Gulch's meditation hall, says that Johnson's writings about stewardship - the caring for and healing of the land, not just the farming of it -celebrate a consciousness that's integral to Green Gulch's ongoing work with new generations of gardeners. Teens from high schools such as Tamiscal, who come to dig in Green Gulch's Mill Valley gardens for a day, or young gardeners in their 20s, such as current farm manager Sara Tashker, who come to live at the center for a year or more, are all learning how to carry on Johnson's work and bring it back out into the world.

 "That's what Wendy has done in her book," says Lueck. "It's about a lot more than gardening. It's about interconnectedness, the passing of the flame."

 Johnson believes that what she's built in the garden and through her writing is a lineage of love.

 When asked, "What do you see when you look at a cabbage?", she answered it this way: "I see a lineage of gardeners' hands that have handled this seed and this plant. I see the ancient ancestors of the cabbage that I'm weeding out every day. I see all the people involved in creating that cabbage. Years ago I realized I don't just see the object. I see the connections of the object to its lineage. The garden has shown me that this is all so alive and true."

Wendy Johnson and Myogen Steve Stucky offer a workshop, "Into the Tangle: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World," from April 18 to 20 at Green Gulch Zen Center near Mill Valley. The cost is $190 to $330. Call 383-3134 or go to <> .

 Leslie Harlib can be reached at <> .