A Way with Words, Writing and Meditation Workshop on Cortes Island, British Columbia

[Written for ASLE Newsletter at Ruth’s request]

At the 2009 ASLE Conference in Victoria B.C. the plenary speaker at the final banquet, Ruth Ozeki, suggested that members of the Association make room for the practise of contemplative meditation in their activities of meeting, writing and teaching.  Ozeki is the author of two influential novels, My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003), which dramatized issues of industrial agriculture, animal welfare, genetically engineered crops, and malnutrition which have taken center stage in recent discussions about sustainability and the food system.

Lately, in essays and poems and in her role as editor of Everydayzen.org, the website of her mentor Norman Fischer, Ozeki has been promoting the practice of Zen meditation. From June 5-9 Ozeki and her colleague Kate McCandless, a poet and ordained Zen priest, conducted a workshop on writing and meditation at the Hollyhock Learning Center that provided compelling support for the value of adding contemplative practice to the mix of analytic, creative, scientific, political and recreational activities associated with Literature and the Environment.

The setting was appropriate.  Hollyhock is located in a spectacular wilderness on the coast of remote Cortes Island in the Straight of Georgia, within view of peaks and glaciers on Vancouver Island and the mainland Coast Range. The island’s sparse population includes indigenous peoples, loggers and fishermen, hippies, artists, and environmental activists, including Ozeki and her husband.  The site was originally developed during the 1970’s as Cold Mountain Institute by Richard Weaver and served as a gathering place for Gary Snyder, Robert Bly, Alan Ginsberg, r.d. laing, among others.  The facility was sold to a consortium of artists and activists in the 1980’s and since then has developed as a model of local organic food production and home-built sustainable architecture offering hundreds of educational and outdoor recreational programs to the public.

The five-day workshop featured guided meditations directing attention to posture and breathing, to the impressions on the five senses, to memories of childhood, to the four elements shared by the body and the natural world, to the consciousness of emotions and to empathy with others.  Emphasizing the complementary aspects of sitting and writing, each of the meditation exercises was coupled with prompts and time for composing, presenting and listening to others’ work. The many opportunities for exploration”kayaking, a boat trip to a world heritage bird sanctuary, hiking the inland trails”were forsaken in favor of the contemplative practices, which were however heightened by the surrounding presence of forest, sea and sky and to which connection was intensified by silence and concentration.

The workshop reinforced the importance of frequently ignored components of the ecoliterary tradition: the pastoral of solitude and the pastoral of contemplation celebrated in  Chinese and Japanese nature writing as well as by European and American authors like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau. It led participants to the place in Andrew Marvell’s Garden where

the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

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