Wellspring: A Story from the Deep Country is Barbara Dean’s moving, simply told account of going back to the land in northern California with 15 friends.
Published by Island Press (Star Route 1, Box 38, Covelo, California 95428; $6.00 plus $1.00 postage and handling), Wellspring is free of New Age jargon and counter-cultural posturing. In her preface to the book, Barbara Dean explains:
Wellspring is the story of my life with fifteen friends on a square mile of beautiful, isolated land in northern California. When we came here together in 1971, we told our parents that we intended to start an alternative school; we told each other that we wanted to do something different with our lives; I told myself that I wanted to discover who I really was. Eight years later, the ranch has become home. Our lives together defy easy categorization — but clearly the ranch is the “something different” each of us was seeking.
Jung tells us that the choices we make in life must necessarily leave something else unchosen. If, in choosing a course, we reject the reality of our alternatives, we may also fail to recognize the importance of the rejected course to our lives. Jung predicts that we cannot become whole as individuals or as civilizations without welcoming these shadows, these roads not taken, to the light of our understanding.
The choices I have made for my life are, in a sense, the shadow of the dominant culture of twentieth-century America. I live alone in a yurt built from this land, by my hands — not the chosen setting or style of many people. And yet I find these choices to be the logical culmination of how I was raised: the values my parents gave me have led here, to this lovely, windswept meadow. Though the trappings of their life and mine are quite different, the essential purposes and qualities are the same. And it is out of a sense of that deep sameness that I have wanted to write this book.
Living on the land has restored to me a feeling of wonder that I knew as a child. My consuming purpose is to pursue that wonder, to realize God. I would not have phrased it that way eight years ago; then I would have said I wanted to find personal meaning or truth. But no matter what the words, they describe the same yearning for an answer to the mystery of life that people have sought in every place and in every time. In that search and in that yearning, especially, I am no different from anyone else.
What is different about my life is simply where and how it transpires, and that is the subject of these pages. Since we live far from the entertainments of the city, storytelling takes the place of television and movies for us. After a day’s work, we gather at dinner to tell of the animals we encountered, the machines that didn’t work, and the random thoughts that occurred to us. From these daily exchanges, some stories linger to be told again. By the third or fourth telling, they have a shape of their own and a truth that is larger than the original incident. Sharing stories is a way of connecting with each other; I offer these stories from my life to illuminate some of the shadows and the choices in all of our lives.
A wellspring is where water bubbles forth from the earth, a source of continual supply. The land, for me, is a wellspring of pure delight. I simply love living here. The quiet joy that I feel as I watch dawn spread over the meadow has only intensified in these eight years, and I can’t imagine that it could ever dim. I understand now that I was drawn here by an urge much deeper than the desire to start an alternative school. I am here because it is where I belong. This is where, for me, the world without and the world within become one, and I am pulled resolutely toward God. And that, of course, is the only story there is.
The following chapter, although it doesn’t have much to do with communal living, is my favorite.
Thanks to Island Press for permission to reprint this. Write for their catalogue; they deserve support.
Before we moved here, someone told us that the first winter would be the hardest test. If we made it through to spring, life in the country was supposed to be clear sailing. But in our case, the first summer was such an all-out assault that we welcomed the fall rains with relief, and the winter that followed brought slow and needed healing. The pattern established then has more or less continued: summers are our hard times.
One reason is that summers here are very hot. It is not uncommon for temperatures to reach 115 degrees in the shade during the intermittent hot waves. In heat like that, nothing really matters or exists except survival. On the hottest days, the sun smolders from the moment it breaks loose from the horizon and by 10 a.m. has reduced all life, including human, to its lowest common denominator.
Heat of that intensity is with us for only three or four days a stretch. But it lurks always, threatening at the edges of more normal 90- to 100-degree temperatures. And in California there are no summer thunderstorms to release the tension. Summer on the ranch is a seemingly endless succession of sun-bleached days broken by cool, star-strewn nights.
I have learned to love the feeling of being baked and purified by the fire in the sky. But the glare can be harsh, its aura unbalancing, and its intensity a catalyst for seeds of change planted or inhibited in less exacting seasons.
Summer is time of activity — gardening, construction, fencing, canning. Other summers we have willfully intensified the pressure with hay hauling contracts or summer camps. This year we have tried to take the edge off the season by just living: weeding the garden, fixing the cars, caring for ourselves and the animals. It is a good try. But, as if in defiance of my determination to be calm, cool, and collected, I feel summer sneaking up on me when it is least expected. I am ill at ease, strange to myself. I fight against it, rail against it, unwilling; but the uneasiness still comes, bubbling up around the edges, throwing me off my so carefully planned balance.
I spent all day yesterday baking bread and cleaning up the Big House. When I walked in this morning, the sink was full of dirty dishes, six of the eight loaves of bread were gone, and flies swarmed over the basket of garden vegetables on the porch. There was jam smeared on the table, obscured by another cloud of flies. Yesterday’s newspaper was strewn over the dining room table and chairs amidst a T-shirt, one work glove, a ragged pair of jeans, and a cowboy hat. I felt my neck muscles tighten, my face draw into a frown, my shoulders bend with the weight of the ranch upon them. Damn communal living! This place is always a mess! Why can’t anyone remember to pick up a sweater or fold the newspaper? Or to wash a dish or wipe off the counter? I stomped out of the house, slamming the door behind me, and noted that the hinge still needed repair.
There must be an easier way. Why didn’t I marry that nice young man who was going to be a lawyer? By now he is probably neatly established in a clean white frame house with two clean and obedient children and a car that runs and a screen door that closes. What am I doing here, in a kitchen that’s a perpetual mess, in a commune that’s impossible to regulate, in a place where there is always something that needs vital attention and everything is screaming to be done?
I remembered a Christmas card I received last year from a college friend who married a doctor, had a two-year-old child, was starting graduate school, and lived in the suburbs. “When things get ridiculously hectic around here, I think of you,” she wrote, “with your peaceful and sane country life.” “Peaceful and sane?” I thought. Ha! Life in graduate school with a home in the suburbs, seems the definition of sanity to me right now.
I stormed across the porch and jumped to the ground, still grumbling to myself. But there at my feet was Jessica, tail wagging so hard her whole body shook. And by her side was Jojo, prancing in delight at my presence. In the face of such resolute cheerfulness, I had to smile, first at the dogs and then at myself. What was I thinking anyway, to get caught in that old trap? Life must be more peaceful in grad school, indeed. And the grass a lot greener, too, no doubt.
I reached down to give the dogs a friendly shove. “C’mon, you two,” I said. “Race you to the river.”
After two laps of the river’s pools I have forgotten my frustration at this morning’s dirty kitchen. I skim down the rapids, then paddle lazily over to the big rock to lie in the sun. Nestling into a compatible curve in the stone, lulled by the sound of the water moving easily toward the sea, I fall into a dream-filled sleep. The dogs sleep nearby.
When I awake, a shadow has come over the river. The sun is low in the sky and the day’s air is finally cool, but the rock is still warm. Feeling like a reptile, I move to an area more recently touched by the sun. While I thumb through my dreams, I mold myself flat on the rock’s contours, soaking up the warmth the sun has stored within it during all the hot hours of the day. As the sky loses its daytime brilliance, the vultures take over the space way above me with their dancing, weaving patterns. I stay until the evening breeze makes me shiver. Then, with the dogs, I pick my way across the rocks to my clothes on the other side of the river. I dress, and, in the gathering dusk, we climb the bank to the path up the hill.
The gathering dusk. Suddenly I understand that phrase. The air is thick with the assembling forces of the night. And as I step onto the dirt path, I feel a strange sensation come upon me, from inside and out, from my bones to the frame of my skin.
I am afraid.
I recognize it with a shock, unused to feeling fear in the woods. Yet the feeling is unmistakable. And my skin is covered with goosebumps. Afraid of what? I wonder. I want a focus for my fear, to explain and justify the feeling to myself. I decide I must be afraid of rattlesnakes.
Dusk is a likely time for snakes to be out hunting and drinking after the dangerous heat of the day is past, and I could easily come upon one unexpectedly in this semi-darkness. Suddenly every stick seems to be moving. I place each foot with conscious care, eyes glued to the ground, and ears cocked for the slithering sound of a snake moving through leaves and grass. The breeze rustles the leaves of a bush to my right: I leap away from the sound.
Then I begin to be truly afraid. I know enough about the power of fear and thought to know that they often attract their objects. I do not want to inadvertently create the situation I think I fear. I stop, and force myself to take a deep breath. Rattlesnakes are too simple an explanation for the feeling that overwhelms me, anyway. I give up my need for a focus reluctantly, but the fear remains.
All my senses are hyperalert. I walk without a sound, trying to be invisible, to pass through without being noticed. Yet I feel conspicuous in my silence. Darkness is full upon the forest by now. The night creatures are out, and they and the forest celebrate the return of darkness with song. All creation seems to be singing: the trees, swaying in the night wind; the tall grasses, rustling by the stream; the thistles, catching on my jeans as I pass. The crickets and frogs keep up the background rhythm, the voices of bats and an owl carry the melody. In the distance a coyote sings a solo. There are other voices that I cannot identify.
In the vast symphony of sound, my silence sticks out more pointedly than if I had screamed. I feel agonizingly out of place, as if in a terrifyingly foreign country. I know not a word of the language. Yet I feel clearly that I have to speak, to join in the music, or else I have no right to be here.
I begin to hum, softly, with no melody in mind. My voice sounds thin and unsteady. Determined to try to master my fear, I squat near a pool in the stream that is making its way to the river. I stay for a while, humming softly all the time, taking my cues from the air, trying to blend my song with the melody of the water. I feel a brief flash of acceptance, long enough to lift the mantle of fear from my heart for just a moment; but as soon as I register what has happened, the moment vanishes. Once again I become a clumsy, fearful human in a place where I do not belong.
I pull myself up the long hill toward home. All around me, I smell animal: musky, wild, big, free animal. Bear, coyote, raccoon, mouse, owl. I do not see them except by their smells, but I feel them seeing me, impatient for me to pass.
At the top of the hill, at the tail end of the forest before the path winds into open meadow space, I stop. The spooky feeling is still with me and I do not want to go home afraid. I want to understand this feeling. I sit down on the path, my face to the trees. I sit, watch, listen, smell, and try to understand.
It is an uncommon night for early August: the wind has a distinctly autumn flavor. I watch the wind blow down the river canyon, tossing the tree branches against the pale gray sky. I listen to the trees creaking, hear their branches rubbing against one another, listen to their screeches and moans. I look up. The trees dance above me, leaping and swooping in the night air. I have a moment of panic: what is to keep them from falling down upon me, from crushing me? An owl calls softly behind me. Shivers run down my back.
I do not move a muscle. I make myself stay. The wind continues up and down the canyon, the trees continue their eerie dance. The night animals are on their way to hunt and be hunted. There is an order here, a familiarity, a sense that this is the way things are in the night. It is all in place. And it all goes on without me. I am superfluous, an alien.
It no longer matters whether or not I have an answer for my fear. I know it is time to go.
As I walk onto the meadow, I determine to leave the dark path and its fears behind me. An uneasy night leads into another brilliantly hot summer day, and then another, and still another. I fall once again into my summer patterns, and the strange walk up from the river is all but buried in the continuing force of the moment. I rise, I meditate, I write; I try to stay cool; I weed the garden, help Carol make dinner, read Josie a bedtime story. And then I do it all again, not quite the same, yet not quite differently.
But something is off. Patterns that are usually harmonious seem tedious now; simple daily tasks have become burdens; I am restless, impatient. I find myself thinking of rattlesnakes obsessively; I hardly take a step without wondering if there will be a snake at the end of it. Everyone and everything seem to irritate me. I want to go away and hide.
Instead, I decide to go to the wilderness.
The ranch is a day’s walk from the border of the National Forest’s wilderness area. The wilderness land is kin to ours, drawn from more unruly stock. The rocks are bigger, the animals more numerous and less accustomed to human neighbors, the water colder and more headstrong. My destination is on the fringe of the wilderness area, where one of the largest tributaries joins another fork of the same river that runs by the ranch. It is a place that strikes familiar notes, but pushes them to the unknown.
A few miles above the river, I encounter a small rattlesnake, not more than a foot long. I hear or sense him rather than see him, so perfectly does he blend with the fir-needle-strewn forest. My foot stops just short of stepping on him. He moves slowly to the edge of the path and turns to stick out his tongue at me.
Determined as I am to take courage and positive thinking into this week, I try to pretend that my knees are shaking from relief. Now that the snake I have been watching for all summer has finally appeared — in miniature — surely I should be able to laugh at my obsession. But I can’t quite pull it off. I know that the bite of this baby rattler is every bit as powerful as that of his grandfather, and his appearance in reduced size is no cause for comfort. I walk past him hurriedly and try to ignore the fear that prickles the back of my neck.
The incident passes quickly, or more likely I bury it quickly in the predominant harmony of the virgin fir forest. The stillness soothes me, reaches out to my battered spirit, until I sense the borders of that peace that waits beyond words, beyond human interaction. Stillness, peace, wordless energy: this I need, I have come to find.
I lope down the last steep hill to the confluence of the rivers where I will camp. I lay my pack on the sandy beach on my side of the point and walk to the water’s edge. With the exception of this beach, the river meets land as far as I can see in a profusion of huge boulders, many of them more than twice my height and as wide as they are high. The boulders are pink, orange, white, and bright green; their presence contributes to the deep, bouncing echo of this steep canyon and to the feeling of insignificance I have as I survey it.
I reach down to test the deep green water and find that it is cold enough to numb, in contrast to the river by the ranch, which is placid, warm and shallow this late in the season. Here are pools still deep enough to dive into, water running swiftly enough to foam white over rapids.
The land rises sharply above the boulders, in thick forest and sheer rock, 500 feet or more to the sky. High above me on the tributary side of the gorge are the piles of an old footbridge — the only sign I can see of human presence, and that long ago destroyed by the force of nature. I feel far from home, not especially welcome here, and uncomfortably human. I want to melt in among the boulders, glide through the river waters without making a ripple — but I can’t seem to walk across a rocky shore without making a racket.
Uneasiness floods me momentarily, but I manage to contain the feeling by turning to set up camp and make dinner. Once my little fire is crackling into the approaching night and my pot of rice is suspended over the flames, bubbling cheerily, I am reassured. After dinner I scrub the pot with river sand, watch the fire die slowly, and climb gratefully into my sleeping bag, savoring the touch of the earth underneath.
I wake early, before the sun has turned the sky’s morning gray to blue. All uneasiness of the day before is gone and I feel a tingle of anticipation as I roll my sleeping bag and start a fire for fir-needle tea. I am here where I should be and I am going to do what I must. I have definite conscious goals for the week: to clear out the psychic babble in my head, to relax, to meet the faceless fear which has been plaguing me all summer. This first morning, seven days seems like plenty of time for those tasks. I am ready and eager to begin.
My first feeling is relief. I have nothing to do. Nothing I have to do. I have time to let my thoughts go, take their own shape, reclaim their truth. I lie lazily among the boulders, mold my body to their shape, soak their warmth into my bones. When the sun gets hot, I roll into the shade or slide into the clear, cold water. I swim back and forth and around the pool, watching my shadow glide among the river bottom, watching the sun play through the water on my body. The river soothes me, the exercise feels good. I am slowly cleansed.
I indulge my moods. I read for hours without stopping, scribble notes now and then, fall asleep in the sun. I walk down the river, hopping from boulder to boulder, balancing along a fallen tree, wading in shallow water. I know there must be many steelhead caught in the deep pools, waiting for the fall rains to carry them to the sea, but I see none. There are signs of bear everywhere. But I see nothing moving, no one. I feel overpoweringly, deliciously, and frighteningly alone.
In my journal I write: “First day, hard to ‘stop.’ Restless, anxious. Second day, easier. By evening, I live here. Third day, I stop counting days, fall into the rhythm: feels good.”
My mind twitches and jerks like an overused muscle. It doesn’t seem to want to relax. To coax it along, I try imitating the state of pure “being” I’ve so often watched in the dogs. Their procedure is to find a proper place, adjust themselves comfortably, attend to pressing business such as flea scratching, and then, presto, to “be” — seemingly for as long as they choose. Their eyes are usually half-closed, but their ears and noses are obviously alert. It is a meditative state, not withdrawal from the world, but a total entering into it.
This morning in the sunlight, I try a human version of that state. Settled on the top of a boulder that is deep green and streaked with pink, I gaze at the river below. I let the thoughts come and usher them through and out, trying not to think of them as mine. I let the river lull me, let it envelop me, try to lose myself within it. I feel my head relax, watch my thoughts dance in the sunlight, then almost, almost, let go. . . .
Slightly past the midpoint of the week, my thoughts turn to the bizarre. Accidents, sickness, madness, sad memories intrude on my peace. Is this what happens to people who are alone too long? I wonder. Yet I know that my thoughts are not the product of wilderness solitude, but rather part of the mental noise I brought with me. The longer I am away from society’s taboos, the less restraint my mind exercises. I feel slightly crazy, released in some ways, but also adrift in unknown and scary waters.
By the fifth day I can no longer read the books I have brought with me; I have had enough of words. I lie, just lie in the sun for hours. My mind spins off, drifts lazily, stumbles. A feeling of panic washes over me: a nameless, faceless panic. Am I slipping away from myself? Or is something creeping up on me?
The last whole day to be here, I wake up anxious. The peace of the week suddenly seems false, contrived. I have not accomplished my primary purpose yet, and I know it. That unknown fear I have felt all summer is still lurking over my shoulder. I have not yet looked it in the face, and I cannot leave until I do. And then I remember my dream.
I am walking on a beautiful hillside. Birds are singing, deer peek out from between the trees, the sky is a deep, clear blue. I am dressed in a flowing white robe, with a halo of flowers in my hair. In the distance I can hear the gentle gurgle of a stream. The scene looks like paradise. But I am racked with anguish: my stomach is churning, turning, knotting in agony. “What’s wrong with me?” I cry. “Why do I ache so?” And from nowhere, a voice answers: “You are afraid of dying.”
Remembering this now, I realize that I my stomach is still churning. And then the voice comes back clearly — deep, resonant, and commanding. “You are afraid of dying.”
Am I? I don’t think so, not particularly. No more than most people.
Suddenly I am furious, completely overcome by a blinding anger. I pull on shoes and clothing, throw my sleeping bag in the direction of my pack, and plunge across the slippery rocks and white water to the steep, sheer cliff that has loomed over me all week.
Without a moment’s hesitation or thought I start to climb. The rock crumbles in my grip, my feet slip, I scrape my knee in sliding. I grab for something solid, will myself forward and upward, strain for a foothold. I pull on a small tree, and it comes off in my hand; I catch myself on a rock to keep from falling.
Fifty feet off the ground, then seventy-five. I look down once, and a glimmer of the extent of my foolhardiness flickers in my mind. Below me is hard rock, and help is miles away. But my anger is undiminished; I continue to climb.
My body presses almost flat against the rock, inching, squirming, and writhing ahead. Sweat makes my fingers slippery; as I lose my grasp of a slick old root, I slide down ten feet fast enough to catch the dislodged dirt and gravel in my hair and eyes and mouth. I pause to catch my breath, spit out the cliff’s debris, and then move up again.
Three hundred feet above the river, the cliff face falls slightly from the perpendicular, and the rock becomes jagged enough to accommodate scrub oak and manzanita. It is not yet so flat that I can walk upright, though, and as I crawl through the rocks and occasional clumps of grass, I note the likelihood of running into a rattlesnake. To my surprise, the thought evokes not fear, but defiance.
I make an attempt to move carefully, but I am not in control of my muscles. My mind races with thoughts; I cannot think logically. What if I get lost? I weave my way on hands and knees through a tangle of low-growing manzanita; I have completely lost my sense of direction, know only that I must climb as long as there is ground ahead of me. I am out of breath, panting, sweat trickling down my face in spite of a clamminess that persists on the back of my neck and shoulders. I hear movement behind me, turn, but see nothing.
I continue, driven, barely able to breathe. The manzanita clears, the ground levels further, and I pull myself into a patch of grass. I hear the rustle behind me again. This time I turn in time: there is a doe standing at the edge of the clearing, with twin fawns behind. I realize that these deer are the first living animals who’ve shown themselves to me all week, since the baby snake on the trail, even though the signs have told me there was wildlife all around. The doe stands calmly not ten feet from me. I am bent nearly in two, breathing heavily, covered with dirt and sweat, my hair awry. She looks directly into my wild and yearning eyes, as casually as if I were an old friend.
An unbelieving lightness comes over me. The weeks of loneliness and fear, of feeling like an exile in the natural world, dissolve in the unqualified acceptance of her steady, brown gaze. The lurking terror in my heart is gone. In its place is the certainty of abiding goodness, of God, and the knowledge of continuity beyond life and death.
Overwhelmed, I try to calm my trembling breath. Around me, the air seems to shimmer, and then suddenly life steps outside its masks. I am surrounded by Spirit. The physical forms — the bodies of the trees, the rocks, the deer, even myself — sublimate within the dazzling reality of eternal life.
And then I know — not believe, but know — that this body of mine will die some day. But I — the life that is in me — will continue to live, again and again, until finally that life is perfectly realized and I become one with God. The conviction of absolute, never-ending bliss runs through me like the blaze of a thousand suns.
I am no longer afraid. The exile imposed by my own spirit in ignorance is gone. The world takes the shape of the paradise of my dream; and now I, too, am part of it.
The lovely doe turns and bounds away into the manzanita, her fawns close at her heels. The brush hides them from my sight within seconds. Still quivering with emotion, I, too, turn to my path, and continue up the hill.
The climb is easier now, the slope more gradual, my steps, despite my shaky knees, more sure. I follow a deer path — different from the one that the doe and her fawns took — another 200 feet through manzanita, tall grass, and small oaks. Finally the earth turns horizontal: I am at the crest.
I pause, catch my breath, and try to determine where I am. Directly in front of me, to the west, is another ridge just like the one I’m on. After that one is another, and then another. Beyond many ridges, and two river forks, lies the ranch.
Turning back east, toward the sun, I find an opening in the brush from which I can see the river many feet below me. I rest and watch in a wordless and newfound knowledge of harmony with the world.
But I do not sit for long. I am suddenly eager to get on with life — the most immediate dilemma of which is descending this precipice without mishap. I know that going down will be at least as dangerous as going up.
I am more careful now, but the path is treacherous nonetheless. I slide and crawl, grabbing at convenient roots and limbs for support. I am not sure of the best route to take, but somehow it doesn’t matter. I know that I will be all right.
My feet find their own way, and as I watch the velvet green of the river rise jerkily to meet me, a feeling of ecstasy dances within. The last hundred feet are the most difficult — but finally I am close enough to leap and then I am on the ground, at the river’s edge. I kneel in the water, bathe my burning face, then peel off my clothes and dive deep and free into the cool, clear river.
The next morning I rise early to roll my sleeping bag, to gather my garbage to pack out, to try to erase the traces of my presence. I jump at the sound of a gunshot less than fifty feet away. The first person I have seen all week walks through the camp a moment later. “Just killed a rattler, ma’am, a big one, right by that big pool there.” I shoulder my pack and start up the path toward home.
© Copyright 1979 by Barbara Dean