“Death is utterly acceptable to consciousness and life. There has been endless time of numberless deaths, but neither consciousness nor life has ceased to arise. The felt quality and cycle to death has not modified the fragility of flowers, even the flowers within the human body. Therefore, one’s understanding of consciousness and life must be turned to That Utter, Inclusive Truth, That Clarity and Wisdom, That Power and Untouchable Gracefulness, That One and Only Reality, this evidence suggests.” ~ Adi Da Samraj (The Knee of Listening – DawnHorsePress)
(The following post has some length to it. We felt it important to give a fairly full accounting of the events of the last several weeks as so many people have written and called to express their concerns and offer support. Of course, more could be said, but we trust you will find the following useful and interesting.)
When Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist Master, was asked by a bewildered student about the meaning and origin of the fatal cancer ravaging the body of their beloved 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, Trungpa paused, “It happened a long time ago, Johnny. When they were setting up his tent someone stepped on the fabric.”
All these great fires of recent times began decades and more ago. They didn’t begin a few weeks ago, or this summer. As such they are tangible, uncompromising, reminders for us to renew our awareness, and our intelligent, and sacred, sensitivity and participation with the world, to be more conscious of where we are, of what the natural laws are, to reconnect to the living world and be integrated with it, rather than separate from it.
I hope we will use these fires as reminders of what is important, and of what isn’t.
For many years I’d regularly considered our preparedness for forest fires, but none of the scenarios I’d planned for imagined the ferocity of the September 2015 Valley Fire, which ravaged nearly 80,000 acres of Lake County, California, including the Sacred Camel Gardens at the Mountain Of Attention Sanctuary. There hadn’t been a serious fire in this part of the mountains for at least 30 years, so it was only a matter of time.
For nine years the Sacred Camel Gardens has nestled happily in its small, shallow, valley in Northern California’s Myacama Mountains, a twisted array of low-lying peaks and steep wooded canyons opening out into broad, beautiful, valleys with some of the most handsome oak trees you’ll ever see.
The Sacred Camel Gardens currently includes 18 Bactrian camels, six rescue horses, and a goat named Bambam. Founded by the Spiritual Teacher, Adi Da Samraj, and developed on the basis of his teachings, the camels and horses live in a protected sanctuary and are related to respectfully, and consensually. Our training of the camels, and those involved with them, is a little different than most. All our camels and horses are well disposed toward people, friendly, trusting, sensitive, and aware. They care about us and we care about them. They like people, have good humor, are intelligent and wise. Our`approach with them is hands-on, practical, ordinary, and spiritually oriented.
With 18 camels, and only one truck and trailer, my plan in the event of fire, was simple — stay in place and try to survive!
Around the front gate of the camels’ 40 acre pasture there’s a large gravel area, and out beyond the gravel there’s a larger expanse of pasture that the camels eat and flatten down each summer. So the plan was always to gather around the front gate, putting 80′ between us and the thick brush to the east, and 200′ to the west. This open area, next to several oaks, was our best chance.
Saturday afternoon, September 12, the fire awoke.
I glanced up from the pasture to see an enormous cloud of smoke broiling across the sky. She was already spectacular, impressive with all her plumes. The blaze first ignited in the nearby Cobb Mountain area and was heading our way. Sara, Craig and I leaped into last minute preparations. Moving hay piles, raking leaves, tidying up, filling water troughs and our water tank, clearing around the pump and tank, and the exposed pipes, gathering tools, drinking water, and food for 24 hours, checking the house and collecting Awareness, the cat, into his carry box and into the back seat of the truck, just in case we did end up fleeing. We checked on the horses and goat, and the llamas. Sara took off to her house to gather her rabbits, dogs, cat and father to get them safely off the mountain. Mandatory evacuation calls had gone out to everyone in the area. But we were staying. I certainly wasn’t going to leave the camels. This has been my life for 21 years. I’ve birthed, buried, doctored, nursed, trained and loved these camels. How could I just leave them to a fire? They’d allowed me into their hearts and loved me. My Great Master, Adi Da, had charged me to protect these camels, and this dimension of his living wisdom and instruction, his “Vision of Fear-No-More” – for the sake of all beings. Sara Tourtellotte had only recently joined us in the Camel Gardens. Her commitment is fierce and unquestionable. Craig Love, a valued member of our camel guild, was here from New Zealand for two months, this being his final week. Several hills away, at the main Sanctuary, a team of ten good men had also chosen to stay, and much preparation was underway there to protect the many temples, the library, and residences.
As the afternoon developed, the fire-smoke thickened, shutting out the sky with smouldering black-gray smoke. We continued preparing until about 10pm when it finally seemed the fire was moving south-east, away from us. Where the fire traveled reports of damage were bad. It was moving fast, laying waste to so much.
Knowing the changeability of recent California fires, the three of us bedded down on the ground just outside the camel pasture. Relaxing some, we also felt deep sadness for all those in the way of this raging conflagration now heading toward Harbin Hot Springs, and the Middletown township. And there, in the smoky quiet, we slept a little. I bedded down on an outdoor sofa near the gate. Craig threw some cushions down on the wooden bridge nearby and Sara slept beside her truck with her cat, Edward.
At 4.00 am I suddenly awoke. It was so dark I was disoriented; there was no sky or earth. There was only a ROAR!! like five Niagaras in the distance, rolling toward us. The noise, and smoke, and darkness, was all there was. We had not been overlooked! She was coming. It was darker than hell. And the roar of burning forests, and wind, grew ever louder. We stood with our flashlights down, gazing into the dark, toward the creature. The air was warming with fire breath. For a moment I felt pure, glorious, perfect, fear. We couldn’t see the beast. We could only hear her eating. We could feel it. And smell it. Everything I knew, and had learned all my life, told me to flee. But we just waited, in the darkness. Craig finally spoke, “Stuart, I think I should go…”
I was relieved by his manliness to speak up and say what we all felt. “Yeah, go! We all should. There’s nothing much any of us can do here, anyway. This fire is too big. At least, if you go, one of us is sure to live.”
He started gathering his things and took my small truck, heading north toward Lakeport.
I told Sara to go if she wanted, but she insisted, “No way! I’m staying…”
And there we were with the camels, in the dark, waiting. We were about to become very intimate with this inferno.
My phone started ringing. Friends were concerned for the camels, and us, giving advice from afar. “Evacuate! Get the camels into the pond”, and so on.
“We’re staying right where we are.” I responded each time. “This is our best chance. See you soon, I hope. I’ve gotta go now…”
The closer she came the louder she screamed. Suddenly all the camels ran into the dark, down into the thickets of brush, out toward the incoming fire. They ran from the safest place in the whole valley, vanishing into the night. I think they went to try to see the creature themselves. Sara wanted to go out and bring them back, but we had to stay in our place. The camels needed to know where we were and that we were solid there. It was the strongest thing we could represent to them in the face of this level of intensity. We still couldn’t see the great, gnashing, heat. We had no idea of her land speed. All we knew of her was the incredible darkness and her great voice. Whatever the camels were up to I had no idea, but I knew they’d soon come back. The air became darker. The smoke thickened further.
And in a flash there she was! reaching up out of Seigler Valley into the Sacred Camel Gardens, pulling through the brush and up into the pine trees and oaks. She started going out left along the low ridge of chamise and chaparral, and simultaneously out right, up along the higher ridge of tall pines. She also came straight up the middle of the pasture, one great, wide, terrifying blaze, with no self-doubt – a threshold creature, with no care but to burn and feed. All my fear vanished. We could see her now, and she could see us. I felt relieved. “I need to go a take a great big shit!” I laughed. And I started talking to her. Great flares leapt along the ridge, one of the first was a great “fire camel”, with arching neck and two humps, a sign, perhaps, of some protection for the camels, or a gesture to claim them.
But where were the damn camels!!
There they are! We could see their humps bobbing against the backdrop of red and orange of burning bush and trees. They were coming! Then they stopped, hovering about. We ran out to them, calling, “HiHo! Baraka! Muffin! C’mon! C’mon! Come here ya bastards! C’mon!”. They began moving again, coming with us, and together we all made our way back to the gates and the safety of the gravel, near the oak tree and trailer. The fire came, too, chewing through everything she took hold of. I told her, “I know you. I see you. We’re not so different. You know you can’t have us! You’re beautiful, but you can’t eat us. You’re not going to get us! You must go around. We’re not even afraid of you.” But we were… She was absolutely terrifying… though we couldn’t let her know it…
All around us now she was red, orange, yellow, pink and blue, raging and ripping with force. It was a womb of fire, death and birth. Flames lit up the whole valley. No need for lights. The high ridge running the length of the valley was a blazing wall raging 300 feet high at times. She was splitting trees, exploding trunks, snapping wooden necks, cracking torsos, arms and legs. The smoke, wind, and noise, were terrific. Off in the distance propane tanks exploded and hissed at regular intervals, car alarms screamed. We knew it was bad everywhere. I was sure the Sanctuary was in ruins, or soon would be. As the fire moved she mated with bushes and trees, obliterating and feeding off them, sometimes birthing fire tornados, exploding, twisting, curtains of flame, as she reached for us in our safe zone, trying to have us anyway. She threw ten or twelve blasts at us, ripping the air, spitting debris. Sara repeatedly held the ground while I grabbed an oak trunk to hide behind, hot winds smacking.
Suddenly, a thick stand of chamise exploded nearby, causing the camels to rush from their safe zone towards the now vulnerable front corner. This wasn’t good ! Once in the corner, the field in front of them began flaming, as I suspected it might. There was now fire on three sides of them. They huddled, wanting to leave, but were unsure of their chances across the burning grass. Sara wanted to run in, get behind, and herd them out. I yelled at her over the roaring inferno, “No way! They’ll come out!” Sara went in anyway, across the burning grasses, working her way behind them, brandishing a crop to push them out. They weren’t listening. Sara ran back out to where I was waiting. Suddenly a tall pine tree on the hill above erupted into flame and the camels pounded across the burning fields, running back with us to the gravel, their whiskers and lashes singed.
With the bushes closest to the training arena now mostly burned we put everyone inside the arena so there’d be no more running off. I chose not to contain everyone there earlier because I just didn’t know how all 18 would do in one small, contained, area with the fire crashing on all sides. I preferred to trust their intelligence and give them the freedom to choose their movements about. But it was now a good idea to contain them as the worst of the fire would soon be past us and whole trees and limbs were beginning to fall about. We ended up keeping them contained for much of the following day.
Throughout the entirety of the fire the camels were remarkably calm. Not once did I see any of them lose their heads in panic. They were steady, serious, very focussed, intense. They were kind to each other and to me and Sara. They came together as a herd and everyone mattered, everyone was included. No one stood out as leader. They functioned as a group. Truly, their leader this night was the fire. They watched, felt and listened to everything she did, and responded accordingly. As did we. She was the bigger voice. Worth listening to.
As the fire raged further up the valley, leaving everything flaming in her wake for hours, eventually even days, she picked up speed again, climbing the small canyon walls of sugar pine and manzanita. The house over the hill was gone for sure. All my things gone for sure. Nothing could be done about it. At least the cat was with me, still in the truck, safe and relaxed. For about half an hour we were grounded. To follow the fire and try to get ahead of her would have been madness. So we waited some more, tended the camels, checked the cats, checked ourselves. We’d lived. But it wasn’t over yet. Eventually we set off across the upper field to the lake, climbing the pond wall into the now dawning day. The fire had charged into the lake, burning as much as she could right to water’s edge. Then she’d rushed around each side of the lake, continuing forward on the far side. Wending among burning logs and brush we made our way around the lake’s western side. Here and there we saw animal remains, burned, but not many. Near an old block-house a propane tank blew its top with incredible force, sending a jet of heat and gas 150 feet into the air. I took off running and weaving like a rabbit. I think Sara nearly ran all the way back to the camels!
Out on the fields, through the thick smoke, the horses were well. By the time we got there the fire was already across the pasture in places, and running along the ridges either side. The horses were standing together, quietly watching the flames, moving slowly, carefully, around the burning areas, fully in control of themselves, and of what to do and where next to go. They were impressive. Like the camels, there was no panic in them. Bambam the goat was in the horse shed in his night box. When I went to see him he poked his head up and bleated. “Just stay there Bambam, it’s gonna be ok !” He bleated again and tucked back down. Outside the fires raged. He later rejoined the horses.
When we came around the hillside toward the house I was amazed and relieved to see it standing. I’d given it up hours before. Fire was licking the rear walls. Without water we grabbed rakes and pulled away the wind-blown leaves, creating a safe perimeter.
Everything in my care came through, except the fences, water system and hay shed. All the animals made it through alive and unscathed. The structures, sheds and house are good. The trucks and the old backhoe are fine.
And the fire stopped her forward run just a few hundred yards beyond the house, creeping across the pasture, a soft wind in her face, until she lipped a small dirt road, and finished, slowly fading out to somewhere, wherever fires go to sleep.
I ran up the hill to check two evacuated neighbor’s houses, finding fires creeping on both, which I extinguished. Sara saved another nearby house, although her own was burned to dust. Next I hiked down the road through smoking fields and forests, to check the llamas. They were fine, and relaxed, but fire continued threatening their wooden fence for another 36 hours, until nearby areas had burned out.
And amazingly, the entire main Sanctuary remained un-burned, except for several outlying structures. The men there who’d held their ground against the flames all spoke of a gentle pressure of wind all night that came from somewhere within the Sanctuary core, pressing outward into the night.
For the following two weeks, as we tended our own animals and also kept an eye on a neighbor’s horses, and a pair of stray emu, we were still in the fire’s world as she attempted flare-ups, straining and reaching for a further chance at life.
Many friends lost houses and everything they owned. Near to the Sanctuary about 50 out of some 60 houses are completely burned.
Craig came back after the major fire had passed to help with clean up and recovery, working hard and with great intention.
When the fire began, Aria Simpson (traveling through Idaho) and Teresa Fogolini (in Sebastopol), both lovers of the camels, jumped into action to set up an online fundraiser for the Sacred Camel Gardens, knowing there would be damages, and feeling compelled to help. We are hoping to raise $50,000 with over half already in hand. This funding allows us to immediately begin repairs to fences, and our hay barn, and has connected the Sacred Camel Gardens out to many new friends worldwide.
News articles and interviews about the camels’ journey through the heart of the Valley Fire have reached around the globe. Several photos from the first few days went viral. Donations of hay, and a pump and water tanks, bags of feed and other things have poured in, helping to quickly get us back on our feet, providing us with a boost of energy that is initiating plans for future growth.
During the fire it was interesting and instructive to observe the camels and horses. All the individual camels dissolved into the herd and together they moved as one. No one stood out. Everyone submitted to the others, rising to the moment. The contemplative disposition that Adi Da describes non-humans exemplifying, and which they embodied very clearly during the fire, manifests through their ability to feel the fear, and the mortality of being in a body, and then surrendering through that fear to life. This spontaneous life gesture, in the face of death, renders them naturally, spiritually, contemplative. They don’t read about it. No one needs to tell them to do it. They simply feel, and feel beyond, into the “Great Unity”. Adi Da describes this life-positive response of the non-humans as an expression of “true morality”. Humans, on the other hand, tend to contract from life in the face of death. Adi Da describes this as an expression of “insanity”. The quality and the quantity of all the non-humans’ native response to life in the midst of this mortal appearance is a profound lesson for humanity, one that would restore sanity to the earth, if we would do as they do.
This is the heart of Adi Da’s “Vision of Fear-No-More”. It’s not just for the non-humans, but for all beings, all of us. This is the legacy that Adi Da left us to develop and share with the world, one of the reasons the camels had to survive the Valley Fire, and why we’ll continue on and keep building this Vision into something that can help the human world realign itself with the natural and sacred order of things. As this world presently burns, in so many ways, in the benighted hands of so-called humanity, perhaps the wisdom offered through the “Vision of Fear-No-More” can help to guide us through, just as it guided the camels and us through the night of the valley fire…
How You Can Help
If you are moved, please support the Sacred Camel Gardens and the Vision of Fear-No-More through one or more of the following links…
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