Lessons from a Life-Changing Move to the Wilderness
In June of 1999 my family and I moved from our Los Angeles apartment to Sharanagati, a remote 1600-acre valley in British Columbia where a small band of semi-rugged, spiritually-minded individualists had settled. My mother-in-law said, “They’ll last two years there – three at the most – before they move again.” (In the twenty-eight years since my husband and I have been married, we’ve moved every two to five years, so my mother-in-law wasn’t being unduly pessimistic.)
The Sharanagati community was isolated, off the grid, hours from a significant city, and functioned at its own sweet pace – a slow-motion crawl. Here we planned to start a new life, one free of electric bills, fluorinated water, noise, traffic, bad air, billboards, crime and TV.
The home we rented, and then bought ten months later, was a small wooden house on a knoll overlooking grassland. In the distance, a mile-long lake shimmered through trees, flanked by fir- and pine-covered mountains. We were living inside a picture postcard. Our 5-year-old daughter was the twenty-second student in the valley’s one-room schoolhouse that accommodated grades Kindergarten to 12. We renovated our home, used a woodstove for heat and an outhouse for nature’s call. Our tap water was gravity-fed from a small aquifer on the mountain slope a quarter-mile away; our electricity was from a solar panel; we grew vegetables and planted fruit trees. Except for our old Toyota Camry sedan and “3000” Honda generator (back-up power for overcast days), our self-sufficiency was nearly tangible.
Sharanagati, formidably enough, means “surrender” in Sanskrit. Here, among the rhythms of nature, close to sincere fellow seekers and confronting the wildness of our own mind, perhaps we could purify our lives. Perhaps those long winter nights and endless summer days would forge different people out of us: people closer to the earth, to simple faith, to contented, noncommercial, commodity-free lives. Perhaps observing the habits of Canadian loons and black bears, taking long walks in dense forests, working the soil, feeling glad about the things we grew and the miracles around us, we would begin to distinguish reality from illusion. Perhaps our new life, nourished by good cheer and harmony, could be our tiny contribution to the well-being of others. Surely, with less stress and more open sky, epiphanies would reveal our essential identity and the purpose of existence.
What actually happened was quite different. Black bears ate our carrot crop and broke our apple trees to get our apples. Aphids attacked berry bushes and overpopulated our Russian kale. Mice used almost mystic powers to get into our sealed root cellar. A neighbor’s nineteen-year-old son broke into and robbed our house. In January it was minus 30 degrees F. In July it topped 100. The winters were dreary, the summers mosquito-filled, the autumns dry. In 2003, a forest fire burned 25,000 forested acres just north of us. At one point, drenched in terror, we saw flames shooting over the eastern ridge less than a mile from our home.
Through all of this, except the forest fire (which was too intense), I continued to read the renowned spiritual guidebook of the East, the Bhagavad-gita, and to become more conscious of my incredible small-ness, ignorance, and uncertainties. I wondered about my purpose in living in Sharanagati and the purpose of living in the world generally; I wondered about country-style survival and about the urban cycle of continually making and spending money; I wondered about innocent and less than innocent diversions from the daily grind; I wondered about the relationship between values and happiness.
Gradually, my disparate experiences and reflections drew together under the canopy of harmony: the pleasing and diverse unity overarching all things and all beings. The saint Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who translated and commented on the verses of the Bhagavad-gita, once said, “Material or spiritual, everything is in harmony. That is God’s law. Everything is in harmony.” The simplicity and complexity of how this is so is for me the ecstatic mystery the Bhagavad-gita explores. This, the true harvest of daily life in Sharanagati, is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning.
The three of us have been living in Sharanagati for many years now, and our daughter has grown up. But sadly my mother-in-law can’t be surprised by the news of our perseverance in the wilderness for so long, as she passed away three years after we moved here. I think she would have liked the harmony in Sharanagati too, at least in the spring, summer and fall.
- Softbound, 6”x8”, 200 pages, 62 photographs.
- By Jean Griesser, a.k.a. Visakha Devi