By Ron Forster – True Ocean of Courage
We vow to develop understanding, in order to live peacefully with people, animals, plants, and minerals.
Feelings of tranquility arise as I walk the paths of Deer Park – soft earth, fragrant sages, rabbits, and birds – all at peace. Deer Park is a place to reconnect with nature and ourselves. With the love and support of our monastics and lay community, we can continue to provide this refuge for future generations. There are times, though, when loving action is needed to sustain these conditions. The effort to “Save Deer Park Ridge” was one such time.
In the spring of 2009, as we sat together in the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall for a Sunday Dharma talk, we began to hear a bulldozer clearing land at the head of the valley. Our neighbor was preparing to sell his land for the development of a series of luxury homes on the hillside and ridge that faced the meditation hall. Many of us were surprised to learn that the land from the valley floor to the western ridge and beyond was not part of Deer Park and was not protected from development. The sound of the bulldozer was our neighbor’s way of letting us know that change may be coming.
The monastics met with the neighbor and learned that the land facing Deer Park was part of a large tract of land that he was offering for sale for housing development. The house plots and proposed roads were already drawn out. The overall tract was priced at $3.2 million – far beyond what our community could afford. The monastic and lay community needed to look deeply at the situation.
Many of us felt we needed to take action – but what? A few of us formed a team and began to spread the word. We had no experience with land use issues, but we knew that we had to do something. Brother Phap Dung counseled us that if we were going to work toward saving this land, we should do so mindfully and without attachment to the outcome. We must be at peace with the possibility that there could end up being houses along the ridge.
We created a display board and stood outside the meditation hall each Sunday to explain the situation to practitioners. One Sunday, a woman introduced herself to us – she said she was Ellie Stanley – a fundraising consultant for environmental non-profits and would be glad to volunteer to help raise donations for the ridge.
Ellie joined me and Brother Phap Ho as the leadership team for the project that was started by Dennis Howard. As word spread, more skilled lay practitioners stepped forward to volunteer their help: Alicen Wong, a land use lawyer; Duc Nguyen, a skilled real estate negotiator; Frank Chimienti, a contract attorney; and the Escondido Creek Conservancy, a local land conservation group. So many skilled and caring volunteers!
So, we began our journey with an intention to help protect the natural valley and ridge, but with no clear plan or path, and no attachment to a specific outcome. Fortunately, we learned that once a journey begins, the path slowly reveals itself.
Looking deeply, we realized that our true interest was in keeping the valley and ridge natural and serene. We did not necessarily need to own the land. With the wisdom of our team, we were able to create a proposed conservation easement that would protect the part of the neighboring land that is visible from the meditation hall and the hamlets. The landowner was willing to consider the approach if we could provide the terms and a “reasonable” purchase price for such an easement.
Through discussions over many months we slowly developed the terms of an agreement. We did surveys with sight lines to determine the boundaries of the conservation easement. It included protection from having any cell towers, other structures, or lights visible. We included a stipulation that the current and future landowners would accept the sound of the Deer Park temple bell and the morning and evening chants. We also included hiking access to the ridge trail for monastics and Deer Park visitors.
Our fund-raising efforts for protecting Deer Park ridge continued in parallel. We set $500,000 as our goal – the price we believed might just be enough to negotiate an easement. As we raised awareness through presentations (and even puppet shows!), many practitioners donated what they could – whether it was a few dollars or thousands of dollars. The love of Deer Park and the desire to have a tranquil place for future generations was strong.
Still the goal seemed out of reach but one Sunday after a lunch-time announcement a dear practitioner quietly gave the monastics a $100,000 donation. This began the momentum and showed us that there was hope in reaching our goal.
After close to two years, we reached an agreement and had the funds necessary to purchase the easement. Deer Park Ridge was protected and would remain a natural neighbor for Deer Park.
What started as a frightening concern became a wonderful journey of growing brotherhood and sisterhood, and of protecting our natural environment. Those involved have become life-long friends and have gone on to work together on other projects to help the community. The experience and relationships we fostered contributed to the establishment of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation and to joyfully discovering many paths of practice together.
Editor‘s note: this article is reprinted from The Day I Turn Twenty, the magazine commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Deer Park published in the summer of 2020.
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