My Ecobiography

John Muir

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will fall off like autumn leaves.  — John Muir

I turned to nature at an early age.  My family moved a great deal between central Nevada (my mother's home state) and many places in Northern and Southern California, but wherever I lived I sought wild nature, which still existed in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s to a greater extent than it does today.  I loved the quiet rhythms of the animals and birds and felt comforted by their acceptance of me.  My mother accused me of liking animals more than people.  I couldn't see what was wrong with liking animals as much as people until I discovered deep ecology in 1986 and began to learn why, in our culture, people are regarded as more important than animals.  I had never really understood that point of view because animals seemed saner and kinder than a lot of people.

Camping with my family in Northern California, I immediately discovered a reverence for redwood trees, groves of which became my first places of veneration.  Redwood cathedrals communicated to me the ancient wisdom of Nature, and I became a believer.

Lying in Tuolumne Meadow

I was very fortunate to begin working in Yosemite National Park right after high school, and I lived in the "high country" (Tuolumne Meadows) every summer between years at university.  My focus of study was English and German Romantic poetry, so spending my summers in nature provided a balance that harmonized with my intellectual pursuits.  I loved the silver granite giants, the thick forests, the clear waters, the wildflower-strewn meadows, the deep blue skies, the purity and innocence of that “gentle wilderness,” as John Muir called it.  I also absorbed the culture of Yosemite, which was deeply influenced at that time by Muir, by the photographer Ansel Adams, and by David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club, which Muir founded.  Adams and Brower still walked Yosemite then, and their presence radiated ecological consciousness.


Cathedral Peak © Suzanne Duarte

I spent five glorious summers living in that “Range of Light,” hiking, rock climbing, sleeping outdoors under the stars, watching fabulous thunder storms, soaking up the sun on smooth granite rocks, plunging into icy creeks, lying in meadows and by the Tuolumne River, watching clouds, identifying wildflowers and reading poetry.  My wild-child self was deeply nurtured as I identified with the sacredness of the wilderness. I had no fear there!  It felt much safer to me than any city or suburb. 

David Sessions, Tuolumne River, Unicorn Peak © Suzanne Duarte

I was part of a large, mobile society of nature lovers, photographers, and rock climbers, and learned about mountaineering and photography, as well as Buddhism and American nature literature from them.  This was my first Dharmagaian community.  I enjoyed climbing mountains and backpacking with friends, but I also enjoyed doing these things by myself.  I discovered a new joy, an intimacy with myself and with nature, when I was exploring the High Sierras by myself, as Muir did.  So those summers in Yosemite were my first experiences of nature as a healer and teacher.  But that was in the 1960's and we didn't conceptualize nature in that way yet.

I moved to Colorado to be with Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, and took refuge in the Buddhadharma with him in 1975.  I was attracted to Buddhism’s dedication to the benefit of all sentient beings, and I applied this literally to the natural world—all sentient beings.  I wanted the sense of vastness beyond the human ego, the openness and sanity that Buddhist practice cultivates.  I did not feel the separation from nature in Buddhism that I felt in Western philosophy, which I had studied at university.  So I immersed myself totally in Buddhism for 12 years, lived in rural retreat centers, and studied and taught.  I found real happiness in doing that. My most powerful meditation experiences occurred when I did solitary retreats in rustic, off-grid mountain cabins. 

During group and solo retreats in the 1970's and 80's, I began to become familiar with the immensity and grandeur of the Colorado Rockies, part of the “spine” of the North American continent. Later, in the 1990's, living at 8,000 feet and above, both on- and off-grid as a householder, I came to feel utterly at home and identified with the boundlessness of the land and sky in the Rockies.

Course of Empire © Mark Bryan

But during the mid-1980's I also lived in New York City for three years. There I continued to study and teach Buddhism, as well as hold down a job on the Upper East Side.  When a friend gave me an article from The New Yorker by Catherine Caufield on the destruction of the tropical rainforests, I felt like everything changed for me.  The illusion that there were wild ecosystems that humans couldn't destroy was shattered.  Looking at midtown Manhattan, I said to myself, ‘This can't last.  This way of life is completely unsustainable.  The people who make the decisions affecting the entire world have no connection with the Earth.’

Within a couple of years I was back in Colorado and had become a rainforest activist.  At the same time, I became involved in Deep Ecology.

In 1988 I did a 6-day-and-night solo wilderness rite-of-passage, facilitated by John P. Milton in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in southern Colorado.  John is a Dharmagaian Ally and friend.  On that retreat my dedication to the Earth and her creatures deepened considerably, and the mountain lion and hummingbird became intimate familiars for me.  This experience opened up a whole new chapter in my life.  (See Creating Space for Nature and My Bush Soul: the Mountain Lion.)  My relationship with nature as a healer, teacher and intimate friend became fully conscious there—which led eventually led to teaching ‘contemplative ecology’ at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

 On Wowona Trail, CA © Suzanne Duarte

All wild places are sacred to me.  Whether I’ve personally experienced a wild place or not—such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where I haven’t been—I feel protective of it because I have experienced the sacredness of many other wild places in the world where I have been nurtured by beauty and wholeness.  The wildness of a climax ecosystem is where the life force of Gaia expresses itself most fully. Therefore, the desecration of nature has deeply impacted me throughout my life.  Even as a little girl, I felt pain as I watched bulldozers scraping the ground of trees, plants and animals beyond the suburb where we lived.  When I hear of "development" projects, I always think of all the creatures who are killed and displaced, poisoned and starved by the expansion of human activities, and I mourn the loss of the delicate ecosystems that bind life together.      

Grief can be a powerful doorway to a sense of belonging within the web of life, to the energy and strength that comes from the release of deep feelings, and therefore to paradigm change, a change of consciousness that blossoms into passionate love for the Earth.  Once a person begins the process of conscious paradigm change, otherwise known as the Great Turning, there is no going back.  Bit by bit, the scales fall from one’s eyes and the socially conditioned fears and constrictions loosen and dissolve as one’s heart for the world expands.  The process of integrating my two paths of Buddhism and Deep Ecology has taken many years, but now I see them together as the broad (unpaved) road into the future that will be taken by Dharmagaian tribes, whether they call themselves that or not.


The Pacific © Suzanne Duarte


© 2009 Suzanne Duarte