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Zen Community Reflects on Endangered Coho Salmon Population

Water doesn’t move up; it at all times flows down.

–Shunryu Suzuki Roshi 

The picket flooring of the Green Gulch zendo gleams with quiet pure mild mirrored from its polished floor. It was initially a dairy barn, constructed instantly over Green Gulch Creek so they may muck the manure straight into the creek and wash it into Redwood Creek and on to the ocean at Muir Beach—a minimum of in the course of the season when the little creek was flowing. In the half-century for the reason that San Francisco Zen Center acquired Green Gulch Farm and repurposed the barn as a temple and corridor for sitting meditation follow (zazen), the oil and sweat from 1000’s of naked ft have seeped into the outdated redwood flooring and given it a stupendous sheen. A statue of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of knowledge, stands at one finish of the corridor.  

Inside the Green Gulch zendo | Photo by Sara Tashker

I visited the farm and Zen Center on a sunny mid-April morning in 2022. Sara Tashker, the farm supervisor and a longtime resident, led me on a tour and oriented me to the place and its historical past. After wanting across the zendo, we wandered down the highway alongside the creek and beside the farm fields. We peeked right into a greenhouse to verify on flats of tender child lettuces ready to be outplanted after which walked down to have a look at the ecological restoration work that has been occurring right here for greater than fifteen years. “What inspired that?” I requested Sara. “How did that get started?” 

The winter of 2004–2005 was a moist one, Sara instructed me. That winter, when the rains had recharged the watershed and damaged by means of the sandbar at Muir Beach, somebody had noticed a giant pink fish thrashing round in Green Gulch Creek—a male coho salmon in full spawning colours. Everyone was amazed. At least one pair will need to have spawned efficiently that winter; in April, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s aquatic ecologist discovered child coho within the creek. 

The coho salmon (scientific title Oncorhynchus kisutch) discovered at Green Gulch belong to a genetically distinct and evolutionarily vital subgroup of the species. Coho on this space of the Central California Coast have been first listed as “threatened” beneath the Endangered Species Act in 1996, and uplisted to “endangered” in 2005. A last restoration plan was printed in 2012 and remains to be being carried out.  

The discovery of the salmon reoriented the Green Gulch group. Over the following few years, they resolved to “free the creek” and make it the “center” of Green Gulch. The creek had formed the valley and deposited the soil they have been farming; and now, endangered salmon have been making an attempt to return again. “Our life as a community didn’t reflect the centrality of the creek to this place,” Sara stated. “That led us to a watershed view.” The imaginative and prescient assertion that emerged from the method stated: 

As the vow to learn all beings grows extra rooted on this valley, the Green Gulch Farm group enters right into a extra intimate relationship with this lovely and bountiful place. The profound listening that comes out of this relationship helps us to listen to extra clearly the voice of the land and of the watershed itself and to comprehend our deep interconnection with the pure world. It is with humility and an understanding of our function and accountability to behave interdependently with the broader group—the soil, water, vegetation, animals and folks—that we suggest a long-term imaginative and prescient for Green Gulch Farm. I attempted to think about that view: a view of the whole lot linked, upstream and downstream, from clouds to ocean, from Mount Tamalpais above to Muir Beach beneath and out into the ocean past, the place the salmon await the rains to allow them to swim upstream and the place folks, embedded within the ecosystem, wait to greet them. 


Coho start their life cycle in freshwater rivers and streams after which spend three years feeding and rising, a lot of that point within the ocean, earlier than returning to spawn within the streams the place they hatched. In spawning, females construct nest-like depressions referred to as “redds” within the gravel of a stream backside, and as they launch eggs into them, male salmon swish over, releasing sperm to fertilize the eggs. Salmon are largely devoted in returning to the identical stream the place they hatched, apparently navigating “home” utilizing chemical cues that give their natal water a singular taste. To a coho, Green Gulch Creek will need to have its personal particular style. 

In a given 12 months, the returning salmon are the offspring of fogeys that spawned three years earlier—and with luck would be the dad and mom of the technology that may return to spawn in one other three years. This three-year anadromous life historical past apparently developed as an evolutionary technique to permit salmon to outlive in a dynamic surroundings—the North Pacific Ocean—and it has been profitable for the numerous tens of millions of years they’ve existed there. Still, there are numerous climatic “what ifs” that have an effect on the salmon. When the sandbar at Muir Beach is breached after winter rains have swollen the creek, some returning spawners might dash for the smaller tributaries upstream and construct redds up in Kent Creek or Fern Creek. Other fish might loiter decrease within the watershed and spawn downstream, possibly even in Green Gulch Creek, which enters Redwood Creek close to its mouth at Muir Beach. Then the chances kick in. If the rains aren’t robust, the child fish within the higher watershed might get stranded as their swimming pools dry and grow to be disconnected from the move. But if the rains are critical, excessive flows on the mainstream of the creek might wash the eggs and child fish from redds there, and infants within the higher watershed may need a greater likelihood of survival. Given all these environmental variables, the extra stream-miles with appropriate flows and gravels that the fish have entry to, the higher.  


The Green Gulch watershed is a microcosm that illustrates how folks form landscapes by means of their decisions and actions, that are in flip influenced and guided by their views and worldviews. Understanding the human historical past of a spot is a vital step in restoring it ecologically and reinhabiting it psychologically. Miwok hunter-gatherers have been the primary human inhabitants right here, and coastal grasslands would have been way more intensive then due to their liberal use of fireside of their ecological administration. The Spanish mission system severely decreased the native inhabitants and all however destroyed its ecologically tailored tradition. In 1836, after the mission system collapsed, the world turned a Mexican land grant, used primarily as open cattle vary. Ranching and a few small-scale dairy farming continued till the flip of the twentieth century, and searching, mountain climbing, and different leisure makes use of elevated. Thankfully, the redwoods alongside Redwood Creek simply two miles upstream from Green Gulch have been protected inside Muir Woods National Monument, established in 1908. 

After World War II, Green Gulch was bought by George Wheelwright, a rich physicist and co-inventor of the Polaroid digicam, who sought to rework the land right into a mannequin fashionable cattle operation. He imported prize Hereford cattle from England, cleared the slopes of native vegetation, planted pasture grasses from New Zealand, channelized the creek between berms like an irrigation ditch, crammed within the wetlands alongside the decrease creek, and constructed a levee to stop seawater from flowing up from the Muir Beach lagoon into the decrease part of his property. Wheelwright clearly had a tough, technology-in-control imaginative and prescient of the human-nature relationship at Green Gulch, however that isn’t actually shocking—his worldview was created by and mirrored the mainstream worldview of his time. But regardless of his engineering mentality, following the dying of his spouse within the late Sixties, Wheelwright deeded Green Gulch to the San Francisco Zen Center for a fraction of its market worth in 1972—to “a bunch of beatnik hippie Zennies,” as Sara put it—so it will be cared for and guarded. 

Green Gulch then turned a laboratory for experiments with a extra ecological and non secular human-land relationship. Horticulturist Alan Chadwick introduced and taught “biodynamic” farming strategies. Architect Sim Van der Ryn, a pioneer in ecological design, deliberate a number of buildings (and a composting rest room) on the property. Through relationships with a number of Native American collaborators, indigenous views and conventional ecological information influenced the work at Green Gulch; a patch of coyote willow is tended and pruned to supply younger, straight willow shoots for conventional basketry, for instance. Just up Redwood Creek, perched on the slope close to Muir Woods, was Druid Heights, one other outpost of experimentation with points of human nature. The Way of Zen creator Alan Watts lived there for a time, as did poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder, and so they have been frequent guests.   


endangered coho salmon creek
Green Gulch Creek after ecological restoration | Photo by the creator

The actions and worldviews of people—these talked about above and plenty of others—are recorded within the panorama at Green Gulch. As we walked the property, Sara confirmed me the legacy of the Green Gulch group’s “free the creek” initiative from 2008, which acquired assist from the National Park Service and different companions. The levee that reduce off the free move of water from the Redwood Creek estuary was eliminated, a pure meander of the creek restored, and native riparian vegetation is now thriving.  

A parade of “atmospheric river” storms has been drenching California since December 2022, and the storms proceed to supply historic heavy rains. The water broke by means of the sandbar at Muir Beach, opening the best way for salmon, recharging the Redwood Creek watershed, and scouring the creek mattress gravels. Green Gulch Creek is flowing full. 

In a stupendous dharma speak introduced to the San Francisco Zen Center on Earth Day 2021, Sara Tashker described what George Wheelwright did as “the engineering of Green Gulch Creek.” She requested what kind of worldview would result in a “straightened, gravel-starved creek, with check-dams blocking fish passage, and drastically reduced riparian habitats for myriad species?” A human-centered one, she defined, which assumes that:   

Humans know finest; people can management water, vegetation, animals, life; the aim of this land is to assist me, my life, my livelihood, human exercise; human exercise is extra necessary than the exercise of different types of life; the success of my human exercise will be separated from the success of different types of life on this ecosystem; I can management the implications of my actions; the abundance of the pure world will at all times be accessible to me, it doesn’t matter what I do; and at last, what I see and assume is true and full. 

I don’t know of a extra clear or complete enumeration of the weather of the anthropocentric Western worldview that’s the root explanation for our ecological disaster than this. This human-supremacist worldview now dominates, and is used to justify, the present unsustainable world financial and geopolitical system.  

But there’s an issue. The human-centered myopia that motivated Wheelwright’s try to manage Green Gulch Creek doesn’t conform to ecological actuality. It is like making an attempt to make water move uphill. The actuality is that we people are solely considered one of tens of millions of species within the biosphere, upon which we’re fully dependent, and we’re a relative newcomer at that. In Sara’s phrases, we’re “completely made up of and in turn are part of making the relentlessly dynamic, complex, interdependent activity of life.” Therefore, she stated, the aspiration of the Green Gulch group is to “support the unobstructed flow of the creek, and of reality.” 

And with that may come the coho, nosing up beneath the zendo in one other moist 12 months. Another large pink fish, a bodhisattva-like messenger bringing immediate perception into the truth of interconnectedness, interdependence, interbeing. Like the twirling of a flower in Shakyamuni’s well-known flower sermon, a sudden awakening; a salmon sermon. 

Water at all times flows down, however salmon swim up! 


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