Creating a Contemporary Sacred Site

By Stephen Fowler

Peace Site Overview — Photo by Stephen Fowler

“Every land should be a holy land. One should find the symbol in the landscape itself of the life there. That’s what all early traditions do. They sanctify their own landscape.”
~Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth” with Bill Moyers

In this article I will explore how Arthur Lisch organized a community of supporters to create a “Peace Site.” I will also give a brief history of the enterprise, which continues to this day, though Parkinson’s disease has forced Arthur to cease working there. I will also touch on the subjects of anthroposophy and geomancy.

Arthur Lisch and His Background

In 1986-87, Arthur Lisch and some friends set out to sanctify a small portion of land on the western edge of Sebastopol, located in Sonoma County, California.

Lisch was also a follower of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who founded the esoteric-spiritual Anthroposophist movement.

Arthur was well prepared for undertaking the creation of a peace park. He had been active in the counterculture heyday of San Francisco and was part of the Diggers, an activist community group, operating from 1967-1968, in the Haight-Ashbury district located in San Francisco, California. The Diggers had the radical idea that they could provide all the necessities of life to whomever wanted them – for free. It was here that Arthur learned the fundamentals of community organizing.

Lisch was also a follower of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who founded the esoteric-spiritual Anthroposophist movement. Steiner’s lectures on agriculture led to Biodynamics and his educational philosophy was manifest in Waldorf Schools. Steiner’s lectures on numerous subjects were infused with spiritual philosophy such as believing there was a spiritual foundation for all phenomena including earth’s features.

Steiner’s spirituality developed into a personal form of Christianity that was non-denominational and non-dogmatic. While Arthur, and his wife Paula, chose to attend an Eastern Orthodox Church in Calistoga, California. Arthur hoped for a reconciliation of the Catholic and Orthodox branches of the Christian church, a thousand year-old schism.

Geomancy

Geomancy identifies lines of force, alignments, patterns and invisible earth energies underlying the visible landscape.

For Arthur Lisch, all of his concerns and passions blended seamlessly with the art and science of geomancy – the study of earth’s energies – that was being taught in the 1980s by Richard “Feather” Anderson. Geomancy identifies lines of force, alignments, patterns and invisible earth energies.

Humankind’s response to these forces has resulted in countless efforts to modulate them through the acts of building temples, pyramids, barrow mounds, and standing stones that may align with landscape features and celestial phenomena, such as solstices and the progression of the planets.

Mother and Child Wood Carving

mother and child wood carving

– by Takayuki Zoshi; Mother and Child Wood Carving – Photo by Kate Broderson

 

As John Michell puts it in his book, The Earth Spirit,

“Like Kundalini, the vital serpent current that animates living bodies, the spirit of the earth is discernible only in its effects and not by analysis. It is therefore of no concern to physical science…yet its influence was formerly considered to condition every aspect of life on earth, and…heroic efforts have been made…to learn its secrets so as to bring forth its more socially desirable properties.”

Theory in Practice

With his knowledge and experience with geomancy and spirituality, Arthur began to execute his vision for a peace park. First, he examined the map of Sonoma County and discovered one striking fact that involved the early settlers of what is now Sonoma County. The Russians and their Orthodox priests and the Spanish padres had each created outposts precisely fifty-five miles apart. The Russians, in their trek down California’s coast, had stalled at Fort Ross, while the Spaniards and their evangelical padres had reached the northernmost point of expansion at the Sonoma Mission. For a while, until the Russians retreated, these two Christian cultures maintained outposts in a landscape that was already extraordinarily potent, with its Pomo and Miwok Indian sites, its redwood forests, rugged Pacific coastline, fertile inland valleys, cloud-topped Mount Saint Helena, and meandering river – now known as the Russian River.

Lisch began by drawing a straight line between Fort Ross and the Sonoma Mission. He noticed that it passed through the town of Sebastopol, and that a point on the western edge of that town was exactly twenty-two and a half miles from each outpost. Going to the vicinity indicated on the map, Arthur discovered a county regional park that was in the process of being constructed on the long-defunct Ragle family ranch. Wandering in the abandoned Ragle orchard, he discovered a unique chestnut tree formed from two trees wedded together. About fifty feet away stood a Bartlett pear also created from two trees springing from the same root. Using the chestnut as the hub and the Bartlett as the radius point, he circumscribed a circle one hundred feet in diameter and declared it to be a “national peace site.” Regional parks officials, of course, had doubts and questions when Arthur took his idea to them. However, Arthur’s persuasive presentation convinced the park’s chief, Joe Rodota, and Lisch was allowed to implement his idea.

First Steps and County Pushback

Arthur fashioned a mission statement for the Peace Site, stating his intent to build “ a stating his intent to build “ a work of public art with the maximum of community participation that makes a profound statement about world peace.” His mission successfully engaged the large pacifist community in Sonoma County who formed the volunteers who help build and care for the park.

At first, the site had no features other than its two trees and a stretch of rank weeds and grasses. A formal groundbreaking took place on November 8, 1987.

A year later, Arthur wrote a report to the Sonoma County County Parks Department. Some excerpts included:

“…Hundreds of people have taken part. A Pomo elder has prayed for the land. Fourteen Soviets, who had come across the country as part of a joint U.S./Soviet peace walk, came to the site. There have been visits by Russian Orthodox and Catholic priests. There was a group meditation on peace for all nations. The group donated a “peace pole” which has the message “May peace prevail on earth” in Russian, Spanish, Japanese, and English. Biodynamic compost…was incorporated into the circle. Ann Magnie, (Sebastopol’s then-mayor,) donated a Japanese black pine. At the spring equinox, there was a large celebratory event. Plants were put in at poles that had been placed in the four directions…We came to a decision that we would have a spiral path. The path was moved a bit in relation to “Feather” Anderson’s suggestions about the entrance.”

Despite all this activity, a design for the park had not been finalized.

Lisch and his supporters developed the Peace Site by interfacing with the Regional Parks Administration. The process was challenging, but a design was eventually developed and agreed upon by all parties. The plan called for the Peace Site to be circumscribed by a zig-zag split-rail fence, its outer points corresponding to the sixteen compass directions, a concept that grew from Arthur’s study of the chess board.

The Peace Site Takes Shape with a Central Focus

The Peace Site consists of symbolic natural plantings, sculptures and carvings added over time by a variety of individuals, groups and artists. It was decided that a central focus based on geomancy would guide the ever-evolving site.

The logarithmic spiral of the Nautilus Shell

The logarithmic spiral of the Nautilus Shell

The Peace Site began to take shape when Geomancer Richard “Feather” Anderson drew a spiral path that mimicked the natural form exemplified by the logarithmic spiral of a Nautilus Shell. The path culminated at the central chestnut tree. The tree embodied a different sort of symbolism, as well as being a botanical curiosity. When the peace site was started, the tree was in such decline that an arborist declared it would be dead within a few years. But, the tree recovered, even though the trunk still displayed large swaths of dead wood.

The central chestnut tree showing the “daughter’s” roots before the addition of Takayuki Zoshi’s “Mother and Child” wood carving. – Photo by Kate Broderson

The trunk also seemed to be divided into “sub-trunks,” which on close examination proved to be the exposed roots of a second tree – or daughter – which had sprouted from a seed some six feet up in the mother’s damaged heart.

The “mother” and “daughter” trees, wrapped in a tight embrace, became the peace site’s signature feature; both had withstood the ravages of time, weather, and neglect to become – as they are now – radiantly alive and once more producing nuts.

Another important element of the garden that is related to the central tree is a sculpture that was commissioned by the Peace Site Care Group who raised the money for this project.

A five-member jury comprised of artists, chose finalists out more than 50 entries. Six sculptors were selected to create models that were displayed for six weeks in order to allow County Supervisors and Park Officials to inspect them. Ultimately, Masayuki Nagase’s granite “Prayer for Peace” (see photo at the end of the article) was selected as the winner.

The sculpture consists of two upright slabs, each approximately seven feet high, between which visitors can stand, and a carved granite table, over which trickles a tiny, continuous stream of water. This stream is captured at the base and piped to the roots of the chestnut tree. The water is a magnet for birds and small children, and the sculptor has written that it “…symbolizes the source of the human spirit and our consciousness for peace.”

In 2012, the Peace Site Care Group decided to use some accumulated donations to commission a very talented local woodcarver, Takayuki Zoshi, to carve a mother-and-child sculpture into the dead wood of the original tree. Chestnut wood is extremely rot resistant, and it accepted Zoshi’s chisel gracefully. This sculpture made the dual nature of the chestnut explicit, and nowadays, if you stand between the upright slabs of Masayuki’s piece, you look right into the eyes of Zoshi’s celebration of motherhood.

Six or seven paces behind her, you can see a long, carved redwood and hammered copper bench, designed by sculptor Bruce Johnson, and completed by students in the Artstart summer arts program. Johnson also contributed a tall, tapered, octagonal peace pole, which now—thanks to the “Peace Crane Project” of the local Peace and Justice Center—displays the words “May peace prevail on earth” in eight languages, including Pomo.

Many additions to the Peace Site are encountered while traversing Feather Anderson’s spiral path before finally resting in the shade of the chestnut tree. At the far eastern compass point, there once grew a “Peace” rose, planted in a joint ceremony by local Jews and Palestinians to celebrate the famous handshake between Palestinian leader, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister, Begin. After Begin was assassinated, the rose withered and died.

Further on, a Gravenstein apple tree grows, placed by Orthodox priests who brought it from Fort Ross; in the same ceremony, the Catholic bishop of Santa Rosa contributed a grape grown from vines at the Sonoma Mission. The grape and apple are planted precisely along the Fort Ross-Sonoma line that first inspired Arthur.

 

A bit further, one passes a rosa rugosa, a species of rose native to Eastern Europe, planted by a group of Russian exchange students. Next, comes a group of memorial plantings that includes roses, a solitary boulder, and a mugo pine. All of these features culminate in a small rock garden dedicated to the late Danaan Parry, an international diplomat for peace and founder of the Earth Stewards.

Continuing on, one passes a Colorado blue spruce, brought by the grandson of Cyrus Eaton, who organized the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs; and next, a birch tree ceremoniously installed by Ukranian students. Finally, at “due north,” we see Mayor Magnie’s Black Pine.

Conclusion

“Peace” is an umbrella concept under which many causes can gather. The Peace Site at Ragle Park does not presume either to define “peace” or to advise nations on how they should conduct foreign policy. It aims for something more personal, more intimate, and less verbal. It is a place of meditation, ceremony, and art, a place where visitors are welcome to bring their own emotions – whether grief, or anger, or longing – into an atmosphere of love and acceptance.

The Peace Site Care Group prunes and waters and rakes so that the many visitors, young and old, feel welcomed into a beautiful, well-tended environment. Then the visitors themselves, by augmenting the earth energies gathered there continue the process of sanctifying their own landscape.

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About the Author

Stephen Fowler is a retired landscape designer who, when his wife died in 1987, set out to do something worthy in her memory. He joined the Peace Site Care Group in 1987. He has been the Volunteer Coordinator since 1992.

 

 The author with Masayuki Nagase’s granite “Prayer for Peace.” The sculptor has written that it “...symbolizes the source of the human spirit and our consciousness for peace.” - Photo by Kate Broderson

The author with Masayuki Nagase’s granite “Prayer for Peace.” The sculptor has written that it “…symbolizes the source of the human spirit and our consciousness for peace.”
– Photo by Kate Broderson

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