At a ranch in Cazadero, it's sheep, spirituality, and science

Jun 4, 2015

Three hours north of San Francisco, just east of the ocean, rise the steep, green hills of Cazadero. It’s an idyllic setting: open space with farms, a variety of oak trees, and an abundance of grasses.

A mixed flock of sheep and goats nibble on the plants in what is an almost Biblical scene. My guide and owner of these animals is named Starhawk. From our vantage point on the hill, we hear the chattering of birds. She points above us, to the trunk of a dead tree.

“The woodpeckers there, they’re making holes in the tree and you can see them flying in with little acorns in their beaks,” she says. “And then they hide them in the tree and stash their acorns for the winter.”

Starhawk is a keen observer of nature now, but she wasn’t always so tuned in. Born Miriam Simos, she grew up in the San Fernando Valley, a suburban Jewish girl who longed for a deeper connection to nature. She changed her name after dreaming of a hawk that transformed into a wise woman. Since then, she’s played many roles in life including political activist, spiritual leader, teacher, and author. Her 1979 book "The Spiral Dance” helped revitalize a pagan religious movement.

A return to nature

In the book Starhawk advocated for a return to a tradition that took its lessons from the earth: “Witchcraft takes its teachings from nature, and reads inspiration in the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, the flight of birds, the slow growth of trees, and the cycles of the seasons,” she wrote.

Of course, the idea of returning to nature is not new. In the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau took what was then a radical step and went to live in the woods for year. Famously, he declared, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Since Thoreau, modern life has only served to offer even more separation from nature. For urban dwellers, shoes and concrete mean little direct contact with dirt. If it rains or snows, we can go indoors. We can even control the temperature inside. The conveniences mean that in many ways, our lives are easier than our ancestors. But some people—including Starhawk—believe the separation from nature is detrimental, hurting both the planet and our spirits.

An approach that blends science and spirituality

And so, she is blending pagan spirituality with a back-to-the-earth environmental approach. She started leading earth-based rituals in her 20s, though at the time, she knew little about the nitty-gritty dynamics of nature. Then in the mid-1990s she took a permaculture workshop, a way of holistic farming that emphasizes observation. Now in her 60s, she devours magazines like “Permaculture Design” and the “Katahdin Herald.” (Katahdins are the brand of sheep raised on this 40-acre ranch.) The scientific knowledge has shifted her approach to spirituality.

“I think a lot of times when we think about spirituality, or we think about meditation, we’re thinking about some kind of practice where you turn your focus inward,” Starhawk says. “You sit, you meditate, you watch your breath. But for me, it’s really shifted where I understand spirituality as about actually opening up and listening to what’s around us.”

Listening to the land

In the hills, near the tree where the woodpeckers jam their beaks into a tree, a few of the usually docile sheep start making a lot of noise.

“What do you think they’re saying?” I ask. I don’t really expect an answer, but Starhawk speaks up right away.

“Yelina’s nervous about something. She’s calling for something, but she doesn’t actually have babies, so she’s not calling for her babies. Maybe she thinks someone has wandered away too far from the herd. Or maybe she senses something in the landscape.

A few dogs across the valley begin to bark.

“Oh, there’s the dogs over there. I think that’s what’s making her nervous,” Starhawk says.

Starhawk lives part-time on this 40-acre ranch, where spirituality is often subtle, intertwined with the everyday business of tending to the land.  

“Sometimes we just wake up. You go get the sheep...and you take them for a walk,” says Jonathan Furst, who is a practicing Jew, but is still drawn to this brand of spiritual agriculture.

“The magic is infused in the land,” Furst says. “Simply putting your hands in the dirt, taking care of the sheep, collecting eggs...interwoven into everything we do are small prayer moments. Then it’s like one constant spiritual practice.”      

Charles Williams is the land manager on the ranch. He and Starhawk had been friends for almost two decades when she asked him to come live full time on the ranch a few years ago. He instructs people like Jonathan who pass through the ranch for days, weeks or months at a time.

“Like anybody who comes to live here, if they’re going to come for more than a week, they have to go to the spring,” Williams said. “Our water all comes from one spring. It’s up on the hillside. And if you’re going live here, you got to go up and say hi to the spring.”

But not everyone is a believer.  

“The criticism of some of those groups is that they’re making it up,” says Andrew Ramer, a professor in the department of religion and theology at the University of San Francisco. “That they’re dilettantes.”

“A goddess from here, a goddess from there, a poem from this place, a song from that place. Inventing it. And in some ways, that’s a legitimate criticism, but in other ways, I think that when you have been cut off from your tradition, and by tradition I mean when all of us human beings have cut ourselves off from our engagement and involvement in the planet, and the cycles of the planet, we do the best we can to get back.”

Sheep as healers for the land

This getting back to the planet, for Starhawk and her land manager Williams, is not only about connecting to the land; it’s taking action to heal it. Remember the sheep?  

The ranch uses a holistic management technique to rotate where they graze. So Williams, who does most of the shepherding is quite deliberate about where he takes them.

“I want to cross the creek so if we could head in that direction, it’d be great,” he tells us.

Sheep are sheep, so Charles tells me it’s a constant negotiation with them about where to go. The sheep want to head for the lush, green grasses, but that’s not always what’s best, he says. Each day after grazing, he moves electric fences so that they bunch together in small areas for only short periods of time.

This style of grazing has big benefits for the land. The sheep trample down overgrown grasses, including invasive species. That becomes valuable compost. When Charles moves the sheep to another area, they also leave behind poop, and altogether richer soil that encourages native seeds to sprout. These growing plants pull carbon dioxide from the air.  

“They will put the carbon into the leaves. They’ll put the carbon into their stems, into their seeds...they’ll put the carbon into their roots,” Williams says.

The ecology is shifted for the better and is also a step towards fighting climate change. The approach is a perfect example of where science and spirituality can meet.

“There’s a lot of people now who are really trying to document what this kind of grazing can do and get the scientific data that can show yes, this actually can work,” Starhawk says. “We know it works because we can see it, but then we’ll have the numbers to prove it.”

A prayer for rain

So far, there’s no creative permaculture solution to the drought that Cazadero, like the rest of California, is facing. So this is where Starhawk pulls in other strains of her spiritual practice. When about 40 neighbors and friends for a spring party, Starhawk leads a ritual circle. Some people have never met her, but know her books. For others, this is their first introduction.

“Just take a deep breath,” Starhawk instructs near a fire where meat from a whole sheep roasts. Maybe close your eyes for a minute. Feel your feet on the ground and imagine yourself like one of these plants or trees taking root and feeling your roots push down through the rocks and soil, and down into this living earth.”

The group walks a short ways to the water tanks. Some people tap them as they go around. They then gather around a glistening square mosaic tile, a new water altar. Starhawk asks each person to step forward and say one thing they appreciate about water as they sprinkle spring water on the altar.

“Nourishment...the concept of fluidity...making waves...photosynthesis...fertility,” participants say.

That night, sleeping in my sleeping bag on the floor of a yurt, I wake in the middle of the night. Much to my surprise, it’s raining.

You may or may not believe that the ritual had anything to do with the rain. But participants did achieve a goal, which was remembering that we can’t take nature for granted and that our connection to it matters.