I just got back from spending a long weekend with Dr. Andrew Weil at his home on Cortes Island in British Columbia, Canada. He’s my mentor and good friend. I call him Andy most of the time, just so you know.
Andy’s place is tough to get to. Tucked away from the civilized world, it’s a 12-hour trip from Tucson, Arizona, where I live and work. You get there by large plane to Vancouver, small plane to Vancouver Island, taxi to the docks in Campbell River and finally a water shuttle to Manson’s Landing on Cortes Island, where the bearded one picks you up and takes you home. Andy’s place is a veritable Shangri-La, an ocean-front property encircled by 120 acres of forest where the snow-covered mountains of Vancouver Island gleam across the water. His house is large and elegant but simple. Architecturally it’s a blend of Japanese and Pacific Northwest with some Scandinavian nuances. It is openly spaced, made mostly of wood, stone and glass – meticulously crafted but in no way ostentatious. It’s serene here. The place feels like a Shinto shrine.
Beauty abounds in this place. It’s all around you – everything from the majestic garden to the giant raven-carving standing sentinel in the backyard; the Japanese maples shining their brilliant reds and greens; the enclosure of bonsai trees or circle of tree stumps surrounding a fire pit (great for “stories”); and my favorite – the island of lilies, gloriously rising on a field of mulch out of which Andy’s septic tank empties – how fitting.
Shangri-La is the perfect place for some needed peace and quiet.
Our days began with a quick meditation: Andy in his room, me outside sitting on a throne of drift wood overlooking the ocean. We got a quick breakfast followed by a long walk with Andy’s dogs – two Rhodesian Ridgebacks named Asha and Ajax. They loved the forest, prancing then galloping through trees and trails, playing every step of the way. Once the hike was done, we got a quick drink then commenced to working in the garden.
As long as I’ve known him, Andy has had gardens. Growing up in a Philadelphia row house, gardens were never part of his childhood. Having a fascination for plants and studying botany in college, gardens have always been on his mind. I remember Andy saying that when he “made it big” he would have the garden of his dreams.
I guess he’s doing pretty well these days.
The garden is indeed a spectacle. Flowers mix with fruits and vegetables to “feed the soul as well as the body.” The pillars of corn are what get you right away (besides walking past the big-ass bird of wood and metal).
Standing over six-feet tall the corn is colossal and unfortunately (for me) will be ready to eat in the next 2-3 weeks, when I’ll be gone. I’m used to corn growing in Indiana – my neck of the woods – not British Columbia. I’m also not used to it looking this gorgeous. It’s a variety known as Serendipity, which thrives in a summer climate of long, cool days that favor the Pacific Northwest. Andy said this corn is perfect for a home garden. As opposed to commercial operations who want their whole field pulled at the same time, you can pull out fresh ears for at least three weeks.
Anyone for sweet-summer corn?
Once you get past the Serendipity, there are strawberries to the left, then lettuce, broccoli, kale and chard, tomatoes, summer squash, string beans, onions and garlic, basil, Italian parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano, peppermint and spearmint. Andy turned me on to mint-water – cold water from the tap infused with sprigs of peppermint or spearmint. Better than a piece of chewing gum!
The garden of herbs, fruits and vegetables is mixed with the most beautiful array of flowers I have ever seen on a piece of property: oriental lilies, calla lilies, daylilies, begonias, giant dahlias looking like multi-colored pom-poms, purple and blue hydrangeas, even Edelweiss, which Andy is trying to grow. Known in Italy as “stellae alpine” or Alpine stars– these flowers are typically found in mountainous regions at altitudes of 5000 to 9000 feet. In German, Edelweiss means “noble and white.” It was made famous in the Sound of Music as the traditional folksong performed by the Von Trapp family prior to their escape from German-occupied Austria into the high regions of northern Italy. I was introduced to Edelweiss when my father took me back to his homeland and we would hike in those same mountains. As a child, Edelweiss was the first flower that ever captured my fascination. It has been the source of affection and adventure for many love-struck young men trying to endear themselves to their alpine ladies by collecting flowers from those hard to access crags and ledges in the mountains of Northern Europe, often with threat to life and limb.
Edelweiss got a hold on me early. What a pleasure seeing it growing in the gardens of Shangri-La.
Same with the dahlias and lilies. I mean seriously – how can flowers look like this? They seemed like fireworks exploding out of their shoots, virtual pom-poms or vegetal sea anemones floating in the wind. Again – patches of beauty everywhere you glance.
After being blown away by the dahlias, you venture towards the museum of lilies. This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen; the aroma – pure perfume. No one picture can do justice to the over-thirty varieties of lilies growing on the property and in concentration on top of the septic overflow. No hint of sewage here – how perfect.
According to a Chinese proverb, “If you have two loaves of bread, sell one and buy a lily.” I agree. The fragrance and visual pyrotechnics was completely overwhelming.
I leaned in to sniff a bit too aggressively, and got lily pollen on my face – brownish, yellow stains on my nose and cheeks. I looked like a total fool. It was great. By the way, lily pollen is not easy to get off.
Working in the garden was pure joy. I’m convinced that every physician as part of his or her training should spend quality time tending a garden. Experiencing nature, solving problems, being patient and mindful, getting your hands dirty and eating food from the earth that you have worked in — all of these things are essential to training in the healing arts. It should be just as mandatory as Anatomy and Physiology lab and would probably be much more fun.
It was for me.
We started our work picking garlic bulbs. Not ever having worked in a garden before, my impression of garlic is from bulbs I see at the grocery store, not the long stalks of green protruding from the ground. Andy picked while I cleaned off dirt from the bulbs using a high-powered hose (thank goodness) then placing them in a pile. There was a fair amount of garlic to pick so this took a good hour. Then it was time to hang the garlic to let it dry. It takes at least two weeks before the bulbs are ready. At that point, the outer wrapper will get papery thin and shrink, but to dry well, the bulbs need to hang in a cool, dry place. We tied the garlic in bunches and hung it on the side of Andy’s garage. Working together, we knocked it out in 15 minutes – job well done. Definitely a sense of accomplishment.
Our next day’s work was picking black raspberries. Andy turned me on to a new treat – fruit ice cream made almost magically with his Bamix handheld blender (www.bamix.com). We were on a hunt for the night’s dessert. Black raspberries are very high in anthocyanins and elagic acid, powerful antioxidants that are currently being studied for their potential benefit as a cancer treatment. We were going to use them this day for nothing but a yummy after-dinner treat, cancer benefits were an added bonus.
So it was off to the garden to navigate vines and grab as many juicy berries as we could find. Let’s just say some got eaten in the process (we won’t talk numbers here – embarrassing).
Now, black raspberry vines are a bit pesky. They get to be six feet in height and eventually arch themselves all kinds of directions to make them precarious to get around. I found myself getting bit by a thorn or two trying to find the choicest berries of the bunch.
It’s definitely an art, searching for ripe fruit amidst younger, smaller berries. The best ones are a deep bluish purple, easily picked off the vine, whereas younger berries look small and red moving towards burgundy. The sweet release of pleasure when you get a whole cluster of berries to come easily into your hands is deeply satisfying. I could have spent hours there, communing with nature, mindful of what I was looking for, negotiating spider webs and prickly vines, sunlight peeking through the leaves. It was spectacular – pure mindfulness and meditation – picking berries.
This is a picture of my collection so far. Notice the stains on my fingers – lots of sampling – as much as picking. Why not, right?
To be in a place where all you do is pick the food you eat for the day, being one with the land – in silent meditation listening to ocean waves, walking the doggies through the forest, working in the garden – the pulse of life gets slow and fluid.
It is a rhythm that fosters peace and harmony. What a blessing to be in this place and feel this flow. We should all be so lucky.
Nice to know where Shangri-La truly is.