At Continent's End, Sustainability's Search  For A New Beginning

IMG_6500.jpgA Report From Green Spa Network's 10th-Annual Congress in Carmel Valley, California—and the quest to plant 1 million trees!

Big news from the spaworld! Green Spa Network (GSN), a nonprofit trade association that emphasizes sustainability practices in the spa industry, recently kicked off their GSN Tree Planting Initiative in partnership with WeForest: GSN will initiate the planting of one million trees by Earth Day 2019. Member spas in GSN will donate funds, organize or participate in tree planting events, and continue with already existing tree-planting partnership to help regenerate the earth using trees' natural abilities to reverse climate change. You can help by patronizing a GSN member spa and/or contacting WeForest to see how you can help support or organize a tree-planting event yourself. Wellness Warrior attended the last GSN conference during an inspiring three days near Carmel, California. Let's make this happen together! Make a pledge, make a difference.

Here's our WellnessWarrior report from GSN 2018, Carmel, California:

herons.jpgAtop Coal Chute Point in Point Lobos State Marine Reserve, two great blue herons pranced in their new treetop nest 40 feet above the rocks and cliffs. Again and again one stayed home while the other flew into a neighboring Monterey pine grove, wings wide, long crooked neck and head thrust forward, seeking the perfect branch or cluster of dried needles.

It was a raucous, yellow-bills-clacking affair, but their noisy carpentry seemed in perfect harmony with the hushed wash of crystalline waters meeting a cobbled beach in Whalers Cove. Just offshore, the gas-filled pods of Giant Kelp bobbed in tiny swells, and the thump of a passing kayaker's errant paddle hitting a gunwale could be heard now and then as he stroked out past the point.

Three hikers paused for almost half an hour where the famed coastline of Pt. Lobos washed itself in sunshine bright as a brass binnacle. The poetry of Robinson Jeffers brought them to a deep sense of place and purpose:

RobinsonJeffers_NewBioImage.jpgIt is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies.
Let the rich life run to the roots again.
I will go down to the lovely Sur rivers..."

—"Return" by Robinson Jeffers (from "The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers," Random House, Inc., New York, 1933)

In the afternoon they would join the start of the annual Green Spa Network conference in Carmel Valley, California, but for now they were doing exactly what GSN's leaders hoped conference attendees would do: experience nature and reconnect with the elements.

Retreat to the Ranch

gsn_roup.jpgNow in its tenth year, the conference convened at Carmel Valley Ranch with approximately 100 attendees drawn from destination spas, fitness resorts, hot springs, day spas, and other well-being-oriented businesses, including cosmetic and skin care companies. Past locations for GSN conferences have intentionally been inspiring natural settings, included Yosemite, the Presidio in San Francisco, Rancho La Puerta, Sundance, Santa Fe, Sun River, and other locales—always places that are quite the opposite of more stereotypical conference hubs like Las Vegas, Orlando, or L.A.

We often say GSN is the 'conscience of the spa industry,'" said Tara Grodjesk of TARA Spa Therapy, Inc., a longtime member of GSN. "Each conference provides a sense of intimacy...and explores why we're doing what we're doing."

The conference theme was lofty:

"We gathered to answer the question," said Michael Stusser of Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, California, and a founder of GSN, "'How do those of us in the spa industry...fully leverage the shared vision and synergy that arises in a gathering like this to become a powerful response to the global imperative for sustainability?'"

A conference planning committee headed by Tracie Wertz (including Michael Stusser, Tara Grodjesk, and Bonnie Baker) set out to translate passion into purpose.

They invited a lineup of visionary speakers united by their interest in defining and understanding sustainability — and turning new insights into real action. The resulting tree-planting initiative (see introduction above), Stusser told us later, can be "...the most important thing GSN has set out to do since the organization's inception."  

trees.jpgWhy trees

Bill Reed, AIA, of Regenesis Group (known for innovative sustainability practices in land use, community development, and the built environment) served as a speaker and facilitator both days. You can watch his presentation, and others', here.

There is hope for combating climate change, and one key lies in planting trees in a science-based "whole system" of many, many trees. The restoration of land, water, and air quality via reforestation has already been tested with astonishing results in different parts of the world: for example, dry washes have been turned into year-'round streams (more on this later).

He was joined by Celia Hoffman of The Goodman Center (an expert on storytelling), Kevin Kelly of Carefree, Arizona's new Civana resort, Dr. Michael Bernard Beckwith (author, and founder and spiritual director of the Agape International Spiritual Center), Thomas L. Eddington (business consultant who focuses on developing leaders and organizations as stewards for humanity), and landscape architect Josiah Cain of Sherwood Design Engineers. Biology-inspired architect Nicholas Goldsmith FAIA of FTL Design Engineering Studio also presented new green building theories.


The kick off: a Global Wellness Institute Roundtable

Moderated by Mary Bemis, Editorial Director and Founder of Insiders Guide to Spas (a website and spa newsletter), over a dozen spa industry leaders gathered at the start of the conference to discuss Beyond Sustainability: Defining a New Terrain for Vital Well-Being.

One famed participant was Deborah Szekely, co-founder of Rancho La Puerta and founder of the Golden Door, who — at age 95 — contributed her 78-years-in-the-business perspective on "the greatest challenge" she faced regarding spa sustainability practices.

When she started Rancho La Puerta in 1940 with her husband Edmond Szekely "...we had nothing. We had to be green. We asked our first guests to bring their own tents, and there was no running water or electricity ... but we had a river, we cooked over a wood stove, and we planted a garden on the first day we arrived [in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico — still the home of The Ranch today]."

Later, when asked what the first step toward sustainability might be, Ms. Szekely said, "I think we all just need to be Hippies!" and the audience laughed merrily—at which point Mary Bemis commented that Deborah, at age 95, is the ultimate "proof of concept" when it comes to "living a vital, healthy lifestyle."

As the roundtable continued, Mary Bemis asked, "What are we sustaining with sustainability? Is that even the right word?" and turned first to her husband, Stephen Kiesling, Editor In Chief of Spirituality & Health magazine (dedicated to "total aliveness").

"My father was one of founders of Zero Population Growth and I was the third child," he quipped. "So the first question is, 'Why am I here?' Today I feel we must all read, “Kiss The Ground” by Josh Tickell on how what we eat can save the environment via natural carbon sequestration. It’s all about [sustaining] the soil."

Michael Stusser felt that sustainability was linked to "...creating a meditative environment where people can be encouraged not by words but going toward nature—nature as a source ground for personal healing and a way to step into healing...the planet."

Tom Eddington sounded a dire warning, one that would keep one of this article's reporters awake much of that night:

Are we bankrupting the earth's resources for future generations? I’ve landed in a place where the answer is yes. Now we must look [beyond sustainability] toward how we can restore ... we as a species have something in the neighborhood of 12 to 17 years to do something about sequestering carbon...or the average temperature will increase another degree. Soil is the answer, but we’ve eliminated half the topsoil on the planet."

What to do? Between Bill Reed and the attendees, a punch list of ideas, observations (and even actions) began to take shape:

  • Start with children…find engaging ways to deliver our message beyond little blips on social media. Education is about storytelling. Truthful storytelling.
  • Foster authentic connections between people and nature.
  • Regenerate a sense of self, and respect and reverence for nature.
  • Overcome restraints such as the "luxury" of wellness. Wellness is nota luxury, "spa" is. We can do a million [wellness] acts that don’t cost a dime.
  • How do we get permission to educate? One cannot assume that people want to educated about sustainability.
  • Has the term wellness been corrupted and co-opted?
  • Be aware of the difference between wanting to and being willing to. We want to, but are we willing to step off the edge and do it?

Toward the end of the roundtable, Stephen Kiesling told a story about a friend who lives in Ojai, surrounded by fire-prone mountains and yet Ojai remains a popular tourist town. Kiesling thinks Ojai will become a " for preparedness. People will go to Ojai just to see how they're handling the danger. Spas, also, can be refuges and training centers for all that we are experiencing in the world today."

Tara Grodjesk agreed, saying, "The world needs us now more than ever. How do we keep our resilience, stay healthy, stay strong so we can go out in the world and make a difference?"

turkeys_02.jpgThe march of the wild turkeys...toward regeneration?

Hiking has always been an important part of Green Spa conferences, and each morning at Carmel Valley Ranch was no exception. Up before dawn, while the stars were still out above the ridgelines, Tara Grodjesk marshaled her troops and led us up a steep ridge through oak groves and wisps of fog. Later, descending back to the resort's golf course, we found ourselves in step with dozens of wild turkeys—or what is more correctly called a "rafter of turkeys" rather than a "flock" or "gobble."

hikers.jpgOne's thoughts might well turn to feasting, and food at every Green Spa conference has never been an afterthought. Meals are chosen to emphasize farm to table whenever possible, and vegetarians are given plenty of options. The meals (included) at Carmel Valley Ranch on both Monday and Tuesday conference days, as well as a welcome dinner Sunday night, were excellent throughout, and despite all efforts to avoid desserts the baklava and shortbread cookies at one lunch were irresistible.

On the first day, a highpoint was Bill Reed's discussion of the "regenerative development movement." He showed examples of denuded landscapes that had been brought back into flower—literally—to the point where forests had replaced sere plains, and water flowed through creek beds once again after years of these courses being completely dry.

Astonished, many in the audience assumed that this was the end result of decades of reforestation labor, irrigation, and management. And yet the examples shown, including the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project in China, had all been reborn in 5 years or less, including the re-establishment of year-round streams. Eighteen months is often the key turning point in an ecological system's return to vitality (not coincidentally, Bill Reed believes, 18 in Hebrew is a word-combination of two symbols together known as Chai, and chai translated to English means "life" and "being alive"). Here's to chai!

As Reed put it, "The gyre of life is vital ... We so often work in fragments. When we think in fragments, we cease to understand the problem. How do we work with the whole living system?"

esalen_02.jpgRestoration means much more than re-creation: one can restore the capacity of ecological systems — the patterns of life itself — to evolve. How do we build the essence of place? Every place is a living being. And humans are nature; they are not always a scourge.

Other notes taken during Reed's talk include a reference to "Tending The Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources," by M. Kat Anderson. In one overview from the publisher and book sellers we learn that vast tracts of what we think of (and yearn for) as untouched wilderness has seen the hand of man for thousands of years in a beneficent way:

John Muir was an early proponent of a view we still hold today--that much of California was pristine, untouched wilderness before the arrival of Europeans. But as this groundbreaking book demonstrates, what Muir was really seeing when he admired the grand vistas of Yosemite and the gold and purple flowers carpeting the Central Valley were the fertile gardens of the Sierra Miwok and Valley Yokuts Indians, modified and made productive by centuries of harvesting, tilling, sowing, pruning, and burning. Marvelously detailed and beautifully written, 'Tending the Wild' is an unparalleled examination of Native American knowledge and uses of California's natural resources that reshapes our understanding of native cultures and shows how we might begin to use their knowledge in our own conservation efforts. M. Kat Anderson presents a wealth of information on native land management practices gleaned in part from interviews and correspondence with Native Americans who recall what their grandparents told them about how and when areas were burned, which plants were eaten and which were used for basketry, and how plants were tended. The complex picture that emerges from this and other historical source material dispels the hunter-gatherer stereotype long perpetuated in anthropological and historical literature. We come to see California's indigenous people as active agents of environmental change and stewardship. 'Tending the Wild' persuasively argues that this traditional ecological knowledge is essential if we are to successfully meet the challenge of living sustainably."

Other presenters were insightful and inspiring, and the sessions passed quickly. 

Taking the waters at Esalen

esalen_01.jpgWhen a conference is held in a place of great beauty, the urge to explore proves irresistible. Green Spa planners always accommodate with at least two excursions; in this case a trip to Pt. Lobos was offered just before sessions opened, and after a closing ceremony, a kayak experience on Monterey Bay.

These two authors, along with Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, a longtime wellness executive and board member of Demeter USA as well as Wellness Warrior, were in the company of Deborah Szekely. Deborah (as she prefers to be called) suddenly pronounced, not long after a presentation by Esalen's new President Terry Gilbey,

We must go to Esalen. Many years ago before its founding in 1962, Michael Murphy came and stayed with us at Rancho La Puerta, seeking a possible model for what he created at Esalen. He'd heard about Aldous Huxley's love for the Ranch, and Aldous has even held a 'human potential' seminar with my husband Edmond."

Rains swept across the roadway and virtually overwhelmed the windshield wipers as we journeyed south on the Big Sur coast for a "quick" sojourn at Terry Gilbey's invitation. Soon we were touring the new dining room, walking the rows of the organic garden, and slipping into the hot springs for a long after-lunch soak. With water up to our chins, and steam rising into a now-light rain, we spoke long and often of the importance of Green Spa and those who focus their mission not only on the human potential movement, but also the potential for humans to actually heal the earth.

gsn_group_02.jpgBack at the conference, with its theme of “Inspire Action and Create Community through Storytelling” well in mind, we heard Deborah Szekely tell one last story:

The earth is so anxious to be replenished. When I first came to what would become our home in Tecate, the land was bare, cropped by cattle, and two oaks arched together to form a kind of door (La Puerta). Now it is an incredible garden. We had a role to play, and it was as a gardener...not only for the land, but also a gardener for our guests' desire to live a natural, purposeful life filled with vitality."


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