My own Gan Eden was not in the East by the Tigris and Euphrates, but 90 miles west of San Antonio in the Texas Hill Country near a small town with the improbable name of Utopia, on the cool, green Sabinal River.
My parents bought it when I was 12 years old as a place for my father to escape the endless demands of his pediatric medical practice on weekends. We had five acres, including riverfront, and unfettered access to the neighbor’s ranchlands around us. To get there, we loaded our station wagon and drove an hour and a half through Hill Country towns before it was time to turn off the two lane highway and meander down a dusty dirt road, opening and closing cattle gates behind us.
We had a ranch house with a lawn and real garden created from tons of topsoil trucked in by the previous owners. The barbed wire fence in front was decorated with a rusted wagon wheel and a wooden sign, “Robinson Crusoe Ranch,” named for the beloved summer camp Back East where my parents had worked in their youth. The house’s classic Hill Country architecture included a breezeway, a limestone patio built around a live oak tree, and a screened in back porch where we played games and did arts and crafts. A few steps from this porch, outside the back gate, flanked by fragrant white flowers, forty-two wood and stone steps led down to the Sabinal river.
The rich green yard was shaded with live-oaks, a crab apple tree and figs, red poinsettias that bloomed in winter, and beds of bright orange wild flowers that bloomed in the fall. Outside the barbed wire fence the colors were more dusty and muted, rolling hills covered with scrubby cedars, blooming cacti, and a variety of spring wildflowers like bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and black-eyed Susan. Cattle and wooly angora goats grazed nearby, and the wild animals included deer, turkeys, jack-rabbits, raccoons, skunks, and armadillos. The river held fish, frogs, snakes, and snapping turtles. On summer nights, we caught glowing golden fireflies, then let them go in the cool night air.
We had a large hummingbird feeder hanging by the picture window in the living room, and I sometimes counted two dozen glittering red-throated birds hovering there to sip their red sugar water. Once I looked out and there was a large garden snake wrapped around the feeder, its body undulating in the air (my father caught it and set it free across the road).
The quiet at the ranch was thick, palpable. It was not an empty silence, but a rich and breathing quiet. Wind blew through the treetops like the ghost of the long departed ocean that covered the valley millions of years before. Mourning doves cooed in the chill of dawn. At night it was too silent, and stars hung glittering, close enough to touch, low-hanging fruits from the tree of heaven. Across the road was a bluff that we hiked, picking up fossils left from the ancient ocean or searching for arrowheads from the vanished people who once lived there: Tonkowa, Kickapoo, or Apache. We raced to the top and spun around to see the 360 degree view to the surrounding broad valley and the ring of hills all around it.
Slightly upstream from our ranch was a magnificent pool, surrounded by giant cypresses and limestone cliffs in a cathedral-like majesty that left visitors in awe. The river then split in half around a stone-covered island. On the far side was a crystal clear little rapid running over a smooth limestone floor, our favorite place to skinny dip when no one was around (which was most of the time). We could swim vigorously against the current without moving. The side closer to our house was smooth, languid, and glowed green from the plants and algae growing at the bottom and the reflections of the cypress trees in the water. The soft bank was muddy and the center was cool and deep. As we swam we felt chilly undercurrents rising from unseen springs. The giant cypress trees were sentries, with one next to the stairs partly fallen but growing still, leaning back on the cliff like the legs of a giant woman reclining in a recumbent yoga posture on the cliff.
When we first bought the ranch, it was the winter of my thirteenth year. Everything was shaded in brown and grey. But one weekend, we got there on a Friday night and went to bed. I was the first person up that morning, and I quietly made my way out the back door, out the back screened porch and into the back yard. The air was warm; spring had arrived. My hand was upon the rusty gate; it opened with a little creak. In a moment I was outside the gate to the river…and in a world transformed. Everything green and alive! Giant cypress trees, purple-flowered vines flowing down the limestone cliffs, the green river flowing below. A world humming and buzzing with spring, with life: wind in the trees, birds chirping, hawks circling overhead, bees buzzing above the flowers. The air—rich with scents of blossoms, cypress and cedar perfumes, heady with oxygen. I glided down the forty-two steps, stood transfixed in the soft grass at their base, beside the river glistening with sunlight and shadows. All my senses took in the scene, but I did not feel separate. I was filled with wonder, at one with the vital newborn world around me. No separation, part of the whole, awestruck. I wanted to say some words worthy of the moment, and the only prayer that I could think of holy enough was the Shema I had learned in Sunday School: “Here 0 Israel, the Eternal is Our God; the Eternal is One.”
I spent the next years and decades trying to recapture the wonder of that moment; and although I had many moving and beautiful experiences, I was three times twelve before I had that kind of mystical encounter again, that blurring of the boundaries between self and whole.
Meanwhile I learned a lot of liturgy, became more pious, and wished I had said the “proper” blessing for the moment. But later still, I realized there could have been no better response than to affirm the great Unity of All by saying Shema. Much later, I learned that in the Kabbalah, there is a mystical 42-letter Divine Name.
–Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan
Consider and Comment:
Did you have a special place in nature that was formative to your soul? Can you still go back, and if so, has it changed? Please share stories of your own Garden of Eden in the comments section.
Featured Photo: At our Ranch on the Sabinal River, Utopia, Texas, 1970’s. Photo by Don Cohen