History of Mountains and Waters Alliance

This is a personal story.


The earliest origins of Mountains and Waters Alliance lie in childhood summers spent roaming in the woods and fields, picking raspberries and blackberries, fearful of rattlesnakes, discovering the wild iris early one spring and coming back every year to find them again, until my family moved when I was twelve.


Another origin is when I walked for ninety days along the KXL route, with a small group. I thought of it as ceremony; others thought of it as community. It was incredibly difficult and forever changed my relationship with earth and sky. It was called the Compassionate Earth Walk. (also on Facebook) It began with a vision during zazen, during monastic training at Tassajara. When I came home I was exhausted, unable to write and unable to return to ordinary life. But I was ready to follow my old dream of finding land and living there in spiritual community.


The naming of Mountains and Waters Alliance came late in 2015, in my second year of living on this land of creeks and hills, woods and meadows, sun and sky and stars, in southern Minnesota. I was living on the land, trying to learn farming, and seeking partners to work and live a spiritual life together. It was called Vairochana Farm. Then suddenly there was a threat. The farm across the road sold, and a potential buyer wanted to build a house on the hill on my side of the road. Turning a wild 25 acres into a suburban house. Ruining a sacred space, I thought. There were no legal ways to prevent it, even though it was an abomination. “If it happens, I will leave,” I thought. I turned to an energy healer that I’ve worked with on and off for years. He offered this: Walk on the land and ask it to help you.

A few days later I would be sitting a five-day silent retreat, a Zen sesshin in the style of my lineage. I sat those days, indoors, in silence, and on the afternoon of the last day I changed clothes and went outdoors to walk in the woods. I walked, asking the trees, asking the bushes, asking the hill itself to help me and to protect itself from invasion. As I walked, the sense of response became clearer and stronger, until the space around me was filled with a “yes” and a sense of great living energy. Even the buckthorn said yes – even though surely they knew I intended to remove them to make space for native plants. Finally I felt at peace. And although land has changed hands, there are no buildings there, five years later. And the name came.


Another beginning happened during a retreat in the Colorado Rockies, during a solo in the high mountains, an overnight with meteors bursting overhead for hours, and flowers that answered when I spoke with them. From there I stopped in the Black Hills, driven off the road by a hailstorm, and met magnificent rock people who also spoke with me, gave gifts, and agreed to join with me in the work. Happily I had plans with a friend I’d met on the Walk, and she had language from her tradition which helped me meet what had happened there.

I don’t travel much, but since then whenever I do travel I seek wild and sacred places and speak with whatever beings are willing, and asking them to join. These characters, in Hong Kong, said no: “We’ve been doing this dance from the beginning,” they said, and “you are just a speck.” Shocked, I returned home, got a painful case of shingles, and asked how to proceed while knowing I’m not important.


The Alliance


People have come to visit, to practice spiritually together. People have donated many hours of work, on the land and in making the building more workable for a community of practice. Long visits have been treasured, offering a taste of the community that I hope to foster here.

There have also been residents who came for their own reasons and stayed however long they stayed. I accepted them because I needed rent money or farm help. Increasingly, it’s become clear that this doesn’t work: the space needs to be for people who want to practice together spiritually, in community and on the land, with awareness of what is happening in the whole world. So I’m slow to accept new residents, and always require a long-ish visit first, while earnestly hoping to grow to the six-person vision. I went back to work as a psychotherapist and am now able to

For a few years I led a Zen study group in Northfield, then stopped and began hosting potluck/discussion groups at the farm. This all changed with the Covid-19 pandemic. I changed the potluck to a weekly online discussion group, an “introduction to Zen” retreat into an online class. Both of these are still happening, along with some advanced formal Zen students.

I’ve offered a presence in some public places, including Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light (specifically focusing on Line 3) as it seemed appropriate.

In 2016 the Advisory Council started meeting monthly, clarifying questions, helping me with decisions, and picking me up when I’m discouraged. I am awed and honored to be supported by a group of such amazing people.


The evolution continues. Growing food is increasingly more important as climate change increases and the fragility of food infrastructure becomes obvious in response to both pandemic and uprisings. The future of the country is uncertain; returning to normal is clearly unacceptable because it means returning to obvious racism and more.

I write this June 4, 2020, as the uprisings subside following the murder of George Floyd, as we wait to find out whether there will actually be change, and as the future of the pandemic is still unpredictable.