BY MARGARET MAGNUS
From the beginning of their tenure in 2002, Ray Johnston and Elizabeth Arnold felt that being volunteer Manager/ Caretakers at Meher Mount was a calling.
To be a Manager/Caretaker at Meher Mount, according to Ray, is to be willing to serve, to put oneself in the flow of Meher Mount's unfolding destiny, and to be part of the ongoing challenges and benefits of living on this land sanctified by Avatar Meher Baba's presence.
One of the rewards of being at Meher Mount is enjoying the constant beauty of Meher Mount. Every day is striking. The beauty and power of this place are reminders of Avatar Meher Baba's admonition to "...try to love me [Meher Baba] through nature."
At Meher Mount, God's presence is felt by many. Meher Baba said that this land is very old and that He had been here before. Ray and Elizabeth are among the many who are drawn to Meher Mount's invisible fountain of spiritual energy.
And they were drawn to be Manager/Caretakers for eight years. They continually demonstrated their connection to this special place by their loving attention to detail, respect for Avatar Meher Baba, and personal commitment to Meher Mount.
After their eight years - with a one-year sabbatical in the middle - Ray and Elizabeth left their position as Manager/Caretakers. Their time at Meher Mount was marked by a number of projects and activities that are now part of Meher Mount's history.
Potable Drinking Water Is Always a Top Priority
After Ray and Elizabeth arrived, one of the first items on the agenda was water. Meher Mount has a source of water - it's just not potable. Water comes from a 2,500-foot well drilled on the property in 1929 by Conoco-Phillips, Inc. looking for oil. To Meher Mount's blessing, they found water instead.
The bad news is that there are traces of oil, sulfur minerals, and a number of other chemicals in the water. Together, Ray and Elizabeth, the Board of Directors, and the Weeds 'n' Water Committee raised $23,300 in 2004 to put in Meher Mount's first significant water treatment system.
In 2010, Ray and the original vendor REMCO refurbished the water treatment system so that it could provide enough potable water to support the equivalent of a household of four on a daily basis.
Fire Abatement Is a Never-Ending, Ever-Present Focus
As part of the Weeds 'n' Water campaign, funds were also raised to purchase a ride-on mower to manage weed abatement for fire prevention and general upkeep.
Previous Manager/Caretakers and volunteers had used a gas push mower (probably purchased sometime in the 1970's) and hand scythes and sickles (definitely purchased in the 1940's). Now, the same job could be completed in days, instead of weeks.
Fire is always a threat at Meher Mount, particularly in the fall. In September 2008, Elizabeth, who was at Meher Mount alone while Ray was away on business, had to pack up and evacuate twice due to the threat of a nearby fire. Over the years, Ray and Elizabeth reached out to the neighbors for joint fire abatement activities and fire watch support.
Museum Exhibit Increases Local Awareness
Soon after Ray and Elizabeth's arrival in 2002, the Ojai Valley Museum approached Meher Mount about being part of the "Essence of Ojai" exhibit featuring four spiritual centers in the area.
Ray and Elizabeth found archived photos, conducted interviews, and prepared a museum exhibit highlighting Meher Mount, Avatar Meher Baba, and Agnes Baron, a founder and long-term caretaker of Meher Mount.
Beyond the exhibit, Ray and Elizabeth continually reached out to other centers in Ojai taking part in an informal association to share information.
Ray and Elizabeth Move to Africa and Come Back
In 2005, Ray and Elizabeth left Meher Mount - ostensibly for good. They went to Kenya to manage The Desert Rose, an upscale, eco-lodge in one of the remotest parts of the world. And so, Lilly, Laurent and Aspen Weichberger came to Meher Mount to be the Manager/Caretakers.
Mid-way through their first year Lilly became pregnant, and they decided to move to Arizona. While at The Desert Rose, Ray and Elizabeth continued to feel the pull of Meher Mount and indicated a desire to come back, returning in 2006.
At that time, Meher Mount began upgrading other types of infrastructure. Elizabeth re-launched the Web site, upgraded the in-house computer, got broadband, and put into use a database/donor management software called Giftworks. All this made her day-to-day administrative duties and fundraising support more streamlined.
A New Tractor Creates New Opportunities Along with New Responsibilities
In 2007, thanks to a generous donor, Meher Mount was able to purchase a new tractor with four implements, and a new era for Meher Mount opened up. The tractor became one of Ray's favorite tools.
He used the tractor to mow large areas, to create additional fire breaks, to grade roadways, to pull out dead trees and even to move equipment and set up for the annual Anniversary Celebrations the first Saturday in August.
Ray expanded fire abatement to a patch of land near a neighbor's house, an area that Meher Mount previously did not have the manpower or equipment to address. In the same spirit of cooperation, that neighbor sent some workers to clean-up their property near Meher Mount's entryway.
Long Range Planning Starts with Replacing the Existing Garage Shed
When funds were donated for the tractor, there was also a donation and a stipulation that it be housed in a fire-proof building.
That donation and request became the impetus for long-range planning. The Manager/Caretakers and Board launched a multi-year process for developing a master plan for Meher Mount.
Ray and Elizabeth have been an integral part in developing all aspects of Meher Mount's master plan and have been involved in the first stages of its implementation.
2008 Survey Answers Meher Baba's 1956 Question about Property Boundaries
As part of the long-range plan, Meher Mount contracted for a Boundary Survey and Topographical Map. As part of that project, the surveyors marked the cornerstones of the 173-acre property.
One of those boundary monuments was in a very inaccessible ravine and at the corner of the property that Meher Baba had specifically asked Agnes Baron about during His visit in 1956.
Ray joined the surveyors when they put the new marker in that spot. That process created a small landslide. He marveled to see the landslide funneling exactly to the one point Meher Baba had asked about.
The Removal of Temporary Trailers
Clean-up is also part of planning and getting ready for the future. Over a several-year period, the Board and Ray and Elizabeth arranged for and managed the disposal of a number of temporary trailers on the property. One of those trailers had been the temporary home of Agnes Baron, after a fire destroyed all the buildings on the property in 1985.
The Wildlife Find a Home at Meher Mount
Ray and Elizabeth have encouraged and welcomed the wildlife. From a pond that served as a "watering hole" for the animals to bird baths and feeders, the animals are drawn to Meher Mount.
After Meher Mount instituted a "no pets" policy, Ray and Elizabeth began to see more large animals such as deer and a cougar.
One of Ray's joys is bird watching. He and Elizabeth hosted the Audubon Society for a number of hikes and annual bird counts.
In 2009, Ray conducted a beginning bird watcher's orientation and hike that some remember as one of their favorite times at Meher Mount.
He also started Meher Mount's bird watching list for the Ojai Valley.
THE Heart and Energy Given to Meher Mount Are Greatly Appreciated
All of these milestones and special projects were in addition to the day-to-day job of caring for Meher Mount.
Continuously, Ray and Elizabeth maintained the Visitor Center/Caretaker Quarters for guests, kept the building in repair - including patching the roof a number of times - managed the grounds, greeted visitors, handled the bookkeeping and paperwork, and set up and took down equipment for a number of events with guest speakers. And they still found time for their personal life and to work and earn a living.
Their dedication, commitment, and contribution are valued not only by the Board, but also by the many visitors who visit Meher Mount for inspiration, rejuvenation, remembering God, and enjoying nature.
Ray Johnston left Meher Mount at the end of June 2010. He moved to Mexico where he has friends and property in the Yucatan. He continued to lead safaris in Kenya through his company Ray Johnston International.
Elizabeth Arnold was became a resident manager at the Pepper Tree Retreat in Ojai, CA, after she left Meher Mount. She regularly visited Meher Mount and suggested to Pepper Tree guests that they also take time to see Meher Mount. She had moved from Meher Mount in April 2009 when she and Ray Johnston separated.