RAPTORS IN BLUE BOXES on the way to Avatar’s Point at Meher Mount. Volunteers and staff from the Ojai Raptor Center (ORC) arrived at Meher Mount on August 15, 2019, to return a newly rehabilitated American Kestrel and a Red-Tailed Hawk to the wild. Pictured (left to right): Two Raptor Center volunteers, one carrying a blue box with a raptor inside; Manager/Caretaker Ellen Kwiatkoskwi; Kristina Somma (white hat); Jackln DeSantis (ORC) carrying another raptor; Meher Mount board member Robert Turnage; and board member Jim Whitson. (Photo: Cassandra Bramucci)
When representatives from the Ojai Raptor Center (ORC) arrived at Meher Mount on August 15, 2019, to release a Kestrel and Red-Tailed Hawk, Jaclyn DeSantis, wildlife rehabilitator and ORC supervisor, warned all of us to have our cameras ready.
“…so don’t anybody blink.”
Her 11 years of experience in doing bird releases taught her that these gorgeous creatures take their chance at freedom very seriously. “This will be over in ten seconds once I open the box,” she said, “so don’t anybody blink.”
Anyone who has ever seen a nature program showing a bird release — or the release of any wild animal for that matter — knows that events unfold quickly. There is no looking back on the part of the captive birds. As soon as they are released, every instinct propels them to get away from their captors and shake off the memory of cages and carriers by immersing themselves in the wildness they were born into.
At Meher Mount though, things tend to unfold in unusual ways.
JACLYN DESANTIS from the Ojai Raptor Center (ORC) releases a Red-Tailed Hawk at Avatar’s Point at Meher Mount. The raptor is being returned to the wild after its rescue and rehabilitation. Meher Mount board members James Whitson and Robert Turnage reached out to the ORC to suggest that Meher Mount would be a suitable location for raptor releases. (Photo: Cassandra Bramucci, August 15, 2019)
For the raptor release, the small group headed out to Avatar’s Point to test a raptor release atop Sulphur Mountain Road in the Upper Ojai.
Once everyone gathered at Avatar’s Point, cameras quickly focused on the blue cardboard carrier holding the American Kestrel, first up for release. Carefully, gently, and speaking in a calming voice, Jaclyn lifted out the nervous male, pointed him toward the vast expanse clearly visible on this remarkably mild day August day, and set him free.
“Odd that he is not flying away…”
He immediately flew up to the lowest branch on the nearest pine tree and looked around at his audience. “He’s just getting his bearings,” Jaclyn assured us. Indeed he was making the head-bobbing motion birds use to measure distance.
But he was mainly looking back over his shoulder toward Baba’s Tee. “Odd that he is not flying away, I’m not going to lie,” she said.
THE NEWLY RELEASED American Kestrel perches on the branch of a pine tree at Avatar’s Point next to Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount. “Odd that he is not flying away,” said Jaclyn DeSantis from the Ojai Raptor Center. (Photo: Cassandra Bramucci, August 15, 2019)
Two minutes went by, then five, then 10 minutes. The arms of those holding cameras began to tire and tremble. Finally, the Kestrel appeared to take off, only to land once again on a higher branch of the same tree.
It was time to turn to the Red-Tailed Hawk. Perhaps his release would spur the Kestrel to take a chance.
“Usually they just want to get as far away from us as possible.”
The group shifted over to the left about 30 feet, and once again, cameras were raised with anticipation. The group was not disappointed. This gallant raptor took off in a graceful, wide arc to the gasps of onlookers.
THE NEWLY RELEASED Red-Tailed Hawk is flying in a circle past Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount. (Photo: Cassandra Bramucci, August 15, 2019)
He flew right toward the tree where the Kestrel still perched, then continued his flight in a wide arc past Baba’s tree and came full circle to land on the lowest branch of the another pine tree directly behind Baba’s tree, just to the left of where his audience stood.
And there he perched. And continued to perch. “I’ve never seen this happen, especially to land this close to us!” Jaclyn remarked with clear astonishment in her voice. “Usually they just want to get as far away from us as possible.”
“I’ve never seen this happen…”
As we waited, speculating whether the birds were just happy taking in Meher Mount and Baba’s Tree, the hesitant Kestrel found his courage and took off, circling around the field below the point and finally landing out of sight.
At about the same time, the Red-Tailed Hawk took full flight, soared out over the valley, and down the hill to the left of Baba’s Tree.
We all put down our cameras, contented that we had been given such a beautiful gift. The sight of freed birds choosing to linger with us until our own hearts soared with awe and gratitude.
Hopefully, there will be more raptor releases at Meher Mount. These releases tend to occur as soon as the birds show they are ready to go, and Meher Mount and the Ojai Raptor Center will stay in contact.
In the meantime, there are two beautiful young raptors in the skies above Meher Mount that may just decide to take up residence here – perhaps even in the raptor boxes awaiting new tenants.
IN FLIGHT after its release at Avatar’s Point, the American Kestrel soars about the valley below. The Ojai Raptor Center selected this spot at Meher Mount to release the two newly rehabilitated raptors — a Red-Tailed Hawk and an American Kestrel. (Photo: Cassandra Bramucci, August 15, 2019)
“You’d be surprised at what doesn’t bother these birds.”
In the early 2000s when Ray Johnston and Elizabeth Arnold were caretakers, the Ojai Raptor Center had released raptors at Meher Mount, but there had not been any similar activity since then.
Then in response to the 2017 Thomas Fire, Meher Mount renewed its relationship with the Ojai Raptor Center. Board members James Whitson and Robert Turnage responded to a Raptor Center announcement recommending that landowners consider installing perches and boxes to support the local raptor population and simultaneously help reduce the rodent population which was proliferating after the fire.
Due to their efforts, two boxes (one designed for owls and the other for kestrels) were installed at Meher Mount on July 27, 2018. (See related story blog “Let’s Hope the Birds Move in Soon!”)
Since then, volunteers, visitors, and various caretakers have kept watch in the hopes those boxes would attract some raptor residents. So far nothing. It may take several years, or it may be that the boxes will need to be relocated further from the Visitor Center.
When asked if that might be necessary, DeSantis said, “You would be surprised what doesn’t bother these birds. I’ve seen them take up residence inside noisy factories!” She still felt it was too early to worry about it, though hopes were high that the new releases would decide to take up residence.
By Margaret Magnus
The two-year, world-wide search for on-site, residential Manager/Caretakers at Meher Mount is – in hindsight – a clear example of who, when and what happening in Meher Baba’s time.
CARETAKER QUARTERS at Meher Mount. This photo was taken by Luis Marroquin, who with his wife Jennifer Navarro-Marroquin, temporarily cared for Meher Mount in November 2018.
Recruitment for volunteer caretakers started in August 2017, and it wasn’t until the last days of June 2019 that new caretakers Ellen Kwiatkowski and Eric Carlson were settled in at Meher Mount.
BUZZ & GINGER GLASKY ‘RETIRE’
In August 2017 after more than four years (November 2013—February 2018) of taking care of Meher Mount, Buzz and Ginger Glasky were ready to retire. They indicated that their last day as Manager/Caretakers would be February 15, 2018.
They gave plenty of notice – six months – to provide the board sufficient time to recruit their replacements. The months passed. No candidates came forward. More advertising. Still, no candidates.
Then in December 2017, the Thomas Fire struck Meher Mount.
NEW CARETAKERS SPARED BEING HOMELESS
In hindsight, it seems obvious why no new caretakers were at Meher Mount. They would have been homeless. There was some smoke damage, no heating/cooling, no power and no water in the Caretaker Quarters, thus, making it temporarily uninhabitable.
BUZZ GLASKY & GINGER GLASKY parked their Airstream in Oceano, CA, after fleeing the December 2017 Thomas Fire that struck Meher Mount. In the background is Gavin Arthur’s Cabin which was part of the Dunite settlement at Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Oceano in the 1920s-1940s. Avatar Meher Baba stayed in this cabin on December 26, 1934. (Photo: Courtesy Buzz Glasky, 2018)
Buzz and Ginger, on the other hand, had earlier purchased an Airsteam trailer for their post-Meher Mount travels. When the call came to evacuate Meher Mount on December 4, 2017, they hooked up their trailer and left.
In the days of the continuing and spreading Thomas Fire, they were able to move to Oceano, CA, about 122 miles away. In the days and weeks of immediate fire recovery, they traveled regularly – at least two-and-one-half hours each way – from Oceano to Meher Mount to assist in the recovery effort.
Finally, the day of their official departure came. On Baba’s Birthday, February 25, 2018, there was a farewell party for Buzz and Ginger. Friends came to say goodbye before they left to take their long-deserved break from the day-to-day responsibilities of Meher Mount.
What about long-term Manager/Caretaker recruitment? It apparently wasn’t time yet. The extensive repairs and refurbishment of the Caretaker Center meant Meher Mount was not ready to welcome new Manager/Caretakers.
RECRUITMENT POSTCARD sent to about 1,200 households plus packets of cards sent to individuals who shared them with their Meher Baba group.
CARETAKER RECRUITMENT STARTS AGAIN
In the fall of 2018, Meher Mount was ready. Recruitment efforts began again. Interested persons started coming forward. Most declined after seeing the extent and the variety of requirements for the job, its voluntary nature, and the remote location.
CARETAKER RECRUITMENT IN INDIA. Margaret Magnus and Sam Ervin (not pictured) met Ellen Kwiatkowski and Eric Carlson in India in October 2018 and encouraged them to consider being caretakers at Meher Mount. Ellen and Eric visited in January 2019, said yes months later, and arrived at Meher Mount by the end of June 2019. (Photo: Sam Ervin, October 2018)
In October 2018, Sam Ervin, board president, and Margaret Magnus, went on a long-planned pilgrimage to Meher Baba’s Tomb Shrine and home in Meherabad and Meherazad, India.
“On the first morning after our arrival, I went to the dining hall for early morning tea. At 6:00 a.m. that day, there was only one other person there, Ellen Kwiatkowski, and we started chatting.
“Somehow, Meher Mount slipped into the conversation including the fact that the board was looking for on-site, live-on, volunteer Manager/Caretakers,” Sam said.
Ellen indicated that she and her husband Eric Carlson might be interested. They were thinking of selling their organic, you-pick-it farm in Bayfield, WI, and were looking for the next opportunity.
“I HAVE ALWAYS FELT GOD IN NATURE…”
Discussions continued in India and afterward. In January 2019, Ellen and Eric came to Meher Mount for a 10-day stay to get a feel for Meher Mount and to see if being a Manager/Caretaker was something they wanted to do.
Afterward, Eric wrote that the opportunity to be a caretaker at Meher Mount interested him, “because it aligns with my feelings about the Earth and nature as being an expression of God and provides the opportunity to share this with others while also serving Meher Baba.”
For Ellen, the opportunity “appeals to me because my focus is on Him all the more. Also, spending time in nature has always been an important part of my emotional and spiritual health and well being. I have always felt God in nature…”
ELLEN KWIATKOWSKI & ERIC CARLSON arrive in time to prepare for and help host the annual Anniversary Sahavas at Meher Mount commemorating Avatar Meher Baba’s 1956 visit. (Photo: Juan Mendez, August 3, 2019)
In late March 2019, they said, “Yes,” and signed the Manager/Caretaker agreement. Ellen arrived on May 27, 2019, and Eric arrived about a month later on June 25, 2019. He had stayed in Wisconsin to train a manager for the summer crop on their farm, while getting the farm ready to be sold.
IN THE MEANTIME
In the meantime, who cared for Meher Mount?
CASSANDRA BRAMUCCI, Interim Caretaker, and Board President Sam Ervin are discussing the water system in the days of fire recovery and restoration following the December 2017 Thomas Fire. (Photo: Margaret Magnus, August 1, 2018)
In February 2018, just as Buzz and Ginger were leaving, Cassandra Bramucci offered to come for three months as Interim Caretaker – and then extended her stay to six months.
She lived on-site in her RV – thus not needing to live in the Caretaker Quarters which still weren’t quite ready for inhabitants.
In the next weeks and months, she and other temporary caretakers helped with much of the heavy lifting of continued fire recovery and restoration.
After Cassandra left in late August 2018, there were a series of temporary caretakers who came to stay, care for Meher Mount, and greet the weekend visitors.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD, former Manager/Caretaker, came twice to be a temporary caretaker at Meher Mount in 2018. (Photo: Sam Ervin, September 2018)
Volunteers came for days, weeks and even months to be temporary caretakers. Thank you to: Robert Turnage and Kristina Somma, Ray Johnston and April Buchwald, Elizabeth Arnold, Wayne Myers, Kyle and Lisa Morrison, Melissa and John Collins, Jennifer Navarro-Marroquin and Luis Marroquin, David DeFauw and Julia Christopher, James Whedon, Stephanie Ervin, Ron Holsey, Sam Ervin and Margaret Magnus, Bing Heckman, Robert Redecker, Anamika Christenson, Coline Tabrum, Rudoph Duran and Kathy Najar.
LOOKING FOR ANOTHER TEMPORARY SOLUTION
Just as it seemed that Meher Mount had no more temporary caretakers to care for Meher Mount, Buzz and Ginger again stepped forward. It was almost a year after their official departure in 2018. They offered to move their Airstream to Meher Mount and stay as long as needed while the Board recruited regular Manager/Caretakers.
They ‘camped’ at Meher Mount from mid-January until early July 2019, taking care of weed abatement, watching over Meher Mount, welcoming guests, and providing orientation for Ellen and Eric.
While not having regular Manager/Caretakers was, at times, a little nerve wracking, it also opened up the possibility for others to serve on a short-term basis.
RAY JOHNSTON, former Manager/Caretaker, answered the call to help with fire recovery and weed abatement several times during the two-year recruitment period. (Photo: Sam Ervin, February 2018)
They had the opportunity to stay overnight, get a better understanding of Meher Mount, and be a more integral part of the land. They also met many interesting guests.
They were able to spend an extended time in this place made sacred by Meher Baba’s Presence. And some initiated activities such as the native plant walk and the bird watching day.
In hindsight, it seemed as if Ellen and Eric were destined to come to Meher Mount as Manager/Caretakers from the beginning, but everything needed to be in place first. Meher Mount needed to be ready to greet them, and they needed to do several things on their farm before they could leave.
ABOUT THE CARETAKERS
Eric Carlson describes himself as an entrepreneur. He established and managed – for the past 30 years – Blue Vista Farm in Bayfield, WI. The farm directly markets fruit crops to the consumer in a way that creates a deeper experience and connection with the land. Blue Vista is located in a Wisconsin tourist destination and receives 10,000 to 15,000 visitors annually.
ERIC CARLSON relaxing for a moment after he and Ellen Kwiatkowski have refurbished and stained all the wood benches and chairs at Meher Mount. (Photo: Ellen Kwiatkowski, July 2019)
Eric managed a seasonal staff of 28 in production, harvesting, marketing, advertising, and retail aspects of the farm. He is experienced in operating and maintaining all power tools, implements and tractors, as well as understanding and solving the day-to-day issues of a land-focused organization.
While managing the farm, Eric also served as President of the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and chairman of its Orchard Task Force for eight years. During that time the Chamber quadrupled its membership, and he helped restore health and vibrancy to the board and organization.
Eric has a B.S. in plant pathology and horticulture from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he worked in the department of Plant Pathology as a fruit crop research specialist for several years. This knowledge and his experience provide him with skills to facilitate the creating of harmony in cultivated and wild plant communities. He also has extensive experience studying, tracking and observing animals and plants in their natural habitats.
Eric first learned of Meher Baba in 2013. He and Ellen have visited the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, SC, and Meher Baba’s Tomb Shrine and home in Meherabad and Meherazad, India.
"This old apricot tree, normally used for its cooling shade, produced the first fruit that we have ever seen. There are actually five apricots, and we decided the tree was welcoming Ellen and Eric," Buzz Glasky, June 28, 2019. (Text and Photo: Buzz Glasky)
Ellen Kwiatkowski has a B.S. in biology from James Madison University in Virginia and has more than 20 years’ experience working on biodiversity conservation. Starting with three years as a forestry extensionist with the US Peace Corps in Paraguay and then 10 years with the Nature Conservancy, where she worked internationally as Manager of their Rapid Ecological Assessment Program and domestically as Director of Conservation Programs for the Delaware Chapter.
ELLEN KWIATKOWSKI is getting an orientation to caring for Baba’s Tree from ISA Certified Arborist Michael Inaba. (Photo: Margaret Magnus, June 22, 2019)
While in Delaware, she oversaw site-based and landscape-scale conservation planning, acquisition and management of their portfolio of preserves. She has extensive experience in developing and managing grant-funded (federal, state, private) projects that include land acquisition, habitat restoration, migratory bird conservation and biological inventories.
After meeting Eric and moving to Wisconsin, Ellen worked with Eric at Blue Vista Farm for a few years, did some private consulting, and was Executive Director of the Bayfield Regional Conservancy, a local land trust. Here, she oversaw all land protection and conservation activities. During that time, the Conservancy became a nationally accredited land trust, more than doubled the acreage of protected sites and doubled the Stewardship Endowment Fund.
She was also awarded the 2012 Wisconsin Conservationist of the Year by a statewide group of her peers. Ellen then worked for two years as Planning Administrator for a local Native American Tribe. She also serves on the Environmental Management Committee for the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, SC.
While Eric is looking at animal tracks and birds, Ellen is identifying and learning plants. She has a keen interest in learning the local flora and understanding plant distribution and alliances.
Just after dawn this morning – as with most mornings – three or four California quail coveys drink at the pond, followed by hordes of Dark-Eyed Juncos, three different species of Goldfinch, and several Spotted Towhees. All are gathered for their morning ablutions and chatter fest.
This morning there is a special guest among the avian visitors. As a cool mist envelops the top of Sulphur Mountain, there is a rarely seen Hooded Oriole, the latest addition to the Meher Mount bird family. He repeatedly makes his appearance at the Hummingbird feeders to the delight of onlookers. The Oriole balances precariously on the feeder rim while sipping the sweet nectar with his long slender beak.
The Spring 2019 “super bloom” that is sweeping California following the generous winter rains is also gracing Meher Mount. Its appearance isn’t the massive and concentrated flowering of the desert blooms. Rather, it is the variety of wildflowers at Meher Mount that often appear only after abundant rains and sometimes specifically after a fire, such as the December 2017 Thomas Fire.
You might also say Meher Mount and the surrounding area are experiencing a “super green.” The emerald-hued rolling hills, steep mountainsides and valleys are a deep green, particularly in stark contrast to the ash-covered hillsides of 15 months earlier.
During their annual migration, more than 300 species of birds are estimated to use the Pacific Flyway as their connection between the Arctic and South America, according to NASA Science. The flyway stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and includes all of California.
Every year, millions of migratory birds head south, then north, using the 4,000-mile-long and, in places, the 1,000-mile-wide route known in search of places to breed, feed, and spend the winter.
When the Ojai Raptor Center sent out an email after the December 2017 Thomas Fire encouraging landowners to install perches and box homes to support the raptor population in the area, Meher Mount responded.
The center said the fire had destroyed raptor (eagle, hawk, falcon, owl) habitat in the area, and putting up boxes and perches was one way to help the recovery of these birds.
Meher Mount was also motivated to install the boxes to create a natural form of rodent control. A simple walk to Baba’s Tree and Avatar’s Point demonstrates the abundance of small rodents (such as gophers, voles, and mice) at Meher Mount. The ground is pock-marked with their holes.
By helping raptors thrive, Meher Mount is helping to keep the predator-prey balance in the ecosystem. The Ojai Raptor Center calls raptors and owls “free, natural and abundant rodent control!”
On December 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire struck Meher Mount burning the stand of 16 eucalyptus trees by Baba’s Fireplace and the Visitor Center along with the large eucalyptus by the pathway to Baba's Tree.
In assessing the fire damage and the future fire threats to Meher Mount, the question was put before the board, “What to do with the eucalyptus trees?”
When setting up the first meeting with ISA® Certified Arborist Michael Inaba to make a preliminary assessment of a "special large oak" at Meher Mount, he asked, “Does that special tree have a name?” Margaret Magnus smiled to herself and said, “Yes, Baba’s Tree.” Then she asked why he had asked.
Inaba said he had had dinner soon after the fire with some people who live on Sulphur Mountain. They were recounting the fire damage in the area and mentioned the tree. He later referred to Baba’s Tree as a landmark tree.
On January 5, 2018, Meher Mount met with Inaba to evaluate Baba's Tree and to start drawing up a survival and regeneration plan.
During His Advent, Meher Baba very often would go into a self-imposed, confined seclusion for extended periods of time to do His inner work.
Meher Baba disclosed that he did His “Universal Work” at these times — work not for His own sake as He, suffering for all as God in human form, had nothing to gain — but for the spiritual advancement of all of creation.
Now, the Coast Live Oak at Meher Mount that Meher Baba sat under alone in 1956 and known as Baba’s Tree is in seclusion.
Fire has been a visitor to Baba’s Tree and to Meher Mount more than once. The Thomas Fire shattered the tree’s crown and much of the trunk on December 4, 2017.
On October 14, 1985, fire ravaged and destroyed nearly all Meher Mount. A month after the New Life Fire, Baba’s Tree looked dead. It was black, leafless, and terribly scarred. The main trunk was hollowed out and black inside. Limbs over 30 feet in the air had burned. The great limb above Meher Baba’s seat had burned nearly through by the trunk with its furthermost branches fallen to the earth.
What is it like to be a Manager/Caretaker at Meher Mount? Past and current Manager/Caretakers describe their impressions, their joys, and their inspiration.
My own travels have taken me to places Avatar Meher Baba visited in Europe, Australia, South Carolina, and India. Now for the first time, I visit Meher Mount in Ojai, CA. I adore it.
Always loaded with spiritual expectations, we get stripped there. All what one might envisage of a spiritual center was not there: no discourses, no meditation sessions, no designated prayer spots, no singing.
Meher Mount is often a source of inspiration to artists. That’s why painter and art instructor Jennifer McChristian has been conducting day-long en plein air painting classes here since 2009.
“I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something mystical about the place,” she says. “I feel so happy every time I go there.”
El Niño never brought the much needed rain to southern California this past year – except on Amartithi.
Amartithi – or eternal date – is the anniversary of the day on which Avatar Meher Baba dropped His physical form in 1969.
El Niño is the warming of the ocean’s surface in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean which changes the rainfall pattern. In southern California, it usually means more rainfall than normal.
February is National Bird-Feeding Month and includes the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. These events are highlighted because when Avatar Meher Baba visited Meher Mount in 1956, He said, "Now, go out and see the view and try to love Baba through nature. This is all due to my love. This whole creation, this nature, all the beauty you see, all came out of me."
Every year since Meher Mount’s founding in 1946, volunteers are tasked with making sure that brush is cleared away from all buildings to help protect Meher Mount and the environment from the threat of wildfires.
In May 2015, there was an extra effort to make the meadow – the Prasad Orchard – below Avatar’s Point more accessible to mowing equipment.
People often ask, "When is a good time to visit Meher Mount?" I always say the wintertime. It is is my favorite time of year.
The weather is crisp, but generally not too cold. The air is clear - the fog of summer is gone. The skies are bright blue. And there is a special "winter" light on the land.
Meher Mount is important to me because of its long association with Avatar Meher Baba. That Meher Baba blessed Meher Mount with His visit in 1956 has profound significance for me.
What makes Meher Mount extra special are its natural qualities and beautiful setting – something increasingly rare and precious in Southern California.
The idea for the patio first came about when the Board was planning for the Workshop. An early concept called for a workshop/garage built into the side of the hill with a rooftop patio in view of the Bluffs.
That concept proved to be too expensive, but the idea of a patio with a view of the mountains stuck.
The Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) residency in Baba's Tree has much expanded! There are four to five full-size nest holes, plus some tentative ones, all along the underside of one branch.