Every spring at Meher Mount, amid the stirring of new life – nesting birds, blooming wildflowers, tender new leaves on the ubiquitous Coast Live Oak trees swollen from recent rains – volunteers from far and wide gather to perform the rituals of weed abatement.
It is mandatory in Ventura County, CA, that by June 1st a strict protocol of reducing hazardous vegetation and creating defensible spaces around buildings and roads must be completed by all property owners in anticipation of the upcoming fire season.
This year, 21 volunteers arrived in shifts from May 11 through May 24, 2019, to help. Some were young, some not so young. Some new to Meher Mount, others who mark their calendars for this time of year. Some who were a few hours’ drive away, others who came from across the country. It is the joy of working with such enthusiastic and friendly folks that makes volunteering such a memorable event.
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.
If the Thomas Fire has taught me anything, it has taught me that one just never knows when something will “catch fire” at Meher Mount. Priorities are constantly shifting and even as the list of projects to be done continues to spark more lists of projects to be done, it is always Meher Baba who finds a way to ignite one’s passion at just the right moment.
What seems to be catching fire for visitors, volunteers, and caretakers alike these days is the remnant of a sandstone walkway that begins at the northeast edge of the circular driveway and extends for about 10 feet or so toward the side of the Visitor Center/Caretaker Quarters. Avatar Meher Baba walked on these exact same flagstones.
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 hit Meher Mount. Within a few days, the damage assessment began. At first, it seemed straightforward: Document the damage. Make a list for insurance. Begin to repair the damage.
There was some thought that in 90 days the fire recovery "to do list" would be complete, pending insurance reimbursement. As fire recovery progressed, the to do list never seemed to get shorter. In fact, each newly completed or half-completed task seemed to generate several more related tasks. The to do list was never ending.
Then it dawned on us – draw a line through the task list. When all the recovery projects before that line were completed, declare victory.
Now, seven months - 207 days to be exact - after the Thomas Fire, Meher Mount is declaring victory. The task list is still long, but every operational aspect related to fire damage has been fixed.
Break out the champagne, it’s a celebration.
When the December 2017 Thomas Fire hit Meher Mount, it only skimmed the corner of the outside trellis of the Visitor Center/Caretaker Quarters. The damage was minor. Estimated cost to make the repairs was $1,200. All that was needed was to replace three beams and apply some paint.
When attention moved to the burned trellis, this “minor” damage became a major repair with a final cost of $22,200.
The fire damage turned out be a blessing. It drew attention to the trellis – which would have been totally ignored in the focus to take care of other fire issues and ongoing maintenance at Meher Mount.
The December 2017 Thomas Fire completely burned the wooden entry fence at Meher Mount. Only the metal gate with the heart in the center was left standing.
In April 2018, the former, burned wooden fence was upgraded and replaced with a new metal fence. A more fire-resistant metal was used to help protect Meher Mount in the event of future fires.
The heart gate is again welcoming visitors to Meher Mount.
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?”
The forecast was for rain. But with some luck and planning, it was hoped the group could work around the rain. Despite the weather forecast, Meher Mount went ahead with Restoration Weekend – March 10 & 11, 2018.
It was a good decision. A number of tasks were completed as part of the ongoing recovery from the December 4, 2018 Thomas Fire. And as usual, a few more tasks were added to the "to do" list as a result.
Recovery from the December 2017 Thomas Fire is a step-by-step process. Each completed task seems to generate several new task offspring. The restoration continues.
On February 15, 2018, just as Buzz and Ginger Glasky finished their four-and-a-half years as Manager/Caretakers, former Caretaker Ray Johnston (2002-2005, 2006-2010) arrived for a week to help with the recovery.
That Meher Baba fellow sure knows how to throw a work party!
As I drove up to the entry gate around 9:30 a.m., I found half a dozen people vigorously cultivating the ash-hardened ground under the Coast Live Oak tree there. All were new faces to me, but I was greeted with cheerful waves and a hearty chorus of “Jai Baba.”
So, began the first workday of 2018 in response to the devastating Thomas Fire that so heartrendingly damaged Baba’s Tree, crippled the fragile water system, and sent Manager/Caretakers Buzz and Ginger Glasky racing for their lives down a flaming Sulphur Mountain Road on December 4, 2017.
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.
In the efforts to fully record the damage from the December 2017 Thomas Fire, Meher Mount worked with drone photographer Russell Latimer of Eye of Mine Action Cameras.
At the time, it seemed like a slight extravagance. Then again, the fire had stripped the landscape, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to capture not only the damage, but also the stark beauty of the landscape.
See the 34-minute unedited video.
On Tuesday, December 5, 2017, when it was clear that Meher Mount was in the Thomas Fire zone, architect and volunteer Byron Pinckert sent an email suggesting that it was “time now to start thinking about how you want to document this set of events for the future.”
Byron took a giant step toward documentation on Thursday, December 21, 2017, when he went to Meher Mount armed with oversized maps from Google Earth of the property and a camera. He walked the property noting burned areas, damage and other items of importance.
Fire strips away much of nature’s camouflage and reveals the unexpected.
On December 12, 2017, just eight days after the Thomas Fire swept through parts of Meher Mount, Buzz and Ginger Glasky, Cassandra Bramucci, Margaret Magnus and I walked the property marveling at the fire’s path and the fire’s targets.
Surprisingly, Cassandra noticed a small pile of 21 coins, unearthed by the fire, under one of the pine trees at Avatar’s Point. We had no idea how they got there.
On Monday night December 4, 2017, sometime after 10:00 p.m. when Manager/Caretakers Buzz and Ginger Glasky evacuated, the Thomas Fire struck Meher Mount.
On December 6 and 8, Buzz and Ginger visited Meher Mount reporting minimal or no damage to structures and vehicles. The water system is out of commission due to the fire damage to pipes, electrical and equipment. Baba’s Tree at Avatar’s Point suffered major damage from wind and fire.
On December 12, Buzz and Ginger, Sam Ervin, Margaret Magnus and Cassandra Bramucci made a follow-up visit. Margaret and Sam share their observations.
As the Thomas Fire raged through Ventura County and burned parts of Meher Mount, well wishers sent their love and prayers.
The largest wildfire in California history, the Thomas Fire, started near (Saint) Thomas Aquinas College, about eight miles from Meher Mount and northwest of the city of Santa Paula, on Monday, December 4, 2017 at 6:26 p.m.
It is clear the fire visited nearly every part of the upper section of Meher Mount. Manager/Caretakers Buzz and Ginger Glasky were amazed at how the fire line seemed to stop at critical points.
In short, the fire brushed pass the buildings and equipment, even touching a trellis at the Visitor Center. Both the Visitor Center/Caretaker Quarters and the Topa Topa Patio are intact, although smoke damage is not yet known. Baba’s Tree suffered some damage, but its base remained standing. Some additional assessment and repair of the water system is needed.
The Weeds 'n' Water fundraising campaign and new water treatment system in 2003 started a chain reaction. It set in motion a number of projects and ongoing activities along with a planning approach that continue to shape Meher Mount today.
Weeds ‘n’ Water was both a fundraising campaign to raise $24,000 and a project to provide potable water and purchase a ride-on mower for weed abatement and fire protection for Meher Mount.
Its success demonstrated the power of planning and fundraising with community support and participation. In addition, Weeds ‘n’ Water helped to create a better visitor experience and to make the Manager/Caretaker job more manageable.
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.