Alum Rock Park
A guest blog post from Karen Ehrenfeldt in California:
I just discovered a sacred place in my own backyard, not literally, that’s another story, but in my own town. I’d been day hiking there before, but hadn’t resonated with it being a sacred place of healing waters until this Beltane. Living in California is to have a different focus on the field of history than other parts of the world whose sacred sites are well defined. Unlike the many stone circles and temple sites I’ve experienced that are truly ancient, going back 100 years in California is a special experience for inhabitants of a culture at the leading edge of technology.
Culture is the key word. Ancient sites were identified early as sacred, causing wave upon wave of people to wash over the sites through time, forming sedimentary layers of ideas that hover like a fog above the earth below. In this way the sites are influenced far beyond the elemental shaping forces of a millennia, and occasionally obscured of their true potential. It’s likely Alum Rock has a hidden indigenous history, though its most obvious influence is that this place was kept for the people, rather than fenced in for special few, for a specific ideology. I think this has protected the purity of Alum Rock’s inherent spirit.
Beltane is a day to bless the waters and is probably why my intuition led me here on the Beltane full moon. Alum Rock Park is full of natural springs. It is punctuated by the charm of stone ruins of its heyday from over 100 years ago, when people frequented such places for their curative powers.
The masonry work of a bygone era meanders down steps, leading to grottos and arching bridges over Penitencia Creek (named for some bygone meditating monks). Waters from the higher mountains above seep through layers of stone into this canyon, being transformed into mineral springs along the way – magnesia, sulfur, naturally carbonated soda are but a few of the many kinds. Altar-like grottos frame each of the springs that were excavated in the late 1800’s as California’s first regional park began to take shape.
For about 50 years, up until the 1930s, Alum Rock was a famous health resort for those seeking healing of body, mind, or spirit. Eventually overuse threatened the viability of the park itself, and steps were taken these past 30 years to extract much of mankind’s impact. The bath houses, swimming pools, restaurant, the railroad from downtown San Jose… all taken out in effort to restore the natural setting. And, with the park being situated near the convergence of two earthquake faults, dramatic change is always a potential. A few years ago, an earthquake struck near Alum Rock that caused a previously dried spring to begin flowing again. Isn’t that the nature of change itself? What shakes up one turns out to be a lovely change for another.
That day, we’d parked high on the ridge and walked the well trod paths through steep oak forests to the valley floor and along the creek, stopping to investigate the occasional grotto, some dry, some with streaming water, clear or cloudy white, some exuding a strong cloud of mineral scent. Our path led us to where we needed to be, and before long the call to meditate was upon me. Ed, with camera in hand, continued his form of communing, as I set out for mine.
Crossing a beautiful arched bridge over the creek, and settling myself on a large flat stone in the middle of gently moving waters, I grew very calm, peaceful. I sat on an ancient stone with thousands of seashells compressed over time in the forming its body. Let go. I floated, filling the creek with my soft body, filling the canyon, knowing this place intimately. I could see images of visitors in the park’s renown as a healing spa, some with significant physical ailment, some with great beauty – their hidden cracks on the inside.
It was a romantic era of art nouveau to art deco, some people in finery and some in robes, women in flowing silk gowns with stylish cropped hair. I wondered what the loss of these earlier visitors meant, if all regard for healing waters had evaporated through the years, and whether this place had suffered with the loss. And though the visitors then came for a reason, whether healing, joy or relaxation, ultimately they were all seeking to be free. Free of illness, doubt, duty, seeking the ability to just be and respond naturally. Free of crisis, to be at peace. This is no different than now. For while seeking healing from mineral springs has faded away as quaint practices of the past, those who come now share the same deeper need, and this, the Spirit of the Place continues expressing and assisting its guests in cultivating.
People are drawn to Alum Rock Park for all manner of reasons. Photographers come in the early morning and late afternoon for its dramatic light. The way a sycamore is backlit, casting its bony shadow in dark rays on soft grass. Children come for summer day camp to learn about nature, to see rescued birds of prey up close with their own eyes. Families and friends come to play, or just be.
On a given day they are quietly walking, idling, or resting. They are playing volleyball and horseshoes. They are grilling food and eating cake. They are learning about nature, about photography, about life. Through connecting with others, they seek joy and companionship, they seek the ability to be, to express freely. They seek comfort, peace of mind, the healing that comes from being in love, surrounded by love, or the sheer relief of expressing themselves in art and life. Ultimately they still seek the freedom to be, to express, to be natural in a world full of changing headlines and urgent needs. And the Spirit of the Place continues to feed these needs, to soften boundaries, to enable whatever needed transformation.
I’ve always been drawn to ancient sites, or those that seem pretty old, to feel what lingers of the original people, to be inspired by the site alone. And, I’ve always loved the untouched natural places, untarnished by idea, still pure. I suppose Alum Rock is a bit of both, with a lightly worn history whose influence has all but melted away.
It is in these places that one is informed not by past people, but by the Spirit of the Place itself – the witness on the edge of time, throughout the birth and evolution of stone, spring, creek, canyon, fauna, and forest. It’s a divinity beyond religion to name, opening to the gift of the moment. And sometimes the gift is simple, as on this Beltane. It is about being drawn here, to your own backyard, with someone you love, about reaching deep and giving complete.
Karen Ehrenfeldt, May 2009
p.s. If you come for the Gorsedd in August, it may be worth a side trip! See: