Can a tree carry the intention and vision of the person who planted it 75 years ago?
“When I walk through the gardens of the resort, I feel loved”! The woman sharing this over breakfast at the resort we are staying, is glowing from the inside out!
This is it! I would have used other words but the feeling was the same I had when I strolled through the graciously designed land and gardens that cover a huge part of this Mexican healing hotel. I felt loved. I felt peaceful. I felt joyful. A bit like one would imagine paradise feels like.
Now we can’t ask the person who planted many of the trees at Rancho La Puerta back in the 1940’s because he passed away many years ago. But we can speak with his daughter, Sarah Brightwood, who is now the president of RLP and also responsible for the outstanding design of the natural heaven that is Rancho La Puerta. Not only that, but Sarah has also created an organic farm in the middle of the dry foothills of Mount Kuchuma where the city of Tecate gently emerges from the mountains.
Sarah shared with me how she created such an incredible yet humble, deeply touching healing garden while managing the resort, tending to the organic farm, and engaging in her many philanthropic projects.
“I never intended to work at the Ranch or to become President. I was the artistic nature child in the family and I longed for the simple life of a poet, gardener, artist and naturalist. It is my love of the earth that has motivated me to make a difference in our corner of the world, and to disperse seeds of that devotion to a much wider multinational arena through our guests.
“What is healing for you?” I ask Sarah.
“My father, in his time, believed that healing was simply removing the toxins and obstacles that prevent our body’s innate healing ability to do its work. How I experience that truth in the present is that we are born into a culture that is mostly devoid of essential nutrients and offers us empty substitutes. That makes healing more difficult. How do we heal when our souls are not nourished and our physical and emotional cravings are manipulated by the market? I see healing as an act of courage and connection. We need to become vigilant on our own behalf ; learn discernment and practice radical self care that is rooted in a holistic paradigm. This often threatens our cultural norms and that is where being courageous becomes part of the healing journey, trusting our instincts and examining our lifestyle. We need to undo our isolation, dissolve habits and patterns that we are taught to value as consumers, and learn a new way of seeing and being. We need to honor all life, cultivate connections beyond the human to human. Our bodies are part of the land and seas we are poisoning, we cannot heal in isolation. We must recognize the gifts of life with immense gratitude, allowing ourselves to be filled by the mystery and beauty that surrounds us in each present moment.”
Like Sarah, I dare to believe the ancient Indian scriptures that express the whole purpose of life is to break through our limitations and the fear that comes with it. And that life is all about strengthening our mind and heart and our whole being so that we can perceive the joy of life at its fullest.
In Sarah’s life, all of this was to be manifested in its own way.
“My first memory is being two years old and leaning over the edge of our pond catching silken, wriggling tadpoles in my hands. Those tadpoles became the frogs that scattered in the grass as we walked to and from our front door, and the chorus that sang me to sleep at night.
The wonder of growth and metamorphosis, the perennial rhythms and cycles of life, were at my fingertips in the wild and cultivated places around me at Rancho La Puerta. The natural world was my primary community and I learned to live joyfully in the simple blessings of the mountains. I can’t imagine growing up without these roots; knowing that I was safe and invisible high up an oak tree, riding horses on the mountain trails, frisking in the spring of the world, chasing bunnies in our garden, picking fresh strawberries and grapes, waiting for bread to come out of the big brick oven. My childhood and my father’s teachings blended and complemented each other. The most fundamental principle of his book “Cosmos, Man and Society” published in England in 1936 is that “Man must live in harmony with the laws of nature”. I knew no other way of being in the world. “
Sarah’s father’s intentions and teachings go hand in hand with those of the many naturalists of the 1930’s who emerged with their ideas about a new and free life style, especially in Hungary, Switzerland or Germany. Rudolf Steiner was one of them.
Sarah began gardening seriously when she was twelve, and began learning the names and uses of the plants she loved from the Mexican men and women that raised her. By the time she went to college, she dove deeply into studies of natural history, herbalism and ecology. She grew her skills as a garden designer and organic farmer, a teacher of Permaculture and soil conservation, and as an environmental activist.
In the meantime, her father’s health farm, The Ranch, had grown helter-skelter without a cohesive design philosophy or aesthetic principles. It needed an artist’s touch, and by the time Sarah was in her late 20’s, Rancho La Puerta had the resources to become beautiful. Sarah says that she firmly believes that all beauty is healing, but when we protect and nurture the fertility, grace and diversity of the natural world, we invite a healing force that goes deeper than any manmade environment.
In her understanding, our human bodies were made for these sensory blessings of sound, light, movement, taste and touch.
From the early days at the Ranch until today, guests are free to follow the flight of a hummingbird, rest in a chorus of crickets, smell the sage on the mountain after a rain, or stand on a boulder-strewn mountain to watch the sunrise.
Sarah wanted her gardens to feel like an extension of the natural world that she had loved as a child. “I hoped that our guests would be seduced into falling in love with the earth again, to experience the healing nature of the living forces that surround us and awaken their indigenous souls”.
At the same time that the Ranch grounds and buildings were transforming from ugly ducklings to swans, the food sources for the Ranch were degrading. Instead of small local farms providing the food, Mexico had bought into the” green revolution” of large scale, chemical, industrial agriculture. Nutrition was central to her father’s healing philosophy and was an advocate of organic farming and sustainable land management. Sarah decided to create an organic farm on the family land near the Ranch in 1984 to provide the best quality food to her guests, and they have been have been doing so ever since.
Meeting with Sarah is like diving into a vital part of healing culture and being immersed in the roots of the past.
Tecate, the nearby village that had become a town, has transformed over the years. It was growing in leaps and bounds as industrialization occurred along the border region between the United States and Mexico. This influx of poverty from the south changed the nature of the town and eroded the sense of belonging and community that made Tecate a clean, safe and healthy place to live.
“The kind of support and philanthropy that we had practiced as a family needed to change. It was imperative that we bring vision, leadership and a conservation ethic to Tecate. Fundación la Puerta became an advocate for a more conscious way forward to Tecate. I was very connected to our employees that lived in Tecate, and concerned about their wellbeing. I learned kindness, care and countless life skills from the generous extended family of workers at the Ranch. They raised me while my parents were working. I often describe my childhood home as a cross between a kibbutz and a Mexican village. I helped in the laundry, I delivered wood, I rode on the backs of pick-up trucks, straightened nails in the warehouse, ironed, sewed and I learned to love Mexico and her virtues. Mexican culture is huge-hearted, compassionate and resilient, complete with strong family values, an ancient spirituality, loyalty, helpfulness, patience and fun. It wasn’t until I lived far away from Mexico that I came to appreciate the parts of myself that were deeply Mexican”.
In 1997, she became president of Fundación La Puerta. They were already developing a park to promote physical fitness and sports in the community and the soccer field had been built. She saw the need for an environmental education center with interpretive trails, as the urbanizing city now provided few spaces for children to connect with their healthy chaparral ecosystem.
“We started community gardens and led a campaign to keep the Tecate River from being trapped in a concrete channel. There is now a park system running alongside the river. We began to celebrate the local culture and began new traditions, the events that we hold for Day of the Dead and World Environment Day regularly draw crowds of 5,000 each. Our youth leadership program inculcates skills among the youth of Tecate so that they can participate in shaping the future of their communities, with a foundation in co-operation, care for the environment and integrity.”
As one of the rare “legacy” rated members of Healing Hotels of the World, the Ranch’s community of workers also practice their own leadership in their communities, becoming positive forces for change in their neighborhoods. “We provide educational opportunities and an employee wellness program that includes, among its objectives, diabetes and obesity prevention”.
Of course I ask Sarah about her dreams for the future of the Ranch.
“I would like to see the Ranch continue to prosper, to provide a sanctuary for its guests and staff. I would like our programs to evolve with the changing needs of a stressed and distressed population so that the healing of body, mind and spirit continues to be as profound and effective as it was in the early years when my father’s practices were considered radical and strange. I’d like the Ranch to remain true to its roots in the practice of natural medicine: to continue teaching principles of healthy eating, exercise, mindfulness, and alternative healing modalities, but I see new technologies and interventions that can accelerate healing and detoxification as essential to maintaining health while living in a world that is increasingly toxic.
I would like to support visionary and responsible leadership in the local community, provide models for sustainable and earth friendly architecture and to continue to implement our conservation strategies to protect the mountain. We now have over 3,000 acres preserved in a bi-national conservation easement but there is much more to do in our region.
I have dreamt of creating an eco village on our land, beside the organic farm, where a bi-cultural community that is interested in living off the grid, closer to the earth, and committed to caring for each other through aging and death can take root. It is a time to build bridges between cultures and to appreciate the unique gifts that we bring from our differences. I would like to see a community like this blossom in the shadow of the border fence, to be a place of cultural diversity and conviviality that is committed to growing old together and to sharing the gifts of becoming elders”.
Rancho La Puerta is a member in the global hospitality brand HEALING HOTELS OF THE WORLD.