Paul Harrison’s trip of Feb 15-26, 2001

Photos © Paul Harrison 2001

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This is a belated account of my trip to meet pans in California. Since I had been invited to present the new American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Atlas of Population and Environment at their annual conference in San Francisco, with the flight and three days’ hotel paid, I decided to take the opportunity to meet our members in California.


San Francisco

The AAAS presentation was on the Friday morning and went well. I was able to meet Peter Raven, director of the Missouri botanical garden, the new AAAS president. He has written on the importance of a new spirituality about nature (but only very briefly). It turns out he is an inactive Catholic, and also a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

I also met several people in the field of religion and science and religion and environment, at a reception held by the Templeton Organization, which promotes a sort of enlightened theism allegedly compatible with science. I spoke to their religion and science program director, he said “Sir John is not interested in the environment.”
“Oh really? What planet is he living on?” I replied (well, almost).

I met Billie Grassie who runs the META list on religion and science, and started an interesting but unfinished discussion about purpose in the Universe with him, and Mary Evelyn Tucker, who runs a big religion and environment research program, with whom I talked about the idea for a collection of authoritative scriptural writings from the main religions on environment. I also went to see a friend I met years ago in Berkeley, Ernest “Chick” Callenbach, who wrote the green cult novel Ecotopia. Chick was very interested in our religious experiment. He remarked that it seemed to have everything needed for a religion except one.
    “What’s that?” I asked expectantly.
    “It’s not crazy.”


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On the Saturday it was the first ever gathering of pans in the San Francisco area. We met in the Japanese Tea Garden in the Golden Gate Park. This is a lovely Zen garden originally made by a Japanese guy who lived on the site.

Present were (left to right in the photo below) Lee Lull, Dale and Gale Stocking, Sydney Keith
and his wife Carolyn Glaser, and Karl Slinkard. Dave Kiebert and his wife also came.

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After a pleasant discussion and stroll and a pan song by Lee, six of us went on to Muir Woods, in
Marin County, to see the redwoods. By this time it was raining really hard. Karl and Dave and Dave’s wife
decided not to undergo the inevitable soaking.

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Dale, Gale and I had not seen the woods before and set out. They were beautiful, with their
huge trunks rising up into the mist.  They have a habit of growing from shoots at the base of older trees, so many were in circular clumps. Some were big enough to get inside. There were fallen oaks across the streams, thick tresses of lichen on tree branches, and masses of ferns, oxalis and ivy at ground level.  Despite the very heavy rain
there were a lot of walkers.There was a circular section of one tree that fell in 1930, showing the rings back to its birth in 903 AD, with marks for the Aztecs, Columbus’ landing, declaration of independence, and close to the outer edge, the California Gold rush.
I hope to come back again and walk some of the quieter side trails.



Los Angeles and Agoura Hills

On the Sunday morning I took a flight to Los Angeles. David Harrington was kind enough
to pick me up at the airport and drove me along the Pacific Coastal Highway, via Malibu, up into
the beautiful Santa Monica Mountains to Agoura Hills, where I was to stay with member Sheila
Rosenthal and her husband Jay.

The monthly LA group meeting was scheduled for 2pm. Sheila and David and I and two newcomers
were there. Sheila is a third generation pantheist. She has a table full of pan gadgets for people
to play with when they arrive – a kaleidoscope of natural shells, Zen balls that make a ringing noise
when you hold them, a glass contraption that uses body heat to pump liquid through its pipes,
an hourglass made of gooey liquid, and a sounding box made all of wood, with different shaped tongues
cut into it to make various notes. David played tapes of his “syncopated meditation”
inspired by Javanese music.   

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We went on to Sheila’s favourite place, a patch of land she owns by a running stream, with lots of trees
and a steep shrubby bank. Sheila hopes to build something on this land that can be used by pantheists
as a meeting place or as a retreat. For better or worse, the Coastal Commission here is extremely strict
about what you can plant and do,  and won’t even allow people to feed wild birds in case it
disrupts the balance or species.

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I became a tourist over the next few days. David drove me round LA, Sunset Strip, Farmers’ Market
and La Brea Park, where we visited the fascinating museum of prehistoric animals that had become
trapped in the tarpits and died there (above).

Sheila showed me the Santa Monica Mountains and Lake Malibu.
In the hollows there were delightful canyons like this one.

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San Diego

On the Thursday morning Frank Woolridge picked me up at Sheila’s a drove me to San Diego. We stopped off for tea with former WPM director Ezella Edwards (right) who lives in a mobile home park in Oceanside.

Ezella was recovering from a major operation on her chest, and hopes to start a local WPM group in Oceanside as soon as she is fit. We discussed an idea put forward by Sheila for a children’s site on pantheism, which will be set up at a new domain we have purchased, Ezella has written hundreds of children’s stories, some of which we will use on the site.

That evening I was scheduled to give a talk on nature and spirituality at University of California
San Diego. Frank had put in a lot of work promoting this, and had got a free ad in the student paper.
But the lecture room was very hard to find, and we probably lost at least as many people as the eight who
managed to find us. They included a graduate student interested in setting up a student branch at UCSD.

We then drove through San Diego to Chula Vista, where I was going to stay with Ernie and Sherry
Hopkins. They live in a bungalow with twelve stray cats they have adopted – four indoors and eight
outdoors, all given veterinary attention and neutered. I was amazed how far it was from La Jolla to
Chula Vista – about 30 miles, this is about the width of London. The total population is about a quarter
of that in London. Seeing this has made me realize that reducing car dependence is a much tougher task
than telling people to get on their bikes!

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Photo © Frank Woolridge 

The next evening I gave another pantheism lecture, this time at San Diego State University, which
was set up by WPM member Gene Troxell who used to lecture there in philosophy. The title was
“Pantheism – beyond theism and atheism”. It looked mostly at the philosophical side of pantheism.
Gene is the white-haired guy in the front row. Ernie is on the left, trying to get the tape recorder to work.

On the Saturday morning, Friday, Ernie took me to San Diego Zoo. Set in a beautiful hilly park,
with the animals mostly in very natural surroundings, this is one of the best zoos in the world.

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Since I had a fully waterproof camera, I actually jumped in the tank to get this view of hippos
fighting. I was very foolish to do this, and was very lucky to come out alive, because at one point
they turned their attention away from each other and onto me. I scrambled out only to be arrested
by the zoo security personnel who interrogated me for four hours, and  … .
Not really – there’s a huge glass viewing window, I was just lucky they came this close.

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The gorillas actually have a very nice natural enclosure, but this shot of mother and child
somehow summed up our paradoxical human relationship with animals. Clearly there is a deep
human love and fascination, but at the same time the animals are not in an equal situation.
Since we hold most of the cards, they rely on us to treat them properly.

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Photo © Ernie Hopkins

On the Saturday Frank had fixed up a talk and book-signing at the Borders bookshop in Poway,
north of San Diego. We had a reasonable turnout of 15-20 people, almost all of whom seemed to
be genuine pantheists. Gary Suttle, a director of the Universal Pantheist Society and webmaster
of the Pantheist Association for Nature site, was also there and had a chat. 

The Sunday was free. Ernie was kind enough to drive me into Mexico at my request, and we
drove parallel to the border to Tecate and then back. Although I have seen a lot worse poverty
in Africa and Asia, I found it depressing.

I flew back to London via San Francisco on the Monday morning.

The trip was extremely productive and memorable for me. I was able to see three groups at very
different stages of development and to talk for hours with many US members. It was heartening to see
at first hand that one could actually travel right across the US meeting up with members in most major cities
and many other places too.    

A common theme in the two South California groups was the problem of retaining newcomers.
Both of them felt that they had not yet found the right format. I also had long talks with
Sheila Rosenthal, David Harrington, Ezella Edwards, Ernie Hopkins, Gene Troxell, Frank Woolridge
and Tom Brower, about what kind of format we could develop that would be rewarding and spiritual
enough for people to want to come back again, without putting off those of our members who have
a distaste for ceremony. As a result we will be producing a draft local groups handbook, and the section
of local meeting formats will be circulated for comment.