Jeannie's eyes widened in astonishment. She wasn't used to seeing me practically bouncing with energy and raving like a born-again convert. I was telling her about my retreat weekend at Hollyhock Institute. "Try it! You'll love it!" I urged.
I thought I had her sold, then I noticed the surprise in her eyes change to skepticism. Maybe I lost her when I said something about having been transported into outer space. Okay, I admit it sounds like I was over the top on some sort of drug induced trip-out. But really, it was only a musical journey I was on - an extraordinary experience produced by the subliminal tones Peter Hess coaxed from a dangling chunk of hammered metal, an ordinary gong.
I was leery about Hollyhock, too, at first. Curious, but leery. I was not at all sure what I was getting into with this holistic holiday idea. I am all for a little relaxation, a walk in the woods, a period of reflection, time to unwind, but this seemed a bit on the fringe for my tastes. The brochure used terms such as transpersonal, sacred vessel, intense sharing, shamanic initiation. What if I were expected to bare my private fears and public failings in some touchy-feely, group therapy hug-in? Yikes!
Leaving behind a busy work schedule, I felt jittery and disgruntled when I arrived at Hollyhock in pouring rain. Cortes Island was drenched in rainforest gloom. It was mid-July, and Mother Nature sent in March. This was too much even for British Columbia.
Assigned a single room in a three-bedroom, two bathroom house a short, uphill walk from the main lodge, I went there and met my house-mate, Deborah from Olympia, Washington. As it happened, we were on different schedules and had only time enough together for brief conversations. She told me she was spending a week at Hollyhock, taking back-to-back seminars. She said she was in a transition phase and hoped the time invested would help her make some necessary decisions.
My mood improved slightly on finding I had a pleasant room with a view. I glanced out the window and beyond a splendid stand of tall cedar and spruce trees to see ocean waves rolling to shore. But there was no time for dilly-dallying over the scenery. My retreat was about to begin with a yoga session, the mere thought of which gave me heart palpitations. My last experience with yoga left me feeling as if I had been drawn and quartered. My joints, you see, are not flexible, never have been flexible, and I expect they never will be flexible.
These facts I immediately stressed to yoga mistress Yvonne Kipp who looked the picture of serenity sitting on a floor mat straight backed and cross-legged. Yvonne smiled angelically, explained that yoga is meant to be pleasurable and told me to commence exercising seated as normal in a chair – if that would be more comfortable. No pressure. If my earlier experiences had been with a teacher like Yvonne Kipp, I might have persevered with yoga training.
Maybe that was the moment when tension began to be replaced by the warming glow of Hollyhock. I'm not sure because the sun remained well hidden, the rain drizzled on, the trees dripped and forest trails oozed. But dinner in the main lodge served up lively chatter around a dozen or so tables along with a colorful vegetarian and floral feast, artfully prepared and tasting even better than it looked.
Talk among the group at my table revealed that the Hollyhock philosophy is mirrored in its garden. A model of the French-intensive, bio-dynamic method, the Hollyhock garden grows in lush orderly rows in front of the lodge. Gorgeously flowering and abundantly edible, the garden provides sustenance for the stomach as well as the eye and is a steady reminder that living things thrive best when studiously nurtured within therapeutic guidelines.
Table chatter was interrupted when Peter Hess took the floor with a didgeridoo and gave us a sample of what was to come in his evening seminar. Hess is a German psychiatrist, music therapist, and researcher in the field of altered states of consciousness. He and his wife Heike were at Hollyhock to present a workshop called The Power of Sound Healing with Ancient Instruments.
Since about 1880 Hollyhock has been offering workshops in a wide variety of topics ranging from art to gardening to music to Zen meditation. According to the information I read, all presenters come with brilliant and usually scholarly credentials.
As I had been invited there just to get a feel for the Hollyhock style, I attended only the first session of the Hess' seminar, which was held in the Raven. Designed to the "principles of sacred architecture," the Raven is a circular meeting room in the forest. That night it was a wet stroll from the main lodge where a cozy fire blazed in the hearth. My shoes, stashed (as expected) outdoors on the porch, were soggy. I was participating in the same doubtful frame of mind I had adopted since arriving.
At the Raven, us students gathered in a circle around a decorative centrepiece then seated ourselves on floor pads. I had one with a back rest and found it quite comfortable. Lighting was subdued. Peter began with a practical explanation of his music-as-therapy theory then doled out an assortment of drums, rattles and shakers. Following his lead, the group began shaking, pounding and rattling, each to his own sense of rhythm.
Music it wasn't, but the idea was simply to let the sounds carry us into our thoughts, which we were asked to share with the others after a while. Soon, I had pretty much made up my mind that the therapy was an exercise in child's play, not especially stimulating in one way or another. Then Peter brought out his gong, an instrument tooled after the Indonesian gamelan style. He asked us to relax with closed eyes and listen. I didn't expect much, well what can you expect from a gong? Just . . . Gong, gong, gonnnngggg.
Unbelievably, to me at least, Peter brought forth from that gong, sounds as delicate as a whispering breeze and as powerful as a swirling gale or a blasting rocket. Whether or not the building's acoustics had anything to do with it, I don't know, but the music enveloped, lifted and swept you away if you let it. I easily imagined myself flying among stars and drifting over primordial landscapes on distant planets. Yes! It's true.
Interestingly, during talk time, my workshop mates each related different sensations, nothing at all like mine. But I liked mine best. The experience in a word: euphoric. And most astonishing to me, the feeling lingered on for months. There is no doubt in my mind that Peter helped me stir up some powerful inner spirit, though I have yet to convince my friend Jeannie of this subliminal phenomenon.
Rain or no rain, from that point on I basked in a curious kind of glow. By mid-morning the next day, Cortes Island also was transformed and glistening under sunny skies. The sea exchanged its sullen gray shading for a shimmering cobalt blue, and the Coastal mountains reappeared across Georgia Strait. Tree trunks in Hollyhock's grand old forest seemed to assume a wizened, bemused expression reminiscent of a Disney fairytale.
Time sped by, filled with both social and solo activities. While some folks went kayaking, I joined a nature hike. I skipped an early morning yoga class in favor of a hilariously inept, ten-man rowboat excursion to a nearby island for a picnic breakfast. Before a massage in the bodywork studio, I grabbed a quiet moment in the orchard sanctuary. I slurped down barbecued oysters on the beach, sniffed the roses by the garden gate, gazed at the awe inspiring coastal vista, and chatted with other guests over lunch on the deck or just in passing.
Grace and Jack, a Seattle couple who rent a place on Cortes each summer, said they never fail to drop in for several Hollyhock meals during their stay. Pierre from Vancouver was staying the weekend, taking a break from yard work at his cabin on another nearby island. Jennie from Ireland was intensely interested in seeking out the few remaining places on earth where people are committed to a less-is-best philosophy of sustainable living. Evidently Cortes Island is one of those places, and so is Hollyhock.
The Hollyhock story began when a party of friends vacationing on the island came upon a rundown property once called Cold Mountain Institute. Red hollyhocks blooming about the place struck a chord with one of the group – Rex Wiler whose memory summoned up the words of a fortune teller he had previously visited: "Wherever you see red holly hocks growing above the fence, that is where your future is."
To cut a long story short, the rest, as they say, is history. That group of friends became the first Hollyhock shareholders. Holding a common dream to "steward the land and make it available as a sanctuary for reflection, healing, and learning," the socially-conscious partners operate by consensus and within the restraints of ecology friendly principles. That is no easy task. People have come and gone over the years but the Hollyhock dream persists.
In 1986, they were successful in saving from clear-cutting 115 acres of old forest surrounding Hollyhock, and some members of the Hollyhock community keep actively involved in island eco-projects such as the Cortes Ecoforestry Society, an initiative begun by concerned islanders in collaboration with the Klahoose First Nation. The plan was to wrest control of island forests from multi-national corporations and adopt land management methods that guard forest structure and the habitat of fish, birds and sensitive plants while providing a range of jobs. Employed in small scale logging, milling, furniture making, mushroom and salal harvesting, or in tourist services, locals are more personally attuned to preserving their island's beauty and resources for future generations.
I'm sure my friend Jeannie would love a place like that. Wouldn't you?