Eremitic Spirituality and Land-Based Ethics

1999 by Jim Burklo




From the top of a rocky ridge studded with saguaros, up a series of washboarded dirt roads in southern Arizona, Hot Springs Canyon appears below. A lonesome windmill at the bottom of the drywash is the only visible sign of human presence on this very hot afternoon. The canyon is a part of the watershed of the San Pedro River, which was declared by The Nature Conservancy to be one of the "Last Great Places" in America. In 1995, a "militia" group planned to buy a big tract of land above the canyon and turn it into a firing range for automatic weapons. The people around Cascabel ("rattlesnake", in Spanish), a dusty hamlet along the San Pedro near the mouth of Hot Springs Canyon, mobilized to stop this proposal by seeking another buyer who would preserve the property.

Years before this crisis, the seeds of a creative response had been sown. A group of friends, some living in Cascabel and others from Tucson, established the
Saguaro-Juniper Association in 1986. This community was dedicated to land preservation in the Hot Springs area. Several of its members were Quakers and others involved in the Sanctuary Movement, which smuggled refugees into the United States during the civil wars in Central America in the 1980’s. Most of these friends had worked together for years on other environmental and social justice causes in southern Arizona. The Saguaro-Juniper Association, a ranch corporation, bought and leased land in and around Hot Springs Canyon through the purchase of $1500 shares by its 60-odd members. A few of the members living in the Cascabel area grazed cattle on the land. The members of the Association bound themselves to the land through a document they called the Saguaro-Juniper Covenant:

The Saguaro-Juniper Covenant Principles
(a bill of rights for the land)

1.) The land has a right to be free of human activity that accelerates erosion.
2.) Native plants and animals on the land have a right to life with a minimum of human disturbance.
3.) The land has a right to evolve its own character from its own elements without scarring from construction or the importation of foreign objects dominating the scene.
4.) The land has a pre-eminent right to the preservation of its unique and rare constituents and features.
5.) The land, its water, rocks and minerals, its plants and animals, and their fruits and harvest have a right never to be rented, sold, extracted, or exported as mere commodities.

Francis Leitner and Mary Lou Gonzales read an article written by Jim Corbett, one of the Saguaro-Juniper associates and a cattle rancher in Cascabel, in a Quaker environmental publication. Francis was a retired defense worker who had dedicated his retirement years to volunteer service work. He was a "recovering Catholic" who was moved by the eco-spiritual writings of Thomas Berry. Mary Lou was a nurse-practitioner in a clinic for low-income people in the Tucson area. They were city folks who wanted spiritual communion with wilderness in a way that would honor and preserve the land. They contacted Jim Corbett, who then told them about the threatened property above Hot Springs Canyon. They came out to see it for themselves, and shortly afterward they gave the money to purchase 400 acres of land, including the parcel proposed for "militia" war games, adjacent to the several hundred acres already under the Saguaro-Juniper Covenant. The Saguaro-Juniper associates then bought another 40 acres of adjoining property. All of this newly-acquired land was put under the Covenant, as well.

Frances and Mary Lou then joined with a small group of Saguaro-Juniper people and other friends to form a new non-profit organization, the Cascabel Hermitage Association, in order to set aside a place for solitary contemplation in the wilderness.

"The Cascabel Hermitage Association acquires and holds real property in trust under the Saguaro-Juniper Covenant, makes the land available for solitary meditation, and holds conservation easements. It thereby provides a Sonoran desert wildlands habitat for fully interfaith solitary contemplation, as well as other solitary educational and creative activities that require sustained concentration and stillness. It should also be a place where sojourners can learn to live harmoniously within an untamed community of plants and animals and to work in community to care for these lands. In seeking to integrate sojourners into a wildland community, CHA is guided by the need to heal the separation between civilized humanity and the earth." (from the by-laws of the Cascabel Hermitage Association)

The biblical Greek word for "desert" is eremia -- the root of the word "hermit" that was applied to the solitary monks living in the wilderness of the Near East in early Christian times. The Cascabel Hermitage Association created a way for city-dwellers to taste the eremitic experience for periods of up to a few weeks at a time. CHA members and friends built a straw-bale hermitage above Hot Springs Canyon and dedicated it to the memory of Francis Leitner, who died in 1999. It is an invigorating hike from the lonesome windmill at the bottom of the wash that is the nearest drinkable water source. All water and supplies must be carried in backpacks to the straw-bale building or to the other hermitage campsites on the land. Close to the windmill, tucked away among the mesquites, are two permanent dwellings for the land's on-site caretakers. One is a canvas tent under a hand-made ramada of beautifully peeled and linseed-oiled cottonwood beams. This is the year-round home of Daniel Baker. In addition to his restoration work on the land kept under the Saguaro-Juniper Covenant, he keeps an office in Cascabel where he is employed by The Nature Conservancy. TNC has one of its largest holdings, the Muleshoe preserve, further north and east in the San Pedro watershed, and it hired Daniel to be its "community steward". His job is to encourage ecosystem conservation in the private lands and leaseholds around Cascabel.

The other dwelling is an exquisitely-constructed cottage encircled by a wire fence. Inside the circle, organic garden beds spread away from Pearl Mast and David Omick's tiny one-room home. Outside the circle, against the base of the ridge, is a composting outhouse that reveals David's skills as a former boat builder and designer of low-cost housing for Habitat for Humanity in southern Texas. Pearl is a private tutor-teacher for children in the Cascabel area, and David is the executive director of CHA, facilitating the sojourns of the temporary "hermits" who stay on the land. David and Pearl live centrally located in the middle of nowhere, but to look at them and at their immaculate little home and garden, one would not associate them with any stereotypical images of Arizona "desert rats".

The CHA board has just approved Pearl and David's plan to start an internship program in desert -adapted living skills: solar energy, desert organic gardening, and preservation and preparation of edible wild foods. CHA is also seeking funds to enable it to hold conservation easements on nearby private land. Landowners can donate or assign rights to the non-profit CHA in agreements that prevent subdivision, destruction of natural features or other development of their properties. In turn, the nonprofit CHA will be responsible for the legal costs of creating and enforcing these preservation agreements. The Cascabel Hermitage Association and the Saguaro-Juniper associates follow the Covenant by active interventions such as careful herding of cattle to prevent overgrazing and building check-dams in the upper washes to prevent erosion. Native vegetation has recovered so well that the community is now studying whether or not to do controlled burns on the upper parts of the land in order to prevent a future lightning strike from starting a wildfire that could kill stands of magnificent, slow-growing saguaros. The careful practices of the Saguaro-Juniper members who herd cattle on the land have enabled denser vegetation to grow in the main wash of the canyon. This vegetation slows flash floods, reducing erosion and trapping sediments and nutrients that further enhance the plant and animal habitat. Refraining from anything more than minimal interference with the land has been the most significant practice of these followers of the Covenant.

'Eremia' has at least two meanings in the context of the CHA and the Saguaro-Juniper Covenant. The outer desert has its natural processes, some awful and others just awe-full, and the sojourning hermit observes them with minimal interference. It may seem at first to be a parched and dusty place, but the longer an alert observer remains there, the more life is apparent under the saguaro cacti and the scrubby junipers. Likewise, the inner desert of solitary silence may at first seem dead or at best a place of tedium. But as practitioners of prayer disciplines so often report, a lengthy sojourn in silence will reveal a rich and complicated inner world of experience that, like a wilderness, must be negotiated on its own terms.

There are as many views of the Covenant at Hot Springs Canyon as there are people in the CHA and in the Saguaro-Juniper Association. As David Omick puts it, "It's been our observation that the kinds of people attracted to hot, dusty, bug-infested corners of the desert like Cascabel tend to be independent and opinionated cusses." Some come to the Covenant with views developed through spiritual practice in Quaker or other religious communities. Others come to it with a strictly scientific, political, or eco-logical perspective. There is no one voice for this community, but somehow the Covenant holds together this group of rugged individuals with the fundamental assumption that they belong to the land, and not the other way around.

Daniel Baker once studied at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and later owned a successful printing business. He came to Cascabel in 1994 seeking a faith-based community life that would integrate humans with wildlands. He bought 40 acres in Hot Springs Canyon on which the windmill and his homestead are now located, and put his land under the Saguaro-Juniper Covenant. A tall, quiet fellow whose smile flashes brightly out of the sunburnt creases of his face, he is one of those rare individuals who pause to think for a moment before answering questions: "I think of 'hermitage' in the original Christian context of 'eremitism' where people retreated alone into the desert for religious purposes. I say 'religious' in the root meaning of the word, that is 'rebinding' --from the same root as ligament -- to our greater connectivity. Some environmentalists have called for a move away from our anthropocentrism to a biocentric perspective. While this is instructive, all too often this seems to be a reactionary view: that instead of exploiting nature we need to separate humans from nature entirely so it can be protected. This seems to me just as dangerous as it is impossible, and is simply the flip side of the domination model. The lesson of ecology, if anything, is that everything is connected..... I believe it is necessary to see another way of being, another reality. We must deconstruct our society and de-socialize ourselves to some degree in order to see that our family is wider than humans. Being alone in wildlands apart from language and other social cues allows the earth to speak to us in a more primal way. Take away what props up our socially conditioned perception of reality, and the earth itself will be allowed to speak. It is like a conversion experience. It is what all mystics and eremites have claimed: become empty, and something more profound will fill you up. Perhaps from that voice we will discern a new direction of peace and harmony with each other and the earth." ((from a letter by Daniel Baker))

Jim Corbett is a 66-year old rancher with a master's degree in philosophy from Harvard. He was the co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement, a confederation of church and secular groups that smuggled Central American refugees across the Mexican border into the United States in the 1980's during the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. It helped that he was fluent in Spanish and that he knew how to make secret border crossings, since he had been herding cattle and goats in southeastern Arizona for decades. He is the author of Goatwalking (Viking Press, 1991), his memoir of the Sanctuary Movement, theology of early Israel, treatise on nonviolent social change, and detailed primer on following goats in the desert and living off their milk. While not the spokesperson for CHA and Saguaro-Juniper, he is certainly its best-known member. Severe arthritis has twisted his fingers, and his toes are splayed sideways out of his dusty huaraches, but he is able to chase cows running across the pasture of the ranch that he and his wife Pat own along the San Pedro River.

In a long piece he is now writing called "Cowbalah", Corbett shares some of his unique views of living out the Covenant. Cowbalah is a term coined by Daniel Baker, who light-heartedly suggested it in response to Corbett's idiosyncratic view of the connection between the medieval Kabalah mystical system of the Spanish Jews and the herding of cattle in the desert. Corbett looks back to the origin of the biblical Covenant between YHWH and the people of Israel. The 'hapiru' were semi-nomadic herders who escaped the tyrannies of Egypt and Babylon to live off the land in the hill country of Palestine. Corbett calls them 'cimarron' people, using the Mexican Spanish word for cattle that go feral in the desert wilderness. Theirs was a 'sabbatical' way of life -- one lived in harmony with nature, interfering only minimally in the natural order, honoring the sacredness of all life. Later, the 'hapiru' became the 'Hebrews', an ethnic group that settled on the flatlands, practiced peasant agriculture, and began to build cities and kingdoms. The Covenant, the Sabbath day, and the sabbatical and jubilee years were established to preserve and restore the connection of the people of Israel to their roots in communion with God and nature.

"Poetry and prophecy tell of a land where human livelihood is, was, or will be communion: Arcadia, Eden, the Peaceable Kingdom. Cowbalah is written to open an entryway for explorers. The land itself must then teach the way.... Cowbalah is about grazing on the San Pedro's Cascabel watershed that is practiced as sabbatical livelihood. The primary meaning of sabbath is cessation from all activity that is 'melacha', which is usually translated as 'work' or 'labor'. 'Melacha' is any work to master or manage nature.... 'Sabbath' means ceasing to do whatever desacralizes the Creation -- ceasing to act as though we were the owners and rulers of nature.

"People who are fully assimilated may see that civilization destroys and desecrates nature, but they can't see that the problem is management rather than mismanagement. To recognize that management is itself the problem is to understand that sabbath observance is the restoration of the world: to observe sabbath in any respect serves to resacralize life on earth. To observe sabbath fully would constitute a redemptive transformation of society that ends humanity's exile from nature. If even a single basic society of friends were to observe sabbath fully, it would open Eden's gate for everyone." ((from "Cowbalah", a work in progress, by Jim Corbett))

"What would it mean if Law's sword were made into stewardship's plowshare? Covenant communities would convert management into symbiotics, possession into communion, and ownership into earth rights." ((from Jim Corbett and Father Ricardo Elford, The Servant Church, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #328))

The sun sets beyond the Santa Catalina Mountains to the west. Wispy clouds streak orange and pink across a turquoise sky, glowing above the land and the people of the Covenant at Hot Springs Canyon at the end of another day.

"There is no way to go back or to give up these advances of our technological age, but to continue to progress at the expense of the natural world leads to our own destruction," wrote Francis Leitner in an article about the Cascabel Hermitage Association a year before his death. "Unless our progress is mutually enhancing for a human-earth relationship, then it will continue to be destructive of the very free and generous gift of our life upon this wondrous planet. That is why we are making a place available -- to hear the heartbeat of the earth and change our direction before it is too late." ((from an article by Francis Leitner in "Loaves and Fishes newsletter", Tucson, Sept-Oct 1998))

((To contact the Cascabel Hermitage Association: CHA, 5780 N. Cascabel Road, Benson, AZ, 85602, 520-212-4628.))

Saguaro-Juniper Association



SANCTUARY FOR ALL LIFE: The Cowbalah of Jim Corbett

(2005: Howling Dog Press)


A review by Jim Burklo


jtburklo @ --


"I avoid eating anyone I have not known and cherished," wrote Jim Corbett in "Sanctuary for All Life", his final testament now in print four years after his death. "When slaughter breaks the bond, the killing must be hallowed. All food is sacramental." One sunset-streaked evening on the pasture near Jim and Pat Corbett's place along the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona, I watched him commune with one of the cows he cherished, stroking its head with his arthritis-ravaged hand. I began to understand how he earned, among other roles, the status of the "cow-whisperer" of Cascabel. Neighbors brought animals to him for healing from gut impactions and cactus-spine wounds. No wonder that his heartfelt ambivalence about raising animals for slaughter was reflected in a sub-chapter entitled "On Killing and Eating One's Friends" in his first book, "Goatwalking" (Viking Press, 1991).


"Sanctuary for All Life" hallows humans' relationship to the earth in words that point to a realm beyond words, a Peaceable Kingdom beyond the thrall of kings and states, living a law that trumps all written codes because it is "in your mouth and in your heart" (Deuteronomy 30:14). To show the way, Corbett obstinately synthesized the disparate disciplines in which he had steeped himself, from analysis of the range-grasses of the Sonoran desert to dissection of the finer points of the medieval Jewish mysticism of Spain. But what else could we have expected from a Quaker cowboy with a masters in philosophy from Harvard? Added to these challenges for the reader was his death at age 67 from a rare brain disease that cut short his completion of the book.


These difficulties are mitigated by the exceptional front-matter provided by Jim's friends. Father Ricardo Elford's touching ìForewordî reflects his collaboration with Corbett in the Sanctuary Movement and in co-authoring a pamphlet entitled "The Servant Church" (1996: Pendle Hill Pamphlet #328). It is a manifesto for an earth-hallowing, justice-seeking church that exists beyond denominations and creeds. The poet David Ray says of "Sanctuary for All Life" in his Preface that "one cannot remain the same after reading it." And on Daniel Baker's lengthy and very helpful Introduction hang many needed keys to unlock the treasures in Corbett's dense prose. Daniel lives in Hot Springs Canyon near Jim and Pat's place up the dirt road from Cascabel. His deep understanding of Jim as a person and of the topics and texts to which the book refers, and his collaboration with Jim in the process of writing it, make his overview of the book invaluable.


The front-matter also includes a speech by Corbett when he received the Letelier-Moffit Human Rights Award in 1991. He got the award on behalf of the Sanctuary Movement, which he co-founded in the 1980ís to protect asylum-seekers who crossed the border to escape death during the Central American civil wars. As a borderlands rancher who was fluent in Spanish, driven by a conscience steeped in the tradition of such Quakers as John Woolman, the colonial-era anti-slavery activist, Corbett began guiding Guatemalans and Salvadorans over the border. He partnered with a Presbyterian pastor in Tucson, John Fife, to create a network of churches and temples around the US which offered sanctuary to refugees who were being denied for asylum status and threatened with deportation. His speech described the foundation guiding his inception of the movement: civil initiative. Civil disobedience is the willful breach of unjust law. Passive resistance is non-cooperation with unjust force or law. But civil initiative is active fulfillment and expression of the higher, natural law that is written on the heart. When he and others in the movement were charged with being ìcoyotesî, smugglers of aliens across the border, their defense was based on the argument that the US government was breaking guarantees to asylum for refugees under the international law to which it was bound.


Corbett became nationally recognized for his personal heroism. (It was powerful to listen to the testimonials of some of the people whose lives he had saved, during his memorial service at John Fife's church, Southside Presbyterian, in 2001.) But for Jim, the Sanctuary Movement (words he never capitalized) was a temporary distraction from the work that mattered to him most - the redemption of wildlands and the hallowing of human beings' place in it.


In "Sanctuary for All Life", Corbett, as a self-taught Hebrew scholar, delved into the nature of "torah", the law of Israel. It is a law that he aimed to follow through "civil initiative", a law written not only on human hearts, but on the hearts of cows, goats, javelinas, mescals, and saguaros.


The law of Israel specified the honoring of the Sabbath, which prohibits the exercise of "malacha", a Hebrew word that is translated as "labor" but more precisely refers to any human interference in the processes of nature. Corbett explains that the ritual observance of Sabbath was the Jewish peopleís way of keeping themselves connected to a way of life in symbiotic harmony with Nature. A way of life reminiscent of that of Abraham - the wandering Aramean who followed a herd in the wildlands of Palestine. "Sanctuary for All Life" might be described as a theology and practice of Sabbath, and not just from sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday, or Sunday for the Christians. Rather, a year-round sabbath that re-integrates humanity into deep communion with all life. A Sabbath with a haunting call for us to return to what Corbett calls the "cimarron" (Spanish for feral livestock) way of true freedom through re-integration into the natural order.


The focus of the book is intensely local, but its implications are global. "Sanctuary for All Life" begins and ends with a stretch of Sonoran Desert on the east side of the San Pedro River in Arizona, a place where he and other "associates" of the land made covenant with it. The Saguaro-Juniper Covenant, described in the book, is a "betrothal" of a group of Jim's friends to this patch of earth, with a commitment to give the land back to itself. The Covenant is the land's bill of rights. First on the list: "The land has a right to be free of human activity that accelerates erosion." Many of the associates of the Covenant live in the Tucson area and are supportive with money and volunteer time on occasion. Several, including Daniel Baker, live on or near the land and either herd cattle on it according to the Covenant's careful guidelines, or participate in other land-redemption efforts.


Corbett microcosmically explored the challenges of living and ranching in harmony with his homeland in Arizona. In so doing he modeled what it will take for the whole human family to go "cimarron" and live in harmonious communion with all life, while confessing the limits of his and his community's ability to live out their vision of the liberation of the land. "(Jesus) doesn't condemn anyone for failing to live in full accordance with the restitutional mitzvot (Hebrew for just actions) required for redemption. We are to forgive one another our failures. He just condemns those who would lead us to think that anything less will do." (p 190)


Corbett saw Jesus as a Jewish rabbi who announced "jubilee" - the liberation of peasants from indenture, of Jews from Rome, of nature from human management. The Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto for the redemption not just of humanity, but of the natural order, called for in the Torah. The Jewish law required that after the 49th year (a sabbath of sabbath years, seven times seven), a time of jubilee was to be enacted in which all land was to be returned to itself.  No plowing or planting was allowed, and all land divisions were erased to end unjust accumulation of property.


"Sanctuary for All Life" is a radical call to jubilee liberation of the natural world, but Corbett was emphatic that it was not about "eco-sainthood". He described the person who recycles everything, gives up automobiles, eats no meat, takes no vacation trips. "Yet the saintís perfect conservational thoughtfulness can never be as effective as a single case of contraception." (p 168) "Individuals can denounce and resist a way of life, but only a community can live a way of life into being and bequeath it to succeeding generations." (p 168) For Corbett, the hallowing way is one that integrates humans into the natural world as co-creating "associates", unlike those who want to ban all human activity in wilderness. This integration is the task not primarily of governments, but rather of the "church" as Corbett described it: "a voluntary society based on communion" (p 150). And by communion he refers to a real meal, not just the ritual symbolism of wafers and chalices. "To awaken to the forgotten meaning of sacrifice is to see that all food is sacramental, that every dinner table is an altar, that life itself is the primal form of holy communion, and that God is Nature, the creative source for Whom there is no other. The way we live on life - our food - is of fundamental religious concern." (p 110) "The hallowing of our food has to do with care of the land, care that the animals on the land flourish." (p 111)


Corbett indicted capitalism for its half-hearted embrace of the free market. A full embrace would result in abandoning not only governmental interference in the "spontaneous order" of markets, but also the capitalists' attempts to interfere in the "spontaneous order" of nature. Nowhere was this better exemplified for Corbett than through the Western cattle industry's reduction of cows to cash, which has resulted in wholesale degradation of rangelands and unholy treatment of animals. The real idolaters aren't the biblical apostates adoring golden images: "it is market morality that worships the golden calf, as a commodity, in the name of profits and property." ( p 249)


"Go deep enough into eco-wisdom, and youíll find a practicable, down-to-earth mysticism." (p 247) "Cowbalah" is Corbett's playful term to express his resonance with the Jewish system of "kabbalah", a web of relations through which the creative energy of the universe flows. "A visionary myth rather than theosophical speculation, kabbalah is concerned with humanity's quest to recover its homeland in Eden: an unfarmed, fruitful oasis; an untamed paradise of living waters. This key myth of kabbalah fuses the communion insight with the down-to-earth quest for Eden." (p 258)


In his first book, Corbett remembered two incidents from earlier in his life. "On the prairie, when the wind wails a dirge and snow sifts in rivulets through the sagebrush, I've hugged the sticky-pink, death-chilled body of a newborn lamb under my coat, and its heart fluttered in reply. And on a desert mountain, amidst the hush of soaring granite, I've opened a forgotten spring. The few who remembered thought it had long ago gone dry, but I found the hidden place and dug down until a stream ran clear and cold in the summer sun. So what are epitaphs to me? I've shared life's warmth with a lamb. I've opened a desert spring." (pp 12-13, "Goatwalking") Jim Corbett's spring still runs with prophetic insight for our time, and times to come, through the practical mysticism of "Sanctuary for All Life".