The Post: Community Updates
We are posting regular news updates here whenever possible. The most recent posts appear at the top. The list on the right may help you locate specific posts.
Major reports and announcements can be found on our Rebuilding News page.
Deirdre Davis: Get it done, naturally.
Deirdre Davis believes in the healing power of nature. Whether it’s a forested landscape, a flower garden, or a hillside trail, she has learned that “nature itself can be just as healing as a soak or a massage.” And she is hoping, through her work as the Managing Director responsible for all of Harbin’s acreage and ecosystem, to continue bringing the healing power and peacefulness of nature into all aspects of the Harbin experience.
Deirdre is a smart, tuned-in, and intuitive woman with lots of energy, a quick wit, and a sarcastic sense of humor; and she is doing her day-by-day best to balance her roles as a mother, wife, gardener, and for the past year as a Harbin MD. “I was in shock for the first six months after the fire,” she recalled. “But I jumped into starting our reforesting project right away, and focusing on that work really helped keep me together. Then a year ago, when there was a shift in upper management and the MD circle asked me to step up and help more, I was ready for the opportunity.”
Deirdre was born in St. Helena and has lived hereabouts for most of her life. Her great-grandfather bought land and built a family ranch in north Napa County, “about 9 miles as the crow flies” from Harbin. As a kid, she spent summers swimming and hiking there, and hearing stories about her grandparents soaking in the many nearby springs. She first learned about Harbin specifically at the age of 16, when she saw an advertisement in the Mendocino County Grapevine for Harbin Hot Springs with a little map of Middletown, and had the thought, “Someday I’m going to work at Harbin Hot Springs and live at the family ranch!” At the time, she thought that seemed far-fetched; but it turned out to be exactly what happened. She and her husband, Neil Nelson (who is Harbin’s Vision Property Manager, and integral to our reforestation process), were living at the family ranch 17 years ago when they first began working at Harbin.
Over the course of her Harbin tenure, Deirdre has had first-hand experience in almost every Harbin department. Her first job was assisting in Human Resources, where she was an immediately welcome light; concurrently, she worked in housekeeping, scrubbing toilets. In the years that followed, she worked in the restaurant, the market, as a massage therapist, arranging flowers, giving palm readings, beekeeping, doing and managing Harbin’s landscaping, and in the community garden project. That’s where she and Neil learned about biodynamic practices from Lawrence Hirschman, and brought them to Harbin’s flower and vegetable growing. “The overall design of that garden”, Deirdre described, “was based on Julie Adams’ wonderful vision for all of Harbin: quirky, with little secret hidden areas and gardens within gardens. And it was built on the hard work and dedication of all the landscapers and gardeners who came before us, and included some really eclectic plants and trees they had put in. There is a little bit of magic to all of it.”
Fortunately – perhaps miraculously – most of that Harbin garden was among the few areas to survive the Valley Fire. So too was the Bar X ranch house, where Deirdre has been living and caretaking since 2012 with Neil, the youngest of their combined total of five children, Meirra, and their 29 animals, including “a lot of chickens!” She said, “It’s really because the fire spared our Harbin home that we chose to stay in Middletown, and I eventually felt able to take on more management responsibility. That, and the loving connections we had made within our Harbin community.”
Each of Harbin’s Managing Directors has a portfolio of primary responsibilities. Deirdre’s focus is on Harbin’s land. In addition to managing Harbin’s reforestation process, she oversees Harbin’s fire cleanup and prevention, ranchland management, trails, landscaping, waste and recycling, and wildlife management. She also researches, applies for, and coordinates Harbin’s participation in governmental programs that help fund these areas. And she is the MD responsible for Harbin’s events, yoga, and food services, including the restaurant, market, and coffee shop.
She characterized herself as “a total foodie” who currently grows a large garden with flowers and veggies. “I’m inspired by Esalen and Kalani Honua, where they grow their own food for their thriving kitchens. I would love to see that someday at Harbin.” And she confided that “after the fire, one of the things I missed most (in addition to so many of my friends) was the food at the market!” So she was both relieved and delighted when the County recently issued permits allowing Harbin to have a food trailer with Harbin-market-style prepared foods when it reopens. “We’ll have our signature Harbin gluten-free muffins and other breakfast delights, fruit, smoothies, green soups, and ethnic-themed vegan and vegetarian entrees for lunch – plus, of course, espresso coffee drinks and teas all day.”
Even more than her love for food, is Deirdre’s focus on responsible stewardship of the land, and especially restoring Harbin’s healthy, native beauty, so much of which was burned in the fire. Although daunted by the scope of the task, she is also highly energized by the challenge. “To a gardener,” she explained, “the next project is always your reason to live. Learning more about holistic forest management, rangeland ecology and watershed restoration is something that I – and all of us – are really diving into.”
Deirdre’s love for this land and her eagerness to do the hard work necessary to “get it done” continue to serve Harbin, and those who love Harbin, in more and more ways. “Last month, we introduced Harbin’s Project for the Land, Water and Trees, which we anticipate will be a coordinated, years-long project to clean up, restore, and sustainably manage the entirety of Harbin’s incredible natural resources. We started with the forests. Already we’ve planted 50,000 new trees – without any chemicals (which adds to our costs, but it’s worth it) – and we’re hoping that everyone will contribute something financially to the campaign, and help us double that number of newly planted trees as soon as possible. So please sponsor some trees – and help us spread the word by wearing one of our new Tree T-shirts!”
In addition to her active MD duties, and her spiritual contributions to Harbin’s various communities as a Harbin Minister, Deirdre is also now being mentored by Julie Adams. She will soon begin learning to paint (“pictures, not bathrooms”), and she’s learning about aesthetics, and how they are used throughout Harbin’s buildings and design. “Julie has extraordinary vision for pulling together the function and beauty of the buildings and the landscape. The way she brings art into everyday life is really a gift, and it’s an honor to learn from her. My plan is to spend the rest of my life planting and rebuilding Harbin to its original natural beauty.”
And that’s exactly what Deirdre Davis is doing. One challenge at a time, one tree at a time, one meal at a time… using her gifts and skills to help restore Harbin, and make it an ever more alive, beautiful, and peaceful place for us all.
Will Erme: both sides of the brain
Many visitors envision Harbin as a utopian dream: loving individuals living in community, freely enjoying the hot springs, nature, each other, and pursuing the new age ideals of health, spirituality, and holism. It’s a beautiful image, isn’t it? And in many ways, it’s what Harbin is all about. But it’s also not the whole story. Because what most visitors don’t see – and shouldn’t have to – is the amount of expertise, planning, diligence, and just plain hard work it takes to create and run (or to completely rebuild) an enterprise as large and multi-faceted as Harbin Hot Springs.
Fortunately for Harbin – and all the free spirits who are drawn to work and visit here – we have Will Erme among our Managing Directors.
Will is a skillful straight-shooter, with a kind demeanor and a beautiful smile. He began his career as a computer scientist at IBM, programming and managing there for 15 years. For a natural left-brainer like Will, it was a perfect fit… for a while. Eventually, though, the accumulated stresses of 60-hour weeks of coding, analytics, and corporate life left him feeling burned out and unfulfilled. So Will decided to nurture the more intuitive side of his being, by exploring that most paradigm-shifting of the human senses: touch. He enrolled in massage school with the idea of working on cruise ships and traveling the world. That particular fantasy didn’t pan out; but the decision to pursue massage and begin balancing his polarities proved life-changing for Will. He completed his massage therapist certificate, left IBM, and worked for three seasons as housing manager and in the massage office at the Omega Institute, in New York, where he was first exposed to living and working in community; then he moved to San Francisco, and eventually he came to Harbin.
“I first visited Harbin in 1997, and began coming several times a year,” Will recalled. “I loved the soaking, the freedom to wander Harbin’s miles of trails, the option of being either social or taking personal retreat time. I took yoga classes, went to events, attended workshops – and every time I left Harbin, a big part of me would think, ‘Why am I leaving? I should be living here!’” Finally, in 2005, Will applied for Harbin residency – but there were no openings. Instead, he accepted a job in the office at the School of Shiatsu and Massage, which was then a community unto itself at the Watsu Center (now the Harbin Domes); that job allowed Will to continue his bodywork studies, and eventually become a Watsu practitioner. For those who frequented the School at that time (as I did), Will’s grounded, intensely focused, and largely unflappable presence and organizational skills were immediately apparent. And the next year, when a job became available in Harbin’s Health Services office, Will applied, was accepted, and became a Harbin resident, assistant manager, and massage practitioner.
Over the ensuing three years, Will continued to nurture his intuitive side through the pleasures and challenges of Harbin resident life and his massage work; and bigger projects and more responsibilities soon came his way. • He became the IT department manager and was asked to lead a project to upgrade the Harbin IT system. • He helped to revise the Harbin trail map – a job he particularly enjoyed because it required hiking every Harbin trail at least three times, and allowed him to see and touch so much of Harbin’s multi-layered history. • When Harbin purchased the School of Shiatsu and Massage, it was Will who began its transition into the Harbin School of Healing Arts. • And when Sajjad decided in 2014 to retire at the end of the year, the MDs chose Will to be his successor as Managing Director responsible for Harbin’s buildings, maintenance, and infrastructure.
Will apprenticed under Sajjad for nine months. It was a steep learning curve at an intense time: California was in the midst of a severe and prolonged drought, and there had already been two major fires within 15 miles of Harbin. One project Will approved, when he stepped fully into Sajjad’s role, was to upgrade Boggs Springs Road, and bury about a mile of water line underneath. That work prevented the line from being destroyed several months later in the Valley Fire, and saved Harbin significant time and money. During the fire itself, Will helped to coordinate the team that safely evacuated nearly 600 Harbin guests and residents. And immediately after the fire, Will worked with Harbin’s IT manager and IT contractor to quickly recreate Harbin’s systems for payroll, accounting, and administration.
It’s these kind of anticipatory and in-the-background decisions and team projects that, Will said, he was the most proud of. “Seeing Harbin running, seeing the working systems that people under my responsibility had touched, knowing that all this was humming along and all these people and I were a part of it – that’s Harbin teamwork at its best, and it has given me a huge sense of satisfaction.” Eric Richardson, Will’s fellow MD, said of Will, “He brings a very clear perspective to all kinds of situations we face and problems we work on – especially the most difficult ones.”
The fire, and Sajjad’s return to work, changed Will’s personal situation and work responsibilities. Like so many others, Will lost his home, his possessions, and his immediate connection to the full Harbin community. And with Julie and Sajjad focusing on Harbin’s redesign and rebuild, Will and the three other MDs became responsible for Harbin’s day-to-day operations, and preparing for Harbin’s reopening and its future. When I asked Will how he felt about Harbin’s future, he told me “Hopeful!” And he recalled the poignancy during a post-fire meeting with the architect, when he spoke with other residents and they visualized soaking together in the warm pool, looking out over a newly rebuilt Harbin. “It’s humbling,” Will described, “knowing how many different incarnations of Harbin there have been through its history, and now being integral to this next one.”
The biggest challenge Will sees for himself, and for all the MDs moving forward, is “being OK with not knowing how it’s actually going to happen. We have broad outlines of what we’re going to build and how we’re going to run it – but there’s no straight-line path to where we’re going to get to. Harbin has always been a zig-zag of progress. We just have to keep moving forward, deal with new problems as they arise, and trust in everybody and the process.”
With Will Erme and his combination of intelligence and heart so involved in that process, Harbin and all of us are in caring and capable hands.
Sajjad Mahmud: out of retirement, and into the fire
On September 11, 2015, Sajjad Mahmud had been enjoying a peaceful, contemplative retirement for eight months. The next day, as fire consumed his home and most of the resort he had been so instrumental in building, Sajjad went back to work. And he has been working every day since.
Sajjad’s Harbin tenure began in 1981, following a series of Buddhist meditation retreats. He had been looking for a home where he could live his practice, and thought Harbin offered the right fit. Sajjad worked for a year in the garden; then he moved into building and construction, where he worked for the next 12 years, gaining broad and extensive practical experience. Then, in 1994, Ishvara asked him to become a Managing Director, responsible for construction and Harbin’s finances. Sajjad filled these roles for the next 20 years – guiding Harbin through a period of intense growth – until his retirement in 2014. “At that time, I really felt I had stopped for good,“ Sajjad recalled. “But the fire was such a devastating and catastrophic event; and given that I had so much experience with Harbin’s construction and finances, I felt strongly that I had to come back and help out.”
Sajjad comes across as a calm and classy man, radiating a quiet assuredness. Often, as I asked him questions, he paused and gave thoughtful, detailed answers.
“What I’d like everyone to know about the fire,” he told me, “is the level of destruction, and the complexity of the rebuilding process. Part of Harbin was built 80-90 years ago, but was redone or built piece by piece, over the last 40+ years. We lost 95% of those buildings, and most of the supporting infrastructure as well. All of that was destroyed (though the pools and springs were spared, kind of). So not only did we have to clean up and clear away all the fire debris and dead biomass, we also faced the need to rebuild virtually everything entirely from scratch. And doing that – especially the planning, permitting, and approvals processes – has been significantly more complex and time consuming than it was in the past.
“There are new County, State, and Federal building, accessibility, fire, and environmental codes to comply with,” Sajjad explained. “And our overall plan as a whole, as well as every individual building, structure and system, must be conceptualized, designed, engineered in multiple ways, submitted to the appropriate agencies, reviewed, revised, approved… and only then can they be constructed, inspected, and permitted. It is a long process with many disparate parts to coordinate. And all of it has been significantly complicated by the fact that our mainside is quite a steep and hilly area, which is a factor for ADA compliance. And then there have been the rains. At this point, most of our rebuild has been happening outside; and to work outside, excavate, contour the land, and build, you need a reasonable amount of dryness. We haven’t had much of that. So it has all taken a lot more time and been a lot more complex than I had expected.”
I asked Sajjad if he enjoyed that kind of complexity. “I have in the past,” he said, “when I was living my life and any construction project was just one part of it.” He paused, allowing some of his tiredness to show. “But now the focus is much more acute: I’m not thinking about anything other than this rebuild. The interest is in getting Harbin up and running as quickly as possible. And I’m finding that all the complexity is a challenge.”
Like so many Harbin residents, Sajjad lost not only Harbin in the fire, but his personal dwelling burned to the ground as well. Losing home and community are traumatic psychological events in anyone’s life, and Sajjad confided that he hadn’t yet had a time to consciously process that and work through it. “I haven’t had that luxury.” He said he wondered how “this whole thing” is processing out for himself, and hopes it’s getting done on a more subconscious level. “Time will tell,” he said.
As for the other Harbin residents and locals who lost so much in the fire, he clearly has compassion for them – perhaps even more than he allows for himself. “It’s so difficult, “ he described, “I feel for everybody. Overnight, so many people’s lives were disrupted; and the basic structures that kept us together are gone. I hope people have adjusted to the best of their ability. But really, so much has changed. It’s devastating.”
Time, though, and hard work, has certainly healed some things. Sajjad described that “all the evidence of the fire at Harbin has been pretty much removed. Immediately after the fire it was terrible, with burned trees all around, and the debris. We went through a lot, getting rid of it, and then beginning to rebuild. But if you go to Harbin now, it’s so much better.”
And what of Sajjad’s postponed retirement? “My plan, when I retired in 2014, was to be more in a meditative space. Not to follow any hardcore ideology, or dogma; but informally, to live a here-and-now life. I needed to decompress after those 21 years of very intense Harbin management experience. I wanted to smell the flowers and take walks.” And after the added intensity and stresses of the fire and rebuild, with Phase 1 of Harbin’s reopening now scheduled for October: had the time come for Sajjad Mahmud to step back once again, and stroll the garden path?
“I don’t know,” he smiled. “I’m taking it one day at a time.”
Julie Adams has been a key thread in Harbin’s fabric for more than 30 years. And no one is more surprised than her.
When she first came to Harbin in 1984, something unexpected (but not uncommon) happened: she fell in love with a Harbin resident. His name was Pete, and like Julie’s then-recently-deceased husband, it turned out Pete was dying. Unlike her husband, who had been in a hospital bed where she couldn’t give him the tender, gentle care she knew he longed for, Pete was here in this community. And he, and the community, welcomed Julie and her big hurting heart into their lives. For weeks, Julie mostly just sat with Pete and the other community members who loved him.
When Pete died on Valentine’s day (“heart consciousness day”) she had planned to go back to her job teaching in Colorado. But she had been profoundly affected both by her experiences with Pete, and by the other friendships she had found in this remarkable community. And after some time training with hospice and integrating her experiences, Julie found herself back at Harbin.
She started sweeping Stonefront, painting signs, driving residents to the local grocery store in town, Hardester’s, and on errands, and just generally helping out. She still expected to return to teaching. Until one day Ishvara, who had come to know and appreciate Julie during their time being together with Pete, offered her the job of a “Managing Director”. She didn’t have a clue what that actually meant. But in the ensuing 30 years, she has learned.
Today, Julie’s primary responsibilities are aesthetic and administrative. Julie is an artist, and it is her whimsical eye for color, form, and texture that gave Harbin its distinctive style as it grew – and that will shape Harbin’s appearance as it grows again. “The inspiration will be the touchstone structures that people loved from our past, like the gazebo and the gate, as well as the Arts & Crafts designs from around 1910,” she says. “Modest structures, with real wood, stone, and glass. Warm, inviting. Nothing grandiose.” For Phase 1, she’s especially looking forward to the roofs planned for the hot pool and sauna: standing seam copper that will weather to a soft verdigris.
As for her administrative duties, Julie sighs and takes a long pause. “When I first got here, Harbin was basic. People here had very little, and were living in very rustic conditions. We as managers had to figure out from scratch how to make enough money to give our people a better standard of living – and over the years, we have been working continually to do that.” She also cites the interpersonal challenges of being a manager. “I had no idea how hard it would be. It’s different being a manager – a different role, a different relationship with people, and them with you.” Julie hopes that she has matured into her manager’s role, become wiser, and mellowed a bit with time and age.
She also hopes to retire from that role once the rebuild is complete. Her plan is to move back onto the property, “into a tiny house that I get to design!”, she giggles, “and just be like every other Harbin resident. Enjoying the smell of wet grass, the pools, and that hive-like hum of everyday life on mainside. That’s what I miss the most.”
If you haven’t been here recently, it might be hard to actually imagine. But 95% of Harbin’s buildings, and the majority of its infrastructure systems, as well as its forests, gardens, and landscaping, were destroyed by the Valley Fire. We immediately closed Harbin to guests and lost all operating income; and most of our community of resident and locally hired workers lost their homes, posse ssions, jobs, and their ongoing connections to each other and the vast, multi-faceted organization we call Harbin.
How do you come back from something like that? As individuals and as an organization, how do you begin to recover and even think about moving forward amidst such traumatic devastation?
For Harbin and for many of our employees, the California Human Development (CHD) organization has been a lifeline. CHD is one of California’s leading 501(c)(3) organizations, serving residents of 31 California counties. Its mission is to help end cycles of poverty by providing primary support programs, training, and advocacy for: farmworker services and workforce development, affordable housing, disability services, energy efficiency, treatment and recovery, and community services – including disaster relief. It is in this last capacity that CHD, with the help of The Cooperativa de Campesina de California, first came to Lake County after the Valley Fire, and how CHD and Harbin connected.
With no operating income and much of its workforce dispersed, Harbin faced the daunting physical and budgetary challenges of figuring out how to clear thousands of dead trees and other fire debris expeditiously from its extensive acreage. CHD stepped forward with a solution: a program offering a good wage to those made unemployed by the fire and willing to do hard work.
For both Harbin and many of its people, the program has been a tremendous success. Between the spring of 2016, when it began, and the end of this year, when it will end, this CHD program will have assigned more than 60 workers to Harbin, and collectively paid them an estimated $1.4 million. As of this writing, Harbin has 25 active CHD participants in the program, or 45% of Harbin’s overall workforce. These workers are not only clearing dead trees and removing debris, which wouldn’t have happened nearly as quickly without this program; they are also providing needed support to the rebuild teams throughout Harbin, making it possible for all these departments to complete their work more quickly.
About half of these CHD workers have had no previous connection to Harbin. Many of them have been unemployed for long periods of time, including some with limited job skills and work experience. For these people, the CHD program has offered the opportunity for a welcome leg up, with good-paying work, specific job-skills training, and exposure to the same basic workplace trainings that Harbin gives to all its employees (safety and communications). The other half of Harbin’s CHD workers are “Harbin people” who were working here before the fire – and we caught up with a few of them to get their impressions of the CHD program.
Crystal Theoret had been a Harbin resident for six years before the fire. If you visited Harbin during that time, you might have admired her classic flower arrangements at the Warm Pool, or enjoyed her prepared foods and treats at the Market, or relaxed on a massage table under her skilled and gentle hands. Crystal barely escaped the fire in her van – with nothing but her husband, their two-year-old daughter, three cats, and the clothes on their backs; they lost their home, Harbin, and everything else. Initially, they spent some time at the Ananda community; then they wandered, transient, in an RV, parking at several different people’s houses. But nowhere felt like it was where they wanted for their home. “My heart always wanted to come back to Middletown,” she explained. So when CHD’s Harbin program came along, Crystal jumped at the opportunity to return here and participate.
“It felt like my second chance,” she explained. “Because I was so damaged with PTSD from all this loss, filling out job applications and putting myself out there was so hard. But having the chance to come back through CHD and work on the Harbin land really helped.” Crystal worked for six months with several others in the Harbin garden, helping to clean up, maintain, and hand-water virtually the only green area of mainside that survived the fire. “It was an amazing blessing to be on that land again, and help clean it up and guard it. It reconnected me to the community and brought integration – and the hard physical work I was doing felt like giving back.” While she was working in the garden, Crystal was excited to read about and apply for a full-time job in Harbin’s Human Resources department. She got that job, transitioned from CHD back to the Harbin payroll, and as a Harbin employee again became eligible to move into one of Harbin’s few-surviving resident houses; and that’s where she and her family are living now. In all, she said, “The CHD program was a gift.”
Michael Palmer began working at Harbin a few months before the fire, working on the roads crew with heavy equipment. He’s a big, strong guy with gentle eyes, who confides with just a hint of a smile that, “I come across as rougher than I really am.” When the fire came, he and his wife, Nikki (who had been working in Harbin’s Reception department and is now working in Security) and their two high-school-aged children were living in nearby Cobb, where the fire began; fortunately, their house was spared. But Mike lost his Harbin job, and had trouble finding ongoing work at a sustainable wage. The CHD program, he said, gave him both an opportunity to provide for his family, and to come back to Harbin sooner (“I really like working here”). He signed on to the program to do debris cleanup; and because he had specific training and experience, he was offered full-time work when his CHD program ended. Today Mike is Manager of Harbin’s Roads department, supervising a crew of four CHD employees. Their job is to keep the culverts flowing and the roads clear so that workers from all our other departments can get safely in an out – a sometimes daunting task with all the rain and mudslides we’ve had this season. They’re also helping move fire debris to the burn piles right now, before the burn season ends May 1.
As a supervisor of a CHD crew, Mike has seen first-hand multiple benefits of the program. “It’s a good program for people who haven’t had work for a while, or are just starting out. Some of the people they hired were first-time kids who never had a job before. We’ve been able to teach them what to do on a job site – which they wouldn’t have learned otherwise, and will help them when they apply for other jobs after their program ends.” He also pointed out that the program has helped accelerate Harbin’s rebuild. “We wouldn’t be nearly as far along if we didn’t have CHD. With the amount of personnel they gave us, in terms of cleanup and the rebuild, it’s really been helping.”
Ken Gonzales, who had been working in Harbin’s Landscaping and Gardening departments for seven years, lost everything in the fire. “Everything,” he emphasized. “A house, three cars, 66 years of stuff.” For him, CHD was the road back into working and community: “Otherwise I’d probably just be sitting in a chair, rocking.” Ken was the very first Harbin CHD employee, and as such, he pointed out, was able to make life easier for everyone who followed by deftly handling all the hours of initial CHD paperwork. But it was worth it, he said. “I have purpose in my life, and a reason to get up. This program has been a complete benefit in terms of this community: I still feel like I’m a part of it.” Ken’s job is to help restore the garden, and he happily reports that, “It’s starting to look pretty darn good!”
Ken definitely plans to continue to work at Harbin and rebuild his Middletown home. “I just put in plans to the Building department last Friday,” he told us. And when asked if he had anything else to share about the CHD program, he hastened to offer, “I have to thank Governor Brown, who I think of as my employer, for helping the people of Harbin, Middletown, Lake County – for helping the whole area rebuild. CHD is a very important program. It’s a win-win, no doubt. This is what government should be doing all over the country: making roads, not walls.”
And for Harbin, making inroads is exactly what CHD has been doing. Their programs have given opportunities at Harbin to people who haven’t had them before; they have helped Harbin employees and residents get back on their feet and return to our community; and they have helped our land and our entire organization to recoup, recover, and renew. We literally could not have so quickly done everything we have, without CHD’s timely and generous support. For that, and so much more, we are deeply grateful.
Harbin’s Phase 1 rebuild is focused primarily – and appropriately – on Harbin’s exquisite mainside pools. So we caught up recently with Harbin’s Head Pools Consultant, Shah Luc Allard, and our Pools Manager, Abel Romero, to ask how the rebuild is going, and find out what’s new.
Shah has been the mechanical mastermind behind Harbin’s pools and their systems for well over a decade. “Because of the fire,” he said, “we had to redo all the pipes, pumps, systems – everything. And right now, with the heavy rains and all the new concrete work, it’s a bit like a war zone up there. But we’re definitely beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Every day now, we have some new, finished piece of the puzzle put into place – and it is beautiful to see.”
When asked about what’s different at the pools, since before the fire, Shah pointed to Harbin’s new, ADA-accessible hot plunge. This new plunge is a mirror copy of the ADA-accessible cold plunge that we installed several years ago, and both are located just in front of the sauna.
The new hot plunge will be heated, at least in part, by a solar system – a welcome first for Harbin pools! “We always wanted to use solar,” Shah explained, “but we really don’t get a lot of sun here in the winter, when we most need the heat, and we didn’t have the space. With our new pump house roof, though, we have space now. So we’re doing an experiment. We’re starting with two solar panels, and sending the hot water to the new hot plunge. If it turns out we’re saving a lot of money, we’ll begin to expand the system, and use it to heat the swimming pool too.”
Shah told us that he has increased Harbin’s use of water-to-water heat exchangers, as well. These systems extract heat from one body of water, and use it to heat another. With Harbin’s mix of cold, warm, and hot pool temperatures, Shah explained, these heat exchangers can save significantly on Harbin’s energy costs.
In addition to controlling its temperatures, our Pools Department is also responsible for making sure the water in Harbin’s pools stays clean, healthy, and in full compliance with County and State regulations. Shah was delighted to tell us that Harbin will continue to be one of just three public facilities in the entire State of California not required to use chlorine to disinfect its pools. Harbin’s long-established system of cleaning its pools and their water with hydrogen peroxide (what our grandmothers used to disinfect cuts and scrapes) combined with ozone gas and ultraviolet light (including an improved version of UV, since the fire), requires much more complex systems. But it’s a far gentler way to disinfect water, is easier on the skin, has no noxious smell, and makes it much more pleasant and healthy for soaking.
Abel Romero joined our Pools Department as manager just prior to the fire, after many years as the much-loved manager of our Housekeeping Department. Abel has been getting up to speed on Harbin’s pool systems, so that he can keep them finely tuned when Shah travels; and he is primarily responsible for the daily operations of the department and its current staff of 12.
We asked Abel what he most appreciates about his new job. “I’m enjoying learning something new – about all the pool systems,” he said. “But mostly, I love the water. I grew up by a river, watching it flow every day, and to me water is one of those magical things. Working in these pools, having this water that comes up out of the ground, it’s very special.” He continued, “People come here from all over the world – different countries, cultures, religions. They all come stressed out and with problems; but when they enter these pools, it pretty much all goes away. That’s spiritual: they connect with themselves, their hearts, and each other. You don’t get that anywhere else.” We couldn’t have said it better.
Even as the rebuild is in process, most of Harbin’s pools are already filled with water. So as a final question, we asked both Abel and Shah if they’ve personally been going into the water themselves. “Every day,” Abel happily reported. Shah explained: “We have to,” he said, straight-faced. “To clean.”
Harbin’s Mainside Pools
When you next visit Harbin Springs, here are all the different pools you’ll be able to enjoy:
- Our body-temperature Warm Pool is recognizable by the simple white railing that is so familiar from Harbin’s logo.
- Harbin’s signature indoor Hot Pool, with its sculpted metal whale that spouts hot water.
- The Cold Plunge, with refreshing cold water, is up the stairs behind the Hot Pool, where Quan Yin lives and guests can alternate rounds of hot and cold soaking.
- The Heart-Shaped Pool is also body-temperature and ADA-Accessible.
- Harbin’s Swimming Pool, with its slightly warmed water (temperature-appropriate to the season and weather), is the place to swim laps, lounge about, and play underwater in the deep end. This pool is ADA-Accessible.
- The ADA-Accessible Cold Plunge is in front of our Sauna building.
- Brand new since the fire, the ADA-Accessible Hot Plunge will feature solar heat, and is in front of the sauna, facing the ADA-Accessible Cold Plunge – also handy for rounds of hot and cold soaking.
- And not yet constructed, but planned for the former site of the La Sirena Cafe and awaiting final permitting approvals, our new mainside Watsu® Pool is where guests will receive professional aquatic bodywork sessions from our staff of remarkable practitioners, in quiet, landscaped privacy.
Watsu® is a registered service mark assigned to Harold Dull.
On the day of September 12, 2015, while hurrying to evacuate from the Valley Fire, first-time Harbin Visitor John Isom performed a wise and brave rescue. In the midst of his rush from Mainside to the RV parking lot to retrieve his vehicle, with fire advancing down the hill before him, John stopped to gather acorns.
Standing at the edge of the Meadow, John took the time to fully appreciate and connect with one of the grandmotherly valley oak trees there – a huge, spreading tree that has graced Harbin property for hundreds of years. And in a moment of deep caring for the land and foresight for its future, John – an Environmental Studies teacher with a self-described passion for “botanical midwifery” – took the risk of pausing in his evacuation, and carefully gathering seeds for what he hoped would be a Harbin forest to come. He collected several dozen acorns and brought them home to take care of – with the hope that at least a few of them might actually germinate. And much to his delight, several of them did! For nearly a year, John nurtured his seedlings in his kitchen refrigerator, hoping someday bring them back to Harbin for us to plant – and recently he did.
Native trees like these are among our most precious resources. And as we plan, rebuild, and recreate Harbin, we’ll be sure to select just the right locations to showcase John’s saplings… with much gratitude to him for his caring, his love, and his very special gift of life from Harbin’s past to Harbin’s future.
John’s oak seedlings – significant as they are – are just a small portion of the new trees we’ve begun to plant on Harbin property. As of this writing, we’ve planted 750 new hardwood trees around Mainside alone. These new hardwoods are all native species, and including black, blue, and live oaks, bigleaf maples, alders, gainswillows, redosier dogwoods, toyon berries, redbuds, and more. We purchased these trees from Putah Creek Restoration Nursery; and through our contract with National Resource Conservation Services (NRCS), we’ll be largely reimbursed for their cost.
We’re also about to begin planting 50,000 faster-growing conifers: a mix of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. These are trees we contracted for before the fire (again, with reimbursement from NCRS), but hadn’t yet decided where to plant. Now, with more than 90% of Harbin’s land burned by the fire, we have clearer need for them than ever. As soon as the snows begin to melt in El Dorado county where they are being grown, these year-old saplings will be dug up, shipped to us, and planted throughout the road into Harbin, up the road to Mainside, and on parts of Diamond D.
Every tree we plant – whether it’s one of John Isom’s hand-gathered acorns, or a hardwood or conifer procured through NRCS – is precious to us. As are our land, air, water, insects, birds, animals, and people. And just as John Isom so carefully gathered and protected life, so will we too, as we continue to build Harbin anew.
The long-view by Linda Miller, 30 year Harbin resident
Harbin’s Security detail has long been a dedicated peace-keeping operation. A 24 hour watchful team of 8 members, male and female, continuously circulating the property’s various hubs and as Harlan, the Security Manager, says with a chuckle: “Letting trouble find us”. It used to be a non-stop stream of mostly minor incidents and follow-up reports: guests locked out of rooms; noise at the pools; keys locked in cars. That sort of thing.
It all changed on a dime, after the Valley Fire exploded and we closed our doors. Soon after, a temporary Security Station was set up at “the Y”, two miles down the road, whose function it was to keep people away. There was so much unknown and the possibility of trespassing and vandalism loomed large. A 22 ft. RV was one of our first big purchases, to allow Security to continue its 24hr vigil and peace-keeping mission.
As soon as possible the RV was moved up to the main property, now sitting across from where the Gate House used to be. As things settled, in an unforeseen way, it turned out the Security function gradually transformed into attending to a stream of visitors (still we call them “guests”) mostly on the weekends. Though they aren’t able come on to the land for safety reasons, (because of all the construction and big equipment), like pilgrims, an average of 40-45 Guests per weekend stream here, to see for themselves; to feel for themselves; to be near the land and get in touch with the sadness of loss. Our loss of course, but meaningfully, theirs, too. That’s how Harlan describes it: ‘Why do they come?’ I ask. “To be in touch with their sadness”, he replies without hesitation.
They come from all over, just as Guests from “before” had: from Florida and New York; San Francisco and Denver; Korea; and Tai Wan; India, the UK, Australia and Spain. A ballpark estimate of about 2,000 visitors have come since the Fire. People wanting to remember their special Harbin experiences and to honor these with their presence and pilgrimage. It continues to touch us deeply to meet and greet this kind of devotion.
Usually these “Guests” stay at the entrance for at least 10 minutes; sometimes as much as half an hour. Our Security team has spontaneously, without coaching, developed an empathic welcoming reception for them and a quiet caring ‘holding space’. Harlan actually describes their “rolling up” as: “Precious moments, not to be squandered on the trivial and profane”. Further, he tries to help them see that Harbin wasn’t the buildings – but the water and the guests and the people –all still here. He also points out how Mother Nature is beginning to send her green bounty back onto the land, with hope and promise of more to come. And he lets them know how much has already been accomplished, tears coming to his eyes as he acknowledges the dedication, talent and strength of the current rebuilders.
Rarely does a Guest leave one of these encounters with present-day Harbin Security without asking for a hug. And invariably, they get to receive a gentle enthusiastic response. After all, that’s long been one of our main healing modalities. So, in addition to surveillance, that’s mostly what Security has to do with it. We’ll keep you posted with more unfolding as it emerges. May we remain in your thoughts and prayers as you do in ours.
It was years before the Valley Fire that a somewhat shy and soft-spoken genius on our housekeeping staff planted the thought that would eventually grow into Harbin’s action plan to restore our forests. He introduced us to a government agency called the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and described how they could suggest better land management practices, offer trainings, provide grants…all to help keep our forests and streams healthy. He had researched them and then suggested we make contact to see if they could be of help. At the time, many of us felt it was unimaginable that such a beneficent agency could exist and that their services would be so supportive and generous. Though it seemed fanciful and too good to be true, Deirdre Davis and her husband Neil Nelson, then Harbin Land Managers invited NRCS staff to visit Harbin and give a presentation. They came and gave their talk and blew our minds.
The first project the NRCS established was to design fuel-breaks up on the highest parts of our forests, up where the fire roads lead deep into the wild. While working on this project, NRCS made it clear to us it would be best to design a forestry management plan and that we would need a dedicated forester to implement this project. NRCS put us in touch with a forester, who began advising us about best land management practices and ecological restoration. Just as importantly from today’s vantage point, he helped us establish relationships with other government agencies like the Farm Services Agency (FSA) which, along with the NRCS quickly stepped forward after the Fire with significant financial funding for our extensive re-build and huge biomass cleanup projects. Of course, this was immensely appreciated.
Then, immediately after the fire, with a forester to guide us, and government grants to support us, 50,000 baby trees were purchased and seedlings planted at the Placerville County Resource Conservation Center. Without their timely input we wouldn’t have thought to order these saplings which take a full year to grow before planting. At the time, we were all still reeling with the idea that Harbin was decimated by the fire and not focused on reforestation. Our Forester will also be coordinating the planting of those saplings this winter. We hope to continue our relationship with him and NRCS for years to come.
So, it all began with seeds of an idea — a dedicated Harbinite and two savvy Managers willing to follow up a seemingly “fairytale” suggestion. Thanks again Tom… wherever you are! And Deirdre and Neil, thanks to you both for your intelligent dedication as well. Here’s hoping our new forests may live happily ever after!
To view the video on youtube, visit https://youtu.be/2XAMSYmdlz0
The Long View… by Linda Miller, 30 year resident
The obvious transformations that came in the wake of the Valley Fire had to do with letting go: letting go of homes, possessions, patterns. Rising to the occasion of newness in almost every quarter of daily life. Allowing identification to transfer from the historical, the comfortable and the patterned to the possible. To the “new” and the necessary. For many here at Harbin, the remaining inner circle of residents, it meant stepping up to the plate in new functions and entirely different levels of responsibility.
Longtime resident-employees had to switch Departments and learn new roles under the extraordinary pressure to begin the process of reopening in the shortest possible time. Nascent leadership qualities were given an opportunity to show up – in a hurry- and in support of that, the surrounding community offered up a generation of seasoned, suddenly-dispersed residents, who contributed time and energy and know-how to a new generation of leadership. This support network consists of people steeped in Harbin history and tradition and the subtle expertise necessary to enhance our quirky energetic organizational re-start.
Into freshly turned ground, seeds of transformation have been deftly sown and are are now coming into flower. We are so grateful for and want to acknowledge the resilience and courage of so many here at Harbin who continue to be flexible and willing to do what it takes, and change as they must to keep the Community and its possibilities alive and well. Kudos to evolution with its promise of new and brighter beginnings. Kudos to the Harbinites that remain as family and love-laced team.
We wanted to share news about the Harbin hot pool building. Because of weakening from the fire, the walls of the building became structurally compromised. Though they stood firm throughout the fire and protected the pool and railings, they were no longer safe for reincorporation into a new hot pool space. Unfortunately the walls had to be removed. Brick by brick, each wall was carefully disassembled by hand.
A whirlwind of feelings, again.
This modest temple was a place of palpable tenderness and healing and we cherish the intimate, demure candle-lit gentleness it radiated for so many years. What else to say and feel other than thank you…and deep gratitude.
In the coming weeks we will be rebuilding a new hot pool space, and it’s our intention for it to look exactly as it did before. Until then the heart of Harbin sits open, without walls, unguarded and beautiful, seeing the sun and stars for the first time in over 80 years.
Below is an image of the site plan for the final stage of construction. We are very happy to share this preliminary drawing of future Harbin. For more information concerning construction updates see our news page: https://harbin.org/community/news/
We also think you’ll enjoy this thoughtful newscast from Wilson Walker at KPIX Channel 5 News:
and this latest article from the UK Guardian.