This is the story of The Trees Community, a semi monastic Christian group that left NYC on a bus in 1971 on a journey of faith. When most of our money burned up the first night, we relied on God for all our needs and he provided! We traveled the United States growing in our new faith, finding a ministry in music and eventually becoming artists in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Seven years, seven "stories" are woven into this amazing journey.

School Days: Leelanau

View from shore of campus at Leelanau School
Photo by Robert Karner

It was late in the morning on a sweltering August day in the summer of 1969. I sat restless and inpatient in the back seat of our family's ancient station wagon, hot air blowing through a half opened window. My parents were silent as we drove down a winding road past the towering golden sands of Sleeping Bear dunes headed toward Lake Michigan. We pulled into a store and I waited sullenly as my Dad went to get directions. The air in our old station wagon felt oppressive, suffocating. I jumped out to stretch my cramped legs, my thoughts skipping forward to what lay ahead... We were on our way to orientation day at a Leelanau School, a Christian Science boarding school tucked away in the quiet little resort town of Glen Arbor in northern Michigan. I wondered...what would it be like? Would I make any new friends? Though I would never admit it, I desperately needed to find something to anchor me and heal my anger, discontent, and depression.

We drove down a narrow road lined with white pine, maple and birch trees and parked in front of the low-slung cinderblock library building. My parents introduced themselves to a stiff looking older woman as I went in search of a bathroom. Returning a few minutes later, I could hear my parents arguing in low, clipped tones. “I just don’t think this was necessary, I really don’t,” my father muttered, sounding exasperated. My mother replied insistently, “If we don’t get her away now, I’m worried that we're going to lose her. When she ran away last month, she was living with a bunch of drugged-out hippies! If we don’t get her away from that crowd she’s hanging around with, I don’t know what will happen! We have no other choice. This is the best place for her right now.” As I re-entered the room, my mother called out brightly, “Oh, there she is. Come on, let’s go look around campus.”
Shantytown - Leelanau Schools

With a “whatever” shrug, I followed along as we toured the grounds. There was a string of small rustic cabins nestled along the Crystal River and behind them a thin stretch of sandy woods abutting Lake Michigan. My parents strolled along the sandy shore while my brothers and I ran in and out of the waves, splashing along barefoot, kicking up sprays of icy cold water on each other. My Dad helped lug my suitcases into Riveredge cottage and eventually, it was time for my family to leave. After hugs and promises to write, they clambored into the car and drove off. Waving goodbye I felt relieved yet oddly detached. Striding off toward the dining hall, I tried to look cool and confident. I can do this. And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just run away again.

Though my father was a social worker at a home for delinquent girls and my mother was a kindergarten teacher, they were both at a loss of how to reach me. We had moved from the friendly, small town of Lakewood, Ohio to the West Bloomfield in the suburbs of Detroit in 1967 when I was entering 9th grade. The chaos and riots in the streets of Detroit that summer mirrored the maelstrom of anger and resentment seething within me. I never wanted to leave my friends and home in Ohio and almost as soon as we arrived my life began spiraling out of control. Andover High was full of "clicks" and a curious social caste system. Though I tried desperately to fit in, I was automatically "out" being a newcomer to the school. Feeling lost, shy, unhappy and depressed, I was accepted by the long-haired, rebellious crowd and my grades soon plummeted. They were delving into drugs and my mother worried I would soon follow!

The Homestead dining hall

I entered the huge old Homestead dining hall and climbed the stairs headed for lunch. I was totally lost in my thoughts when I looked up and saw my best friend, "Sarah Benstein" [not her real name]! Too awesome! “Hey Sarah, wait up!” I called and she turned around, smiling in surprise. “What are you doing here?” we both said at the same time, and then we both started laughing..

Sarah and I had been friends ever since we met in high school. With long brown hair and soft brown eyes, Sarah was a natural, earthy type. Quickly, we caught up on what had happened over the summer. After lunch, I was thrilled when Sarah and I were assigned a room together in Riveredge cottage! Riveredge was a rustic wooden lodge located alongside the Crystal River overlooking Lake Michigan. It had beautiful knotty pine walls, a huge lounge area with a stone lined fireplace and our bedroom was located at the far end.

Riveredge Cottage

After unpacking, we headed for dinner chatting away. Standing in line, we struck up a conversation with another student, “Naomi Goldman”, also from Birmingham in the Detroit suburbs. From that night on the three of us became close friends. Eating dinner at the Homestead together that first night, my initial worries about fitting in melted away.

Glen Arbor View by Robert Karner

In 1969, Leelanau Schools had a sprawling, stunningly beautiful campus on Lake Michigan. Surrounded by Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, it was nestled alongside the Crystal River under sloping, wooded hills.  The cabins we lived in were separated into boys’ cabins and girls’ cabins with names like Fish House, Shantytown and Pineridge.  Days were filled with classes but as soon as school let out, many of us loved to slip out to explore the woods and beaches. Nights and weekends were our chance to crawl out the window after lights out to sit under the stars or take a stroll along the moonlit beach.

Photo by Robert Karner

Drug use was a hidden part of campus life.  The 1970’s was a time of experimentation with psychedelic drugs, LSD being the drug of choice.  Even at this Christian Science school tucked away in the sleepy northern Michigan woods we found outside contacts that would get us whatever we wanted to try. 

One warm September evening Sarah and I decided to drop acid and then sneak outside.  We waited until our housemother, old Jinni Hinton checked in on us after lights-out. Peaking out from my almost-closed eyelids, Jinni looked like an apparition with her silhouette backlit, a ghostly figure dressed in a thin nightgown, white hair wildly askew around her faceless head and her stooped figure ominously framed in the doorway. Satisfied we were sound asleep, she lumbered off, her slippers slapping the floor as she headed off down the hall. When the sound of her footsteps faded away, we quickly stuffed clothes under our sheets so it looked like we were still in bed. Easing the window open we slipped outside, leaving it open just a crack for our return. A huge golden harvest moon rose over the pine trees against a backdrop of stars. How incredibly beautiful! Barefoot, we raced soundlessly along the path through the woods to the weathered wooden bridge that crossed over the river. Half way across, I gazed down into the clear water meandering by, watching the shimmer of moonlight dancing along its surface. Then we slipped over the wooden planks following the narrow path to the sandy beach curling along Lake Michigan. I felt a mixture of exhiliration and glee.  The LSD had kicked in and I was tripping... 

Turning my head from side to side, electric streaks of red and green “trails” followed every move I made.  Passing near a pine tree, I was inundated with its rich, pungent smell.  My vision was unusually acute.  I reveled in the glittering lights dancing across the waves, the delicate texture of each grain of sand in my hands.  My senses were electrified and everything was intensely beautiful.  I felt part of the earth as I savored the incredible natural beauty surrounding me.  I climbed into the “lap” of huge oak tree and laid my cheek against the bark trying to sense how it felt, wondering how this ancient tree perceived the world.  Meanwhile, Sarah lay quietly on the beach gazing at the stars, wrapped in her own private thoughts and dreams.

As I sat in that ancient tree, I wondered if indeed I could have had past lives, if reincarnation was real. I had the oddest feeling that in a past life I knew I had been an Indian. I allowed myself to be more and more a part of the sound of the waves, the delicate dance of nature surrounding me, until I felt drawn into an ancient mindset... the earth was my mother and I was connected to every blade of dune grass, every smooth pebble, every glittering star, every whispering pine, every gentle footfall around me. I could see how my decision to step over an anthill or crush it would have far reaching consequences. I leapt down and strolled along the shoreline, feeling totally peaceful and at one with nature. Suddenly time shifted and I became a mountain lion prowling through the woods and meadows, lithe and wary. Another shift and I was a young Indian striding along the beach. I glanced over and was surprised to see the dark form of a large fish swimming along the water’s edge. As I walked along the beach, it kept pace with me and I felt an instant rapport. Regardless of whether I sped up or slowed down, amazingly the fish swam directly beside me along the shoreline! I felt deeply connected to the fish and wondered about the lesson of determination that ancient creature was trying to teach me. Eventually I said goodbye and it swam away. I turned back to the beach, deeply moved by the experience.

The hours passed and I was swept through a series of experiences, each more meaningful than the last.  I felt acutely in tune with wilderness and marveled at the lessons it had to teach me.  I experienced each voyage with vivid clarity as I journeyed back and forth between the surreal scenarios of past lives and the beauty of my environment. 

Photo by Robert Karner
Finally, I sat by the lakeshore watching the waves crash endlessly against the sand.  Fascinated, I studied the shimmering crystalline wall of breaking waves.  Why had I never noticed how awesome it was?  I wondered at the intricate beauty of tiny pebbles along the beach, each more incredibly beautiful than the last.  I broke open an orange I had brought along and was amazed at the delicate smell, the overwhelmingly delightful taste, and the jewel-like quality of each section.  Normally I was oblivious of my surroundings and often found it difficult to focus.  In contrast, this trip was a Zen-like experience in centering throughout which I was highly attuned to everything around me.  I was able to “be one with” a tree, a leaf or a pebble.  Early the next morning Sarah and I crept back into our room.  I was exhilarated yet completely exhausted. 

Shortly after that experience, I decided to change my name in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with Indians.  I was fed up with the dominant white society, their abuse of nature and their hypocritical morals and values.  One morning my homeroom teacher was calling role:  “Steve Netherton?”  “Here.” “Kathy Ruetenik?”  [Silence.]  “Kathy Ruetenik?”  [Silence.] All eyes turned to look at me.  I stood up and declared, “My name is now Shishawnay!”  The other students snickered but the teacher didn’t skip a beat.  “Shishawnay Ruetenik?”  Smiling proudly I answered, “Here.”  “Kathy Straight?”  Here.  Eventually Shishawnay morphed into Shishonee, a name I used from then on.

It was about this time that our science teacher asked us to conduct a long-term science experiment using the scientific method and write a paper on our results.  I decided to experiment on myself.  I would take different kinds of drugs and keep a detailed record of my reactions and experiences.  My “control” for the experiment would be the days I didn’t take any drugs.  I recall one hike we took in the woods when I was bombarded with a cornucopia of drug enhanced textural, visual, auditory and sensory experiences.  Dutifully, I recorded every rich detail of the trip.  Curiously, after I turned in my final paper, I don’t recall my teacher ever asking to talk with me about it nor did he return my paper.  (Yes, I got an A).  I wonder if somewhere there is a retired teacher still conflicted about his decision not to turn me in?
Unfortunately, I don't remember a lot about my other teachers at Leelanau but there was one teacher who made a life long impact on me - "Uncle Whit". He taught a class in poetry which quickly became one of my favorite subjects. Horace Whittemore was a wonderful, quirky, no-nonsense, quasi hermit who lived in a small log cabin in the woods on the edge of campus where he would hand feed deer and other wild things. Throughout the semester, he read to us from Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, E.E. Cummings, and many, many other poets and writers. I loved his class and gradually, he nurtured in me a deep love of nature, poetry and creative writing qthat remains to this day.
After taking his poetry class, Sarah and I decided to launch a school paper we christened Clear Light which became a venue for our budding poetry:

Locked in the deep dungeons                   In my hand
of my memory                                              a tiny shell
the knowledge of my past                          a delicate temple
my true existence                                        holding the beauty
keeps calling                                                 of the sea.
sending mysterious messages
to the outside
desperately trying
to awaken my slumber
crying out
with echoes
of “fiat”
and “seven”
touching the walls
between us
looking for
the ultimate key
to freedom
to unite us
that have for so long
been apart.

I might have moved even deeper into drugs and ended up wandering the streets of Haight Asbury except for an encounter that occurred that would change my life.  It was late fall and we had just finished the long hike over to the Homestead dining hall for lunch when a stranger entered. He was a well dressed, striking young man in his late twenties with an aura of self-confidence and charm. His sandy brown hair framed his quizzical face.  He introduced himself as Shipen Lebzelter (“Ship-in”) to a few of the students standing ahead of me in line, explaining he was visiting his sister in the Homestead condos just off campus.

Shipen and Annie Rawlins outside the Homestead 1969

Shipen had an aura about him that immediately captured the attention of everyone nearby.  Yet he had a quiet, unassuming manner.  Though he was extremely charismatic, instead of abusing his natural power and ability, he seemed to give verything back to his audience – acting like a reflective mirror.  I found myself mesmerized by the rhythm and cadence of his speech. It was if he was speaking in some venerable and beautiful ancient dialect like Shakespeare or Gaelic English. He used his hands like a dancer, gesturing and curving them through the air to make a point. With his lean grace and charismatic demeanor, Shipen had an aura about him that left me spellbound!  At that moment I realized this charismatic man was as close to a “guru” as I was going to get.  I was deeply impressed and decided I had to find out more about this man. 

Shipen, Shishonee and Student

Shipen and students at Leelanau

After our meal, Shipen invited a group of students to meet with him by the river so I leapt at the chance. After study hall, I rushed over and joined a small group of students sitting outside. He went on and on about becoming “clear” in mind and spirit and how important it was to find inner peace. He explained he had studied Tibetan Buddhism and other eastern religions which soon led into a long discussion about a new belief system he had written called Clear Children. What intrigued me was that he claimed he'd written it “automatically” without ever changing one word. Wow! He explained that in essence there were many different mindsets that could trap you (such as greed, envy and vanity) but the goal was to move out of these minds into higher mindsets such as wisdom and humility. Doing that would prepare you to enter the seven final minds of faith, hope, charity, mercy and grace and finally, you'd reach peace and love as you became “clear.” As I walked back to my dorm, I was totally confused yet convinced he was on to something.

Thus began a series of intense discussions about life, truth and following the path to spiritual enlightenment. After school, small groups of us met with Shipen in his sister’s condo or outside on the lawn. Because the condo was located just off campus in an area that was part of the Homestead resort it was off limits to students. We went anyway.

At first I was skeptical. Then a surprising event happened that truly impressed me. We were sitting inside the condo talking about stopping the constant flow of mental chatter and being more in tune with nature and its creatures. I said something to the effect that if we were truly in harmony with nature, then we should be able to communicate with animals. Shipen replied matter-a-factly, “You can do that if you silence your mind.” There was a fly slowly buzzing around the room distracting me. I thought he was going to tell me to ignore it but instead he suggested that I still my thoughts and communicate with the fly. Feeling a little silly, nevertheless, I closed my eyes and tried to let go of all the ideas racing through my head. Quietly I whispered, “Fly, come over here onto my leg, I won’t hurt you.” Amazingly, that is exactly what the fly did! In total awe, I decided to try it again. Slowly I stretched out my hand and this time sent out a mental plea: Fly, please come up onto my hand. Again, the fly buzzed over and settled onto my outstretched palm. I sat there in stunned silence and felt an even deeper respect for nature and every one of her creatures. Finally, we opened the door and let the fly go. That settled it! I was convinced. I knew I had found a guru who could lead me to the answers I had been searching for.

Over the next two weeks, small groups of students spent hours talking with Shipen about the Vietnam War, our disenchantment with the Establishment, and the search for enlightenment and inner peace. Eventually, the school administration heard about these “sessions” and assumed drugs were involved (they were not). Shipen was informed he would have to leave immediately.  Outraged, Sarah, Naomi and I published our discontent in our school newspaper:

On His Leaving by Shishawnay           Children of the Universe by Naomi

He led us to the door.                                 Children of the universe
We knock.                                                     All good is ours – All truth
Turn around but he is gone.                     Is ours
Now, we must face it alone                      The dawn awakens to herald
For the truth is with us.                            The song of love
We will open this door                               Existence is a joyous flight
Pass through it                                            to freedom
And on to other doors.                               Our Love cannot be taken
Into rooms without walls              f           or our beauty lies in the
Without ceilings                                          Real
Without a floor.                                           It is for us to show the way
There is much more to be learned           To bring our brothers and sisters
But we don’t need to hide                         Together again – as one.
Behind the skirts of our mothers
Again.                                                             Lost by Sarah Benstein
The little birds are pushed                       
From the nest to fly on their own.           I saw a lone seagull
We have new found strength                    by the lake
Power in our simple knowledge               flying free
Of the truth                                                  Going nowhere
Power not to destroy,                                 He was lost like me.
The power of love
That builds.

After Shipen was kicked out, some of us who had been part of that informal circle continued meditating and studying eastern religions. We would chant together by candlelight or read aloud from a book called I Ching. Sarah and I practiced Hatha Yoga at night and sometimes meditated chanting “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” over and over sitting in a semi-lotus position. We read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Thoreau and other spiritual writings and esoteric poetry. I recall once Shipen had talked about “astral projection” where people could actually transport their spirits away from their bodies. Many nights I would lie in bed trying with all my might to leave my body. I’d begin by visualizing a tingling, foot-falling-asleep sensation in my toes and gradually willing it up and throughout my whole body. Of course, it never worked and I just ended up lying there stuck in my body and feeling stupid and extremely annoyed!

Crystal River, Leelanau by Robert Karner

That winter in northern Michigan was bitterly cold. Sarah, Naomi and I spent most of our free time indoors, reading, talking and listening to records like Bob Dylan, or Donovan singing “Wear your love like heaven” and “You can have everything if you let yourself be,” Buffalo Springfield singing, “Somethin’s happenin here…” Leonard Cohen singing “Suzanne takes you down to her place beside the river…” and The Beatles White Album.  Always the romantic, I listened to the music and dreamed of being far, far away... 

A gypsy of a strange and distant time
Traveling in panic all direction blind
Aching for the warmth of a burning sun
Freezing in the emptiness of where he’d come from
Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
Left without a hope of coming home.

Speeding through a shadow of a million years
Darkness is the only sound to reach his ears
Frightening him with the vision of eternity
Screaming for the future that can never be
Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
Left without a hope of coming home.
                                    -Song by Moody Blues

On the wall in our room in Riveredge Cottage was a photograph I had clipped out of Life magazine.  It featured a long haired hippy family reading together in a tent (the Bray family were photographed while living at the Mystic Arts Commune).

Photo by John Olson

I longed to live this kind of free-spirited communal life.  I definitely wanted to drop out of society and I pictured myself either riding on a Harley Davidson with bikers, living in a commune in Haight Ashbury, or traveling around in a bus with friends.  Curiously, years later my mother told me that the psychiatrist they’d made me see in high school had predicted I would seek out a surrogate family and live on a bus or in a commune but they shouldn’t worry; I would turn out okay.  Hmmmm.

During my spare time I read everything I could find about Timothy Leary who was calling for our generation to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”  Though my parents wanted me to go on to college, I was more and more determined to disengage from the “Establishment” and its materialistic concerns.  Acid trips brought in-depth lessons about vanity and materialism.  At some point, I noticed that society seemed far too concerned about physical appearance, wearing makeup and personal image.  After that revelation I threw away all my mirrors and all the makeup I had (pure vanity!).  About a week later after another acid trip, I decided people were slaves to schedules and time (time is a worldly construct!) so I got rid of all my clocks and (unfortunately) gave away a beautiful antique watch that my parent’s had just given me as an early graduation present.  As I struggled on through classes, I longed to join the ranks of the hippies and flower children, eager to be happy and free of any materialistic ties.  I grew more and more interested in developing inner beauty, spirituality and mysticism.

Meanwhile, our student body was tuned in to the growing Peace Movement across the U.S. calling for an end to the Vietnam War.  So on October 15, 1969 a huge group of Leelanau students gathered in the gym for a Peace Moratorium.  We joined the ranks of thousands of other young protestors across America at the time.

For several hours we read poetry, sang, gave speeches and prayed silently for an end to the war.   

Students at Leelanau during Peace Moratorium

Moratorium Day Washington, DC October 15, 1969 (AP Photo)

The next day, Uncle Whit, our dear poetry professor, strode into class dressed in his World War II army uniform covered with awards and medals. For the entire hour, he paced around the room denouncing our actions and declaring his loyalty to the Constitution of the United Sates, the flag, and our wonderful democratic way of life.  I sat quietly in my seat amazed at how my lovable, eccentric old professor had suddenly turned into a lunatic.  As Uncle Whit marched back and forth, I envisioned an entirely different society, a place of real peace without prejudice, hatred or war.  His tirade only deepened my disgust for the Vietnam War and the monstrous lie I felt our country was living. 

Uncle Whit in his uniform

By April, spring fever spread throughout the campus. More and more of us snuck out at night to smoke cigarettes or just hang out. One particular evening almost the entire campus made plans to break curfew. By midnight groups of students roamed through the woods. Somehow, Charlie Shinn (the Assistant Dean?) got wind of what was going on and alerted the other counselors and staff. They rushed around shining flashlights into the darkness. I watched from behind a pine tree as Shinn narrowed in on a small group of students. Enraged he yelled, “Freeze! Get back to your dorms!” But the group split apart, laughing as they raced off into the surrounding woods. Sarah and I took off for the beach where we ran into others who had also managed to escape. Eventually, we snuck back to our dorm and slipped into bed, exhausted but savoring every minute of the night’s wild freedom. From then on the procedure after lights out included checking to be sure every student was actually in bed!

My extracurricular spiritual studies continued.  Before returning to New York City, Shipen had promised to send a manuscript of his belief system called Clear Children.  Week after week, I waited, but it never arrived.  After many calls, eventually I reached him by phone.  He apologized and promised to mail a copy immediately.  I was overjoyed when the Clear Children manuscript finally arrived!  Eagerly I poured over it every evening.  Convinced of its powerful message, Sarah and I typed up an original to mimeograph and share with other “lost souls.”  Suddenly we had a new cause and new answers in our search for “the Truth.” 

Excerpts from Clear Children written by Shipen Lebzelter:

MIND OF MYSTERY as fathomless as the deepest thoughts, will capture its subjects and lead them deeper and deeper into realities thus perceived, as even a tree has within it the deepest of intentions and meanings.

MIND OF FAITH given to constant growth into spirit, will find the physical world in complete accord with things of the Spirit, hence they are not separate.

MIND OF PERSONAL LOVE ever clinging to oneself or to others, will not allow the true understanding of Love to enter into consciousness, thus will continually be befuddled by its own set of love criteria.

MIND OF PEACE the perfection of man, will be to man, the perfection of Love the Divine Spirit – the Divine Idea made manifest in the body of the Clear Child, the pinnacle of human strivings.

As I read through Clear Children it only fueled more questions. How could I reach this mind of peace? How could I empty myself of inferior mind-sets? Naïve and impressionable, I was more convinced than ever that my spiritual journey was dependent upon being with Shipen, my guru. I decided to go visit him in New York City over our Easter break in 1970.