Chuck Pettis was taking a short break from a Buddhist retreat in Darjeeling, India, when the revelation of a financial blessing appeared via e-mail at a local Internet cafe.
One of his investments had shot off like a spaceship. Seeking enlightenment rather than riches, Pettis vowed to create a retreat center back home for the Darjeeling retreat sponsor, the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in Seattle.
The idea expanded into Earth Sanctuary, what Pettis calls a “space for sacred ecology” on south Whidbey Island. In this 72-acre preserve, Pettis has undertaken possibly the largest ecological restoration project ever funded by an individual.
Guided by a panel of experts, in 2001 he launched a 500-year plan for returning the site to old-growth forest not only teeming with native species of plants, bird and animals, but also reverberating with spiritual power from installations of humongous rock megaliths.
“Some men are interested in racing cars or yachts,” Pettis said on a recent stroll along the two miles of trails that link the sacred spaces with the wetland’s three ponds, a fen and forest. “I want to give something back to the Earth.”
The project’s scope is mind-boggling: Already Pettis and his crew have planted 7,000 native plants, cleared and mulched two miles of trails, and installed a 20-ton dolmen, a labyrinth and a half-acre sacred circle of refrigerator-sized stones aligned with the North Star.
They built nesting boxes for some of the more than 50 species of birds out of 80 species spotted on the site that breed here, including great horned owls, ospreys and pileated woodpeckers.
The group buried hundreds of minerals and crystals said to emanate positive spiritual qualities and carted off truckloads of invasive, non-native blackberry bushes and English ivy that ran rampant after loggers felled trees. Some of those blackberry vines ended up wrapped into spheres that hang above the trails, among the environmental art that adorns the land, along with Tibetan prayer flags and cairns, delicately balanced piles of small rocks.
The dolmen, modeled on prehistoric structures believed used by ancient peoples for sacred purposes, features a two-ton slab of Montana sandstone set atop several other 7-foot-tall slabs to create a space for meditating. Pettis said its location at the intersection of four “ley lines,” what the sanctuary’s literature describes as “invisible Earth energy that can alter and uplift human consciousness,” maximizes the dolmen’s meditative power.
The structure is aligned so that sun rays will pierce the trees and gaps in the stone to light up an inside wall on the summer solstice. Inside, a Buddhist shrine holds flowers and other natural trinkets left behind by visitors.
Unlike prehistoric people, Pettis and his building crew got help lifting from a tractor, log rollers and pulleys to haul and install the dolmen. But Pettis said ancient people relished the labor-intensive process because they were in tune with ley lines and other metaphysical properties lost to modernity.
The sites buzzed with positive energy that no one was eager to leave. “It was the process, not the end product” he explained, that motivated construction of megaliths.
He believes 21st-century culture has much to learn from these ancient ways. He said the frantic pace of living drains the spirit and neglects the body. “Our culture doesn’t encourage you to close your eyes and not think.”
Another spot at Earth Sanctuary that encourages contemplation is the labyrinth, a spiral-shaped path of Pennsylvania bluestone on a pond’s edge. Pettis said its hedge-lined twists and turns make it a powerful place for meditating about your life.
The power of megaliths is their simplicity, “just earth and stone” that allow people to focus on the real meaning of life, he explained. He added that Earth Sanctuary is an especially powerful place to meditate or pray, whatever a person’s faith, because it has been meticulously planned to absorb and disperse prayers deposited there.
“I wanted to create a place,” Pettis said, “where people could feel peaceful.”
The peaceful yet powerful site rests at the confluence of several streams of his life.
Although the 56-year-old entrepreneur lives in Medina, he knows Whidbey well. His wife, Claudia, now breeds endangered miniature sheep on Mutiny Bay Farm, founded by her grandfather.
An expert in megalithic monuments, Pettis helped pioneer the resurgence of interest in sacred stone spaces that stirred in the 1970s. He was a follower of holistic designer Buckminster Fuller and a local organizer of the original 1970 Earth Day. He helped build the Ellis Hollow Stone Circle in upstate New York, and is the author of “Secrets of Sacred Space: Discover and Create Places of Power.”
Pettis understands the power of symbols. He is president of BrandSolutions Inc., which specializes in optimizing product demand for its clients, which have included Nokia and Microsoft. He devotes half his time to working with nonprofit organizations.
“A lot” is as specific as he’ll get when discussing the cost of Earth Sanctuary. He opted against creating a nonprofit corporation because of the process’s daunting bureaucracy; he will protect the land with conservation convenants.
The 500-year project remains in its infancy. Thousands more native flowers, reeds and grasses will be added, as well as a grove of sequoias, which are not native, outside the wetlands. In a few years the huckleberry and wildflowers chosen for their serenity will grow and replace hundreds of somewhat distracting red plastic flags on short sticks now denoting where they were planted. Alders will make way for conifers. A botanical preserve of medical plants is in the works.
A replica of an ancient chambered mound will join the other sacred spaces. Last summer, Pettis explored these raised earthen tunnels in northern Scotland that in ancient times served as a kind of sensory deprivation chamber. He said their unique acoustics create an incredibly powerful aural experience.
Besides a donation, he asks that visitors contribute to Earth Sanctuary’s spiritual power by offering a meditation or prayer for world peace. “We need more peace in the world,” Pettis said. The sanctuary, he summed up, is a modest effort toward that end.
Linda Lumsden is a journalism professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. She spent a six-week fellowship on staff at The Herald.
Earth Sanctuary trails are open to visitors during daylight hours. The main parking lot for the trails is 0.6 miles past Earth Sanctuary House, 2235 Newman Road, Langley, on Whidbey. Entrance fee $7.
Ninety-minute naturalist tours with biologists Yvonne and Johnny Palka are available for $40 plus the $7 entrance fee for up to eight people.
Overnight retreats for spiritual purposes only are available at Earth Sanctuary House for $50 per person single and $75 double. The grounds and house also are available for group retreats and workshops for up to 20 people.
From the Clinton ferry landing, drive north on Highway 525 a couple of miles past Bayview. Turn right onto Newman Road.
For more information on all programs and reservations, call Linda Lindsay at 360-331-5471.
Judy Stanley /The Herald