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Crestone as a Symbolic Microcosm and the Ironies Within

Nick Chambers


What do you get when you take practitioners from some of the world’s most deeply rooted major religions, some from lesser known religions, along with some interesting, mountain-loving laypeople and plop them down into a landscape that is a small, North American equivalent of Tibet? Why, you would have Crestone, a tiny community lying at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; that has the soul of an old Colorado mountain town and the spiritual electricity of Mecca.

The residents of the town of Crestone live in a spiritual harmony that is unique and rare amongst the politicized quarrelling of today’s mainstream organized religions. Practitioners of the mystical Islamic spirituality Sufism, Hindhuism, Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, as well as practitioners of such lesser-known spiritualities as the pre-Buddhist practice of Bon, and the Shinto offshoot from Japan known as Shumei, all have a presence in the San Luis Valley’s town of Crestone. If all of these diverse people can get along, why can’t we? In fact, they don’t just get along, they enhance each other’s spiritualities and have banded together in the face of the looming threat of natural gas drilling, a danger most community members see as having the likely potential to disrupt and change the Crestone way of life for good.

This imminent hazard to the cherished and spiritual solitude of Crestone has held up a mirror to its community members. Once one gets passed the fact that Crestone is indeed a unique and harmonized representation of the world’s religious and spiritual community, one realizes that the people of Crestone face the exact same problems the rest of the world faces today. The enormous crisis of fossil fuel dependency has now manifested itself as a low-revenue Canadian oil and gas company that wants to look for natural gas in the Crestone community’s backyard. No matter how spiritually aware, how unique, how far away from the smoggy cities they are and how sacred their land is, the people of Crestone are confronted with the identical problematic questions the rest of the world faces today. How do we lose our dependency on fossil fuels? How do we live a life that is ecologically sustainable? What kind of monetary value can one put on the natural world? What reasons make one people’s home exempt from drilling and another people’s home a victim?

The people of Crestone are more than aware of these complicated questions to the human race’s way of living, and their voices are trying to be heard. Even though the community members of Crestone are very much in touch with the surrounding natural world, and the spirituality that it forces them to imbibe, they still use natural gas to heat their homes, and buy expensive and polluting fuel for their cars. Ralph Abrams, a local practitioner of Zen Buddhism at the White Jewel Mountain Zen Center expresses this quandary, “It’s funny because we all drive our cars. We can’t survive out here without a car. No, I don’t think we’re saying that…we’re not going back to the horse and buggy days…but there are other energy resources that are available right now.” There is a movement within Crestone, as there is throughout the global community, to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle that reduces the impact human beings have on their planet. As a resident of Crestone, Bob Dellegar acknowledges this pressing situation, “We are working on getting in to sustainability. We pollute just by being humans, and the drilling made that more clear than ever. We are finding alternatives because we have to.” The community of Crestone, along with the rest of the world, is being forced into a corner where the decision to either keep polluting, or stop polluting, must be made.

Even in Crestone’s harmonized spiritual environment, there still exists the modern dichotomy of secular versus spiritual, and the separation and miscommunication that comes along with such differences. Lonnie Roth, who owns the Crestone Creative Trades Co., observes this separation, “You get different religions, they will tend to spend all of their time together, they tend to get to know each other. But the most difficult aspect of that for me is I only see some of these people once or twice a year, because they’re so almost engrained into their group.” She then expands her point a little further “There’s just a very few events where we come together as a community, and the rest of the time there seems to be a very separate feeling.” With this dichotomy, comes the difficulty of translating one’s values from spiritual language to the vernacular of the secularist. How does a Hindu practitioner express the sacredness of the land to someone who lives in the city of Detroit and has never stepped foot in a place of worship or seen the Sangre de Cristo Mountains? Furthermore, how does a group of spiritual people, who value the land as sacred, translate this transcendental connection to the land into legal terms when dealing with a Canadian oil and gas company? How does the spiritual significance of a place like Crestone make it any better than a tiny town in rural Wyoming, where natural gas and oil drilling is astoundingly rampant.

In their fight to prevent exploratory natural gas drilling, the people of Crestone have had to make an effort to avoid over-romanticizing their home and appearing self-righteous. Even though the members of the Crestone community are good natured and well tuned to the environment, they run the risk of being viewed as a “spiritual elite.” Why should the backyard of Crestone be free from drilling, and the backyard of a small farming town in Kansas be littered with oil wells? After all, as Tamar Ellentuck, a Buddhist practitioner and founder of the Crestone Spiritual Alliance relates, “… there are a lot of hippy mountain towns here throughout the west.” An irony that lies within the spiritual community of Crestone, is that many of the practitioners have not even lived in the town of Crestone, or in the San Luis Valley very long at all. Many did not grow up there, but were attracted later in life by Crestone’s spiritually enriching qualities and environment. What should the spiritual community of Crestone say to a farmer whose been farming the land his father farmed who faces the prospect of gas drilling in his backyard? Lonnie Roth observes this worrisome position, “We are in danger of being spiritual elite which is not a real place to be elite, you can’t be a spiritual elitist, it doesn’t work. Losing our diversity, being rich people claiming to be spiritual. We’re in danger of being a little overselective, of holding the kind of judgment over society because of spiritual practice.”

Regardless of the ironies that exist within Crestone and the situation its people face, Crestone is arriving at the exact same crossroads the entire world is; where we all must question our values and ask ourselves what kind of world we want ourselves, our children, and future generations to live in. As a Crestone resident on retreat at the Dharma Ocean Foundation in Crestone, Bill Jedis wonders what kind of value choices we will make as human beings, “You can’t put a price tag on it (Baca), but you can put a price tag on a hundred thousand barrels of oil. But the interesting thing to me is I can see how people might minimize that it’s going to be noisy for the people on spiritual retreat, but it’s on a national wildlife refuge-that’s not just our backyard, that’s America’s back yard, that’s America’s heritage. And for what, two weeks worth of gas production?”