thank you God Alta Sierra Biblical Gardens Trail








 

Biblical Gardens -- Gardens from Eden
By Shirley Poole

On a sunlit morning, I discovered a little known retreat in the Sierra Nevada foothills sure to nurture any wayfarer's spirit. Alta Sierra Biblical Gardens is nestled in a dense forest of aging oak, maple and pine trees where a fresh and uplifting sight awaits around every bend of the carefully maintained trail.
I treaded softly, careful not to disturb the peace and tranquility of this natural sanctuary, as I began my journey over a rustic wooden bridge which spans Rattlesnake Creek. My anticipation was further heightened upon seeing the archway with its two angel figures bidding a welcome with the words, "Come and taste the goodness of the Lord."
Rushing waters of the rocky creek, spewing forth white foam, splash against moss-covered boulders and combine with the distant song of a bird to serve as nature's prelude of praise for this worshipful hike. Ferns and shrubs grace the banks as I strolled down a sawdust pathway, fragrant in the spring with rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas, dogwoods, and wild flowers. Fall has a totally different appeal with brilliantly contrasting leaves filling the boughs, scattering the path with color, and wafting tantalizing aromas.
It was 1993 when I first set foot on this hallowed ground. My musings were interrupted as I spotted a white-haired man, dressed in overalls and a well-worn cap, stooped over a wheelbarrow -- a gardener no doubt. Glancing up, he extended his right hand with a smile illuminating his face. John Sommers cordially introduced himself as the owner of the Biblical Gardens. A few minutes later, I was seated on a wooden bench in the Garden's Memorial Chapel enraptured by his story of the Garden's origin. I felt VERY fortunate to have met him and to have heard his story firsthand.
Sommers felt it was divine inspiration which led him to leave his Sacramento home the morning of June 15, 1971, to look for a parcel of land on which to build a retirement home. In late afternoon, after driving down Highway 49 from Grass Valley toward Auburn, California, what he described as a "driving force" prompted him to stop at a realtor's office where he encountered a young man about to close the office door. After Sommers apologized for the lateness of the hour, he was astonished by the relator's greeting, "I've been waiting for you!"
Soon the young man drove Sommers down an old wagon trail used during the Gold Rush days in the 1860's to a 22 acre parcel covered with thick blackberry brambles. The site met all of Sommers expectations -- mountainous terrain, a stream, and a valley. He knew instantly, with no reservations, his search was ended. At dusk that evening Sommers returned to the site alone.

Now written on a large stone tablet at the entryway to the garden is a description of the spiritual experience he enjoyed that evening.

Alta Sierra Biblical Gardens
Commissioned by God, June 15, 1971
The very ground on which you now are standing is Hallowed Ground. I, a stranger, stood here alone after sunset being elated by the rushing sound of the brook, the peace and tranquility. I lifted my eyes heavenward praising God, when suddenly the Glory of God surrounded me.
God spoke: I trembled and shook. God granted me the spirit to know Him. Ephesians 1:17. God's spirit joined the spirit within me, and I was lifted. God said, " John, follow Me, feed My lambs: here you will build a garden, portraying the life and passion of Jesus Christ."
After being told my commission and how all this was to come about, I promised to do His will and assume the task.

John Sommers


This dedicated soul continued his story, saying that God gave him a detailed picture of the garden. But, "Where was the money for the down payment to come from?" he asked. Ten days later the money was in his possession. A buyer appeared and bought two parcels of Sommers' pastureland near Sacramento, which he and his wife had been trying to sell for years. The couple moved their mobile home onto their newly acquired property so John could begin his work. His wife Verna remained in Sacramento for a time and joined her husband on weekends. Over the years, the property was transformed into the beautiful retreat it is today. The outdoor chapel, where we sat talking accommodates one hundred people and is open to the public for garden weddings, memorial services, or quiet contemplation. An arch of green vines towers over the altar. The focal point is the bust of Christ with the words "God is Love" etched into the wood. Panes of colorful stained glass form a cross and a window effect above the outdoor altar. I struck out alone on a path which meandered along the stream bordered by flowers and thick shrubs. I rested on one of the many benches offered for quiet reflection. Originally, the garden was wired and set up to play tapes of music and Scripture quotes at strategic locations, but currently the sound system is not functional. Fortunately, during my first visit, I experienced the uplifting words of a favorite hymn coming from a speaker on a nearby tree. The message of "How Great Thou Art" lifted my spirit to soar with the music. Tucked away in the trees surrounded by a profusion of foxgloves and lavender hydrangeas, I came upon the statue of Moses pointing to a stone plaque on which are carved the Ten Commandments. This setting starts the Biblical story told on the cement plaques that are placed near the larger-than-life statues of Christ portraying key aspects of His ministry here on earth. Some people may shy away from sculpted figures for fear of worshipping "carved images," which the second commandment warns us against. But I don't believe anyone bows down to worship these statues; rather, they serve as another way to tell the story of Jesus and His sacrifice for the salvation of humanity. Just as words, music, picture books, passion plays, paintings, and now video tapes reach various people with the Gospel, the Biblical Gardens make an indelible impression on minds of visitors that will not soon be forgotten. The quiet, soothing natural environment in which the story of Jesus is told seems to calm and prepare the mind to contemplate that which is spiritual, and these scenes compound the power of the messages into an often life-changing experience.

Continuing along the garden trail, I crossed a second wooden bridge and stood awestruck. Framed by trees in various shades of green, a white statue of Jesus, His arms outstretched, seemed to be gazing upon His handiwork. Rushing water cascaded down a steep slope into the creek bed below, its banks adorned with buckeye bushes and splashes of golden yellow flowers. I leaned over the railing and peered at one of the wooden plaques mounted on a large rock. The words,"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" were etched on its shiny flat surface. Tied to rocks and branches, scattered throughout the churning water, were found Christ's other statements presented to His followers at the Sermon on the Mount.
As I ascended a hill, I came upon a sign which indicated I was on a path going to "The Way of the Cross." Wood carvings of the last supper, closely followed by the judgment scene, raised my consciousness of His last days. Trudging along, I encountered a gleaming white statue of Jesus kneeling and praying beside a large boulder. Then, "Onward to Golgatha" was depicted on a plaque of Jesus straining under a heavy cross. I paused to catch my breath on a long bench between some oak trees.
Oddly, the bench was positioned so people seated would be facing uphill. I glanced up and gasped at the sight. High on the hill was a very large image of Jesus stretched out on a cross. The sunlight, like a warm comforter, filtered through the trees, casting shadows on His gaunt body. On the sloping hill leading to the powerful portrayal of His sacrifice were large granite rocks upon which were carved Christ's seven last statements. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," stood out from the rest. Reading and meditating at this spot seemed to erase all concept of time as the eternal impact of the story of Jesus filled my soul to the core.
Although reluctant to leave this place of peace and assurance, I began a brisk descent down the hill on a trail leading to another symbol of hope. An angel crouched beside the empty tomb was followed by a scene describing His ascension. this victorious image completes the half-mile pilgrimage. As I strolled down the hillside to the brook, a gentle breeze and spray cooled my brow. Several waterfalls emptying into a natural basin formed a baptismal pool used by clergy of all faiths. I lingered, meditating on the tranquility which overwhelmed me.
Visitors from a variety of countries have enjoyed this walk in the woods with its rustic artistry -- most of which was created by Sommers right where each figure stands. Sommers and some helpers brought much of the materials for the sculptures to each spot by oxen and cart.
Many people find a special encounter with their Creator and a fresh experience with the Gospel story told in this unique fashion. Groups of seniors, youth, members of garden clubs and churches, artists, as well as individuals find solace at the Biblical Gardens. Sommers recalled comforting one woman who tearfully prayed in the chapel and told of her daughter who had died of a drug overdose. Other life-changing stories center around the joy of baptisms and weddings that mark a new beginning for many, with Christ as the center of heartfelt commitments. A few who find Christ for the first time at this place of refuge have asked Sommers, "Teach me how to pray."
In 1996, the Sommers sold the property to Paula and Maskey Heath, who plan to uphold the Gardens as a nonprofit, nondenominational ministry that is not currently supported by any grants, annuities or endowments -- only by loving donations of visitors. (Endowments and grants are welcome, however.)
Preparing to exit this spiritual haven, I felt a twinge of regret. I was going back into the everyday world with its tribulation and challenges. Nevertheless, I, like many others, felt rejuvenated and at one with God and His creation.

Shirley Poole writes from Auburn, California, where she enjoys writing on a variety of subjects about the surrounding region and her faith.

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