-- 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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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
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