I grew up as a child on my grandfather’s almond ranch in the flat, chemically controlled farmland of California’s Central Valley. I couldn’t wait to get out. The place seemed to have no nature and no culture. Two years of college did not still my restless spirit. It was the Vietnam War era and I took a job as a Conscientious Objector at a home for emotionally disturbed children in the lovely, golden hills of Mendocino County. I shared a small cabin with friends, nestled among oaks and redwoods, where red tail hawks circled and coyotes sang through the night. I didn’t use spiritual terms to identify my life. I just knew this was the way I always wanted to live.


A few years later, Claire and I tried to make a living in a similar environment, this time the cool coastal forests of Sonoma County. But there was no means of income and eventually, defeated, we returned to what was left of the family ranch in the chemical flatlands. I got a job at a wastewater plant and we started raising a family.


For a few years I was deeply depressed, a failure at all my hopes and dreams. But then two things happened. First, looking for a way to educate our children in accordance with our core values, we started studying the teachings of Rudolph Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education. And for my job I started taking biology courses at the local community college.


Steiner’s philosophy of the spirituality of the natural world fused with what I learned through the biology courses about the dazzling complexity of life. I awakened to a great sense of wonder at the rich web in my own back yard, not just those verdant faraway hills of my dreams.


One day a friend took us in her boat across the Sacramento River to a little cabin where she lived with her husband without electricity or running water, and where she had given birth to her child. I had never realized there was such wildness so near my home. The California Delta fans out into 1000 miles of waterways, defining large agricultural islands, but also forming, in the interstices, little pockets of uncontrolled fecundity. Back in the 70’s refugees from the prevailing culture escaped to these islands and lived off the grid for a number of years. The idea so fascinated me I decided to write a novel of one man’s spiritual initiation into this strange and wondrous phenomenon.


The novel was called The Spider’s Tale. Twenty years later I have returned to it, and rewritten it, bringing into it a deeper understanding of its subject matter, honed by my ongoing journey through the wilderness of spirit and nature. I don’t know what this means to anyone else, but it has been profoundly enlightening for me. 

James Nail