If anyone can make a Serenity Center out of The Palms compound, activist Robert Seals can
Okay Chico, here’s the deal: You get one 40-acre ecological reserve and community sanctuary, located just a bike ride from downtown. The place comes with an enormous organic garden, a campground with teepees, a professionally designed disc golf course and a giant tent for various community classes and functions. Plus, half the property is shaded by century-old redwoods and cedars and the other half is a self-sustaining “green” park with a small lake in the center.
All it’s going to cost you is $4 million.
Don’t freak out; Mr. Seals has you covered.
Robert Seals is the Universal Life Church minister who beat a sheriff’s horse in a foot race around Lower Bidwell Park during the 1960s, and who more recently has been spotted chilling out the locals at the Saturday morning farmers’ market with his sitar-guitar and band Seckund Naychur. And he has a plan.
Seals just signed a two-year lease, effective Aug. 1, 2005, on the 40-acre Palms property just west of town among the orchards at the edge of Chico’s greenline. His plan is twofold: Create a “sustainable nonprofit sanctuary” with the intention of “reconnecting people to themselves, community and nature in a beautiful serene environment on the edge of Chico.” And, by the time the lease is up, raise enough money to buy the 40-acre piece of land at the cost of $100,000 per acre, or $4 million.
Lofty goals are nothing new for Seals. He is the king of plans, from crazy art projects and protests to the more lucrative creation of useful inventions like his patented all-in-one bike tool the Cool Tool, the completely solar-powered Solar Stage sound system, and the toxin-free Klean Kanteen. The important thing to remember is, unlike most dreamers, Seals has a knack for making his come true. So, with two whole years at his disposal to groom the site and raise the funds, it’s not unreasonable to bet that his latest brainstorm has a good chance of coming to fruition … for him, and for those in search of serenity close to home.
Seals is dressed for summer weather. Wearing wire-rimmed shades and loose-fitting linen from head to toe, the 60-year-old looks a bit like a retired rock star as he tramps across freshly laid wood chips on this tour of the former grounds of The Palms. He talks non-stop—first about the extensive cleanup work and the future projects and activities of his planned Serenity Center, but mostly about how much he loves this 40-acre piece of property. “What a magical place … I mean, look at these trees,” he says, standing among a small grove of tall redwoods zig-zagging in a line along the edge of a large organic garden. Most of the trees have been rescued by Seals and his crew from the massive undergrowth of baby redwoods, or “suckers,” that had been stealing all the groundwater. Now, a clear trail leads through the center grove from one end to the other.
“We’ll have a couple little meditation benches where you can come; you could have lunch; you could ride your bike out with your girlfriend, or meditate, look at the garden.”
The garden is pristine. Tall rows of flowers and vegetables organized neatly in the northeast corner of the property. The roughly five acres of produce is managed by a group of Hmong farmers who will stay on the property as part of the grand plan. “Part of our scene is that they run that,” Seals says. “You can’t do it any better than those people. I don’t charge them any rent—We just trade them food.”
Besides the garden, and the existing main house (where many activities will take place, and Seals’ girlfriend Shyla Johnson and her three kids will live), most of Serenity Center is just in the idea stage. And the cleanup stage. The owners let Seals and crew come in for a month rent-free to get a jump start on removing the abandoned cars, 20 refrigerators and other discarded appliances, a commercial air-conditioning unit and tons of mattresses (some stuffed with hypodermic needles, some with maggots) from the grounds of the former bed-and-breakfast tucked beneath the recognizable cluster of giant palm, redwood and cedar trees just west of town on Dayton Road.
In recent years, The Palms has been kind of a hippie compound; a loose scene that hosted the occasional rock show and even served as a month-long Rainbow Family residence.
“Years of neglect,” Seals calls it, adding that the parties, concerts and constant in-and-out are things of the past. “One thing we want to make clear is that is over.”
What’s taking its place is a more wholesome center for community activity. The whole Serenity Center is and will be tied to Seals’ version of the Universal Life Church, or C.H.U.R.C.H. (Community, Happiness, Unity, Resolution, Cleansing, Habitat). This in no way means that the place will be some kind of Bible camp or cult compound—Seals’ definition of religion is strictly limited to the six words of the above-mentioned acronym.
“You bring your religion with you—we don’t go there,” he explains. “We’re really not a religious church. We’re more into ‘living spirituality’ I call it.”
In addition to the activities that Seals leads, such as the weekly music-guided yoga by Seckund Naychur that will now move from the Chico Women’s Club to the center, the calendar for August is filled with the kind of ongoing activities that will be a part of the site’s future. Dance classes and, of course, yoga are already happening every day of the week.
The tour around the property continues, with the map in Seals’ head as the guide. The metal goals of the disc golf course are already sprouting up; there’s the big area for children’ play boxes, where rice hulls will cover the ground instead of grass that you have to mow; the parking lot has a new coating of wood chips made from the recently cleared-out dead trees and undergrowth; and, most impressive, an old well that had rusted out, allowing a natural spring to drain into the aquifer below, has been plugged up, creating a summertime reservoir of approximately 30,000 gallons of clean water.
Seals latest invention, the Klean Kanteen, has just been sold to its local distributor Crestline Distribution to help fund the immediate work that needs to be done on the Serenity Center. Seals will continue to receive royalties from the Kanteen sales, and that money, like the money made with Seckund Naychur or through rentals of the Solar Stage, goes straight into the C.H.U.R.C.H.
“I make things happen,” Seals says. Most importantly, he adds, “I figure out ways to fund things.”
The funding for this project, especially for the land purchase, will largely have to come from grants. Seals mentions the Paul Allen Foundation as the first he’s targeting for grants as he stares out at the treeless, weed-covered, back-20 acres and maps out his vision for the blank slate.
“Out here we’re going to have a tent,” he says, motioning toward a spot closest to the tree-line surrounding the main house. “That’s where we’re going to have a lot of our programs. The [main] house is just the starting. I really am big on having programs outside.”
“I want to put a pretty big pond in here, I’m talkin’ about like Horseshoe Lake; some campsites. The whole place would be sustainable. You wouldn’t need a machine in here ever. It would completely take care of itself. It would be green. It would be a lot of solar arrays going on. We’d be selling energy back to PG&E. There’d be no leaf blowers, no lawnmowers, no lawns. It would be all stuff like organic materials. This is where I’m going to get my funding, because there’s a lot of money out there. We’re talking about the biggest ecologically sustainable park in the United States.”Seals’ hope is that with the facility and the two-year lease in place, plus the fact that he and his crew are actively putting in constant work toward the goals, his proposal will be especially attractive.
“What we’ll have is a greenline by virtue of what it is, not a temptation for development,” Seals says, referring to the current no-development, agriculture-protection distinction that side of Chico currently enjoys. A scenario he hopes to avoid is that, if at the end of his lease he isn’t able to purchase the land, the owner would sell the land to developers hoping to challenge current greenline boundaries and build housing on the property.
“Developers see that,” Seals says, pointing to the new housing tract on the western boundary of the property. “[It’s] a one-time commission. One time. Go to New York City and talk to somebody who’s lived there for a long time—like I’ve lived here since the ‘60s; I consider this my community—[and] ask them if Central Park was a good idea, a good investment…”