Baja California foothills are covered in intense green carpet after frequent rains and a wild profusion of yellow mustard flowers create a lush tapestry against the dramatic layers of the dark mountain peaks. There are hundreds of native plants not be seen from the road, many of them having medicinal qualities. Once the native people knew them and honored each, knowing the true relationship in a way that has been nearly lost in the western world. Today, I am on my way to talk with Paula Pijoan who has been studying the healing properties of plants and being in nature. Her vision unfolds as she is creating a destination where people can have a direct experience with the land and nature’s abundance. In this quiet beauty, Paula invites people to experience the melting away of stress and disharmony.
Paula is a vibrant young Mexican woman of Spanish heritage who has lived in Ensenada for most of her life. She is passionate about the direction she is taking and shared openly about how she had a transformational experience that changed the course of her life. “For some reason I have always felt social responsibility, even as a young child. My parents taught me what seemed like two opposing viewpoints at the time. My father is a scientist and my mother is naturally spiritual.” Little did Paula know at the time that she would be creating a bridge, blending together these two perceptions. She admits she was always looking for a certain direction that was unconventional by the standards of her time and culture. When faced with the choice of higher education, she chose Oceanography, following her father into the sciences. “I thought science would answer the questions I had about my life. The more I studied, the more it became clear that it didn’t have what I was seeking.” Paula smiles when she recalls, “It was surfing which bridged the science with my experience of the vastness of life. Being out in the water, alone, I sensed the great mystery. It was a big awe.”
Baja has great waves and draws surfers from all over the world, some say certain areas can equal Hawaii. “In 2000 I learned how to surf; I was 19. I had to be strong in all that male energy. I hung out with the guys and didn’t have any girlfriends at the time, because very few Mexican women were surfing back then.” But as life would have it, young women of Ensenada saw her skill and not surprisingly approached her to teach them. Along with a friend, Paula created a surfing school for women, Mujer de Mar, in 2011. “For 3 years I was grateful for the opportunity to teach these women, more than just surfing, but also what they were really capable of.” Finishing up her Master’s degree, she wrote her thesis on the importance of surfing to the city of Ensenada.
“For years I would drive up and down the coast and check out the waves. I’d never look east into the hills. And one day, for some reason, I glanced in the other direction and was astounded by the beauty. The land was full of life! It was like in that moment the plants chose me.” Paula began to study on her own, “We are called highway botanists and it was like falling head over heels in love with plants.” And from there began an evolution of her spirit. Yet she struggled with how to incorporate all that she was learning. She was clear she had something to say. Science taught her what she calls “healthy skepticism,” which helped ground the mysterious information from the plant world. For the next four years, as Paula continued her independent study, she lived a life of extreme changes. It was broken into seasonal migrations. She roamed the hills in spring discovering the wonders of the native plants; in the summer she held the surf school; in the fall she journeyed to Spain to be with her mediation teacher and the winter months she just “survived.” During this time, she was Vice President of the California Native Plant Society. Their mission “… to save California’s native plants and places using both head and heart. CNPS brings together science, education, conservation, and gardening to power the native plant movement.”
“We all have gifts we need to fulfill,” Paula continues, “This is feeding my soul and I have begun being responsible for the direction I am taking. I know I am following in the right direction because I feel so good.” Paula admits for some time she wondered, “Am I alone in this?” When she saw an early Shirley MacLaine book, she suddenly realized there were others becoming aware of life on a much grander scale. And as she followed the guidance of her meditation teacher the answers came in her silent walks among the plants and trees. She was looking for a bridge between the science she knew and the wonder of nature. Her commitment was a focused intention which brought her to the answer with startling clarity. It was called Shinrin-Yoku, developed in Japan during the 1980s for preventive health care. Shinrin-Yoku means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” Paula spoke with excitement, “I didn’t have to make it up by myself! I had discovered the mystery on my own, but here was a guide for delivering professionally what I knew. This study through The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy states “The forest is the therapist and the guide opens the doors.” Science backs up Paula, as it is being seen nature demonstrates a wide array of benefits including cardiovascular and immune systems, as well as stabilizing and improving mood and cognition. Ultimately, we learn we are not separate from nature and it nourishes us gently and naturally, if we are open to it.
Presently Paula is offering two courses. She is licensed in the Shinrin-Yoku, but far beyond and more important than this is the way she gained her wisdom. She learned directly from nature, from the land and the plants, spending years walking in her outdoor classroom. Today, she offers two options for people to experience. The first is a 1-hour nature walk focused on getting in touch with all the senses and a 1-hour wine tasting at her family’s winery Vinos Pijoan. Here you can enjoy a glass of “Paula,” a spicy blend of varietals. Paula laughs and says, “My father named it after me because I am a blend of many things.” The second option is a four-hour forest bathing among an ancient oak forest, 20 minutes from the Guadalupe Valley.
For any botanist to discover a rare flower is a joy and Paula found hers recently during a walk through the thick green of early spring growth. It looked like a small yellow daisy. But it was actually of the aster family and a very rare Verbesina dissita, Big-leaved Crownbeard, only found and recorded 23 times in Baja California. It is on the endangered species list, due mostly to development. Fortunately, this herb is found on a private ranch committed to preserving natural habitat. As Paula moves into her true life’s work, she is a modern pioneer, guiding us back to nature where the big awes await. She quotes her teacher, Maharishi Krishnananda Ishaya, “Let life live you.”