By Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya
During Covid Lockdown, partners in life and business reminisce about the inspiration behind their cannabis farm, Swami Select, and how it all began.
Take a seat, light a J. 10 minute read.
It was the winter of 2003, and we were once again visiting our favorite temples and towns of South India. Every year we would make the pilgrimage to the small village of Kollur, nestled in the jungles at the foot of the Western Ghats in the state of Karnataka. This is real “Jungle Book” country — one half expects Mowgli to jump out of the dense foliage at any moment along with monkeys, elephants and tigers. The rivers flow from mountains lush with tropical foliage where tribal people still live in small communities. They survive mostly on coconuts and fish and make money by gathering firewood or wild jungle honey for sale in the towns. The sounds of exotic birds and the smells of jasmine permeate the air.
The primary reason to go to the tiny hamlet of Kollur is the ancient temple situated there, dedicated to the goddess Sri Mukambika. We discovered it through some friends who had lived there before the village had electricity. It used to take days to get there as so many rivers had to be crossed by ferry, or sometimes canoe, making it an arduous journey.
By the time we first went in the late 1980s, a road with several bridges existed and electricity, spotty as it was, was available most hours of the day. But the feeling of mystery and magic still permeated the entire area. The locals wore unique tribal outfits and yes, a temple elephant walked freely through the town. His name was Raja.
The temple rituals called to us daily and filled us with awe and wonder. It was here that we met our spiritual teacher, Swami Chidananda Giri. We had come across him by sheer chance—or perhaps Karma—while we were following a troupe of monkeys through the jungle along the Souparnika River, and suddenly encountered this tidy, picturesque ashram secluded in the trees. As we peeked through the gate, we spotted a diminutive holyman clad in only a pale orange cloth draped around his body with a simple knot behind his neck, wearing wooden sandals that couldn’t be comfortable. He was tending his vegetable and flower garden. It was the picture of peace.
Swami Chidananda welcomed us into his garden. He appeared to be 100 years old with his long white beard and wrinkled skin, but was really probably only about 60. His English was fluent, and we soon discovered he had been raised a Christian and had gone to Catholic schools. On the sweet altar in his kutir (small hut) a statue of Jesus sat next to one of the Hindu god Krishna.
He explained that he had previously been a popular guru with many students, but had given that up to enter a more solitary time of life. He then showed us his private cave, where he had meditated for long periods of time over many years. Then to our surprise he opened the door to the cave, invited us to go in, and latched the door behind us. For some reason we trusted him, and were able to focus on meditating. After what seemed a very long time, he came back and let us out into the sunshine. Our meeting was pure serendipity, and would change the course of our lives forever.
From then on we returned every year to visit both Sri Mukambika in her temple and Swami Chidananda, usually staying at least a couple of weeks in the small village with sparse accommodations. The simplicity and the magnificent tropical nature, combined with a strong sense of Sri Mukambika’s presence, inspired us. We had long talks with Swami Chidananda when he would answer our questions and offer guidance. Often there would be just one sentence from all that he said that would resonate in our minds for the next year, until its truth became part of us.
It was on a visit in the winter of 2003 that Swami Chidananda asked Nikki, who at that point had returned to live primarily in California, a very specific question.
“What do you want to be doing there?” he inquired.
The answer was simple. “As you know,Swamiji, I have been creating sacred spaces dedicated to all traditions for the past several years, and now I feel ready for a real sanctuary on a piece of land in the countryside,” replied Nikki.
“And who will help you create such a space?” he wondered out loud, and then answered his own question. Looking directly at Swami Chaitanya, he said, “As I recall, you can build anything, yes? So you must go and help her.”
Still looking at Swami Chaitanya he asked, “And what do you want to do?”
He replied, “I want to build a giant three dimensional Sri Yantra.”
“Well, do it soon!” was Swami Chidananda’s command.
That was the perfect response! Swami Chaitanya had been ordained a Swami at the Kumbha Mela in 1998 and felt he was destined to remain in India for the rest of this lifetime, devoted to an unpretentious and simple existence based on prayer and teaching. Yet here was our assignment given by our teacher, who continued to explain that because Chaitanya had such a strong western education and also a deep understanding of Hinduism, it was the perfect combination for him to be a teacher in the USA. Again, an encounter with Swami Chidananda changed our lives.
We both returned to America shortly after that and took up the search for a perfect place to create the sanctuary. Nikki had already been living in Mendocino for a few years, helping Tim Blake on his cannabis farm. The Emerald Triangle area intrigued us both, as the locals were more like us than in any other part of California: they ate organically, they appreciated spiritual paths, many had traveled in India and they loved cannabis. Plus the natural beauty of the area is stunning.
Through a local real estate agent, we were directed to what may be one of the best parcels in the entire county of Mendocino. Tucked in the hills at 2600 feet, this private valley with several acres of flat meadow had been homesteaded in the late 1880s. The same family had owned it until 2000, when a logger had bought it intending to cut down the incredible original growth Doug Fir and Oak trees on the property, some of the last left in the area.
Lucky for us, the eco-conscious neighbors had made such a stink that they drove the logger out, and we were right there at the right time. It was as if Swami Chidananda knew it was destined to be.
But that wasn’t the only indication that we were meant to live on this land. Fully 30 years before we bought the ranch, Swami — at the time an artist photographer known as William — had been given a vision of the ranch when he was attending the Rainbow Gathering in 1973 in the Wind River Wilderness Area in Wyoming.
After the peyote ceremony, as the celebrants were winding their way down the rocky trail in the darkness through the forest from the mesa, William perceived a picture in his third eye. In the distance there was a forested mountain, below which appeared a grove of oak trees in a golden meadow reaching to where he stood, and behind him were two giant fir trees. There was a voice in his mind that said, “You will spend the end of your life here.” Somehow he also knew it would be in or near Trinity County.
It was only after the third visit to the land, 30 years after he had had the vision, that Swami walked over to stand in front of two giant fir trees and turning to look south he suddenly saw his vision come to life. The forest covered mountain, the golden meadow with the oak grove and the giant fir trees behind him. As we were still trying to put together the down payment, a voice in his head assured him, “You’ll get it.”
By July of that year, after working some real magic to make it happen, we had become the guardians of this precious piece of land and the sanctuary was born. That same year Swami built a giant 24’ x 24’ Sri Yantra at Burning Man, which he burnt on site. A few years later he built another ‘improved’ Sri Yantra for the Earthdance festival, after which we took it apart and reinstalled it here at Ganja Ma Gardens.
One of the first things we did at the ranch was to install the giant black granite Ganesh statue at the entrance, where he is the guardian of the gate. This was followed by a one-ton Shiva and a gorgeous statue of the goddess Saraswati. We also put a statue of Nagaraja, the king of the snakes, in front of a pair of soaring Doug Firs near the house to acknowledge the other members of the animal kingdom with whom we share the land. Later we installed a small idol of the Goddess Kali in a cave-like hollow in a giant Douglas Fir tree.
In the spirit of honoring all traditions, as our teacher did, and to express to visitors the concept that if the gods can all play together so too can we humans, we also placed statues of Jesus, Quan Yin, the Archangel Uriel, the Buddha and many more deities around the ranch. One could say we were gilding the lily as the land itself is so sacred, yet each statue seemed to find a perfect place to reside and bless its surroundings. They serve as reminders to visitors that the Divine Spirit manifests in myriad forms in many places.
The second step was to create a garden for cannabis, the sacred herb. At that time, in 2004, it was the early days of semi-legality and we decided to be brave and grow our plants in the open, under the glorious sun, moon and stars. The outlaw days of growing under manzanita bushes and in trees to hide from police helicopters still existed, but now with medical permits the paranoia was not as strong. Plus, as insurance, we certainly had all the deities protecting us, particularly Ganesh at the gate!
Every year we grew, the sacred herb would teach us more and more about how to grow her in the special conditions of our terroir. Although we have always been organic, when we discovered that Regenerative Farming practices could lower our carbon footprint and align our practices to be more in harmony with nature, we decided to put the cannabis plants directly in the ground. We made a worm bin and created compost piles to feed our compost teas.
In the new garden we laid out the mounds for the plants in the shape of the Sri Yantra triangles, so the cannabis both creates and grows in the Sri Yantra. Now, if you stand in the gateway of the garden and look south, you can see the forested mountain, the golden meadow and oak grove and the giant Doug firs behind you of Swami’s vision.
Since then we have immersed ourselves in the local cannabis community, becoming active politically, fighting for cannabis cultivators’ rights. We also are some of the people who helped Tim Blake create the Emerald Cup, the world’s premier organic sungrown cannabis competition.
A few years ago, we fulfilled Nikki’s dream to build a temple to Sri Mukambika, the inspiration for all of this, and welcomed a Hindu priest for its inaugural blessing. We have also held several meditation camps for friends.
In 2005, on one of our last trips to India, we learned that the year before, Swami Chidananda had passed on to a higher plane of consciousness through Samadhi. We still feel the light and guidance emanating from him. We visited the new shrine to His Holiness that was being created at his old meditation cave, the very one we had sat in back in 1986.
Every year before planting, we select the seeds for the coming year’s crop and put the seeds at the foot of the statue of Sri Mukambika — who in the Emerald Triangle has taken the form of Ganja Ma, the Goddess of Cannabis — to be filled with her spirit. Then in April, when the moon is waxing in a fertile sign, we put the seeds in water to crack them and we add a drop or two of sacred Ganges River water [known as Amrit: the Elixir of Immortality, but that is a whole other story about the Divine Origins of the Cannabis plant] to each batch and say a sacred mantra in blessing.
Over the years as cannabis gradually became more and more legal in California, we expanded the Ganja Ma Gardens. When the laws changed in 2015-2016, we applied for and received the various permits and licenses for a legal cannabis enterprise and created Swami Select, SPC to sell our flowers in dispensaries all over the State.
Since the late sixties and early seventies, when we both dealt small quantities of ‘pot’ to friends in San Francisco, we have witnessed the path to legalization in the cannabis world. It has gone from being a prohibited substance, stereotypically grown by radical outlaws in the remote mountains of California, to a legal consumer item. We have watched as state after state first legalized cannabis for medicinal use and then for recreational use.
Now in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, cannabis has been declared an Essential Business. What a long strange trip it’s been! From outlaw to essential in a few short years. Somehow, through it all we knew deep inside that this plant is a blessing and has been given to humanity by a higher order of being to raise our consciousness, heal our ills, and inspire us to act in community to overcome the trials and tribulations that beset us.
May the Goddess Ganja Ma shower us with her blessings. Amen.
Swami and Nikki at Chidananda Cave
Nikki & Swami Namaste