Listening To That Which Is Already Here. With conservationist and architectural designer, Sarah Hedden.

Sarah Hedden is a conservationist and architectural designer living in the Utah desert. She first wrote to me when Inner Fields had just been born and included me in her project Sanctus, Form & Light - a series of letters interviewing various creative minds about "the making of art, the role of beauty, and the nature of practice." Since then we have remained in correspondence and although she has yet to visit Inner Fields in person, her presence has definitely become part of this community. She has designed various ceremonial spaces such as free-standing tea houses and meditation rooms, but is currently absorbed in public lands work, advocating for the vast acreage under threat across Utah. Her robust contemplative tea practice continues to ground and serve this work.

You have a really philosophical and poetic ethos around minimalism. Tell us about what that is.

When I talk about minimalism, I’m not describing an avant-garde movement originating in the 1950s. I’m not even sure I’m talking about more recent “tidying” or “downsizing” trends. To be honest, I think I’m talking about something closer to animism than anything else - a suspicion that we are in conversation with the material world all the time, whether we are aware of it or not. 

For me, as an architectural designer and aesthete, minimalism suggests a willingness to listen to the many material voices clamoring to be heard. Just as a composer is thinking about harmony, rhythm and dynamics, I’m thinking about the interplay of light and form, tone, texture, dimensions, etc. Culturally, our inattentiveness to this conversation is manifest not only in the widespread acceptance of banal and insipid design, but in our hyper-consumption and profligate waste. 

How is this ethos reflected in your design approach?

Minimalism frequently involves a stripping away, but minimalism need not always be subtractive. Minimal spaces aren’t simply austere. They are alive and inviting, giving the human imagination room to breathe. Thus in the ceremonial spaces I’ve designed, from ‘paper architecture’ to art installations to a half-dozen free-standing tea houses and adjoining tea and meditation rooms, so much of my work is done in an effort to be in more meaningful conversation with the world.

What has the ritual of tea ceremony taught you? 

Tea has been a calling. When I was in my twenties, it was the magic of Japanese teahouses that inspired me to pursue a career as an architect. Now, as a conservationist working through the lens of culture, I find that it is my relationship to tea (and design) that is opening up new avenues of possibility. I’ve seen so many dedicated activists struggle to communicate their passionate care and concern - when you share a bowl of tea with another human being, some of that work is done without ever needing to say a word. Beauty is the language of the heart.

Can you describe your tea room to us? 

My tea room is marked by a bend in the floor plan of the house. Low south-facing windows look out on a small garden and an open field. The space is about 12 feet on a side and holds a large mahogany table which I use for gongfu [a ritualized type of Chinese tea ceremony] and bowl tea. When I am serving matcha, I move everything out of the room and configure the space as if it were a 4.5 foot tatami mat chashitsu [Japanese tea room]. A large bubinga sideboard serves as my mizuya, or preparation area.

Describe the landscape in which you live. What kind of influence has it had on your life?

I live in a small, high, arid valley in the Utah desert. To the east, 12,000 foot peeks rise up covered in aspen, pinyon and juniper. To the north and south, red cliffs rim the valley. Two miles away, the Colorado River flows toward Glen Canyon Dam and the Grand Canyon. 

In the desert, some seeds wait decades before flowering. Aridity teaches you the power of patience and presence. To know stillness - the stillness that exists beyond the glow of lights and the rush of cars - is to carry it within you, and seek it always.

Do you have a daily tea practice? What does that look like? 

As there are so many different forms of tea I study, my practice varies a bit from day to day. Some mornings, I prepare a simple bowl tea (leaves in water). Other mornings, I will engage in a temae, or ceremony, that lasts for several hours, alternating between the roles of host and guest. The part of the practice that remains constant across all schools of tea, though, is the attentiveness to the seasons. I am always searching for new and different ways to connect tea with the particularity of this day in the calendar year. For instance, here in my high and arid corner of the Northern Hemisphere, the resinous smell of new leaves fills the air. How best to evoke the sticky sweetness of this time? The feeling of possibility right before the heat of summer? And, how best to make the poignancy of this remembrance matter in the face of so much uncertainty? For me, my art and practice are strongly linked to my work as a conservationist.

What would you most like to share with others regarding this work? 

Writing to you now in the spring of 2017, with twenty-six National Monuments under review and the very notion of “common ground” threatened, I would like to encourage anyone who might be reading this interview to use his or her voice to reaffirm our democracy. Our federally owned “public lands”- some of the most sacred places of all - face the same existential threats as our core democratic values. The two are inextricably linked - the warp and weft of a belief system that posits that we, the people, are better together. There are many ways to do this work, from ceremony to protest to song to simple acts of kindness. All are needed and the hour is very late. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “The future can be different if we choose to make it so. There is no time for complacency, hope lies in what action we take."

Finally, what kind of impact would you like your life to have?

Last year, I was inspired by Caroline Casey (host of ‘The Visionary Activist Show’) to replace the word ‘impact’, meaning a short, violent encounter, with the word ‘influence’, suggesting a long sinuous engagement. In everything I do, I strive to preserve, protect and reveal the beauty of what is already here. Some days that means advocacy work, and other days that means design and ceremony. Always, though, my aim is to speak to the heart of my fellow human beings to encourage an empathy equivalent to our influence. The world need only be “seen” to be loved, and it needs our love painfully at this time.