Joe Hollis at Daoist Traditions student gardens

Joe Hollis interview
Daoism December 11th, 2016
Mountain Gardens in Burnsville, North Carolina

Joe Hollis is a genius of gardening. I was first introduced to him during my twenties while I was lived and worked in Celo, North Carolina which led me to an internship at Mountain Gardens, the homestead where Joe has resided for the last 30 years. Joe was also a teacher at Daoist Traditions where I studied botany and herbal preparation with him. We worked closely together at Daoist Traditions for four years to maintain a botanical garden for students to reference Chinese medicinal plants that we grew on campus. He has been a great inspiration to me as a humble person living close to the land and so generous to share his knowledge with others. If you ever have a chance please visit Mountain Gardens to see his paradise.

Mary Burke-Pitts (MBP) : How did you discover Daoism?

Joh Hollis (JOE): I first got into Daoism by picking up a book The Way and It’s power in a paperback bookstore when I was in high school in Detroit, that would have been, I don’t know, late 50s.  Just interested in alternative things you know Zen Buddhism was big at that point there all kind of things it was just the beginning of Oriental Religion coming to America kind of connected with beatniks and all that sort of alternativeness.  So I picked up a copy of the way and it’s Power it’s a translation of the Tao Te Ching by Arthur Waley.  It’s a pretty well known translation and I really liked it and I’ve kind of been associated with Daoism ever since.  

MBP: What does Daoism mean to you?

JOE: So primarily Daoism is a philosophy about um so a big theme of my life is how can we live on this planet without destroying it seems to be like that should be everybody’s big theme at this point in time.  How can we be happy and content without burning down the house so to speak?  So what Daoism means to me is it’s a philosophy of people being part of the whole thing.  All of nature, all of creation, everything being and non-being it’s all one single organism of which we’re apart.  And the whole idea of Daoism is how we can fit ourselves in it’s not trying to change the universe it’s how to fit into the universe in a way that functions for us so that’s what I get out of Daoism is there’s a basic philosophy of how we can fit into on the planet which is what I think we desperately need at this point in time.  

MBP: More specifically how did you learn about Daoism did you have any teachers or other resources?

No, just from reading, that whole shelf of books up there is all Daoist stuff and there’s more than that.  Mainly I get my information from books, it’s my style of learning.  Other than Jeffrey Yuen, who’s definitely a teacher I’ve gotten a lot from since I’ve been associated with him the last 10 years or so since school started (at Daoist Traditions) I derived a great deal from his teaching but other than that I don’t really have any personal teachers it’s all from reading about Daoism.  

MBP: What are some of the other Daoist books you’ve liked to reference?

JOE: Well you know the classics the Tao Te Ching and even more the Zhuangzi and the book of Li Zi some of those ancient classics and then writings by different people like there are translations of poetry by cold mountain Han Shan a man in Stone House.  His stuff has been translated by Daoist monks who’ve lived in the mountains, you know simple living which is what I kind of emulate and that’s inspirational to me.  And then lots of commentaries on the Zhuangzi, I’ve got 5 or 6 translations of Zhuangzi I read him a lot, that sort of thing.

MBP: Out of different interpretations and translations do you have favorites you like to reference?

JOE: Ya, if I get really interested in a particular passage I’ll compare different books.  I like Burton Watson’s translations, Angus Graham’s translation is really good.  Ya, I definitely have favorite ones and there’s a new one out recently that actually includes Chinese commentaries that’s pretty interesting.

MBP: Of Zhuangzi?

JOE: Ya.

MBP: Are there any Daoist practices that you’ve integrated into your everyday life?

JOE: Not so much although recently I finally started learning how to meditate which I never really have done much of before.  Always just felt like my practice of gardening has been my practice and it’s kind of meditative working in the garden.  But just recently I got into this mindful meditation thing of just trying to sit and focus on breathing, I kind of wish that I started on that a long time ago but I never did so it’s kind of a new thing to me trying to integrate it into my life.  

MBP: Any other thoughts you want to add before I switch the topic?

JOE Ya well, Daoism has been very influential in my life in particular I’ve gotten into studying Chinese garden history and how that relates to Daoism and the whole idea of creating an environment that’s ideal for communing with the Dao, sort of the greater whole.  So it’s basically my philosophy of what I’m doing here at Mountain Gardens that’s more conducive to being in this altered state of relating to the world and there’s a lot of connection there between Daoism and Zhuangzi and garden making a lot of the Chinese traditional gardens I’ve collected a lot of information about people writing about their gardens and what they were trying to accomplish.  Trying to set up situations where they could meditate or practice writing poetry or whatever.  So that’s kind of been the main influence of Daoism on my life by way of this garden project I’m involved in.

MBP: And how did you get into gardening?

JOE: Oh well just by looking at the situation on earth like how are we going to live on this planet without messing it up and it seems like what we need to do is be taking care of it.  On a piece of land we have to eat and where are you going to get your food from, that’s gardening.  

MBP: In your exploration of gardening from a Daoist influence, have you had any break through moments where those bigger questions or philosophies and connections that you have read about in Daoist texts or gardening books make more sense to you? Have you had any personal realizations along the way?

JOE: Hmm, well not like particular instances of sudden enlightenment or anything.  But just in general it’s been a gradual process of coming to understand more about how it all connects, the gardening with the philosophy.  

MBP: Can you tell me about some of the books you’ve mentioned on Daoist gardening?

JOE: Ya, I have a couple of books on Chinese hermit poet characters.  Like, Tao Yuanming, I have a number of books by him.  There’s a whole tradition of Chinese hermits.  You could kind of call them hermits but they had families and lived in villages.  You know they weren’t hermits like living all by themselves.  They were people who refused to work for the government which was basically what you were supposed to do if you were an educated person, you were expected to work for the government and they declined to do that and instead went back and took up farming in the villages.  So it was a whole kind of movement tradition of that in China.  Jeffrey Yuen references it sometimes around 200/300 AD particularly, a ways back in time.  The influence is still there all the way up until the present really.  You’ve got the present premier of China really and there was this story that came out about how he was raised on a farm, you know he was like born in a log cabin.  This whole idea of simple living is still considered virtuous.  So anyways, ya, I’m very much interested in that, I think that’s kind of what we need is that sort of value system at present.  Where we’re all so greedy at present, everybody just wants as much stuff as they can get with obvious disastrous stuff for the planet and ourselves.  Ya, I look for inspiration wherever I can find it.  So ya, I look for inspiration wherever I can find it but one of the places I find it is with these ancient Chinese poets, Daoist people in terms of trying to set up alternate value system that could actually work for us on earth.  Seems like that’s the best example I’ve found.  

MBP: When it comes to your commitment to the lifestyle you’ve adopted at Mountain Gardens have you found it an easy life to live?  You didn’t grow up in the country, right, you grew up in Detroit?

JOE: Well it’s something I’m kind of inventing as I go along.  Ya, but I’ve always enjoyed it I’ve been happy that I’m doing it.  It’s somewhat of a struggle as I’m getting older, it gets cold in the winter time, one thing or another it’s like somewhat of a struggle, I can see why all the old people end up in Florida or Arizona I’m beginning to have more insight into that.  Keeping warm in the winter.  But then again I derive inspiration from these people that I read their poetry about that they struggled along too.  

MBP: Do you ever find it kind of isolating to live in a separatist lifestyle?

JOE: No not too much I’ve managed to find enough people who are kind of interested in and on the same wavelength and then see those kind of alternate communities and then there’s apprentices here who come here because they’re interested in what’s going on and I don’t feel too isolated.

MBP: As far as your lifestyle and sustaining your livelihood has that been easy to manage, to support yourself?

JOE: Well it’s kind of an ongoing struggle, but ya there’s always been enough it seems like.  It wouldn’t say necessarily easy I means its like something I need to pay attention to all the time is income, particularly if I have 6 or 8 people living here and I need to have food for them.  Now we’re trying to move towards growing our own food, which would be much easier if we can get there, that’s the goal.  But in the meantime we have to generate some kind of income to take care of everybody.  But for myself I really need very little.  Kind of got my needs down to just a few thousand dollars a year just to take care of me really so that’s pretty easy to obtain.  

MBP: The 9 palaces are a Daoist idea about finding purposes from life’s lessons that fall into these themes which are called palaces: health, wealth, prosperity, relationship, career, travel, knowledge, wisdom and home.  Of these palaces which do you relate to the most?

JOE: Ya so stress varies but I’ve just recently discovered, like in the last week or so that the posts that are holding up my house are kind of rotten so putting a lot of energy into that building up some masonry things.  In some ways it’s about my own personal health and this building.  You know it’s like constantly wanting to go forward but then not really paying attention to the basics.

MBP: Did you build this house yourself?

JOE: Ya, with other people.  

MBP: And how many years have you lived in it?

JOE: It’s thirty years old this house probably.  So I was working with this local guy and I was really into this traditional ways of doing things and I was into using locust posts as opposed to doing masonry, you know the old timey way.  At this point you know I sort of regret doing things the old timey way.  But it’s kind of interesting that it’s also just a matter of having neglected maintenance in favor of constantly going forward which is kind of not very Daoist really, actually the more I think about it.  

MBP: What keeps you going and what motivates you to keep creating new things and do what you do?

JOE: Um well just the same thing it’s always been just the enjoyment of being here in a beautiful place.  A lot of it is, did you see the thing in the Mountain Xpress recently about forest bathing?  It’s a little article, it’s this concept that they have in Japan now, forest bathing where you go into woodland places and be immersed in the energy of those places.  And that’s kind of the idea of the Chinese garden is trying to create a situation is that’s got the energy of a wilderness place that’s probably what motivates me most is being in this beautiful environment and working in it, making it more beautiful.

MBP: The exploration of the 9 palaces in Daoism asks, are you comfortable with who you are and do you see your accomplishments in life?

JOE: Ya, I’d say.  I mean I just look at the door and see what’s happened, what I’ve done with my life and I don’t have any regrets about life it’s very self reinforcing.  For sure people come up here and it’s inspiring to other people and that’s the whole big idea to inspire other people with what the idea of possibilities are because everybody just thinks the possibility in life is to get a good job and just to make as much money as you can.  That’s what we’re thought to think is life.  To see that there is an alternative, I feel good about that.  

MBP: Do you have any wisdom or knowledge to share about growing old and in terms of the lifestyle you’ve adopted?

JOE: Hmm, ya I just signed up for a whole series of lectures that Jeffrey (Yuen) did on geriatrics that’s interesting.  Ya, I guess I’m just finally getting to the point where I’m kind of facing up to the idea that I’m not going to be creating new things forever.  

MBP: Do you see any challenges or transitions to those obstacles in your life?

Well just slowing down really.  I mean, like I said I’m just trying to get into this whole mindfulness meditation and it’s really so difficult for me really because my whole life has been so much about creating and creating and making new things and just to get past that it’s really just more about living in the present, I’ve just realized that I’ve never been that great at it, I’ve alway been kind of living in the idea of making new things.  So that’s interesting.

MBP: What you were mentioning before, is that not a very Daoist lifestyle related to maintenance of your health and home?

JOE: Ya, that’s about right.  Ya well I was just saying that I’ve recognized just looking back on my life that I’ve been pretty motivated by, or deriving my satisfaction from creating this garden.  Constantly adding to it, you know and adding new plants and building new rock walls and adding new beds and that’s been a significant source of satisfaction as opposed to just being content with what is which would be more of the Daoist perspective. Zhuangzi’s thing is just to not to be too invested in the material world, so that’s interesting and that’s kind of what I’m trying to work with now is as I face up to being elderly is to make that transition from constantly being focused on increasing.  You know I’ve always liked to think that I’m anti-materialist and you know I’m not interested in making a lot of money and a lot of possessions and that but yet still it is very materialist this whole idea of my garden.  I have to recognize that even though it’s just me and the earth working with just my hands you know it’s all about like accomplishments and changes.  So just trying to get more into accepting the situation as it is and really spending a lot more time going inwards meditating.  You know I taught some more videos on youtube that someone got me into of people meditating in the mountains in China, I think it’s called Amongst White Clouds or something it’s quite good.  Someone finds 5 or 6 of these hermits living up in the mountains still, you know just like old timey.  And that was quite inspiring, I really liked that.

MBP: Out of all the philosophers from China what attracts you to Zhuangzi’s teachings?

JOE: Well he was very much more entertaining to read.  You know the Tao Te Ching is pretty abstruse, it’s like pretty pure philosophy.  Zhuangzi has a bunch of stories that are fun to read and just his attitude towards life is kind of more playful he seems to be enjoying life a lot more.  Gives a lot more practical advice.  The Tao Te Ching is pretty abstract really as far as deriving principles to live by.