"Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and
-- 11th century Benedictine St. Romuald
THEY RESIDE two miles above state Highway 1 and the Big Sur coast on 899
acres of land covered with redwood, oak, madrone and laurel: 30 monks and
hermits of the New Camaldoli branch of the Roman Catholic order of
Contemplatives in every sense of the word, they pray, meditate, sing and
eat their vegetarian meals in silence. As part of their 1,000-year-old mission,
the monks work hard, physically and spiritually, to maintain a profoundly
peaceful retreat for hundreds of weary souls who come to their door each year,
battered by the outside world and needing healing.
But if the U.S. Navy has its way, the monks and their holy retreat will
become the backyard of ground zero for some 2,800 annual practice bombing runs
by F/A-18 fighter jets.
"The Navy says the monks won't be able to hear the noise from the jets, but
they will," said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel. "Up there at the monastery, you can
hear sea lions from two miles away in the Pacific."
The Camaldolese community was founded in 1027 by an Italian monk and
eventual saint, Romuald. The hermitage in Big Sur (actually perched above the
mini-hamlet of Lucia) was opened in 1958.
Besides their retreat rooms and trailers, which rent for a modest fee per
night with meals, the monks support their work with a bookstore and by baking
and selling fabulous brandy-dipped fruitcakes and date-nut cakes.
For three months in 1999, when wildfires destroyed almost 100,000 acres of
the surrounding Los Padres National Forest, they scrambled side-by-side with
professional firefighters to keep their beautiful, spare chapel and fragrant
hillsides from joining the casualty list.
Now, "to save resources and money," the Navy wants to expand its aerial
bombardment training program in the area. Instead of aiming at target ranges
in Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere in California, pilots would concentrate on
what is now a minimally used segment of Hunter Liggett, a deactivated Army
base just east of Lucia.
That means 12 practice sorties, five days a week, for 47 weeks in the
valley behind the monastery. This translates daily into 12 Hornet fighter jets
taking a dozen shots each at a red-and-white, 500-foot bull's-eye target.
Most of the jets would take off from Lemoore Naval Air Station, 67 air
miles from the proposed practice area. Others would fly in off the Pacific,
directly over the hermitage, from aircraft carriers. All would descend to
about 1,500 feet to drop their 10-to-25-pound, non-explosive fake bombs.
Lest one think the reclusive Camaldolese monks are the only Big Sur
residents who will be affected by the Navy's jet-fueled noise, one should log
onto pelicannetwork.net. Hundreds of angry folks -- from environmentalists to
vintners -- are using the site to gather information about the proposal and to
Along with losing peaceful hikes, the locals see a host of endangered plant
and animal species in the Navy's crosshairs. Not the least of these are more
than a dozen California condors, brought back from the edge of extinction and
living in the Ventana Wilderness.
Historians who are trying to restore the language and culture of the 10,000-
year-old Salinan Nation worry about painted caves and a sacred sandstone arch
that were created by the Native American tribe. Among other things, the
Salinans believed the world began in the dramatic Santa Lucia Mountains of Big
If ever there were a time for California's two U.S. senators to speak up
about the Navy's planned invasion, it is now -- especially Dianne Feinstein,
who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and a host of its
subcommittees, including military construction, defense and interior.
Farr has been almost a lone voice in Congress on the issue. He could use
"This really deserves national attention," he said. "Where else do you bomb
condors and monks?"
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle