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How Daphne and Peter Met

 

Nine year-old Daphne Burden and fourteen-year-old new student Peter Ashlock met fall of 1962 for the first time when Dr. and Virginia Burden were tending to business in Fresno, California where Daphne’s maternal grandmother lived. After picking Peter up at the Fresno Greyhound bus station, Dr. Burden, his wife, Peter, Daphne and two other students drove back to where Shimber Beris was temporarily camped in Ojai, California.

The school’s fishing trawler, Shimber Berian, had just sailed up from La Paz via the Gulf of California to the town of San Felipe. Shortly thereafter a hurricane destroyed the craft, leaving Dr. Burden and his students with no means of returning to La Paz via the gulf.

Peter remained with Shimber Beris School from September 1962 to August 1963 during the subsequent land based phase that began at Meher Mount near Ojai and ended at a property located in the village of San Bartolo, Baja California Sur, Mexico. After Peter left, he and Daphne only saw each other again briefly the autumn of 1963 after the school purchased the ocean going tugboat, Shelikof, docked at the Berkeley Yacht Harbor not far from Peter’s home.

Tom Spradley and Esteban Lucero
In January 2010, an author by the name of Tom Sheldon Spradley who lived across from Isla Cerralvo in El Sargento, became interested in Esteban Lucero's tales of a teenage girl he had known on Isla Cerralvo. Tom found Daphne by Googling horses and Cerralvo together and bringing up her novel, AZULEJO, A Tale of Pearls, Promises and Legendary Horses.

 

Tom also came Across Peter’s website and put Daphne in touch with him. Not long after, Peter and Daphne agreed to go into partnership to record her story and archive the history of her parent’s unusual school.

 

shimber beris film proposalThe Documentary Project

Project One

A documentary is being developed by Dr. and Mrs. Burden’s daughter, Daphne (Burden) Oberon and the Music of America producer, director and cinematographer, Peter Ashlock, who attended Shimber Beris in the 1960’s. Peter was among a group of students to build the road to Cardonal pictured at right. Peter and Daphne are interviewing former students and assembling an archive of materials from the school.

 

 

 

 

 

Screenplay proposal

 

The Screenplay Project

Project Two

Among Daphne's experiences are the years she spent on the desert island of Cerralvo. The first nine months she spent with her mother under extreme emotional and practical challenges.

Due to windy hurricane conditions the fall of 1968, Daphne age fourteen through fifteen, and a young boy named Dana age nine through ten, find themselves at one point marooned alone on the desert island of Cerralvo with six prostrate ponies, two donkeys and a herd of goats to care for. A severe earthquake has dropped the water table and brought about drought conditions in the only fresh water well. The children’s only hope is to wait for the incoming tide to launch a heavy twenty-five-foot broken down motorboat into the rough weather kicking up in the dreaded Cerralvo channel. Using an oar and a board to paddle with, they paddle two miles up the coast to an old mineral water well.

spooncrest logo

The above logo represents Peter and Daphne when they first knew each other in Baja California, and the spoons they carved by hand from Ciruelo, the desert Plum tree.

About his own experience Peter wrote:

Shortly before I was born, my mother took a job at a local book store. During this period a biography of the renowned psychic Edgar Cayce came along titled There Is a River, by Thomas Sugrue, a writer for The Washington Post. This book made such a profound impression upon my mother she wrote to the publisher who then forwarded the letter on to the author and to Edgar Cayce's son, Hugh Lynn Cayce.

Before long my mother was performing local public relations duties for the Association for Research and Enlightenment, known as the A.R.E. Because she routinely took me with her to the conferences held at the Canterbury hotel in downtown San Francisco, many of the prominent speakers knew me by name. Hugh Lynn visited our house whenever he was in town and we periodically went to dinner with him and others from the A.R.E.

My mother was fascinated with metaphysics and the occult but many of her attitudes and social values were those of a provincial girl with a pampered and indulged childhood. My father, an artist, struggled to be polite about her interests, but being a painter and teacher active in the local artist community his interests were of a more culturally diverse and intellectual nature.


From my mother, virtually by osmosis, I absorbed a range of information about The Tarot, Atlantis, The Rosicrucian’s, reincarnation, karma, the Akashic records and the interpretation of dreams. My sister meanwhile escaped into literature.


My mother used her degree in journalism to get a grant from the Consul General of Egypt's office in San Francisco and took my sister and me on a trip to Egypt where she fulfilled an assignment to research agrarian reform projects in the Nile Delta.


This trip was a strategic plan with a legitimate rationale that fulfilled my mother's lifelong interest in Egypt. She was enchanted to finally be able to fulfill her childhood fascination with the pharaoh’s first hand and visit the sites of many of Cayce's prophesies.


Her shrewd money trading on the black market enabled us to stay in Egypt months longer than originally planned. For all of us it was the trip of a lifetime and a respite from the disappointments at home. Our idyll there featured many marvelous and exotic adventures, not the least of which was the thrill for me of riding Arabian horses beyond the Sphinx and the pyramids on the Giza plateau.


It would be an understatement to say that by 1962 my mother and I were not getting along well. She was obsessed with mysticism and claimed that the day she got rid of my father was the happiest day of her life. She also stated that she was in a metaphysical love triangle with Tom Sugrue (who was dead) and Hugh Lynn Cayce (who lived three thousand miles away and was married.) Since her union with these men was on the astral plane it was supposed to be OK.


My mother eventually resolved our conflict by sending me away from home. She enrolled me in a philosophical, vegetarian, Outward Bound type of boarding school run by a Dr. David Burden and his wife, Virginia, called Shimber Beris. This pioneering school had travelled up and down the Baja California peninsula by caravan and boat, camping at various locations along the way since 1959.


Dr. Burden, the son of English missionary parents working in Africa, appeared to have invented himself into a kind of evangelist/mystic after serving in World War II.


With his wife Virginia, his daughter Daphne, and three other students from Berkeley I was met at the bus station in Fresno in September 1962.


Dr. Burden owned a former army ordinance wagon referred to as The Elephant. We all climbed aboard that evening and drove to the top of Sulfur Mountain in upper Ojai—a small artsy community located in Southern California near Santa Barbara. After arriving late at night we were ushered into dorm-like rooms for boys and girls.


The following morning I found myself attending the first of many of Dr. Burden's “orientation” talks. He sat with his eyes closed and spoke in a quiet voice about a variety of philosophical matters. Since I was already more than superficially familiar with these topics, I felt confused when he later turned a deaf ear to my comments and instead tried to convince me he could levitate.


I was mostly willing to try to fit in to the school and cooperate with Dr. Burden, but many of the rules such as not being allowed to talk in restricted areas took getting used to. Being forbidden to speak of the past was also awkward. Music is a passion of mine, and I found the rule forbidding me to sing songs or even to whistle classical melodies particularly depressing.


It took months for the school to get organized enough to make the drive down the old dirt El Camino Real Highway to Baja Sur—a road more rutted and rock-strewn than any I had ever travelled. Our intended destination was the village of San Bartolo located just north of the Tropic of Cancer nearly half way between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas. During this ten day trip down the peninsula we fixed ten flat tires and a broken axle. Virginia Burden's Studebaker was chauffeured by Felipe, a Mexican driver, who together with the driver of the Elephant, Bonifacio. They camped apart and occasionally snared and roasted jackrabbits over their campfire.


The day we reached the outskirts of La Paz Mrs. Burden was driven into town and ensconced in a villa from where she secretly functioned as Dr Burden's oracle.


The property leased by the school was located sixty miles south of La Paz, just above an oasis orchard in the San Bartolo arroyo. The school's generator, which we’d hauled from the US, was situated in an outbuilding overlooking the orchard. Beside it up a small rise there stood a stone cottage fringed on the south and west sides by a thatched veranda. I worked as the schools part time baker and turned out stone-ground whole wheat breads and pastries. The baking was done in the four foot high army stoves we’d hauled sown from the US. We cooked our meals over primitive adobe fireboxes and ate at a handmade table hewn of local wood that had legs permanently buried in the dirt floor.


Dr. Burden announced at the start of my sojourn with the school that he intended to read all student’s correspondence before it went into the mail. I let him read what I wrote to my mother but secretly skimmed a few centavos from the money he routinely gave me to buy eggs with and purchased stamps at the general store to mail honestly expressed letters to my father.


Dr Burden's nine-year-old daughter Daphne dealt with the ever changing doctrines her parents espoused with the sort of humor and sarcasm only a child could afford. It distressed me that she had a hunched back, and I wondered whether her father had something to do with it. I thought of her as an unpretentious little tomboy who seemed as much at home making do in the Baja wilderness as she did riding her pony. After riding horses in Egypt, one of the school's publicized attractions for me was being given another opportunity to ride horses, but I never got closer to a horse at Shimber Beris than to pet Daphne or Dr. Burden’s ponies.


Other than being away from my mother, the bullies and the social pressures of public school, one of the biggest perks for me at Shimber Beris was that reminiscent of my time in Egypt, the native Mexican culture fascinated me. I looked forward to the opportunities I was given to visit the village and interact with the natives. I loved the array of dirt-floored, thatched, mud and wattle houses, which chickens ran in and out of. Brilliant purple bougainvillea completely enveloped some of these dwellings.


Among the charming inhabitants of the bucolic village scene was the water carrier, little Miguelito, who appeared to be retarded. He would labor up the hill from the arroyo in his bare feet several times a day, carrying two five gallon cans of water slung from a pole that lay across his shoulders.


A primitive open air butcher shop that looked like it had stood in that location since the beginning of time perched on a hill overlooking the center of town. Next to it just a few hillocks to the south stood the village's sole tribute to modern technology, the telegraph operator's office. From below it appeared to be held in place by a single wire that ran from cardon cactus to cardon cactus all the way to the cape.


The most interesting structure was the general store constructed of adobe bricks that belonged in a Hollywood western movie. Inside was a broad counter that ran from wall to wall with all the goods lined up behind the clerk. Bolts of cloth, purple kerosene, honey in old tequila bottles corked with hand carved ciruelo wood stoppers, slabs of sweet guava dulce, hats, canned food, rice, beans, sugar and of course postage stamps. This was also a place you could mail letters from.

I sometimes noticed Daphne's zebra dun pony tied to one of the uprights supporting the store's veranda. Although she was barely four feet tall I’d see her Lilliputian form emerge from the front doorway, decked out in adult-sized spurs, oversized cowboy boots and a straw hat. She’d march past me hugging her purchases wrapped in brown paper to her chest and head toward the mincing pony. The native women stuck their heads out of their doorways when they heard the flapping, squealing and bleating of scattering poultry, pigs and goats, heralding her approach as she galloped down the road like a miniature pony express rider.


From my tent I could hear the drunks as they staggered down El Camino Real in the evenings singing Mexican folk songs. Since almost no one expressed themselves so unselfconsciously in the world I grew up in, I was charmed by their freedom from pretense.

At dawn I would be awakened by a chorus of crowing roosters and braying donkeys reminding me that my own world was circumscribed by the conflicts inherent in the world of Shimber Beris just outside my tent.

I tried to give the space allotted me inside my tent a personal touch and designed a bed like those I had seen in the village. I cut the legs from tree branches and buried them in the ground, then constructed a frame on top, which I strung with strips of inner tube from old car tires. Although Dr. Burden later gave my bed a disapproving glance, it was probably the most comfortable bed in camp and it kept me out of the dust.


In one of his newsletters to parents Dr. Burden stated that the school’s name, “Shimber Beris” meant “Mountain of Birds” in Swahili—and that like Montsalvat in the Legend of The Holy Grail, this place was “sacred and hard to find.”


Although Dr. Burden desired but scant contact with the outside world, he was forever on the lookout for a more isolated location in which to fulfill his mission. Periodically he employed crews of his students and local Mexicans to forge roads and trails through the Baja desert. It was in the course of building the longest of these routes that I found myself with a pick and shovel helping to clear the first road ever built between El Camino Real and the fishing village of Cardonal, a distance of many miles. Daphne told us that women and children in this village had never seen a motor vehicle outside of a magazine picture.


To my disappointment over time dealing with Dr. Burden became progressively more confusing over time due to the whimsical way he periodically changed the rules he expected members of the group to follow, many of which he applied to individuals he singled out. At one point he tried to elicit my cooperation by providing me with a day observing how a native bakery in La Paz operated, which I greatly enjoyed. But he followed this by unexpectedly ordering us to take down all posted Rules of Conduct and notices about silent areas because, as he put it, visitors from "the outside world" would not understand.


When a group of Quakers subsequently reported that I and other students claimed they were not seeing the place in its usual state, Dr. Burden was outraged and ordered me to spend three days “in isolation” for "betraying him"—a period of time that as it turned out included my fifteenth birthday. Thankfully, one of Dr Burden's requirements was that I wear a hat while standing next to a palm tree facing the outhouse in the hot sun, with my back to the school, in a one yard space. Afterward, he designated me the school dishwasher for two weeks.


Then came my food poisoning experience from bad marlin, poor health and skin ulcers. If I so much as scraped my finger nail gently over the skin of my legs and feet, that area became a running sore by morning. My pediatrician in the United States later described this condition to me as “subclinical pellagra," and told me to eat a few hamburgers and use some antibiotic ointment. At the time I only noticed that my aching legs felt strangely tight.


In late summer not long after the sores on my legs spread, I decided to blithely break all the rules and get myself kicked out of Shimber Beris. Dr. Burden's "Man Friday," Juan, noticed my insurrection and risked his job to console me. He periodically brought me food that his wife cooked when I was in isolation, which with unsolicited kindness he slipped under the flap of my tent.


The final time Dr. Burden put me on isolation, to my relief, he confined me to an empty tent where I could lie down and put my legs up. After a few days, he sent for me and presented me with a letter from my mother. She wrote that she had read Dr. Burden's reports, was outraged to learn of my behavior and planned to send me directly to a Jesuit boarding school. I accepted this option without comment, but anticipated that I still had at least one last hurdle to surmount with Dr. Burden. I suspected that since he viewed all students as potential converts to his philosophy, he would neither wish to relinquish a prospective disciple nor the $2,000 a year my mother was paying in tuition.


Before Juan escorted me to the La Paz airport, Dr. Burden called me over to his office in The Elephant to offer me a second chance. Not wanting to upset him, I politely thanked him for his generosity and replied sadly that I believed I was beyond any guidance he could offer me.


After I got home my mother never mentioned the Jesuit school, and I never asked. What I did not anticipate was the degree to which the rest of my life would be impacted by the time I had spent at Shimber Beris. As it turned out, it not only delayed my conventional education, but it became a dark milestone about which only I knew the truth since it eroded my self-confidence and credibility with my mother.


In September of 1986 my mother called me up and suggested I read a Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner which featured a cover story about Shimber Beris. This was a two page exposé detailing the collapse of the school in the jungles of Guatemala. Students present when I was there were named in the article, a revelation which was followed by the statement that both Dr. Burden’s wife and daughter had already left him. The article included claims that students were drugged and locked in “cages” for long periods of time. This shocking information validated my impression that something had been amiss at Shimber Beris.

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