Where Native Meadows Come From

It was probably 8 to 10 years ago that we first started looking for land. That's not counting the time, perhaps twenty or more years ago that we noodled around Ojai and Santa Paula - and by chance saw a land for sale sign at the foot of Koenigstein in Upper Ojai and drove up the road. This is a hazy memory but I do know that the then visible oil wells were enough to forestall any further enquiries.

The trip we made, sometime at the beginning of the century, was based on the notion that we needed a weekend getaway that would expand our lives and relieve the pressure from our Santa Monica House and Garden which we were forever remodeling (and worse, re-programming the three buildings that made up the compound). We targeted the areas north of Santa Barbara up to San Luis Obispo and seaward to Cambria. The explosion of grape growing was, by this point, well and truly under way and it was soon apparent that land in these areas was too expensive. After driving up the PCH to the 101 through Santa Barbara, we took the 154 inland and by lunchtime found ourselves in Los Alamos.

We were essentially exploring real estate through AVA's ( American Viticultural Areas) - Santa Barbara County contains the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys, and San Luis Obispo County Arroyo Grande, Edna Valley and Paso Robles.

Perhaps I should back up. What was this fascination with the wine growing regions? Why didn't we, like our design-head cohort in Los Angeles, go exploring the desert? Why were we not imagining some colorful casita in Joshua Tree or Desert Hot Springs? We had the desert credentials. We regularly visited Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs in the early eighties and once we had children we visited the more raffish MaHaYa close by the spa that April Greiman and Michael Rotundi would make chic and around the corner from Hope Springs that English designer Mick Haggerty and Steve Samiof designed as a hip minimalist overlay on a 60's googie spa, and which close friends bought with two partners a few years ago.

One reason is that the desert spooks Lorrie, another is that the drive from L.A. is tiresome and a third is that I have watched as the smog creeps over the pass between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains and it is like the vaporous spirit of Los Angeles coming to wreak vengeance on those who dare try to leave the valley of the smokes (as the Gabrielenos called it). There is certainly some powerful ju-ju in the desert, perhaps not all of it bad, but it gives one pause. The wind scoured Marmol Radziner Modular Pre-fab house that sits in the Desert Hot Springs bad lands - un-sold, un-tenanted and un-loved is a warning against the hubris of architects who believe they can tame the desert - and its demons. The John Lautner motel suffered a similar fate although his is a more modest building and less offensive, perhaps, to the Shoshonean spirit walkers.

But the most powerful reason for Lorrie's and my fascination with the vinelands is the romantic association with our (comparitive) youth together. Truth be told, we were both in our thirties when under the aegis of UCLA's architecture design program we toured the vineyards of Santa Barbara County to prepare for a studio based on designing a winery in Ojai (Mining Gravel 2010-01-30). It was probably the first time I had ventured north of Point Dume and it was at a time in my life when I was palpably enraptured by California. In a UCLA issue van we drove as far north as Cambria and then wound our way back through San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, ending up in Ojai. A friend and I spent an evening watching The Great Santini at the Ojai Playhouse and in the morning I drove out to Rincon to surf. Lorrie had already bailed and was on her way back to Los Angeles. But we shared enough on the trip for it to become a touchstone in our relationship. A year or so later, we served Zaca Mesa wine at our wedding because we had both loved their winery in the Santa Ynez valley - of which Adam Tolmach, our putative client for the UCLA design exercise, was an alumnus.

Our search for land echoed this trip and like it, ended in Ojai but not until some years after we had driven through the central coast AVA's and right at the point where we had started two decades previously, on Koenigstein Road.

Last Friday, Lorrie and I found ourselves, by happenstance, back in Los Alamos in the Santa Ynez Valley. We breakfasted with Margot and her brother Craig (who joined us from Morro Bay) at the Quackenbush cafe. We were on our way to S&S Seeds who were holding their annual open house and barbecue. It's located just off the 135 in broad flatlands that rise to the east towards the 101, in the northern most portion of the Santa Ynez Valley. A few miles before Los Alamos, on the 101, we had passed the turn off to Zaca Mesa.

As we drove up to the S&S ranch house we passed fields of needle grass waving softly in the breeze. Here too, were fields of purple owls clover, glistening rows of goldfields, blue lupines and phacelias. We toured fields of native grasses, muhly, saltgrass, fescue, melics and brome all fated to be harvested and threshed and sorted in the seed shaking barn where the often minute seeds are teazed out and packaged. This is where the seed is grown for the state, county, institutional and private campaigns to remediate development scarred lands, create and maintain native landscapes and substitute natives for exotics at all scales of garden design. Rarer natives, or those not amenable to agricultural production, are hand collected in the wild and processed in the seed shakers.

Paradoxically, S&S thrives on the destruction of California' s wildlands: governmental requirements to remediate the disturbed soils have been at the core of their business model. But remediated landscapes are not the equal of undisturbed soil crusts that have supported evolving native ecosystems for 30,000 years and more. In recessionary times of reduced development there is less pressure on our wildland/urban frontier and an icreasing temptation for S&S to sell the land for grape growing. Zaca Mesa perhaps?

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