I take pleasure in thinking about the Santa Barbara of 500 years ago, before the arrival of the first traders and the mission builders. From the breakwater, I look to the city and the mountains, mentally removing buildings, roads, railroads, and all other signs of human habitation except for a scattering of thatched huts of the original Chumash tribes. As hunters and gatherers, they lived lightly on the land.
Now I will take away all the non-native vegetation. Yes, that includes the palms, which are native only to Palm Springs oases; the eucalyptus, olive and pepper trees; the purple-flowered jacarandas; and all of the other non-native species which later found Santa Barbara to be a suitable home.
I now can see the bones of the landscape, the boulders and rock outcroppings. And the many creeks, most originating in mountain springs and fueled by winter rain. The creeks flow rapidly downhill and when reaching the flood plain, meander to the ocean.
The gentle sloping plain and surrounding hills are an oak savanna covered with grasses and scattered coastal live oak – a perfect habitat for grazing deer, elk and antelope who are stalked by wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears, the most massive mammal of all.
In today’s Santa Barbara, the distant howl of a coyote or a rare sighting of a mountain lion reminds us of the wild past of our unique locale.
I have a fine view of Montecito Peak from my east-facing windows. Perched at the south end of the Santa Ynez mountains, Montecito Peak is shaped like a cone, while the rest of the range, with its sheer cliffs and rock outcroppings, has an undulating profile against the sky.
Put a fragment of cloud on the top of the peak and it’s easy to believe that an eruption is imminent. Magma, which heats the Montecito Hot Springs, is nearby, but a geologist friend assures me that the range, including Montecito Peak, is composed mostly of sandstone that is full of marine fossils from the time when the land was covered by a warm sea.
Montecito Peak with its 3,214-foot summit is definitely worth the climb as you have an uninterrupted view of the coastline from Oxnard to Refugio once you reach the top. Though not a climber, I depend on whether Montecito Peak is visible or not to tell me what kind of a day to expect.
Karin Shelton is a Santa Barbara painter and this image is from one of her note cards. Some of her paintings are on display in the Life Center at the Samarkand.
I lived most of my life in the Berkeley Hills where I looked west through the Golden Gate knowing that it is the only sea level break along the coastal mountains. At night, two lighthouse beacons told me where I was – one flashing light on Alcatraz Island just inside the Gate and the other 25 miles offshore on the Farallon Islands.
When I first came to Santa Barbara, I looked for what might be special. I admired the mountains at the edge of town which are twice as high as the Berkeley Hills. Then l remembered that in Santa Barbara you looked due south to the ocean because 30 miles west at Point Conception, the coastline turns abruptly 90 degrees east. Near Ventura the coastline straightens up again and resumes its roughly north/south trend of the rest of the California coastline.
On clear days I can see the profiles of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands which are part of the five Northern Channel Island group, giving Santa Barbara another distinction in a state with few offshore islands.
And how about another fact: it is the motion of the San Andreas fault over time that has twisted the coastal mountains in the region to also run east/west, which is why on the maps they are referred to as the Transverse Ranges.
But aside from all the interesting geology, what I truly love about the mountains behind Santa Barbara is the way they reflect back the low winter sun to help give us the mild winter climate.
Californians love to brag about their trees. We will tell you that we have the tallest, most massive and the oldest trees in the world – the coast redwood, the Sequoia redwood growing in the midSierra and the bristlecone pine which is found in a small area of the White Mountains east of the Sierra.
In my view, we should save our bragging rights for our native oaks – the 20 species (40 if you count the hybrids). some of which only grow in our state. I give my vote to our coastal live oak. This evergreen oak is only found along the coast from Mendocino County to Baja California. The nutritious acorn was the staple food for the Chumash. The women ground the acorns in their stone mortars and rinsed out the bitter tannins in running water. (Now that I’ve found a source of acorn flour, I’m going to try my hand at baking acorn bread).
The coast live oak is the commonest tree species on our campus with three individuals distinguished by their size. One tree, 50 feet wide, spreads across the Life Center courtyard with a luxuriant canopy of small leaves; a second is located in the large lawn below Westview and Northview; and the third, the largest, is next to the Rose Garden with an 80-foot-wide canopy and a stout trunk measuring ten and half feet in circumference. Most often, the oaks are sprouted from an acorn buried by a scrub jay and then forgotten about.
Thank you, Jesus and Pedro for measuring the circumference of the three largest oaks!
Last week several of us walked the campus doing a rough count of the trees. We counted 353 individual trees representing 38 species. One member of our group researched the carbon dioxide capture (“sequester”) for many of the species we identified. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed varies with the type of tree, but overall, the trees at Samarkand capture at least 8 tons of carbon dioxide each year while releasing over 6 tons of oxygen.
Through photosynthesis, leaves do some of the work by pulling in carbon dioxide and water, using the energy of the sun to produce the sugars that build trunks, branches and roots. Oxygen is released as a by-product. One large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for three or four people.
The carbon dioxide that trees capture helps clean the air by removing this heat-building greenhouse gas with its negative effect on our environment. Some of the carbon dioxide is released over time when discarded leaves decompose or when a tree dies and decays.
At the risk of being called a “tree hugger,” hug your favorite tree anyway and thank it for all the work it does for you. And take a deep breath, pulling in some of that life-giving oxygen.
How many of us chose to spend our final days at Samarkand because of its natural beauty? The 16-acre campus occupies a knoll above Oak Park with splendid views of the Santa Ynez mountains.
With the manicured gardens of sub-tropical plants and its native plant garden, it is the trees that command your attention. Along with the California native Live Oaks, there are some 25 different species of trees on campus, and according to John Campbell, 100 individual palm trees. Joyce and Allan Anderson came up with the excellent idea of labeling the trees along the walkways with raised signs and lettering large enough to easily read. We hope to produce a pamphlet with more information about the trees that would be interesting to those taking a walk.
In the meantime I’m spending time with individual trees, listening to how the wind gives them a voice. Under the Canary Island Pines, it is a sweet humming. Listening to the Fan Palm can sound like rain falling on a metal roof. I invite you to listen, too!
This is one of the noteworthy days of the year, the fall equinox and the first day of fall. Like the spring equinox six months from now, day and night are roughly equal in length. The Bewick’s Wren is singing a more joyous song and the Oak Titmouse sings a combination of their spring halleluiahs with their raspy call notes. Nothing will come of it, of course, and the days will continue to grow shorter by two minutes a day until we are jolted by darkness falling by 7 PM.
In Santa Barbara on the south coast, a 100 miles west northwest of Los Angeles, fall doesn’t really show up until October, when the California grapevine turns red on the fence and the winter birds show up in the coastal gardens.
Over the last few days, Bay Area birders are plucking my heart strings by reporting the first Golden-crowned Sparrows of the season. I remember those chilly mornings in the Berkeley Hills when I would walk up the street towards the pasture whistling their song. If they had arrived in the early morning hours after a long night’s flight, they answered me with one or two minor key notes. I would yelp with joy and dance a quick jig. When I returned home, I made an entry in my notebook, circling the date in red.
It would be a few more days before the little flocks worked their way into the neighborhood to settle into their winter territories. I wondered if these birds were the ones that had come last year and maybe several years before. The good news was that they remained until mid or late April, developing the bright yellow crown, before departing for the far north. During the winter you could count on them singing just before it started to rain.
As far as I know there are no golden crowns in this neighborhood or even in Oak Park. They are most often reported in weedy fields in open areas like the upper Elings Park.
A single mature male has spent the summer feeding with several Song Sparrows in a clearing near Los Carneros Lake. Apparently, it declined to join the others of its kind for the migration north in April. Was he damaged in some way or simply lacked the normal instinct, the irresistible urge to migrate?
Hearing the Western Tanagers on the move, I will start listening for our winter birds, though I know it’s probably too early. I arrived at Samarkand as a reluctant migrant from Northern California at this time nine years ago. It was during the lull between the seasons. I was disconsolate. I looked for one familiar bird. Finally, there it was — a California Towhee scratching in the leaves alongside the pathway.
Something did arrive early this year, a substantial rain but with hardly a sprinkle here. Elsewhere, it was enough to signal the annual nuptial flight of the termites when some of these subterranean creatures grow a pair of gossamer wings for a day’s fling above ground in the bright air. The queen ascends high in the sky pursued by ardent males eager to mate with her. Then as quickly as it began, it was all over and the termites resumed their lives in the dark with a pregnant queen, leaving behind a shimmering carpet of discarded wings.
I had assumed this early storm was like the ones to follow, moving down the coast from the north. But the cause was Hurricane Kay, an extensive, well-organized storm which had originated off the coast of Baja California, slowly weakening as it moved north to bring varying amounts of rain.
Nature sent us a consolation prize though — a double rainbow which felt more like a gateway to grander things.
Nancy Keele lives in one of the cottages referred to as a Southview villa. Unlike most residents at Samarkand who have either a balcony or a small patio, Nancy has both a small front yard and a rear garden which includes a handsome Canary Island Date Palm where she raises her Epiphyllums.
As told to Phila Rogers (SamNews September 2022)
When I look out into my beautiful gardens, I can’t help but think of my mom, and her influences on my life. She gave me my first two Epiphyllums (“Epies”) and put me on my first pony. As I grew older, to help me develop talents, she agreed to take me horseback riding monthly if I practiced the piano daily.
As an adult I fell in love with the Epies; my collection numbering above 100 before my move to The Samarkand.
I fulfilled my dream of having a horse by owning a 13-acre ranch on San Marcos Pass where I bred, raised, and trained Arabian horses. I exhibited in many shows throughout California.
I was the Choral Music director at Santa Barbara Junior High, and at La Colina Junior High School, where I was also involved with Music Theatre productions.
My front walkway garden is lined with Epidendrums, Cymbidiums, and succulents. However, the Epiphyllum “stars” are in my back patio garden. In nature they grow in trees; I grow them in nursery pots. Blooming season is in the spring (March through June).
For many of us August is the vacation month. It is the last summer month before school begins again. We always headed for the mountains toward the end of August when it was often the foggiest time in the Berkeley Hills. It was less than a half-day’s drive to reach our vacation lake in the high Sierra.
I hope this story about our vacation will prompt you to remember your summer vacation, and maybe even write about it. Your family will love it.
When I learned that the Caldor fire last August had veered south, sparing Angora Lake, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Had it taken a near miss to remind me of my 70-year devotion to this high Sierra Lake? A day later, Judith Hildinger, who with her brother Eric, runs the Angora Lakes Resort took the photo from her paddle board of a beautiful male Wilson’s Warbler sheltering in the mountain alder. Even though it was still smoky, I asked her to take more pictures around the lake’s edges because I wanted to write a long-overdue love letter to Angora.
I’ll start the photographic journey at the alder thicket next to the beach. The thicket had always been a safe place for nesting warblers in the summer. Not being able to penetrate the thicket from the beach, the best I could do was to push my boat as close to the shore as possible before being warded off by the wiry branches. I dropped my oars and sat listening to the small bird voices.
Beyond the mountain alders, an even denser pygmy forest of huckleberry oak, flows down the steep slope to the water’s edge. The huckleberry oak is the only high elevation oak in the big family of oaks, the most populous tree family in California. The huckleberry oak’s thin, flexible branches allow the tree to sprawl prostate over granite boulders. In a region of short summers, the acorn takes two autumns to mature. Once ripe, the little acorn is a favorite food of chipmunks and other small rodents.
It’s been years since I struggled up that slope to the ledge with the dwarf conifers where we had buried Don’s ashes. There was no other place he would have wanted to be.
It was a late afternoon in October when we arrived at the lake. The cliff and lake were in shadow. The cabins were boarded up and the boats stored away. I was anxious to be ahead of the first snow. It would have been next spring before we would have access again.
After tucking the ashes beneath a dwarf conifer on the first ledge, the girls and I returned to the beach. Jim stayed back as he grieved for his lost father.
Around the corner from the oaks come the cliffs which distinguish upper Angora Lake from most other lakes. I always think this massive wall must be at least 10,000 feet high but in reality it reaches less than 9,000 feet, about 1,500 above the lake level. Sometimes even reality goes out the window when I think of Angora. Since I’m unable to travel any longer, Angora remains fixed in my mind and my heart and I want to get it right.
The cliff faces are streaked with chartreuse and dark brown lichens. By releasing an acid, the lichen slowly ingests the granite. Wherever there is a little soil in a crack, a seed or spore may take root producing delicate ferns or flowers. Further up on a face, a stout juniper with long ropy roots, has taken hold and found a home.
From the top at Echo Peak, the cliff descends to the lake interrupted only by occasional narrow ledges each with a miniature garden of quaking aspens, grasses and clumps of mountain ash with its vibrant red berries. Only in the driest years does water fail to trickle into the lake as miniature waterfalls. Often in late August a snow patch clings to the edge of the highest ridge.
One of the family rituals was to watch the rising sun first ignite Echo Peak with its golden light and then the sun slowly slides down the face to the lake level. I am always amazed how sunlight restores color, animating whatever it touches.
Just around the corner from where the cliffs end, a small grove of mountain hemlocks thrive in the cool shade. The hemlocks love the snow and winter. They often grow where the snow lasts the longest. John Muir wrote that if you were caught out in a blizzard, climb under the hemlock branches which reach down to the ground, and you will be sheltered.
I can’t remember the details of this north-facing shore of the lake. Of course there’s Frog Rock, the rock islet with its single tree. The steep slope of rocks and trees behind culminate in what we simply call The Ridge.
Ah, there’s something else about the ridge that allows me to stray off course. On a morning maybe sixty years ago when I was preparing breakfast on the wood stove with the door wide open, the roar of an engine startled me and I looked up to see a heavy-bodied two-engine plane skimming the ridge and dropping down over the lake, releasing a cloud of water filled with young trout. The plane pulled up abruptly and headed northeast toward Desolation Valley, delivering fish to other lakes.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes, near the cabins at the east end of the lake is a seasonal creek which links Upper and Lower Angora Lakes. When we were there in late August, the creek was usually dry, but I always enjoyed the sheltered ravine populated by some nice flowering shrubs like the Western Serviceberry and Western Spiraea. I liked to bring along a plant book for the satisfaction of giving a plant a name which always seemed to make it a friend.
One cabin, alone, occupied a space just south of the creek with a level place in front where you could pull up a boat. Though the cabin was too small for a family, I loved its separateness. It was one of the old-style cabins with a drop-down front which reminded me of my desk at home that concealed some of my treasures.
When the Forest Service revealed its plans to put in a campground on the site, the cabin was hoisted up on logs and eased across the creek to join the other cabins. Either the Forest Service came up short on money or the entreaties of people like us to leave the lake alone prevailed.
The other cabins were built side by side on a level area which may have been the glacial moraine formed during the time when glaciers scooped out the depressions which later filled with melting snow becoming the two lakes and the pond. When I think back to how this beautiful amphitheater, its cliffs, waterfalls, and peaks were formed, I wonder what the future holds. In a drier and hotter climate will the lakes become meadows or disappear altogether? And will the landscape, succumbing to fires, lose its conifers and become brush land or oak savannah? Will we have to ascend to 10,000 feet to find the Sierra we once loved?
I just looked at a random collection of photos taken by visitors of some of the handmade sign’s advertising: “The World-famous Lemonade;” “Angora Lakes Resort has been operating since 1917.” One photo showed a smiling Effie Hildinger, the original proprietress, who rode in on mule back in 1924. And a brown and yellow official Forest Service sign informed visitors that this is Angora Lakes Resort, National Forest Lands in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
My particular affection is for a cabin called The Lodge where we would have weekly slideshows in the summer. It was furnished with a well-used upright piano, chairs of various vintages and a loom. I spent many afternoons sitting on the small porch in the warm afternoon sun listening to various musicians — most often Gloria Hildinger on her flute, sometimes Jim Hildinger and his violin, and occasional visitors like Jan Popper on the piano and a cellist from Fallen Leaf on her cello.
And will I ever forget that early morning when Jim pulled his big speaker to the open doorway and filled the amphitheater with the glorious strains of Sibelius’ violin concerto.
Sibelius would have loved this place.
I sometimes walked the road down to Lower Angora Lake where occasional avalanches descending the steep slopes below Angora Peak would knock down a tree or two, blocking the road. I was always eager to visit one of the big red firs where the chartreuse, fragrant wolf lichen clinged to the ruddy bark. You can find the lichen mostly on the north side of the tree, just above the line where the trunk is free of snow. Lower Angora, with its scattering of cabins, lacks the dramatic setting of the upper lake.
Up the short hill is “Our House, ” the house where the Hildingers and their two young boys lived through winter in the 1930s. I remember one story where they would troop down to the ridge and holler down to the caretaker at Fallen Leaf Lodge and he would holler back. That was the social activity for the day.
“Our House” was distinguished by the aspen trees which grew close around the paned windows. The cabin was alive with dancing light when the leaves trembled in the slightest breeze. After lunch we would lie on the bed, listen to the voices of the kids below on the beach with the sparkling water reflected on the underside of the low eave.
I’m thinking of windy nights. The wind would come in gusts that sounding like an approaching freight train with spaces of eerie silence between. With our headboard against the single wall, we wondered if it would hold.
On this south-facing slope, the shrubs are very different from the mostly deciduous ones that grow in the protected swale along the creek. Just below the deck of “Our House” was a mountain chaparral garden composed as if by the most talented landscape designer. Several species shared the same slope – a low-growing silver-leafed plant called snow brush (Ceanothus cordulatus), a stunning bush Chinquapin with shiny yellowish leaves, more golden on the undersides with a spiny burr that encloses two or three seeds. One afternoon I discovered beneath the dense cover a hard-to-find bird I had never seen before: a Green-tailed Towhee.
It seems all paths led to the beach when our kids were little. The sand was a granular granite with sparkles of mica like that of the parent rock. The beach was narrow when the lake was high, usually in early summer, wide in the late summer when the lingering snow banks on the ridge had melted. I liked lying on my back and watching clouds moving over the peak toward the east. I speculated about whether a cloud would make it across my field of vision before dissolving. Fair weather clouds are generally short-lived.
It was at the beach that kids won a rite of passage – swimming across the lake and back. The reward was dad saying they no longer had to wear a life jacket when in a boat.
The other rite was to climb up the steep slope to the top of Echo Peak and then hollering “Echo” down to listeners below. As I recall, the reward for the climb was a cold glass of fresh lemonade.
We didn’t discover Angora by accident. It was a carefully engineered plan by my parents who once stayed at Angora when meals were served in the dining room by Jim and Effie. Once Jim went into the Army, the cabins were provided with modest cooking facilities, and the dining room was closed. My parents went elsewhere returning only for our inauguration.
We arrived in the afternoon, my parents greeting us at the doorway and my mother giving me instructions about how to be a good housekeeper, Angora style. “NEVER let any food particles go down the drain!” and with that, they departed down the hill in Jim’s truck as we would do for many years until our nest was empty.
Though our traditional week was the last week of August when the Berkeley Hills were the foggiest, we visited twice at other times for a day. Once was in June – spring in the Sierra when the meadows were wet and green and birds sang everywhere. Angora was transformed by robin song. By late summer, we were left with the harsh voices of Steller’s Jays and the chatter of squirrels and chipmunks. Toward the end of our stay, Clark’s Nutcrackers called as they began moving down from the higher mountains ahead of winter.
Probably the strangest visit to Angora was the first day of the new year before the arrival of the winter snows. The lake before us was frozen and the sun was about to set behind Echo Peak. Once the sun disappeared, we were cold. But what detained us was a deep growling sound coming from across the lake near the cliffs. What was that? Bear, mountain lion? Feeling unwelcome in this unfamiliar Angora, we hurried down the hill until near the Lookout ridge we regained the sun. Later, we learned we had heard the scrapping of the ice against the cliff. Maybe the sound was distorted and amplified by the ice itself or by the cold, deep water below.
Usually after a few days of being under the lee of the cliff, I was ready for some distant views. Walking down the hill to the pond and the big flat area open to the sky, I could see to the south the familiar shapes of the peaks around Carson Pass. The tall Jeffrey Pines are widely spaced. From the upper branches came the clear, three notes of the Mountain chickadee and the somnolent buzzy song of the Western pewee which always made me drowsy on warm Sierra afternoons.
On those days when my mind gets stuck on negative thoughts, I leave my apartment and walk down to the Native Plant Garden. Sitting on the bench, I listen to the soft gurgle of the water flowing out of the top of the sandstone boulder, knowing that in a few minutes birds will arrive for a drink or a bath.
My eyes follow the green slope of plants to the far edge of the garden where a row of dark green California Live Oaks separate us from Mission Creek at the bottom of the hill.
This is your land, our land, and the plants that supported the generations who came before us. Oak acorns ground in stone mortars produced the staple food for the Chumash Indians. I look up to the high mountains to the cliffs of sandstone like the rock in front of me and to the areas of gray-green plants many of which grow in our garden. And then the sky, always the sky, and I am deeply comforted by this enduring landscape.
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