I wrote my first blog eight years ago when I was 83 years old and had just moved to Santa Barbara into a retirement community.
As I had sold my home in Berkeley, there would be no going back.

The first blog was “Making it Work on the South Coast.” The last written two years ago was titled “The Best for Last,” about Santa Cruz Island which gave me an opportunity to write both about my parents and my experiences on the island. In those intervening years, I had moved to a more agreeable apartment within the complex and had participated in the development of a Native Plant Garden in an area just below my new apartment. And I began a book – a compilation really, of the blogs and shorter nature pieces written for our monthly newsletter.

I used for the title “Best for Last” suggesting that this final period of my life in Santa Barbara was just that, though I still nurture deep reserves of nostalgic memories of the Berkeley Hills where I had lived most of my life. (Available through Amazon or at Chaucer’s, Santa Barbara)

With the help of a talented designer, I created a book that others thought more highly of than I did. I have always felt that what I wrote was less than what I was capable of – if only I could reach deeper.

Now I am ninety-one. I read, poke about in the native garden, or often just sit outside and listen to the birds. Like a native Santa Barbarian, I worry about frequent dry winters. But I am deeply frightened about Climate Change and how persistent droughts and heat on the South Coast and elsewhere, will affect those who follow us. Will my children, grandchildren and now five great-grandchildren know the joys of green winters and flower-filled springs and a sun to seek out, not one to hide from?

I recognize the lugubrious tone of my writing, but these are lugubrious times when our lives have been transformed by a virus – covid-19. We read about Ebola, grieved for families but took comfort in knowing that this was on the African continent, and that our own horror, AIDS, most often affected others, unless we happened to have a gay son. I was born 11 years after the Spanish Flu, knowing about it mostly from a photograph of my mother, a pretty young woman in her volunteer nurses’ uniform with a red cross on her cap.

Six months after my birth, the world was plunged into the Great Depression and then World War II. Now it is our turn, first with an epidemic, coronavirus (or covid-19), which we barely understand, followed most likely by another Great Depression. As I often do, I have retreated to nature and to birds. But with my flagging energies I am seldom out in the field, or rarely stirred to pursue a hidden bird with an unfamiliar song. I let others do my birding. I accept a mostly vicarious life by reading the postings of local birders – vigorous men, mostly, middle-aged women, who like certain botanists, are “my kind,” what ever that means

We are mostly isolated on our campus, with meals in plastic bags hung on our doorknobs, and no visitors permitted. Most people are wearing masks which makes even my friends unrecognizable. I escape occasionally by getting into my old Scion car and meeting family members at a park for a stroll. Classes and programs are online on our in-house television. My life isn’t so different except when I think about it. As long as my family and those dear to me stay well, I will remember to be grateful.

With businesses closed and most people staying at home, freeways are almost empty, and the air is brighter and cleaner than most people can remember. Wild animals, often unseen, have taken over Yosemite Valley and Griffith Park in Los Angeles.

In one of those beautiful ironies, while most of us have “sheltered in place” the birds are on the move in unprecedented numbers. It appears that Oak Park and our knoll where Samarkand is located are not on one of the migratory corridors. A recent report on my list serve, where local birders post what they see, one young man stood in his driveway for almost an hour, head tilted back, watching an extravaganza of swallows, swifts, loons and kingbirds.

Daytime migrations are unusual. Most birds migrate at night when the air is cooler and quieter, using a combination of navigational aides like the position of the stars, the magnetic fields, or polarized light. At daybreak, most song birds rest and feed and at dusk set off again. Certain birds make marathon flights over water and will need enough stored fats for the journey.

I have often wished I lived in a quiet place far from towns and airports where I could hear the special calls that migrating birds use to keep in touch with one another. Yes. quiet, and truly dark nights where I could see stars beyond counting.

Other birders are reporting unusual numbers of passerines – Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, Orioles, warblers, and others in the high state of excitement that defines the time of migration.

I move away from my computer to rest my eyes and to see if I wrote anything interesting in my journal. My journal often receives my most intimate thoughts.

Dear ones on your strong wings
With even stronger intent.
Are you fleeing this diseased planet?
But you too are a captive of gravity
With lungs which need oxygen.
Mars would never do.


imagesTake this week – in the middle of October.  All day the clouds continued to build up against the mountains.  And at bedtime, I heard an unfamiliar sound.  Opening the door, I was surprised by rain.  Pulling open the window next to my bed, I fell asleep to the comforting sound of rain falling, while breathing in that indescribable fragrance of earth refreshed.  The morning that followed was the freshest we’ve had in this endless season of harsh drought.

library-023By Wednesday, the temperature rose to 95 degrees, the humidity descended into the single digits, the red fire danger flags were posted. By the weekend the scene changed again. I could joyfully proclaim fall as it should be – a sky full of clouds of every shape in shades of gray and white.  I’ve cracked open the door so I can feel the cool breeze and hear the birds as I work on my computer.

Nothing energizes the bird population like a change in the weather, especially when there is the possibility of rain.  If you trust forecasts, rain may be moving our way, coming from the north, the most reliable direction.

Being an incurable nostalgic I remember days like this in the Bay Area we called the “second spring.” The first rain of the fall brought up sprouts of green grass on the hills, certain native plants set buds or even bloomed, and the birds began singing again.  I guessed that maybe they were fooled by day and night equaling in length, the way it did during the spring equinox.

More knowledgeable birdwatchers than me, call this “second spring” “Autumnal Recrudescence,” a word new to me. Looking the word up, I read that it was most often a medical term meaning the return of an illness after a remission.  Or it could mean the recurrence of an unpleasant feeling like doubt.

Naturalist give the word a happier meaning.

The Autumnal Recrudescence of the Amatory Urge

When the birds are cacophonic in the trees and on the verge
Of the fields in mid-October when the cold is like a scourge.
It is not delight in winter that makes feathered voices surge,
But autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.
When the frost is on the pumpkin and when leaf and branch diverge,
Birds with hormones reawakened sing a paean, not a dirge.
What’s the reason for their warbling? Why on earth this late-year splurge?
The autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.

Photo by Bob Lewis

 -Written by Susan Stiles, copyright December 1973

 After the mostly silent late summer, I was delighted with the bird chorus.  I  also attributed it to the completion of energy-robbing activities like nesting followed by molting where in most species, every feather had to be replaced with a new one.

The arrival of the winter residents certainly energized the local, year-round population.  The regulars and newcomers set about declaring and defending their winter territories.

Illustration by Peter Gaede “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region” by Joan Easton Lentz

Wanting to better understand fall in Santa Barbara sent me back to Joan Lentz’s “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region,” my bible on all things local.  She says that the distinction between summer and fall is more pronounced than between spring and summer.  Enter our old friend or nemesis The North Pacific High.  If the atmosphere behaves as it should, this zone of high pressure which held sway over the summer, producing the northwest winds blowing down the coast and causing coastal fog, should begin to move south following the sun.  Winds cease and with them the fog.  A rain may even sneak through as it had last Sunday evening. With less fog, the skies are clearer and the blue skies are a palette for the extraordinary clouds of fall.

In the Berkeley Hills where I’ve lived most of my life, we especially dreaded the August fogs with their frigid winds when the gloomy, damp overcast could persist for days on end.  When late September brought relief, we were ecstatic. Both in the Bay Area and in Santa Barbara, fall winds sometimes blew from the north and northeast, coming from the Great Basin, bringing the odors of sage and when passing over the mountains, the tangy smell of conifers.

Though Santa Barbara, by its location and topography, is spared the full impact of the Santa Anas (unlike the LA basin), we often have the offshore winds, heat, and lower humidity.

In my drives around town I look for autumn color to further affirm the change of season.  Sycamores, which grow wherever there is a little ground moisture, have been dropping leaves all summer and even in the best of years are only a dusky gold, showing their best color when back lit by the sun.  Liquidambars, also called sweet gum, a native to the southeast, are beginning to show their autumn color, but we will have to wait until late November for their best display.liquidambar

Image result for images of native sycamores

Weary of my endless comparisons between Berkeley and Santa Barbara, my daughter decided it was time for a drive over the mountain to the Santa Ynez Valley, for a change of scene.  And change of scene, indeed!  What a difference a mountain range makes.  The Santa Ynez Valley is hotter in the summer and colder in the winter.  The continental influences prevail, moderated somewhat by the proximity to the coast and the ocean.  But the sub-tropical trees in Santa Barbara’s parks and gardens would not succeed here.


This is the wide-open country of vineyards and olive orchards where the horse is king.  Some ranches provide individual horse casitas with white stucco walls, tiled roofs, and individual corrals.

And, yes, I did find the color I was hoping for in the bright yellow cottonwoods growing along the dry Santa Ynez River watercourse.  We like to be drenched in the fall brilliance of yellows, oranges, and red – this intoxicating dazzle – the final flaring before the bare trees in the dimming light and short days of winter.fall1

But what pleased me the most were the ambers of the vineyards, the pale grasses long spent and all the other shades of gray-greens, ochers, umbers and shades of color for which I have no names — and the swirls and small bunches of white clouds against a soft blue sky.

Once I yearned to live in open country with only distant neighbors if any at all, under a curving sky with stars beyond counting, winds that travelled long distances unobstructed, and the distant yips and howls of coyotes.

But I was content enough to return back over the mountain, to the marine air which is kinder, and to a town of neighborhoods where lights in other windows comfort me. On the weekends, music and voices of children come up the hill from the city park below.  Once the winter rains begin, I will hear the music of Mission Creek.

fogYesterday, at the end of the month, the clouds thickened during the day.  In the afternoon, a few large drops fell.  The air felt dense and heavy, maybe rich in negative ions which some say lifts the spirits.

lightningAround 3 am, we awoke to a long roll of thunder.  For the next hour, lightning and thunder alternated, until the lightning seemed to rip open the heavy undersides of the clouds releasing a torrent which in a few minutes left behind a half inch of rain.  At the end of the day, the clouds had retreated back to the mountains.
It appears that at last I have the intemperate Santa Barbara I had expected – a Santa Barbara of sundowner winds gusting down canyons, landslides, firestorms and debris flows, floods, thunder ricocheting off the

mountain sides, and on the coast, high surfs which rearrange beaches.

Is this the fall and winter which will end the drought?  Such secrets are closely held.  In the meantime, I look often at the sky, sniff the air, and even conger up promising clouds.  It can’t hurt.2015-06-26-20

Some of the birds which arrive in the Fall

White-crowned Sparrow

Hermit Thrush

Townsend’s Warbler

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Photos by Tom Ginn

The Way It Was

Sitting on a bench at Franceschi Park in the foothills above Santa Barbara, I look over the city.  The streets are laid out in grids, dense with houses and buildings.  The beach is backed by rows of tall palms. The harbor is filled with boats of every description.  I can’t help but think about how the same scene would have looked a thousand years ago.


Wiping the palette clean, what I now see is a narrow plateau sloping gradually to the sea.  The conical, thatched huts of a Chumash village cluster where a stream enters the ocean.  Offshore are several plank canoes with paddlers headed across the Channel to smaller villages on the Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands.


This scene persists until the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s, when the Spanish coming up from Mexico established a string of missions along the coast.  At the larger missions, such as the one at Santa Barbara, a small village grows up around its presidio.


It was to this Santa Barbara on a warm and windless January day in 1834, that The Pilgrim, a brig out of Boston, dropped anchor offshore.  Aboard was a young student from Harvard, Richard Henry Dana.  He would later write the story of his adventures on the high seas and along the coast of California for a year of gathering hides and tallow.  His story would become one of the best-loved books of American literature: “Two Years Before the Mast.”

The Pilgrim

What Dana saw at Santa Barbara was a small village of about 100 white-washed adobes with red-tiled roofs, surrounding the larger presidio. The mission built on a slope above the town served as the mark where the vessels came to anchor.


The town is finely situated with a bay in front, and an amphitheater of hills behind. The only thing which diminishes its beauty is that the hills have no trees upon them, they having been all burnt by a great fire which swept them off about a dozen years ago, and they have not yet grown again. The fire described to me by an inhabitant, as having been a terrible and magnificent sight.  The air of the valley was so heated that the people were obliged to leave the town and take up their quarters for several days upon the beach (January 1835).

old view of santa barbara harbor
1830’s view of Santa Barbara Harbor


As a lad from Massachusetts, he would have expected the hills and mountains to be covered with trees.  He must have been puzzled by this dry, central California landscape where steep sandstone mountains could only support gray-green chaparral.


Sailing ships coming to Santa Barbara typically anchored three miles offshore, as this was an exposed and dangerous roadstead.

The whole swell of the Pacific Ocean rolls in here before a southeaster, and breaks with so heavy a surf in the shallow water, that it is highly dangerous to lie near in to the shore during the southeaster season, that is, between the months of November and April. The wind is the bane of the coast of California (January 1835)


Along the length of the California coast only San Diego and Monterey offered a reasonably safe anchorage, with San Francisco Bay offering the most secure.  Dana extols San Francisco Bay, prophesizing that San Francisco will someday be one of the great cities.


The crew of The Pilgrim spent almost a year on the California coast gathering and preparing hides for transport back to Boston, where factories produced finished leather goods.  Hide and tallow were the principle exports at a time when the land was divided into vast ranchos where herds of long-horned cattle roamed freely.


On one trip up the coast to Point Conception, the ship encountered a ferocious gale that blew unabated for three nights and days.  Even some of their reefed sails were ripped, and they were blown far out to sea.  Point Conception and Point Arguello, located where the coast bends inward, are still notorious for brutal winds in all seasons.


The Pilgrim made several stops at Santa Barbara over the year. One visit was when the youngest daughter of the De La Guerra family married the American agent, Alfred Robinson. It was a grand ceremony beginning at the Mission and continuing with a “fandango,” at the De La Guerra hacienda, lasting several days and nights.


Dana described the deterioration of the Missions following Mexico’s winning independence from Spain, twenty-one years earlier. Under Mexican rule, the Missions were stripped of their power and lands, leaving the Fathers with only religious duties.


Shortly before setting sail for the east coast Dana encountered Thomas Nuttall, the famous British collector of plants and birds (our Oak Park woodpecker, Nuttall’s’Woodpecker is named for him). He had been most recently botanizing in Califonia and came aboard as a passenger on Dana’s present ship The Alert,” homeward bound for Boston. For Nuttall’s eccentric ways, Dana dubbed him “old curiosity.”


In 15 years, California became a state, and the Pastoral Era of the great ranchos came to an end.  As new people poured into California, the Spanish landholders, unfamiliar with English and lacking cash, were unable to defend their lands against the newcomers.  Gold mining would pollute rivers and even San Francisco Bay itself.  Giant trees began to fall before the axe, as cities replaced the tiny presidio towns, and grazing lands became farms.  Nature itself was transformed with disappearance of large animals, and with exotic species replacing much of the native vegetation.


* * * * *


       I have never had the privilege of being a part of a winter storm at sea as Richard Henry Dana did during his winter aboard “The Pilgrim,” while off the coast of California in 1864. But I have experienced innumerable storms while living in Coastal California, both north and south. In this driest year in memory, I can’t resist reenacting in my mind one such storm.


It’s November. After a few cloudless days, I look up to see cirrus clouds. Formed of ice crystals and blown by high altitude winds into thin wisps, cirrus clouds often precede an approaching storm.


Toward evening the wind begins to pick up out of the south, bringing warmer air. At bedtime, the rain is yet to fall, but the stars have disappeared behind thickening clouds. The building winds bring a palpable tension. The eucalyptus creak and groan, their leathery leaves clattering together sound like falling water. The pines sing and sigh.

I’m awakened during the night by the sound of rain falling against the south-facing windows. The wind blows unabated with harsh gusts rattling the windows in their frames


At daybreak, following a restless sleep, I awake to the rain still falling. The street is littered with streamers of bark and torn leaves. The wind becomes erratic blowing this way and that, releasing a final deluge of rain. And then all is silent and air grows chilly. Clouds race across the sky allowing brilliant sun to shine through. As the wind shifts to the north, remaining clouds gather into towering cumulus. On the horizon beyond the islands, they move south like galleons under full sail.


Fragrances are released that I’d forgotten. Streams flow again. The dry earth is sated. The wind has curried the trees releasing all that is tired and spent. The revived earth is born anew.