Quite simply, the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden was destroyed in the Jesusita Fire of 2009. It is naive to pretend otherwise. The firestorm that swept down Mission Canyon in May of last year effectively obliterated whatever was left of the original design by Beatrix Farrand and Lockwood de Forest, Jr.
Amazingly, the Garden is still open to the public and last weekend we paid the price of admission and wandered the wasteland. For a little while, as we began our by now traditional tour of the meadows, we pretended nothing was amiss. A forlorn hyper style hall with sod roof stood redundantly at the north east corner of the meadow. Not so long ago a beautiful woven willow building had stood in the same place: this replacement was a travesty - and the capriciousness of the fire was fully reflected in its survival.
The lack of maintenance of the meadows and the muddy mess of trails that now meandered meaninglessly through the plantings eventually indicated to us that all was not well. New openings to the surrounding hillsides above Tunnel Road, ravaged by the fire, have changed the sense of orderly enclosure that carried one down into the canyon bottom and the redwood grove. The site has lost its structural integrity - destroyed by these visual openings to the razed houses on the hills or, here and there a surviving late twentieth century mission style mash-up that remains as testament to the fire's lack of aesthetic judgement.
Mission Canyon is significant to the history of the Mission for it was the water source for the irrigated fields of wheat, barley, corn, beans, and peas as well as the citrus, olive trees and vines overseen by the Franciscans. Mission dam and portions of the aqueduct are now a part of the Botanical Garden site. At the time of the Garden's design in the late 30's these water works were likely a ruin buried in a riparian woodland long left untended and without the benefit of a scouring fire. Overrun with poison oak, probably blighted with homeless encampments and festering, perhaps, with feral pigs and goats - vestiges of the mission herds, the Garden was a staggering achievement of the imagination.
From the very beginning this was to be a garden of native plants. It was the first of its kind in California and realized at a time when the model of Victorian Imperial plant collecting was alive and well. As Charles A. Birnbaum, Founder and President, The Cultural Landscape Foundation notes in a letter to Elleen Wyckoff, Chairperson of the Santa Barbara County Landmarks Advisory Commission, expressing his concern about changes to the Garden, two years before the fire,
"Lockwood and Elizabeth de Forest used the Garden as a laboratory and classroom to promote the use of native plants and promoted these ideas in the monthly periodical, The Santa Barbara Gardener. Produced from 1925 to 1942 by the Community Arts Association, the publication was aimed at educating Santa Barbarans on appropriate plantings and horticulture for the new architecture and the mild climate of Santa Barbara."
Nevertheless, the ideas of localism have progressed since the inception of this native garden. As visitors to it will know, it was always something of a California grab bag and made no real attempt to describe the plant communities of the Santa Barbara hinterlands. Instead, one was treated to a collection of redwoods, ceonothus hybrids and a Japanese pavilion.
The destruction of 10,000 accessioned plants is thus an opportunity to begin anew with a more rigorous program of locally indigenous plantings and one designed to embrace the occasional fire that gallops down the canyon. Certainly the Jesusita Fire should alert the Garden's Board of Trustees to the wrong-headedness of embedding a teaching garden in an eco-system that relies on fire as a regenerative force without making plans for, at the very least, creating a teaching moment amongst the ashes.