Bad Dreams

Something begins to stir along the north coast of California, reaches inward across the west facing Sierras and moves northward to Alaska: it may be the flapping of Raven’s wings, the beating heart of Gaia (Scrim of Mist) or, quite simply, the metastasis of biomass.

Malignant or not, this metastasis results in an explosion of cellulose upon which the Timber Industry feeds. As David Lynch's Radio announcer says at the start of Blue Velvet: "It's a sunny, woodsy day in Lumberton, so get those chainsaws out...."

In the early nineties, we looked to buy, with friends, a few hundred acres of timber-land about ten miles east of Yachats on the Oregon coast. When we were trying to put an offer together I stayed at a motel along the Yachats River estuary and one evening watched an episode of Twin Peaks. David Lynch created that TV series to reflect the same vision of reality that is at the core of all his work: in everyday life there are things happening beneath the surface that swim into your awareness but escape your understanding.

Such was the case with our appreciation of the Timber property. We loved its apparent wildness, its forest. What we did not understand was that the land, although for sale, was firmly in the maw of Timber interests and it would take more than its imminent sale for the industry to disgorge it. Thus it was that when we returned to view the property with another potential partner we found great swathes of hillside had been clearcut. The long cycle of timber contracts held on the land existed on a parallel legal plane to its freehold, and like the mineral rights to our property in Upper Ojai do not change ownership with the sale of the land. Although one of our partners had grown up in Oregon, we were naive: our romantic vision of the land as virgin forest was hopelessly at odds with its commercial reality.

A few years earlier we looked seriously at a property in the Wainiha Valley, on Kauai, HI. It was off of Wainiha Powerhouse Road that winds into the foothills alongside of the Wainiha River which flows down from the Central Highlands. The valley is patchworked with taro fields and streams, and is home to families that have been in the area for hundreds of years. The property we looked at was being subdivided from an estate owned by an American surfer whose tin-roofed home sparked visions of building a pole house that would reverberate with the sound of rain on corrugated steel while the river coursed beneath the open-planked floor - because (of course) the entire property was both in the flood plain and vulnerable to tsunamis.

What were described as Hawaiian walking trail easements ran across the access to the property. This turned out to be local code for the fact that the ancient Hawaiian families in the neighborhood still considered the land to be theirs and probably maintained rights to grow taro up to the haole's front door. Then there was the question of who owned the bridge over the Wainiha River. Here the undercurrents of Hawaiian custom and latent hostility to newcomers quickly submerged our conventional understanding of real-estate and we retreated, chastened by the realization that in the remoter parts of Kauai, at least, Hawaii is a foreign land.

It probably didn't help that our real estate agent was Dick Brewer, the legendary big wave surfer and shaper of a series of revolutionary surfboards in the 1960's that essentially defined the modern sport. While he has maintained his relevance into this century by working with the new generation of tow-in surfers such as Laird Hamilton, he continues to dabble in Real Estate and the property he tried to sell us is, I believe, still available!

When Lorrie and I first drove up Koenigstein Road in the mid 1980's we were very aware of the oil drilling activity in the area and although there was land for sale - perhaps the 160 acres that Jim Exxon ended up purchasing and developing - I recall being spooked by this overlay of mineral extraction on otherwise pristine land. Years later, with the oil industry by now more discreet in its activities, we purchase our property.

Yet there continues to be an undercurrent of oil industry activity that occasionally barges into our consciousness with gas flares (Flare-up) or drilling to freshen existing wells. The commercial calculus of oil drilling is entirely alien to us refugees from the west side of Los Angeles who have found value instead, in the natural beauty of the canyons, hills and streams of the Topa Topa foothills.

On the ridge-line of Sulphur Mountain directly across from us I noticed drill scaffolding a couple of weeks ago. Usually they do their work and are gone in a few days. And such was the case, but Stephen and Clarissa, whose property backs up to the Arco oil lease, have been noticed that they will be back - with scaffolding twice as high and lights to enable drilling 24/7 - right through the holiday season. This threatens to turn our vague awareness of an energy industry undercurrent into an in-your-face affront to our sensibilities, haunting us like a grotesquely phallic Lynchian dream sequence in which our wildland is ravaged by Arco. Merry Christmas.

This is a price we pay for laissez faire County Planning where the rights of corporations and wild-catters transcend those of residential property owners. An alternative is the highly controlled environment maintained by, for instance, The Sea Ranch Corporation. In our quest for a homestead outside of the City we looked long and hard at buying property on this piece of the Sonoma coast.

In 1963 Castle and Cooke, the Hawaiian based developers, purchased Rancho del Mar (the future Sea Ranch) which since the original Mexican Land Grant (one of the last in California) was deeded to Ernesto Rufus in 1846 had been a cattle ranch, a timber property and finally a sheep ranch. The 5200 acres included the coastal meadows and the second growth red woods that forested the west face of the inland ridge.

The Pomo, the indigenous Native American inhabitants of the area, had elected to live behind this ridge where they were protected from the ocean winds; they made seasonal treks to the coast to gather kelp, seaweed, and shell fish. The meadows are an ecological adaptation to the salt winds that lash the gently rising bluffs but grazing has eliminated most of the native grasses. The wind-bent dwarfed trees that almost certainly established themselves have long been cleared away leaving the romantically wind-blown grasses often swathed in fog-drip or drenched in coastal showers that are now, along with the myrtle hedges introduced by Lawrence Halprin the landscape architect, the signature Sea Ranch vegetation.

As noted in Scrim of Mist , the architectural firm MLTW (Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker) developed the design guidelines for the community of homes. We were entranced. I had been familiar with the project while an architecture student in Sydney and later had an opportunity to study with Charles Moore at UCLA. All that was left was to pick the right lot.

Many a Northern California vacation was devoted to just that until we understood that the undercurrent that flowed through our Sonoma dreams was the nagging concern that while still firmly entrenched in Los Angeles, with children in school and busy professional lives, a second home six and a half hours away made little sense.

The desirability of vacation homes was part of the larger fantasy that was the real estate bubble: a fantasy that we have now seen transmogrified into a nightmare beyond even David Lynch's lurid imagination.