by Laura Crum
Some readers expressed an interest in a series of posts about the way I found and developed my little horse property. I'm going to attempt this series now. I fear it may be boring to most people, and you can feel free to tell me so. I am writing this more for myself than anyone else, and I don't need to put it up on this blog. So feel free to vote yay or nay on this subject.
Also, these posts may have a bit to do with horses, but they also will have lots of passages that have nothing to do with horses or writing about horses. Designing houses and gardens and landscapes, my own whims, my feelings about land and the particular sort of flora and fauna that are found here in these coastal California hills....all this will come into the story. Again, let me know if you find this boring.
So here goes.
Here is the story of this place that I live, that I call home.
There are so many strands woven into this little hollow in the hills-- my past, the past of the land, the magical wild world that surrounds me here. I want to braid the strands together and make a plait that shows the whole. Just for the delight of doing it, putting it down in words.
Creating this place, where I hope to live until I die, has been one of the most joyous experiences of my life. And so I begin with my past, the experiences which formed me and caused me to want to live here and to shape this place the way I have shaped it.
The Ranch. This simple phrase was the magic in the child’s world. She did not live on the Ranch. She lived in a quiet, upper middle class, suburban neighborhood on a golf course called Pasatiempo. As suburban neighborhoods and golf courses go, Pasatiempo was pleasant. Both the course and the neighborhood were older and graceful, with big established trees, and when the girl was young, there were still many undeveloped areas left. But the child found Pasatiempo boring.
From her earliest memory, she had lived to go to the Ranch, where there was magic. Ordinary magic, to be sure, but magic nonetheless, in her eyes. There were horses, and barns, and barn cats, and piles of rusting junk, and orchards, and crumbling dirt roads, and old wood and glass greenhouses full of plants, and little shacks covered in rambling roses, and everything was ragged and a bit messy. The Ranch was wild, where her home seemed tame.
The girl could not explain why she felt this way—she just did. Perhaps it was mainly the horses. Her uncle lived at the ranch and had horses, and from as far back as she could remember, horses had moved her as nothing else did.
The Ranch was a family ranch. Four generations of the child’s family had lived and worked there. Her great grandfather had purchased the land at the turn of the century, coming to California from Indiana, to start a new life. Her grandfather had been born here, and so had her father and his brother. And now her uncle lived here with his children, her cousins. The girl was deeply envious of her cousins, who lived in an old adobe house on the ranch that had been built by her grandparents.
Both her grandfather and her father still worked at the ranch, but they had moved away to the more upscale environment of Pasatiempo to live. The child’s father would (sometimes) take her out to the Ranch on Saturdays when he went to work, and leave her there to ramble around all day. And she lived for this.
It wasn’t that she was never bored at the ranch. She often wandered aimlessly, wondering what she should do. It was just that she didn’t mind being bored there—the air always felt alive with potential, as if something interesting might happen next. In contrast the air of her suburban neighborhood seemed still and stagnant. And so she wandered the dirt roads of the Ranch and went in and out of the barns and sheds, and picked fruit from the neglected orchards and wild berry vines, and stared wistfully at the horses—for hours.
Nobody paid much attention to her. She was quite young, maybe five years old, when she was first allowed to “play” at the Ranch, and the various people who lived and worked there cast a benign eye on her, and would certainly have helped her had she been in trouble, but nobody felt any obligation to entertain her. She was (mostly) left to her own devices.
In her memory of the Ranch, she is always alone. Wandering and exploring, and later when she was older and had learned to ride, riding her uncle’s horses through the fields. In truth, she was not always solitary. She played with her cousins, and her uncle let her ride with him when he wasn’t too busy, and sometimes she was with her brothers and sister. But in her mind, she was always alone there. Aloneness was part of the magic.
Besides the magic of the horses, there was the magic of the place. Those particular fields and barns and dirt roads, the hundred or so acres of good flat ground on the edge of the little town of Capitola, itself on the edge of Monterey Bay, which swept out into the far Pacific Ocean—this ranch which had always been her family’s ranch. The girl located herself by the Ranch. The tallest local mountain, Loma Prieta, was visible from the wide plain of the Ranch pastures, and the girl would memorize this landmark—this is my home, she told herself. Just here.
When she was a teenager and could drive, the Ranch became more of a refuge than ever. She had a part time job out there, packaging flower bulbs, and she fell in love with a succession of boys who lived and/or worked there. She spent as much time as possible out at the Ranch. Warm summer evenings talking horses at the barn while eating apricots and plums, plucked from the trees. Gathering the cattle on horseback, laughing with the young cowboys, with the breeze bending the fields of grass and lifting her hair. Innumerable foggy mornings, huddled in a jacket, walking to the faded red barn to begin another work day. She loved it all.
She would have been happy to live on the Ranch forever, and often imagined this, but it was not to be. From the beginning, her family had been entrepreneurs, more than ranchers. Her great grandfather had first sold buggies, then farmed strawberries and flower bulbs, and next began a dairy. The dairy of purebred Guernsey cows, producing high quality milk, was the mainstay of the Ranch for years, and then, when high fat milk went out of fashion, the main business of the Ranch became growing and selling tuberous begonias. Under her grandfather, the family began importing all sorts of flower bulbs from Holland and reselling them, and by the time she was born, it was a “bulb ranch.” The horses and cattle were incidental; the cattle kept to provide the family with meat, and the horses because her uncle loved horses.
Her grandfather and her father, like her great grandfather before them, were not sentimental people. They saw the Ranch as a way of making money. From even before she was born, her grandfather had determined to sell the Ranch at an enormous profit—when development came its way. He had planned for this. And so, when the first shopping centers and banks and housing developments grew up around the Ranch, the writing was on the wall.
As far as she could tell, the girl was the only one who was saddened by this. Piece after piece of the Ranch was sold off; soon it was just a small cluster of remaining buildings, and a few acres of pasture. Next door was the beginning of a huge mall—the land purchased from her family. The girl, a teenager now, hated this from the bottom of her heart, but even as a teenager she understood that there was no point in fighting and arguing. She had nothing to say about it, and her father and grandfather and uncle were quite determined to sell the Ranch.
And so, little by little, her beloved Ranch disappeared. The fields and barns and roads were demolished and swallowed up and paved over and built upon until she could not even tell where the horse barn had been, or the old adobe house. It was all gone, completely gone, as if it had never been. All that was left was a giant shopping mall, indistinguishable from any other shopping mall.
The girl learned quite a bit from this. About not trusting people and not falling in love with a piece of land that did not belong to her, principally. Also about understanding that one could NOT control what happened on the land next door. And these lessons came in very handy later.
The girl was in her twenties now, and lived in a small house in town, and kept her horses at her uncle’s new horse ranch. She was ready to find a home. The Ranch was gone forever. Her uncle’s little horse ranch was HIS place, not the family ranch, and she did not feel welcome there. So she began to look for a place of her own. And so begins this story.