A Tour: Early Explorations & Observations

Can I tell you about the land? It will take a long time to really get to know it. But can I tell you a little? Drive thirty miles south of Santa Cruz on the 101 and exit at San Juan Road, near the giant red barn that houses the antique flea market called Disneyana, with most of the letters missing from the sign. The neighborhood is rural. Grassy hills make pleasant grazing for horses, goats, and llamas that stand with their necks down like bowing statues in front of modest homes and half-crumpled barns. It’s easy to miss the turn off for the driveway from the main road. It’s camouflaged in overgrown rosemary and lavender bushes, a thick wall of it. Lavender is the neighbor’s specialty and she planted it years ago. But now the rosemary has mostly taken over. The grassy, sharp aroma clings to the dogs’ fur after they nose in to harass lizards. The slim paintbrushes of purple are blooming and every sprig has a bee or two. The hymn of bee song follows you along the narrow driveway as you curve around towards the gate.

The front acre is cleared and subtly sloped. The soil, dirt more like, has been badly managed and years, maybe decades, of erosion has washed away the topsoil. You can see the little gullies where the water has run off, along with the nitrogen, down into the street and away towards Moss Landing. One of our first tasks will be to stop the erosion and water run off, and add many amendments to restore nutrients to the now sandy earth. The acidity of the soil is good, and with proper irrigation, manure, compost, earthworms, and nitrogen-fixing cover crops, with deep roots to pull up nutrients, we hope to restore the microbial life and create good topsoil.

I’m not sure exactly how long it will take to make it productive, but growing good soil will be ongoing. It’s a good area for growing— good climate, mild winters, and a fair amount of rain. Big Agriculture has claimed much of the flat land nearby for berries, orchards, vineyards, and garlic. We will be making use of the slopes, since we’re small enough to not need a lot of equipment. Avocado grows well on a slope since they need good drainage, but they also drink a lot of water, and water is always scarce here. We’ll plant row crops of market vegetables in the front—using biointensive, no till, small-scale regenerative techniques, aiming for closed looped systems that mimic natural ecosystems for pest control, resource conservation, and natural inputs.

The front acre, we hear, was home to horses (that ate up all the ground cover and contributed to the erosion) and then rabbits. There are two rabbit hutches, about 300 or 400 square feet each, with wire mesh over all the ventilation holes. One has a sweet little front porch and a screen door. The first hutch is haphazardly built and we’ll demolish it, but the second is sound, and we think we’ll clean it up and patch the roof for an office and tool shed, maybe even a little writing studio.

We heard that all the rabbits got away or were picked off by predators. Neighbors say they saw them around for a while, but not lately. We went to the land with a bottle of champagne, after we signed the paperwork with the title company, and a white rabbit with black spots stared at me unblinking from where it lounged under a fallen pine. It looked so domestic I was sure I could walk up and scoop it up, and bring it home for a pet. But it darted away, agile and quick enough to tell me it was quite happy to be wild.

From the rabbit hutch porch, the view to the southwest makes my breath catch in my throat. I can’t imagine ever getting tired of it. Layers of misty mountains make still green waves, studded in oak, pine, and grassy valleys, all the way to the sea. Someone will have to paint it someday. As we stood looking out, woodpeckers drummed on a dead pine, and two huge black bald eagles circled above us. We’ll have to watch out that Persephone, Jess and Travis’ scruffy little white terrier, doesn’t become prey. Selene will be a good watchdog, when she can stay focused and isn’t bolting off after the wild turkeys, which, huge and heavy as they are, manage to clumsily and noisily flap pretty high into the Eucalyptus branches.

Beyond the cleared front acre, the slope gets steeper and forested, carpeted in yellow oxalis. We’ll have to cut down many of the Eucalyptus since they are so flammable, and the fire danger is high. But the oak and pine will stay, and this will be a good place for experiments in agroforestry, with clearings of silvopasture for goats and chickens. I want to grow medicinal herbs (especially the ones from South America, China, and India that have helped me in my years-long quest for hormonal balance), fruit trees, and berries.

The top of the slope will be a good place for a well, and rain water catchment, so gravity can aid us in irrigation. The back of the hillside is thick with brush and forest, fiddlehead ferns and young poison oak. The neighbors say it is home to coyotes and a family of bobcats. I’m inclined not to fence it, and let it be. We think back here among the trees, far from the road, and neighbors, would be a good quiet spot for artist studios, a recording studio for musicians, and a little amphitheater for performances. A grant we received last year will go towards purchasing some of the equipment.

We’ll camp to start, cook over a fire pit, and break in Jess and Trav’s new Dutch oven. The property comes with a water hookup and electricity. We’ll build a composting toilet outhouse, propane-heated shower, and clay pizza oven. Travis has lots of ideas for solar power and portable rechargeable battery banks. Soon we’ll build yurts for guests, classroom space, and ourselves. Eventually we plan to raise money to build more permanent alternative structures for volunteers, students, and artists-in-residence, like cob houses, straw bale adobe, earthships, tiny houses, bus conversions, and shipping container houses. I would really like to make a little pond.

I’m excited and also anxious to get to know this new place and new way of life. The town of Aromas is small, but it has an active artist community and a Grange Hall with frequent live music and gatherings. It feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Jose, and San Francisco are all quite close. The little towns nearby, like San Juan Bautista, Salinas, and Hollister, have their share of history and culture. Redwood forests and the ocean are both under 20 miles away. You can drive to the north end of Big Sur in about an hour. Some people go live off the grid to escape, but we chose this location because it’s so accessible and well connected.

There’s much we can’t predict about how this whole endeavor will shape out. The country seems so unstable. While I think top-down change is necessary, there’s a lot to be said for change starting small and local and branching out from there. Especially with our mission to cultivate resilient communities, we hope to be a small piece of a greater movement towards grassroots empowerment, and a more fulfilling and sustainable future. And as you know well, many people are doing what we’re doing. We’re not original at all. This counter culture is becoming more mainstream. And hopefully we can find ways to unite and help each other grow.

We will be the opposite of isolationist; our doors will always be open and we’ll share whatever we have, and whatever we learn. We see ourselves as intimately entwined in the local movements for food justice, racial justice, workers rights, housing rights, environmental justice, and economic justice. We’ll do whatever we can to be strong allies in what I hope is a growing intersectional movement to foster resilient, educated, healthy, safe, and unified communities. There are fights on many fronts. We have such a long ways to go. We’ll need all the help we can get. Once we get things up and running, and comfortable on the land, it will be a good place for kids and elders, for people from all places, and all walks of life. I hope you can come someday. Sooner rather than later, ok?

 

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