Today’s blog post is from the Bookshop Santa Cruz Summer Newsletter. Locals can pick up a copy of their chock-full newsletter at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Step into Nature is available there and anywhere books are sold, but you can’t have the copy my cat Ace is sleeping on!
Girlhood and a Santa Cruz Discovery
If, as a child, one is reluctantly transplanted from a city or, as in my case, from a couple of cities—New York and Chicago—to a sleepy beachside town, which is what Santa Cruz was in 1967, an introduction or a series of introductions to nature may be required in order for a love of the earth to blossom, in order for, many years later, a book celebrating nature and its role in imaginative thinking to be written. Once upon a time, there was a house on the upper west side of Santa Cruz at the corner of Overlook Drive and Crestview Terrace. (It’s no longer there.) When I was 11 my family moved into that small house, which had a large backyard and a grassy front yard that, to the great consternation of the neighbors, my city father refused to care for. Of all things, behind our house, there was a vast cow pasture with actual black and white cows! This was discomfiting; I was used to verticality, a nice rise of brick and cement, plenty of things for a child to do with city activity right outside the front door. The humanmade world was reliable; the natural world was not.
Shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz, seeing me stuck inside most of the time, my mother began to shoo me outside to play, though repeatedly, I’d rather quickly return to the comforts of the couch, complaining that there was nothing to do out there and worse, “There’s bugs outside!” I wanted to shelter in the living room where I felt safe with my books; I wanted to return to the city, to art museum and ballet culture. If I were going to spend time in a park, let it be Central Park. Knowing we were there to stay, my mother continued urging me out, hoping I’d make friends with the neighborhood children and begin to enjoy the outdoors, praying I’d adjust to our new life. My younger sister, on the other hand, had taken to the great outdoors with ease; she was made for running and climbing and playing hide-and-seek in the bushes.
Luckily for me and for my future, my crafty mother found a way to ease my hesitation. She introduced me to the enormous Monterey pine growing in our side yard. Pretty much the only climbing I’d done before had been up and down the many steps to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and up and down the many other steps to the New York City Public Library. My nearly 50-year-old mother showed me that a tree has its ladder up; she taught me how to climb, to rely on my arm strength, to swing my body, and she proved to me that while up in a tree’s branches one can arrive at a delicious peace. From high above I had a sweeping view that nicely put our new town in perspective. Perched on the upper limbs, leaning against the sturdy trunk, accompanied by a good book, Ritz crackers and an apple, along with my faithful diary, I began a reluctant adjustment to a new life.
A few years later, when in 7th grade, I met a boy named Patrick Brady. He took my hand and walked me—just the two of us—out of the neighborhoods and into the redwood forest at UCSC before the land was quite so built up. Knowing the redwood trees like personal friends, he wanted me to know them that way too, and placed my hands up against their soft bark, urged me to lean into them and breathe deeply. Rainy days never stopped us, and Patrick and I spent many hours close together beneath those great trees in many kinds of weather.
If your first kisses occur in a redwood forest, your relationship to nature is going to reflect that. It certainly began to alter mine; I started noticing trees, paying attention to them for their wisdom and tall leafiness. Might I too bend easily when confronted with harsh wind? Could I offer shelter to those in need the way trees do?When in high school, my group of hippie friends and I discovered Wilder Ranch long before it was an official park. We’d cut school, pile into a couple of cars and drive up to Empire Grade, park, climb or squeeze through a series of barbed wire fences, walk past the old limestone kilns, carrying drums, flutes, and tambourines, along with assorted mood elevators and lunch, and walk back into the land, free from burdensome adults, to spend long, languorous afternoons together. Much like houses have rooms, there I discovered that so can nature, and that each room may offer a different quality of feeling. A wide, grassy vista has unparalleled beauty; I saw wind playing with grass, hawks swooping down and effortlessly rising up to ride the airstreams.
Santa Cruz’s natural world—or nearly natural world—also inspired my first act of civil disobedience. The same cow pasture that at first had intimidated me had, for years, became a walking shortcut, and my fear of the cows disappeared after many harm-free hours amongst them. And then a developer bought that land and the cows went elsewhere. Once the earthmoving equipment had been moved in, once I was certain the open field would truly be destroyed, anger at that destruction got the best of me. One evening, with a bottle of laundry detergent in hand—Wisk, to be exact (how odd memory is)—I walked out and unscrewed the gas caps of several large machines, poured detergent into the tanks and walked back home, satisfied. Even though it was, of course, of no use, I’d made a personal statement on behalf of a place I’d come to love.
Of course, what would Santa Cruz’s natural world be without the beach? I’d not known till spending time with friends on local beaches that sunlight could be so expansive and weigh on one so warmly. And doesn’t sunlight dissolve most all hesitation? Before time beside the Pacific I never knew that anything could shout more loudly than my father! Those fearsome cresting waves accepted my anger too, more than once, each time transforming it into something better. There’s another spot adjacent to campus that, perhaps, you’ve wandered to as well, where another first kiss took place; where, I’ll bet, a lot of first kisses have been enjoyed. When I wanted to be sure the man I was dating was as into me as I was into him, we went for a walk to upper Pogonip. I led Michael down a trail to a redwood grove where a cement pool was full to overflowing with icy spring water and where goldfish swam. After surprising him by stripping and plunging in, I invited Michael to join me, which he did. A few years later we were married.
Santa Cruz abounds with natural enclaves where not only can peace and love be found, where not only can one celebrate with friends and delight under the sun, where not only can anger and fear be tamed, and not only can we stretch our legs and free ourselves from the constraints of what may be an otherwise sedentary lives, but where the imagination can find itself renewed and flourish wildly. Time out on the earth’s uncompromised places has proven to me that the imagination is far larger than I’d realized, that it can meander, dive, cross ground as quickly as running water, leap, and take flight.
When I received the contract to write my new book Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life, I was given six months to write it. There wasn’t time enough to even consider how difficult it might be to go from proposal to finished draft in that amount of time; I had to simply jump in and write. Luckily for me, the words came with little effort, guided as they were by not only my present time in nature but by those early, Santa Cruz days of trees and sun and waves and rain when this girl’s city ways were expanded and she found new dirt-filled, sky-studded ones!
CABINET OF CURIOSITIES
Scattered like birdseed throughout the text of Step into Nature is the Cabinet of Curiosities—a compendium of art-making inspirations. Here are a few excepts to lead your into the world of nature, accompanied by your imagination:n Consider the parts and places of nature you feel connected to. Is it the deep darkness of many-roomed caves or the lushness of a rainforest? Perhaps butterflies’ ability to flit resembles your own? You might jot down a list of those aspects of nature that feel like “family.”
What’s blocked your path to imagination and creative expression? How have you responded in the past? What technique might you incorporate from nature for the next blocked moment? n On a blue-sky day, take a short return trip to childhood and lie back on a soft spot of ground. Look up at the clouds. Who’s traveling there? What appears out of the billowing white? n Consider the places nearest you to which you might offer your protection. How does this protection manifest? Why and in what ways is it important to you?
Excerpted from Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination & Spirit in Everyday Life, by Patrice Vecchione, published by Beyond Words/Atria, Simon & Schuster Publishing, 2015.