From A Farm in Marin:
A Deep History ~ by Sheri Ritchlin
That a person is made of more than cells and sinew, more than genes and a personal history,
but also of the deep earth fires and tides and the movements of distant stars;
of galaxies and earthly plates colliding; of early ancestors, names unknown,
who tread the paths worn smooth with human exploration, longing and despair;
of the debris of fallen civilizations; tales of their heroes and their villains,
who warp the shape of psychic cells with whorls and furrows;
of luminous souls who have kept a lamp burning in the galactic dark
to signal our presence and our project…
We, the unique creatures of Earth, this living blue and green garden sailing about the Sun.
That we are each made of all this and so much more, spun in the web of a cosmic whole and holiness…
I call this Deep History.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you this up front: The farm in Marin—that's pronounced Ma-RIN—is not a farm, it is a ranch. In New York State, where I grew up, every place with some acreage that was being cultivated was called a farm. Wheat, corn, some chickens, some pigs and a horse or two… That was a farm. "Some acreage" might be a hundred acres or so. To my child's eye—city-reared, apartment-dwelling—farms began where the buildings and the sidewalks stopped and there was suddenly green. Farms began where there were cows. And in my child's heart, I wanted there to be a creek where I could wade and fish and watch for frogs. Build a raft and sail down it like Huckleberry Finn. It was always the dairy farms that provided the welcome and pungent announcement that we had crossed that invisible line, which I seem to have been seeking to cross all of my life. A coming home to a place I had never been. A soul's home in nature.
I only grasped the meaning of ranch in my twenties on my first trip west. I was in Nevada City, Montana walking through a museum there with a family I had just met. We fell into conversation and I asked where they were from. The father explained that they had a "little ranch" nearby. How little is a little ranch? I asked. Five thousand acres he replied. This was a number, a space, which I could not hold in my apartment-size head. And this was small?
Several years ago I was driving through Wyoming with a friend on the way down to Mexico. In one of the small towns, I went into a local salon to have my hair cut and my eyes opened. I'm always curious about small town life and the hairdresser, like the barber, is a reliable source of information. "Many ranches around here?" I asked. "Oh not so many as before." "Are there big ranches?" (aging had not subdued my obsession). Her voice took on a funereal tone. "Oh hardly at all you know. They've been divided or sold off so you only have a few of your bigger ones left." "How big are we talking about?" "Well you know. The million acre ones." A million! I love to be dazzled with these kinds of numbers. I would have died for my one acre as a kid, assuming it was big enough for a creek to go through and a horse.
I went west at 21 and I've been a westerner ever since, although many Montanans and their ranching brethren would dispute the idea that California is The West. There are bumper stickers that read "Don't Californicate in Montana" or Washington or Oregon or Idaho. They have them for each state. And I admit that the Southern California coast where I spent much of my adult life is further removed from the spirit of the West than New York State. I lived in Leucadia and Del Mar—beach towns where land was measured in square feet and a quarter of an acre would cost you an arm and a leg. I saw land values soar to dizzying levels. Small houses on small lots, part vertical cliff, would go for a million dollars and be torn down to be replaced by somebody else's dream house. This wasn't just prime American real estate. It was prime world real estate, with some of the most beautiful views on the planet.
This was even more true of Northern California, which I only came to know when I moved to San Francisco to attend graduate school at the California Institute of Integral Studies. I had loved the Mediterranean warmth and beauty of Southern California, with its masses of bougainvillea, flowering trees like the acacia and jacaranda; its sea lavender and vividly colored ice plant and nasturtium tumbling down the sandstone cliffs along the ocean. It was another world to me after the harsh winters of Rochester, which brought icy roads, streets lined with dirty slush, snow to be scraped off the windshield in the frigid winter mornings. Snow is beautiful in the country but in cities, it turns quickly gray and the urban landscape is monochromatic through the long winter months.
The San Francisco Bay Area was another experience altogether. Beautiful in a different way. A more dramatic landscape. And there at the center of it is San Francisco, surely one of the world's most beautiful cities. So filled with light. Set on its seven hills, like Rome, with water on three sides of it, from the blue Pacific to the gleaming waters of San Francisco and San Pablo bays. And to crown this jewel, the rich and graceful red lines of the Golden Gate Bridge. A giant soaring harp singing to the sea and land. It is one of the seven wonders of the modern world with views so fine you want to stop right in the middle and join the tourists taking in the white cityscape to the east, the sailboats scattered like a flock of white birds, the Pacific opening out toward China on the west… The first crossing of that bridge is an experience you will never forget, and all the crossings that follow will remain fresh and stirring.
Where does the Golden Gate Bridge go? Not many people who haven't been to San Francisco know that. It is just this beautiful arching of the heart towards possibility—the quintessential archetype of crossing. Beyond, one sees green headlands and trees and a beckoning to beauty. The Golden Gate Bridge, in fact, goes to Marin—in the year 2000, the wealthiest county in the United States, measured in per household income. Sausalito, Tiburon, Mill Valley, Ross, Belvedere... World class places. It has the highest living costs to match, exceeding even the pricey Southern California beach towns.
The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the foremost research areas in the world, including the vast resources of UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, Stanford and Silicon Valley. Not surprisingly, the natural and cultural milieu attracts people from all over the world. Many of the best, the brightest and the most well-heeled, live in Marin. The creative and unorthodox live in houseboats in Sausalito. The high rollers live in mansions in Belvedere. When you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you have entered a world of natural and human elegance.
Now we come back to the farm that is a ranch. The dictionary definition of "ranch" is "a farm where cattle, sheep, horses, or other livestock are raised on large tracts of open land, especially in North and South America and Australia." Texas, the vast lands of Australia, the spacious pampas of Argentina… Sure. That I can see. But Marin? You would hardly expect a farm in Marin, let alone a ranch of that description. It was something I just couldn't imagine when I first came here. So I will now share with you the eighth wonder of my world—a ranch in Marin—and a good deal more. …
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This book, as you will soon discover, is not really about a farm or a ranch, in Marin or Sonoma. It is about how my experience of those places and my search for their story opened me up to both a larger seeing and to larger questions. Questions about "those who go" and "those who stay." About movements and migrations. About things that change and things that endure. I have combined memoir and history because our smallest, most personal moments in the present are ripples on the wave that has gone before and is moving so swiftly toward what is to be. The next moment. Personal. Global. Cosmic.
The people and places I have chosen are purely arbitrary but you will see that over time they are connected. This story begins with a farm in Sonoma, which begins with the story of a ranch in Marin, and before that, with a plot of land in the foothills of the Italian Swiss Alps. Each is a story, enmeshed in another story. It is stories, all the way down. And where there are discontinuities—like Ticino (pronounced Ti-CHEE-no), Switzerland to Marin, well those are stories too. Sometimes the best of all because they are filled with exotica, the fantastic, for people at one end or the other. Are the streets really lined with gold as they say? Is it true that farmers in their alpine vineyards wear special shoes to work in the steep places? Tell us! The stories scatter like seeds, spread as much by tragedy as good fortune. Pine cones burst open with fire and fly before the hot winds. They take root quickly in the charred earth where the rodents have perished. ...