By Phil McKenna
I recently spent a February afternoon hiking at Baron Ranch with friends. It was a beautiful day; the sun was warm, the air cool. The front country of the Santa Ynez Mountains can be quite breezy, especially in the afternoons, but this afternoon was absolutely still, unusually so.
Baron Ranch is an orphan. It had been abandoned by the cattle ranchers decades ago, and more recently by an avocado grower seeking riches from marginal soils and hard water pulled from sandstone formations. The temperate climate favored the avocados, but it’s my guess that the soils and poor water quality starved the trees. Today the 250 acres of once-upon-a-time orchards are graveyards marked by orchard roads and occasional skeletal trees. It’s a shame – and an opportunity – something like a strip mine waiting to be reclaimed.
The rest of the 1000-acre Ranch is a jewel. This is a mature forest, last burned in the Refugio Fire of September 1955. It rewards the patient hiker with a beautiful upper canyon watered by a tumbling creek that is forested with oaks and laurels. The slopes of the mountains are carpeted with our trademark chaparral, impenetrable to you and I without a trail, but home to the critters of the canyon and the springtime florescent that scents the sun-warmed air with the fragrance of our homeland.
Walking into the canyon from the access road, the evidence of the restoration of the riparian corridor, trampled first by cattle then by orchard plantings encroaching into the banks of the creek, is in full view. This restoration work is the penance of the County Public Works Department for the destruction of red legged frog habitat in the neighboring Tajiguas Landfill, the midden mound of South Coast Santa Barbara County.
About a mile into the canyon, the ranch road, serving as the trail at that point, joins the wooded creek and begins a climb into the mountains. It is not excessively steep, but it is insistent. I am an eager hiker, but at 74, enthusiasm is tempered by capacity. Walking in the shade of the trees with the creek murmuring in its bed, I noted to my companion that after one-quarter mile of incline I was actually feeling rejuvenated. He, of similar vintage, agreed.
And that was the moment. I realized that the forest was feeding us. The sun was warm, energizing the trees of the creek. The air was cool, tending to settle into the creek bed. And the stillness of that air did not disperse its settlement, but concentrated the oxygen released by the trees.
It was a wonder to be directly connected to the forest. It was not an intellectual understanding but a visceral reality.
Nature gives us continual gifts. We should learn to reciprocate.
Photo Courtesy of Deborah Williams 50 Great Public Land Destinations