Farm Crime and Other Distractions from Writing Query Letters


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Yolo County sunflowers in full bloom 8-26-18.

One of the benefits of living in Woodland, CA is being surrounded by miles and miles of orchards and fields. The sunflowers in the photo above were growing just a few blocks from my house, and I love the sense of being lost in all this beautiful open space. Yet in 2018 I found myself constantly in my car commuting to cities: to Davis and Sacramento for employment, and to West Sacramento to farm my own plot on leased land at the corner of 5th and “C” Streets. The approximately 1/3 acre site is a mini agricultural open space in the midst of a densely populated urban area. As such it is subject to all the pressures of vandalism, thefts and other crimes that plague cities. This leads me to the subject of today’s post.


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Stock and lupine at my West Sacramento Flourish Farm plot on 3-15-18. Fresh stock flowers smell deliciously like a combination of carnations, cinnamon, and cloves.

My farm crime story started in March with repeated thefts of my blooming stock plants, each neatly dug up and carted off. At first I was puzzled. I had put them out as transplants in the fall of 2017, and they had all been doing fine over the winter. Then once they started to bloom, at first one, then another, then another disappeared.

On a cool Saturday morning in April I ran into the person I later surmised was the culprit. He was a 30-something gentleman dressed in a clean T-shirt and jeans and wearing white leather low-cut tennis shoes. In his white 5 gallon plastic bucket was a blooming pansy plant that looked as if it had been freshly dug up from someone’s home garden, tucked in carefully between various found objects and trash. Of course, logically, you would need good quality soil to pot up your new “find,” and this is what he was asking me for. Taking a polite but hard line, I said “no:” this was land leased from the city, my farm was a business, I needed this soil. At the time I did not ask him about the disappearing stock since he only had a pansy plant with him. Still, I was suspicious. I told him the land was private property and to please stay off the site. He said, “OK, no problem” and left on his bike. While he didn’t seem like a local simply wanting to do a little freebie enhancement planting in his own back yard, he also didn’t seem to be part of the local transient community. West Sacramento, like so many other cities including Woodland and Davis, is struggling with an exploding population of homeless people; I have compassion for all of them. Still, I didn’t own that soil he wanted and my sense was that he would want it not once, but on a regular basis.


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Lupine and stock blooming at the farm 4-20-18

By the time May came around over 50 of the blooming stock plants had gone missing. Each one had been dug up, removed, and the soil smoothed over to make it look like noting had been there in the first place. Additional plants had also disappeared, in particular, ferns and perennials I had recently bought and planted to supplement the flower bouquets I planned to sell later in the season. Bags of compost our farm manager had received as part of a grant also began disappearing– all told maybe as many as 100. I was putting 20 plus hours a week into the farm that spring but only working there a few days a week. Whoever was stealing the flowers and compost was obviously accessing the site whenever I wasn’t there during the day or possibly at night. It was frustrating, irritating, creepy. Putting up a chain link fence was out of the question for reasons of cost, and the open site access wishes of both the City of West Sacramento and the nonprofit Center for Land Based Learning which control the conditions of the land lease. Between trying to get the farm ready for spring U-pick events and juggling my other two jobs, the situation was driving me crazy. Although I had been working hard on my novel query letter process in January and February of 2018, all thoughts of trying to find an agent now went completely out of my mind.

As the thefts continued, we tried various prevention tactics. CLBL paid for and had one of their wonderful employees install motion detector lights as well as a steel T-stake post and chicken wire fence around the pallets of bagged compost. “They,” whoever “they” were, (at this point it seemed like more than one thief was involved) smashed the fence down and continued to steal the compost apparently aided now by the extra night lighting.

During this period I arrived one weekday morning at the farm to discover the chicken wire fencing had been torn off the T-stakes and placed on the ground, apparently ready to cart off later and possibly to be used for homeless shelter building materials. The West Sacramento Police were very supportive and tried to help as did various U-pick customers, one of whom suggested that instead of posting No Trespassing signs I should make a sign saying: Please do not Steal the Flowers since asking politely was likely to encourage cooperation. I was so angry that I didn’t manage to get around to trying that; the thefts continued. In late June another U-pick customer told me that she had seen a young man riding a bicycle away from the farm holding an entire sunflower plant roots and all.


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By June I was arriving in the mornings to discover new thefts four times a week, so out of desperation I decided to do a late night stake out. There had been reports from the apartment complex next to the farm that people were there at night and sometimes up to no good like throwing bags of compost over the fence onto resident’s cars. So I drove over to West Sacramento late one evening and  pulled into an empty parking lot across the street from the farm. I sat in my car from 9:30 pm to 11:00 pm to see if by some remote chance I might be able to catch one of the thieves “in the act.” Without such cast iron proof, there was little the West Sacramento Police could do. Unfortunately, my intel source at the apartment complex had mentioned 2:30 am as being the time he had looked out his window to see “them,” (he referred to one of them as a zombie) but that was going to be too late for me to stay out.


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This is the evening stake out parking lot across from the farm. The mural on the building was added later in the summer and while I don’t mind the grasses and ladybug, I do strenuously object to the oversize black widow spider. I understand and appreciate that the City of West Sacramento hired this artist to try to improve aesthetics temporarily, but I don’t believe they took into account that many people frequenting this 5th and “C” Street intersection on foot are homeless, poor, and have mental health and/or addiction issues. If you have to sleep outside or live in a dilapidated building where getting bit by poisonous spiders is a real threat, I just don’t think that seeing that big black widow is very helpful or inspiring. Never mind someone seeing it while suffering a bad drug trip. And they say this artist is well known for his murals of Monarch butterflies. Why he didn’t choose to paint one of those instead, I don’t understand.

But I digress. That night I did not catch anyone carting away plants from the farm although I did see one young man walk up to one of the shipping containers. When the motion detector light went on, he turned and left. It turns out the farm is fairly well lit at night. The lights from near by Rayley’s Field were on until late and between the street lights and apartment outdoor security lights it was obvious that anyone wanting to steal plants would have quite an easy time of it. The intersection was quite busy with a late night crowd of younger people walking by, many wearing large back packs and many pushing or rolling various types of carts and wagons. That answered the question: “how were they removing the stolen plants and bags of compost from the site?” This information coupled with the known fact of a local black market stolen plant trade helped everything begin to make sense.

A few weeks later I saw the man who had wanted soil for his pansy back in March pushing a shopping cart with a beautiful palm tree in a 5 gallon plastic pot inside. When I made a U-turn to look more closely at him and it, he offered to sell me the palm tree. He said it cost him $35.00 but he would let me have it for $15.00. I said no thanks but was wondering… did he know who had been stealing plants from my farm? He kind hemmed and coughed then said he, “might” know who that could be. He offered to “put the word out that people needed to leave the flowers alone,” and his parting line was: “you are going to be so happy that you will not have any thefts for two weeks.” On the drive home I couldn’t stop laughing. I couldn’t have possibly have made it up if I tried.

End of theft story so far: CLBL paid for and had a security camera installed. Apparently our local plant thieves do not want to be recorded so they have left the farm alone for the time being. We had a wonderful rest of the U-pick flower season.

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Farm flowers 8-30-18.

My sincere thanks to the amazing staff at Center for Land-Based Learning and the City of West Sacramento for all their support and help.





In Which Lit-Farm Takes an Interesting Turn


I cannot believe it has been an entire year since I added a post to this blog. I graduated from the Farm Academy last fall and in January, 2017 I stated my urban flower farm in West Sacramento. A dream come true and wonderful, but an unbelievable amount of work to the point that between trying to manage the farm and juggling all my other jobs, I have had to temporarily put aside my quest to get my novel published. Now with this late fall breathing space, I am working on getting ready to make simultaneous submissions to different agents.


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Here is Flourish Farm on June 1st, 2017 after beginning to plant in late April. I had half of the 1/4 acre plot, sharing the other side with another farmer. All of my warm season flowers were started from seed.


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This photo shows the same area with all the flowers blooming in mid July. At this point I was awash in flowers, and it proved much more difficult to harvest and sell them than I had imagined. Fortunately, Center for Land Based Learning helped me plan/promote two U-Pick events for mid August. Unfortunately, various first year farming learning curve things were happening at the same time. For example, I didn’t realize that all the flowers were at their peak throughout July and would start the process of declining in August. I also didn’t realize that after our late June heat wave (temperatures for days on end in the 107 degree range) that all the plants were increasing in volume so fast that by the end of July it was becoming impossible to even walk through the furrows from one side of the site to the other. This issue was going to make it hard for the U-Pickers to access the flowers in August.

To offset some of these difficulties, I was fortunate to have Karen Swan from Center for Land Based Learning bring her high school student group from the City of West Sacramento’s Future Ready Internship Program to help one morning in early August. Here is part of the group cutting back zinnias and working on the process of taking down the huge amaranth plants.


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Now here is where my Lit-Farm idea comes in. To back up a little, the whole time I am starting this farm I am wondering how it could ever provide an opportunity for anyone to talk about literature. As might be expected, all conversations on the site had been primarily focused on agriculture. So imagine my surprise when during an educational activity with this group later in the morning, a common book on high school English reading lists comes up: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. And why it comes up is that the students were supposed to be making something out of a pile of amaranth stalks left over from the take down of this bed of plants. Many had grown to over 10 feet high and the long straight stalks looked like some sort of primitive building material. I had suggested a garden trellis as an idea, but handed them string and told them to make whatever they wanted. Within a few minutes, the group in the photo below had started making bows and arrows out of the amaranth stalks. When they proved too weak, breaking like celery stalks, they began cutting branches off the mulberry tree overhead in search of a better product. At this point I commented that the scene reminded me of the boys on the island in Lord of the Flies, and one of the students started talking with me about the novels he had read the previous year in English. Even though it was a small conversation, I was excited because this was exactly the opportunity I had hoped for.


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While we were taking about books, the other group was making a stretcher. Amazingly, this later turned out to be sturdy enough to hold the weight of a student carried for a short distance.


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Although there was no additional discussion of  Lord of the Flies, another interesting thing happened. One of the students in the bow and arrow group objected to the others making weapons and promoting violence. She asked them to stop and make something else, but they refused. She then left her group and went off by herself to make a fan. This made me think about the conflicts of the boys on the island in the book, and the hunter-gatherer instincts we rarely see so graphically illustrated in our everyday lives. It was great. All very serendipitous.

But that was August and now it is late fall. I am tilling in flower beds and planting winter crops of sweet peas, lupine and stock. I still have a few flowers left to remind me of summer. Here are bells of Ireland,  ‘Ruby Eclipse’ sunflowers, and ‘Summer Solstice’ zinnias still going strong on November 2nd. I hope to be farming the whole site in 2018 since the other farmer decided not to return. The U-Pick events were a success, and I would like to focus on having the farm open for that several days a week next summer. And who knows…. I might get to talk about literature with a few people.


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The Lit-Farm Project



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The good and beautiful earth.

Fall crops at the UC Davis Market Garden 10-30-16.

The Lit-Farm Project is an outdoor education program dedicated to supporting students of all ages by providing hands-on sustainable agriculture experience integrated with opportunities for the appreciation of quality literature.

Background: In September I graduated from the California Farm Academy, an 8 month intensive training program based in Winters.

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Here is our 2016 class and motley farm crew.

Photo: Juan Silva


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And here is our wonderful graduation ceremony at the capitol in September.

Photo: Nina Suzuki

In between were amazing farm field trips, interesting and relevant farm lectures, workshops and classes, and a great deal of farm work (rain or shine and even when it was 107 degrees one summer day) at the Center for Land Based Learning’s farm.

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Here is our incomparable Maureen Thompson who made it all happen in such an amazing way with lots of help and contributions from the CLBL team and the extended family of mentor farmers. To all thank you, thank you!

Photo: Juan Silva

Oh yes and there were tractors! And we got to drive them! Many thanks to professor Mir Shafii and his incredible UC Davis student employees who showed us the ropes, I mean the implements. This class was truly a highlight for all of us.


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Photo: Juan Silva

Now back to working the three jobs and trying to figure out what is next. Novel news update: an agent requested the full manuscript and is reading it.

On the agriculture front: everyone who graduates from the Farm Academy has to write a business plan and have it reviewed by a panel of farmers and other professionals. My plan was focused on a one quarter acre, first year start-up annual flower farm. If all goes well then I would like to expand the second year to include herbs, strawberries and perennial flowers. In the third year I plan to add greens for the floral industry and hopefully pomegranates and figs. I am really excited about the possibilities and am in the process of working out the where and when. Which brings me to the Lit-Farm project.

Way-back background

The Lit-Farm project technically began in 1969 in my 8th grade English class when we read The Good Earth, Pearl Buck’s 1931 novel of life in Pre-revolutionary China.

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I bought a copy last year to see why it had stayed with me as a remembered important influence and to see if it had had anything to do with my current interest in agriculture. Answer: yes!

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It is still the good and beautiful earth.

Fennel, red cabbage and (my dear) pollinator flowers: lupine, poppies and larkspur at the UC Davis Student Farm Market Garden 5-16-16.

When I was in college and in my 20’s I left horticulture and went into English. When I was older I left English to return to horticulture and agriculture. And now I am trying to figure out how to blend these two worlds. The common denominator throughout the years for me has been education whether teaching at summer camps, teaching in the public schools, or teaching farm skills.

I believe there has to be a way to use education to help students understand the elemental importance of the good earth, provide an opportunity for them to learn how to grow their own food, and expand their appreciation of how quality literature plays into the essential themes of our daily lives. All in one place. In other words: a Lit-Farm Project.

Many thanks to both B.H. James and Elizabeth James for their outstanding book Method to the Madness: a Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers Through the Study of Literature which inspired me to find a name for my vision and an increased sense of determination to try to make it happen. Their energy and enthusiasm are very refreshing and so very needed!

Finally, special appreciation to the Stockton high school students who contributed such insightful literary essays to the book. Hats off to you and keep up the great work.

Death in Death Valley


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Night, Death Valley

Photographer: Jack Freer


About my novel

Macy Gallager’s husband Kevin is killed in a mysterious car accident in Death Valley, California.  The Inyo County Sheriff’s Office won’t share details of the investigation, so she’s left to her own devices to try to dig up information.  She moves to Sacramento to live with her brother and sister-in-law, organic urban farmers who give her a part-time job to help keep her mind off Kevin’s death.  Unfortunately, troubling questions remain: was her chemist husband mixed up in counterfeiting and wine fraud?  Why did he lie to her about his plans for the weekend of the accident?  What had he been doing in Death Valley anyway, and what exactly was involved with his relationship to the glamour couple next door?

Fictionalized true crime

Two local California crimes became the basis for my ideas.  One was the 2012 sentencing of Mark Christian Anderson for the 2005 arson of the Wines Central wine storage warehouse in Vallejo.  The other was the conviction of Sarah Dutra for her role in the 2001 poisoning murder of lawyer Larry McNabney.

The settings

I used Sacramento for three reasons: first because I live nearby, second because I fell in love with a historic neighborhood there I wanted to fictionalize called Poverty Ridge, and third because it is becoming the ‘Farm to Fork’ capitol.  This movement is not only tremendously exciting but growing stronger every year.  I felt I had a unique opportunity to combine my interests in history, crime and organic agriculture into one new story.

I used Death Valley for many reasons, among them: it is gorgeous, intense, dangerous, mysterious.  I used to live in the Eastern Sierra, so this proximity gave me the privilege and opportunity of spending time there.  I think Death Valley is underutilized in fiction as a geographical ‘character.’  I think about what Tony Hillerman did to promote the beauty of Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona; perhaps in my own way I can draw attention to this incredible resource.

As part of my novel research I came across an amazing photographer named Jack Freer, and he has graciously granted me permission to use the beautiful photos of Death Valley included above and below selected from his Overland Photography website

I also want to mention a fascinating story he wrote called “Finding Norman,” a true account of his search for a missing suicidal man in Death Valley.  See .


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If you are interested in another true search story in Death Valley, check out “The Hunt for the Death Valley Germans” on Tom Mahood’s website:




Phase II


My novel is finished now so Phase II, getting it published, continues.  It officially started after I attended a Writer’s Conference this spring, pitched my novel to two literary agents I met there, sent the requested materials and waited months only to be turned down by both. I’m learning that ‘rejection is the name of the game’ as my wonderful editor said about the process of trying to get published.  I’m going to have to develop a thick skin and continue to believe in myself.


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Jackson & Perkins Co. red ‘Impatient’ and fiery orange gold ‘Charisma’ roses light up December.

It’s Finally Done!


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This is the very wonderful cover Davis artist and graphic designer Mark Deamer created for my finished manuscript.  A new chapter of marketing and promotion now begins.

Flower Resume, Editing Job



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Flower resume

In 2012 and through December, 2013 I worked on the beneficial insect border at the UC Davis Student Farm.  When the job ended, I found I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to focus my future on two areas:

1) Designing landscapes and pollinator habitat

2) Fiction writing

These two fields are compatible for me in that they represent lifelong interests and they also provide balance; I love being outdoors in the cool mornings, and I also love sitting indoors writing and designing in the hot Central Valley afternoons.

Because of the plight of the honey bees and Colony Collapse Disorder, many people are asking ‘what can we do to become part of the solution?’  For me, the answer to that question revolves around learning as much as I can about the plants bees love and planting as many of them as I can.  The process already started with native plants added to the Student Farm border (see Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ above), but I realized if I want to add this focus to my residential design business then I would need a flower resume.

A flower resume?  Yes, plants I really grew, see the photos for proof.  The Student Farm manager graciously gave me a 200 foot long, 5 foot wide bed to use for my pollinator habitat adventure.  This is a good arrangement because it gives me the opportunity to learn and experiment with support— I get access to all the water I need, tractor assistance and supplies such as drip tape.  In return I do a lot of volunteer farm weeding, and I am also keeping on top of the border watering to help new plants establish.

To begin the process I started quite a few types of garden flowers and native wildflowers (forbs) in my small home greenhouse over the winter.  Various things went wrong:  it was too hot in the greenhouse, it was too cold; I over watered, I under watered; CA native wildflowers are planted in the fall, not the spring and it turns out I used unfinished compost from the wrong farm pile so some of my seed flat mix was unsuitable.  There were also fungus gnats in the compost, and they compromised the root systems of seeds that did germinate.  Next they multiplied and tried to come into my house to visit.  I had to use organic treatments to kill them that didn’t work.

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Planting bed ready to go, April 29, 2014.

Back to greenhouse issues: by early May it was clear that so few of my seeds thrived that I had to put Plan B into effect.  This involved going out and buying plugs and 4” plants.  I finally got everything planted in half of the bed.

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Here is my flower resume on July 15th, 2014.  In the fall I used the other half of the bed to direct seed the native wildflowers that need winter chill to germinate.

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Photo above:  Here is the direct seeded area on 3-14-15.  Goldfields is the yellow wildflower mixed with blue lupine.  I love to watch the many beneficial insects that are attracted to these flowers.


Editing job


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Image above:

Cartoonist George Harriman’s classic illustration from the life and times of archy and mehitabel by Don Marquis, published in 1949.

While my work on the flowers was going on, in January 2014 I finally finished my novel— I was so excited!  I sent it off to my wonderful editor who worked on it for about a month.  When I got it back, there were many suggestions and comments: about 700 of them.  They were very insightful and helpful— I even agreed with the vast majority of them… still, it was a lot to tackle.  In late July I finally finished; however, I was now over the recommended word limit.  So I am currently working on cutting 30,000 words.  Which is also challenging. Editing is definitely a job and not as much fun as playing with flowers.  Useful and important though… part of the commitment and detachment necessary to complete the project.


Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891-1973)


 Ews bath 1900 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

 E.W. Scripps mansion bathroom, 1900.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections,Ohio University Libraries.

We came in through the bathroom window one late afternoon in 1972.  Seven of us, all sixteen years old that year, climbed up into the thick branches of a shrub against the east wall of the abandoned E.W. Scripps mansion, swung over the sill of an opaque glass window and dropped down onto the black and white octagonal tile floor of a large bathroom.  In the center was an ornate barber’s chair.  We gathered around it in astonishment then everyone had to try it out.  ‘May I give you a shave my good man?’  We peeked into cupboards, opened drawers and twisted squeaky faucet handles on the porcelain sink.  The air was cool and still, smelling faintly of old soap.  One door led from the bathroom to a large empty room hushed with heavy velvet drapes pulled across the windows, the other to a long, wide, dark corridor.  We gathered around the barber’s chair to consult.  The light from the window was already fading, and our mothers would expect us home for dinner.  We thought we had better explore while we had the chance.


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You would definitely need a good barber to maintain such an elegant mustache and beard.  Wealthy newspaper publishing entrepreneur Edward Wyllis Scripps as he looked in 1890 when he retired at the age of 36 to build his family home on a mesa overlooking the ocean in San Diego, CA.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

How we came to notice this window and enter E.W .Scripps mansion came about in the following way:  in 1970 I was part of a group of teens who had all moved with our families to Scripps Miramar Ranch, a new housing development on the site of the former E.W. Scripps property on the northern edge of San Diego.  My family in particular had relocated from Orange County because the aerospace industry which had boomed for so long was now going bust.  By the late 1960’s my father had become so alarmed at the escalating layoffs that he had started taking night classes at Chapman College in information systems analysis to reeducate for a new career.  When he finally landed an administration job at San Diego State University, a period of great stress and anxiety for our whole family came to an end.

We began driving down from Orange County on weekends to explore neighborhoods in San Diego and soon my parents decided to buy a new tract home in the first phase of a new housing development at Scripps Ranch.  I liked it because the rolling hills and open fields reminded me a little of the landscape I had explored so happily in Orange County.  I was also intrigued with the vast eucalyptus forest E.W. Scripps had planted seventy years ago.  Thinking of living among the graceful, airy trees with their slender trunks somehow made the wrench of moving from a familiar place less painful.


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Above: an early 1970’s photograph from my father’s collection showing the understory of the eucalyptus forest.

The soil of the area was stony and dry, but a network of smooth, well-worn paths curved over hills and down narrow, wooded canyons making it possible to travel around by foot or bicycle.  In warm weather I went everywhere barefoot and remember how these paths felt.  I believe they were part of the early 1900’s landscape and perhaps represented horse trails used by the family and employees to access different areas of the vast ranch.


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Above: another early 1970’s photograph from my father’s collection showing the hilly terrain and how the new tract houses of the Scripps Ranch development were set into the eucalyptus trees.

In the early 1970’s, Scripps Ranch was fairly isolated from surrounding communities.  Our nearest neighbor was the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station covering a vast expanse of windswept land to the south and west of Interstate 15.  About twenty minutes further south was the nearest junior high and high school in an area of San Diego called Clairemont Mesa.  Our group of teenagers had all become acquainted on the long bus rides back and forth to school and had started meeting after we got home in the afternoons.  A popular place to congregate was the sloping parking lot in front of the only store in Scripps Ranch, a small convenience mart in a portable building with an excellent supply of all the junk food most of us were not encouraged to eat to home: Hostess Twinkies, Hostess Ding Dongs, Hostess Cherry Pies and Coca-Cola in glass bottles.  From the back of the store it was a short walk west to the old Scripps mansion, an imposing white stucco building with square towers, looking a bit like a cross between a castle and a hacienda.  One afternoon we wandered over to look at it.


Miramare entrance 2007 1024x768 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)A 2007 view of Miramare castle in Trieste Italy which provided E.W. Scripps with part of the inspiration for his new home.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.

Molly McClain’s excellent article, “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment” begins with the context behind the decision Edward Wyllis Scripps and his sister, Ellen Browning Scripps, made to buy land in California and start building a new home in 1891.  It is available online in the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of The Journal of San Diego History, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in finding out more about the Scripps family.  She explains that they decided to name the home ‘Miramar,’ Spanish for ‘view of the sea.’  E.W. envisioned a structure partly designed to reflect the style of Miramare Castle, home of Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria on the Gulf of Trieste in Italy, and partly to reflect classic Spanish architecture with living areas organized around a central courtyard.


Miramare1880 1 1024x707 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)Above: an 1880 photograph of Miramare Castle in Trieste, Italy showing some of the architectural features E.W. incorporated into the design of his home in San Diego.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.


Miramare mit Garten 1880 1024x708 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)Above: an 1880 photograph showing the formal gardens and grounds of Miramare Castle in Trieste, Italy which influenced the Scripps Miramar Ranch courtyard landscaping.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.


1906 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Above: E.W. Scripps mansion and grounds in 1906 showing the southwest tower on the left side of the house.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.


Scripps Miramar Ranch Aerial View 1930 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Above: 1930 aerial of E.W. Scripps mansion and grounds, showing the sides of the house organized around the central courtyard.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

Negley Cochran in his book E.W. Scripps comments: “It was semi-arid mesa land, stony, treeless and bare, no water, no roads, buildings, or improvements— just a tough job for Scripps to tackle” (p. 104). Apparently E.W. loved the challenge and threw himself into the work of developing the property— building roads, creating reservoirs in the canyons to store water,  constructing an extensive irrigation system and planting not only thousands of eucalyptus trees but also groves of citrus and olives across the extended ranch, over 2,100 acres in all (pp.104-106).

By the time our family arrived in 1970 the axial Beaux-Arts main drive that headed east toward the top right side of the photo above had disappeared, a casualty of a new regrading plan for streets and tract home lots.  The mansion itself; however, remained open for docent led tours (I recall going on one with my mother), and the beautifully landscaped grounds that surrounded the house remained intact.  The little convenience store where our group met was located just past the middle far right edge of the 1930 aerial view of the mansion above.


Scripps Miramar courtyard 1969 San Diego Magazine 1024x784 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Above: The E.W. Scripps mansion courtyard as it looked when the mansion was open for tours from a 1969 issue of San Diego Magazine.  Courtesy of California History Room, California State Library.

1Miramar ranch birds eye view 1910 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

1910 photograph showing the east wing of the mansion courtyard, flat topped roof and tower.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

The photograph above shows several interesting features E.W. Scripps included in the design of the house.  Since the Pacific Ocean was just twelve miles away and visible on the horizon, Molly McClain mentions in “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment” that the flat roof was used by E.W. as a place to promenade (p. 12).  Negley Cochran comments in E.W. Scripps that another design feature was a large central courtyard originally planned with auto access in mind.  This allowed guests and family members to arrive and depart conveniently (p. 104).  Arched windows surrounding the courtyard brought light into an interior corridor with suites of rooms opening off the inner walls.

2Nackey in corridor 1907 1910 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

The photograph above was taken sometime between 1907 and 1910 and shows E.W.’s daughter Nackey standing inside one part of the corridor that surrounded the courtyard/auto court.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

I recall from taking a tour of the mansion that one of the towers was the ground floor location of the living room with high ceilings, an imposing fireplace and windows with views south and west.  The house was elegantly furnished with oriental rugs and stately but comfortable furniture.

3EWs office 1960s Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

E.W. Scripps office circa 1960’s as it still looked when I toured the mansion in 1970.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

The somewhat bare slopes surrounding the house evident in the 1930’s aerial photograph had changed over the years.  By 1970 the grounds were rich with luxurious plantings, groves of pines and stands of mature eucalyptus trees.


 4Hendrix Pond scripps ranch Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

This is a present day photograph of Hendrix Pond, a reservoir about a quarter of a mile west of the mansion.  According to a September 2002 entry in the Scripps Ranch Civic Association Newsletter, the pond dates from the E.W. Scripps period.  Courtesy of Epic One Real Estate.

On one of our first explorations of the mansion grounds in 1970, our group discovered a large pond below the house surrounded by eucalyptus trees, edged with reeds and looking almost exactly as it does now in the photograph above.  Conveniently tied up at a small dock was a large wooden raft.  We immediately got enthusiastic about Huck Finn possibilities and hatched the idea of a moonlight raft party.  My father almost had a coronary when I asked if I could go and said, “absolutely not!”  But my mother said, “Let her go.”  So I did go, more than a bit apprehensive when it finally came down to actually drifting out in the dark on a body of murky unknown water in the exclusive company of pushing, shoving, giggling teenagers.  Perhaps whoever was providing oversight to the estate heard about our unsupervised adventure because when we returned to the site another time, the raft was gone.


511 2 12 Google Earth photo of hendrix pond Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

This 11-2-12 image from Google Earth shows the location of Hendrix Pond and its relationship to the former mansion site just east of the tennis courts.  My recollection was that in 1970 the southern section of Avairy Drive ended at the driveway of the clubhouse and pool complex.  It was possible to travel from the clubhouse to the homes of friends who lived north of Atrium Drive via a wide path through the eucalyptus and pine trees.  Another path led to the pond.

At some point during the next few years, the tours ended, the mansion closed and a temporary chain link fence went up around the perimeter.  My mother told me that ‘they’ (I’m not sure at this point who was involved in the decision making process) were trying to find a buyer for the house and grounds.  The goal was to preserve the mansion as an important historical landmark; unfortunately, the costs of upkeep were already prohibitive and there didn’t seem to be any reserve fund to keep it up indefinitely.  Various options were being explored in the hopes that something could be worked out.

I, for one, certainly hoped something could be worked out.  Perhaps because I had spent several years in Villa Park Elementary School’s 1890’s era Mission Revival building (see Strawberry Fields Forever post), I could appreciate the home’s grand scale and gracious proportions.  Beyond that, the mansion was also beautiful and romantic— the courtyard, in particular, with its lush plantings, fountain, stately bird of paradise plants and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ staircase curving up to the roof was a place I returned to again and again.


1Bird of Paradise Flower 222278866 1024x682 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)Bird of Paradise Flower (Strelitza regiane).  Magnus Manske, 2005.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons

And so it was partly because we never tired of its allure that we wandered over from the little store to the mansion one late afternoon in 1972.  We slipped through a gap in the chain link barricade and climbed up on a large pile of bulldozed dirt just inside the fence to look around.  One of the males in the group declared himself king of the mountain and began unceremoniously shoving the rest of us off.  Then someone else, either propelled from the hill in a humiliating grand arc or just running to escape the reigning tyrant fell into the shrubs against the wall under one of the mansion’s windows, happened to look up and noticed that it was slightly ajar.  The game of abandoned house crashing promised to provide a much more level playing field so within a few minutes we were hiding in the shrubs under the window making an impromptu plan to go inside.  No one seemed to be around to observe us, so we climbed in the window.

The rest of our afternoon mansion exploration adventure takes on a surreal quality once we made the decision to leave the bathroom and move down the closest interior corridor.  As if we had become actors in a scratchy black and white film, I see us clinging to each other and moving cautiously through darkness punctuated by thin slits of light at the edges of heavy drapes.  Rooms off the corridor were spacious, carpeted, shadowy, empty.  One bedroom had a bay window behind the curtains, the seat cushion in the light filled alcove bleached to a pale gold by sun damage and covered by fine white dust.  There were interconnecting doors between the rooms leading to more bathrooms with more shiny tiled floors.  Finally we came to the great, hollow living room and walked under the heavy mantle and into the massive fireplace; the bricks were cold and smelled like the stale smoke of a thousand fires.  We slipped down another corridor and came to a dining room with side pantries filled with cupboards and doors we opened and closed—all disappointingly bare.

2Dining Room Miramar early 1890s Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Early 1890’s photograph of the E.W. Scripps mansion dining room.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

There was a big empty kitchen with more empty cupboards and more empty drawers.  There was a door opening onto to a tower stairway that we decided we better not climb.  We left then, retracing our steps down the dark corridors, climbing back out the bathroom window (careful to shut it again) and running our separate ways home in the twilight to home and dinner.  At some point a security guard appeared and began to patrol the mansion and grounds.  It seemed too risky to try to go inside again.

In 1973, the decision was made to destroy the mansion and turn the land to other uses for the new development.  I’m not sure at this point in my research who made this call, but I do remember being extremely upset about the news.  The house was built of thick adobe bricks and a crew was brought in to do the work of dismantling the structure by hand.  Several of the teens in our group applied and were hired on as temporary help.  While this seemed traitorous on one hand, on the other I could understand the financial incentives.  We were all driving by then and trying to manage cars, gas and insurance on a shoestring.  I remember repeatedly standing at the east side of one of the first tennis courts built as part of the new Scripps Ranch clubhouse and watching the walls come down over a several week period.  The huge adobe bricks were stacked on pallets to be sold and everything in the house from beams to lighting fixtures was also stripped out and sold.  By the time the walls were almost down to the ground, I simply couldn’t bear to watch any more.


3site of Scripps mansion Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

This 11-2-12 image from Google Earth shows the location of the former mansion.  In 1973, only the two tennis courts closest to Aviary Drive existed.  The E.W. Scripps house took up the approximate space that is now covered by the two east side tennis courts, the top of the parking lot beyond the courts and what looks to be the roofs of apartment buildings to the north of the parking lot.  Our group enjoyed using the original pool and clubhouse to no end (most teenagers would), but the destruction of such an important historic treasure was absolutely not worth any plans to expand the recreation complex.

Time passed.  I went to college, detached from home and family and finally moved away from San Diego returning only to visit my parents who ended up buying a home in Ocean Beach to live out their retirement years.  I never found out why the mansion had to be torn down, and I never returned to Scripps Ranch.  Eventually I moved to northern California.

Many years later I started writing my first novel.  Every story benefits from a compelling setting, so one of mine became a fictionalized version of the Poverty Ridge neighborhood in Sacramento.  This was an interesting residential area I had fallen in love with partly because of one particular home that had caught my attention—an elegant two story with creamy rose stucco walls and a clay tile roof.  I had parked on the street near it one day, purely by chance and on other business in the area.  I remember pausing to look at it closely.  Somehow it seemed familiar.  There was a heavy wood front door and a little glimmer of leaded glass in recessed windows.  It reminded me of the only residence Julia Morgan designed in Sacramento—the Mediterranean Revival Goethe mansion on ‘T’ Street.  Even the landscaping was similar (imagine the photo of that house below without the Italian cypress and round topiary trees by the front door).


4Julia morgan house September 2012 wickimedia commons 1024x680 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

This 2012 photograph shows the Sacramento mansion designed by Julia Morgan and now called the Julia Morgan House.  The house was a 1920’s era wedding gift to Charles Goethe and Mary Louise Glide from the bride’s parents.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.

Later I couldn’t get the Poverty Ridge house out of my mind, and I wondered about my fascination with it.  I spent some time searching for information although clues proved elusive.  In any case, I decided to create a fictionalized version of the house in my novel.  As I began to develop that idea, I started to realized the Poverty Ridge house was probably important to me because it represented a link back to the Scripps mansion.  That beautiful and mysterious place was gone forever, but maybe some sense of it could live on… at least in my imagination.

One of the very unexpected and really enjoyable aspects of writing my novel has been discovering new information loops that keep curling out from my original premise.  Three months ago, I doubt a thought about the E.W. Scripps house had crossed my mind for twenty years.  Now I find myself pulling out those memories like faded photos from a box and also wanting to know more.  Are there construction drawings for the house?  Are there images that show the mansion and grounds between 1930-1973?  Are there any maps of the ranch?  Why was the ranch sold for development in the late 1960’s? Who managed the house and land after it was sold to the developer?  Why wasn’t the family able to save the house?

The E.W. Scripps Papers, 1868-1926, are a fantastic resource and available online through the Robert E. and Jean R. Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections at Ohio University.  Many of E.W. Scripps philosophical ‘disquisitions’ are also available for viewing as part of this collection, and it is interesting to read his wide-ranging thoughts on everything from politics to the nature of man.  Wonderful photographs are also included in this collection.  Some of my favorites are:

5EW with fish 1907 1910 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

The photograph above was taken sometime between 1907 and 1910 shows E.W. Scripps (left) and a companion with fish caught in one of the Miramar Ranch reservoirs.  Notice the rake.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.


6Nackie with horse 1907 1910 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

The photograph above shows E.W.’s wife, Nackie Holtsinger Scripps (1866-1930), with her horse in the mansion courtyard between 1907 and 1910.  She was an excellent rider and frequently made the trip to the beach by horseback.  Notice the vines now added around the courtyard windows.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

7Miramar Garage 1907 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Photograph of the Miramar Ranch garage taken sometime between 1907 and 1910.  I don’t recall seeing this building in the early 1970’s so perhaps it had already been taken down.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.


8EW Scripps on beach 1918 1919 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Above: E.W. Scripps at the beach near what is now the city of La Jolla circa 1918-1919. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

9Wipeout Beach La Jolla CA date and author unknown wickimedia commons Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

La Jolla beach.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.

Growing up in San Diego during the 1970’s was a wonderful experience and very much centered on the coast.  From just the little research I have done on the Scripps family so far, it is evident they loved the San  Diego beaches just as we did.  We drove the same route, now paved, over the mesa to the coast as they did.  We swam at La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores as they did.  We picnicked at Torrey Pines as they did.  We watched the sun set over the ocean as they did.


10Sunset at Torrey Pines State BeachCA Levi Crouch 2006 Wickimedia commons 1024x768 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

I had not realized that E.W. Scripps and his sister Ellen helped found the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and that Ellen Browning Scripps had donated land and support for the present day Torrey Pines State Beach, but it makes sense.

Most of all I can connect with the love E.W. Scripps had for the house and landscape he created at Miramar.

“In digging, plowing, ditching, building—engaged in these pursuits I am always happy.”

The Astonishing Mr. Scripps: the Turbulent Life of America’s Penny Press Lord by Vance Trimble.  (p. 175)





Space Transformation


A 128 Space TransformationEichler home photograph by Ernest Braun

When builder and developer Joseph Eichler teamed with architects Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons to design affordable modern homes, they transformed the California suburban living experience.  Connecting back to ideas developed in the glass botanical structures of the 1800’s, German architect Bruno Taut’s 1914 Glashaus, Mies van der Rhoe’s Farnsworth House (1945-1951) and Phillip Johnson’s Glass House (1949); Jones and Emmons dynamically changed the residential tract home in the 1960’s.  One of their innovations involved combining the technology available to create large plate glass windows with the ancient idea of the courtyard as part of home living space.  The entire back wall of many Eichler homes, as illustrated in the photo above, was constructed almost entirely of floor to ceiling glass as were three sides of the interior courtyards included in most floor plans.  The result was that Eichler homes were filled with light and a wonderful sense of spaciousness.  Even as a child, I distinctly remember experiencing this in contrast to the much darker feel of our previous 1950’s ranch style house.  This wonderful photograph of a new Eichler home obtained with permission from Ernest Braun’s son, captures the experience of standing in our living room and looking out at the hills beyond.  My mother even bought the same chairs on the patio and put them in our family room.

Another feature of the many windows in Eichler homes was to minimize the separation between outside and inside.  Writer Christopher Hawthorne expresses this aspect in his Architectural Digest article titled, “The Glass House.”  He quotes architect Thomas Phifer’s comments on visiting Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1983. Phifer says, “I remember being particularly struck by how its transparency allows the landscape to flow right through the house.”


Glass house philip johson architecture new canaan ct Space Transformation

Glass House photograph by Christopher Peterson

On a sunny day in Orange County the light shone on the new back yard square grid cement patio of our Eichler home and on our new seeded grass lawn.  My father had planted five maple trees right outside our living room/dining room windows, possibly to remind himself of the Pennsylvania forests he had left behind to come to California.  We also had an expansive view across a huge field to the hills beyond because he pulled off about 16 feet of redwood fence boards behind the trees to open up our rectangular back yard.  It truly did seem as if the warm, bright, dry southern California landscape flowed right through our house.

The winter of 1969 brought another dimension to the Eichler home outside-inside connection.  1945 to 1969 had been drought years in southern California with only two wet winters in 24 years.  Then in February, heavy rain began to fall day after day.  In her Los Angeles Times article, “Day of the Deadly Mud: 1969 Floods: Tragedy and Heroism Mix” Lucille Renwick explains: “For a solid month, an average of 7 inches of rain had fallen each day, swelling creeks and flooding streets throughout the region.”  I knew it was really bad when my atheist parents started discussing Noah’s Ark in all seriousness over dinner, and I remember this storm vividly in small details.  One was that there was so much water pouring down that I actually stopped complaining about the hated clear rubber galoshes my mother made us wear over our school shoes.  Another was that our street crossed a deep cement drainage ditch, usually empty, but now filled to the brim.  On the way to the school bus stop we would put our fingers through the wet chain link fence and stare with silent, grim fascination into the brown water rushing by just a few feet below.  Another memory was sitting on our brick fireplace hearth with my back to one of the living room walls being mesmerized by the endless rain sheeting across one of the plate glass windows.  Fat drops and rivulets and streams of water flowed down, divided and reconnected.  It seemed as if I were floating, transported somehow like a fish into some mysterious, glass walled watery world.

Our new housing tract never flooded, but just one third of a mile away was the Santiago Creek channel which suffered devastating washouts as the 100 year storm raged.


1969 Orange County floods Space Transformation

This 1969 archival photograph provided by the Orange County Public Library shows a typical scene.

Just east of our tract, the Santiago Creek channel had been greatly expanded by years of gravel mining by the Sully-Miller company.  East Santiago Canyon Road had once dipped down to cross the flat bottom of the gravel pit then risen up a hill to join our new development with the community of Villa Park on the far side.  A large section of this road washed away in the ’69 flood and in March after the rain finally stopped, our usual pack of siblings and friends ventured out to assess the damage.  Sully-Miller had thoughtfully put up a temporary chain link fence at the end of the broken asphalt to keep people from falling into the now sharply eroded sides of what had become a vast crater.  Gone were immense piles of loose gravel that had once covered the bottom of the pit and now, the familiar dusty mining landscape had been magically transformed into a magnificent lake with waterfalls running down orange sandstone bedrock on the far side.

We all gasped in stunned surprise.  We were awed, we were ecstatic; it was so beautiful, so unexpected.  We promptly shinnied under the fence and slid down an extremely steep and very long rocky slope to the edge of the water to better to appreciate the scene.  Here we jumped around for a while yelling splashing, laughing and planning Huck Finn rafting and fishing expeditions.  Then after a few of the younger ones fell in the water (either accidentally or on purpose), it dawned on me that we really didn’t know how deep this new lake was and no one actually knew we were even here.  I made everyone turn around and make the long climb back up the slope.  We returned home safely that day; however, one other memory involves a group of us somehow managing to get across the lake to the waterfall area a few weeks later.  The flood had scoured bedrock ridges into a giant undulating rock waterslide and since we conveniently happened to be wearing our bathing suits, we had the delirious fun of climbing up and riding the water down into deep rock pools.  I only remember doing this one time—perhaps my parents finally decided the whole area was just a bit too dangerous for the thirteen and under crowd.


North Santiago Blvd. Space Transformation

This 2013 Google map image shows the washed out end of what was once East Santiago Canyon Road.  Now, Blue Ribbon Landscaping (bottom left corner) occupies the narrow spur of land where we once stood looking down into the gravel pit lake.  Most of the water on this side is gone, but you can still see the seasonal creek flowing down the bedrock areas on the far side of the old gravel pit (top left).  The photo does not do justice to this immense, deep space that was utterly transformed on that wonderful day.  It did make me happy to think a satellite was able to let me know it still existed.

Sometimes a 100 year rain storm might fall in our personal lives.  A raging flood might develop which will tear out roads, bridges, power lines.  It might change everything, permanently— and we might lose home, family, friends.  Yet paradoxically, all that devastation can result in radical space transformation.  One day, many years later the sun will come out again for us, and we might walk to the end of a washed out road.  We might see something very surprising.

I went through a storm like this and now live in a transformed space both emotionally and geographically.  I now live on the edge of a rural area surrounded by agricultural fields to the east, south and west.


Marston Field 6 9 13 1024x768 Space Transformation

It is peaceful and serene; it is comfortable here.  I love the spaciousness and openness.  I would never have chosen the storm that so drastically changed my circumstances but it gave me a gift—the time and space I needed to start writing.  I was surprised by that.


Image Credits:

Photograph of Eichler home, circa 1960’s by Ernest Braun.  Website:

Photograph of Glass House, date unknown, by Christopher Peterson.  Website:

Photograph of Silverado Canyon Road, 1969 Flood, creator unknown.  Source:  Orange County Public Library and Calisphere University of California.

Google Map data, 2013.  Source: Digital Globe, US Geological Survey

Photograph of sunflower field, 6-10-13 by Laurie Gates


Strawberry Fields Forever


SF 4 27 12 IMG 1558 1024x768 Strawberry Fields Forever

Organic strawberries and yarrow, a beneficial insect plant, at the UC Davis Student Farm 4-27-12.

I  always remember loving the mysterious melody and lyrics of the Beatles “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a  song released in 1967, the same year I visited agricultural strawberry fields in Orange County on a sixth grade science field trip.  In my mind, the words had always been linked to the plants with beautiful red berries dangling below evergreen, glossy leaves.  Later I discovered ‘Strawberry Fields’ was actually a place John Lennon had visited as a child; evidently  sort of wild ‘secret garden’ on a property next to a Salvation Army children’s home in Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool.  But does it matter?  Each place was beautiful in its own way and linked to childhood happiness.  The title is symbolic and the song a masterpiece—still haunting, engaging, fresh and sweet after all these years.

When we lived in Orange County in 1963, my father had been working as a technical writing editor at the North American Rockwell facility in Downey.  Unfortunately, this involved a grueling commute in freeway traffic gridlocked in each direction.  I distinctly recall the stress and unhappiness this caused him (and by extension all of us); fortunately, new job opportunities closer to home were opening up.  A June 11, 1989 Los Angeles Times article by David Olmos, “County Has Rich History of Attracting Aerospace Firms” sheds some light on the explosive growth of the aerospace industry in Orange County at this time and how this in turn impacted my family.  Olmos explains that when North American Rockwell’s Autonetics Division moved to Anaheim in 1960, “The initial work force of 250 people, housed in one building, grew to 4,700 in six buildings by the spring of 1963.”  This expansion must have been what allowed my father to transfer to the newer facility in 1963 and my parents to buy a brand new Eichler home in a small tract just being developed about 3 miles south east of the city of Villa Park.

Olmos continues:  “The grounds [of the new Autonetics Division] were designed to resemble a college campus, with gardens, trees and lots of open space, which company officials thought would help them recruit Ph.D. researchers to the facility.”  I do remember my father being very proud of this new working environment and taking us on a number of occasions to the large Autonetics employee recreation pool located in a park-like setting.  On a summer Saturday the concrete deck would be crowded with chatting parents and the water so crammed with enthusiastic children that you could literally have walked across the pool on bobbing heads.

During this time I was not exactly clear on what my father did all day when he left for work in Anaheim (a much shorter drive away), but Olmos explains: “Over the years, the Autonetics Division has been involved in such work as guidance systems for the Minuteman nuclear missile and submarines, and navigation and control equipment for aircraft.  Autonetics employees also have worked on NASA’s Apollo and space shuttle programs and on the Air Force’s B-1B bomber.”  Later I remember my father explaining that he helped write and edit the many technical manuals and handbooks the engineers needed for these programs.


Berkeley Design Archives Strawberry Fields Forever

Eichler homes brochure from UC Berkeley Environmental Design Archives (all photo credits listed at end).


fairhills oc574 b 998x1024 Strawberry Fields Forever

Here is our floor plan although built as the mirror image, with the garage on the right.

After we moved to Orange, our parents would turn us out on weekend mornings with the instructions: “Go outside and play.  Come home for dinner.”  It was a safer world then and we did not feel neglected or abandoned, rather we felt proud of their trust in our ability to take care of ourselves.  I remember roaming about in packs with siblings and friends, breaking trails though tall stands of ferny anise, exploring a shallow abandoned mine shaft on a rocky hill above the old avocado grove, building forts and shacks and teepees and always, every day climbing trees: orange, avocado, eucalyptus and oak.  Of course we could have been in danger during some of these adventures (particularly the ones involving swamps at the ends of remote drainage ditches), but for some reason this never seemed to cross our minds.

During this time period I attended Villa Park Elementary School.  This 1922 photograph from the Orange County Historical Society shows the wonderful circa 1890’s Spanish Mission Revival building where I spent my fourth and fifth grade years.  It looked much the same in the 1960’s.


Villa Park grammar sch 1922 OC Historical Society Strawberry Fields Forever

 I recall absolutely loving this building.  I remember long cloakrooms with low hooks where you could hang your sweater and shiny, squeaky, waxed wood floors.  Big banks of pane windows and high ceilings made the rooms airy and sunny and high up on the ivory-grey plastered walls, a portrait of George Washington looked down upon our efforts to memorize the capitols of all fifty states, his expression serene and wise.  Nearby was an open courtyard formed by the older buildings and the two wings of more modern classrooms.  This area included picnic tables and a group of very old California pepper trees (Schinus molle) with thick, gnarled, twisted trunks and dry, rose colored berries that hung in pendant clusters from the weeping branches.


 CAPepperTreeLeavesFruit Strawberry Fields Forever

 It was Mr. Frankendahl , my fifth grade teacher at Villa Park Elementary School, who recommended me for a special sixth grade program at Taft Elementary school.  That next year I remember as being fantastic— a Renaissance experience in literature, drama, history, science, math, art and music.  Our group had a separate building with four classrooms and a botany lab where we had the opportunity to do many very interesting experiments with seeds and plants.  Taft also provided two large open spaces for gardens and each student assigned a 10’ x 12’ plot in September.  We chose plants from catalogues and a nursery, made a small planting design then planted, watered, weeded and tended our gardens the rest of the year.

That year (1965-‘66) our science teacher took us all on a field trip to the South Coast Field Station, a 200 hundred acre agricultural research facility established by the University of California in 1956. There we saw many crops, but the strawberry fields and groves of citrus trees on the beautifully maintained property stand out.


Avacado grove at the South Coast Field Station Strawberry Fields Forever

 Present day avocado grove at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center.

At the end of the tour one of the staff offered to donate strawberries to our garden project back at Taft, and the following week a pick-up truck arrived with about 20 large plants.  The man who delivered them helped us create a long raised bed, plant each strawberry and cover the whole with clear plastic to keep out weeds.  I recall we used furrow irrigation and were all completely thrilled with our new acquisitions.  On Google Earth it is possible to see the open space directly to the south of our building where they were planted, and a Taft school employee told me the garden program there had continued strong for over 20 years before it was discontinued in the 1990’s.  At the end of the sixth grade school year in June, those who wanted to keep a strawberry plant were allowed to take one home in a pot, and I planted mine in a small garden space I cleared in the corner of our back yard.  There the plant lived for another two years providing my first introduction to perennials.

Many years later the past started to connect with the present, like the two ends of very long mobius strip.  In 2010 I got involved with the UC Davis Student Farm and ended up being able to help grow organic strawberries there as an experiment.  It has been a fantastic opportunity for me especially since I am not a farmer or a scientist, although fortunately we have many of those on hand.  In the Beatles strawberry fields, “nothing is real,” but at this farm everything is real.  There you experience plants, soil, air, water, sun and rain… they are not dreamlike illusions.  And because they are real they are very satisfying.

Another connection point for me with my elementary school years is the blend of old and new on this 20 acre section of the UC Davis campus.  The land has been used for agricultural research for over 100 years and not all that much has changed in all that time.  In many ways the farm reminds me of the 1890’s gracious, sturdy, still functional rooms at Villa Park Elementary School; there are also aspects of the farm that remind me of the living in our Eichler house and neighborhood.  Maybe  it is something about the clean, straight lines of rows of crops, or the wide open spaces with fields, fences, trees, clouds and sky.  Or maybe it is the comfortable community feeling there, the sense we are working and learning together.

A happy déjà vous with the trip to the strawberry fields is that it was also in sixth grade that I wrote my first detective story.  Now 45 years later I am growing strawberries and writing my first mystery novel.  It also has a detective in it, but that’s another story.


Image and information credits:

-Photograph of strawberry beds at UC Davis Student Farm, 4-27-12 by Laurie Gates

-“Strawberry Fields Forever” by Lennon-McCartney.  Source:

-Photograph of Eichler home from brochure, photographer and date unknown.  Source: Berkeley Environmental Design Archives Exhibitions,

-Eichler Fairhills #OC-274 Floorplan, 1953 square feet (house).  Source:

-Photograph of Villa Park Grammer School, 1922 courtesy of Orange County Historical Society. Source:

-Photograph of California pepper tree leaves and fruit, date and photographer unknown.  Source:

-Photograph of avacado grove at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center.  Source: