The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a much different place today than it was a month ago. Once a verdant showcase of California's native flora - the garden has been transformed into an entirely new landscape.
The meadow, gift shop, Blaksley Library, and a few of the upper trails are intact. Almost everything else has been altered by the flames and searing heat that screamed up the canyon during the Jesusita Fire. According to the Botanic Garden Conservation International website, the fire that destroyed much of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is just a portent of things to come. Climate changes coupled with the encroachment of civilization on Southern California's back country will result in a 50% increase in wildland fires in the coming years.
The garden is now a stark map of our future - a black and white relief map of the losses we will sustain if we continue on our current course.
When I visited the gardens last weekend, many area roads were still closed; residents who still had homes were assessing and cleaning and planning for the future. Through the branches of charred trees, across the canyon, I could see the red trucks of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, and the equipment of local utility companies; I could hear chain saws and the voices of men. All through Mission Canyon, crews from the United States Forest Service worked alongside the road, and on the hills, cleaning, clearing, removing debris.
This was the most destructive event in the history of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. In 1925, the Garden became a reality, thanks to a partnership between the Carnegie Foundation and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Located up the canyon from the Santa Barbara Mission, the site offers views of mountain and ocean. The variety of microclimates allows for several distinct gardens: meadow, riparian, desert, coastal, mountain, and canyon. It was the perfect site to showcase the rich diversity of California's botanical heritage, including local native plants.
The Garden has been a beloved community project, tended by botanists, scholars, conservationists, and local residents who have created a place of beauty....and thousands of visitors who have enjoyed the gardens with us.
Throughout the gardens, you could find benches hewn from huge old logs, twisting trails, and perches from which to view the canyons, brass or wooden plaques commemorating a special life, a beloved spouse, even a canine friend. Layer upon layer for more than 80 years, the community has imbued this space with places set aside for seclusion, meditation, education, celebration.
And while so much has been lost - much beauty remains. The redwood grove was heavily damaged - maybe even destroyed. Yet, I found an old big cone spruce tree that was resplendent in the spring afternoon.
I found pathways that are still serene and shaded and cool.
The Santa Cruz Island Bush Mallow, pulled back from extinction when there were fewer than 150 plants left on the planet, continues to bloom and hum with bees.
The Tree Anemone (Carpenteria californica), native of the Sierra Foothills, was found only in scant numbers and near extinction. Here it thrives and blooms in our meadow, with sun-drenched blossoms of white.
The gift shop survived the conflagration. The Blaksley Library, designed by Lutah Maria Riggs, remains unscathed. Housing over 15,000 volumes of information about plants, gardens, animals, and geol0gy, the library is a living part of the community. There are journals, tens of thousands of photos, and other historical artifacts that are available to the public by special arrangement, free of charge. This precious resource has been gathered and maintained by the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and the Santa Barbara Historical Society.
As I walked around the Garden, birds were singing as though it were the first day of creation. Lizards lounged on large boulders, then scampered from sight in an instant. A swallowtail butterfly, delicate and pale yellow, ribboned this way and that along the breeze. I could hear Mission Creek below. The water splashes over the the old stone dam built by the Chumash during the Mission period. The stream originates in the mountains, and courses over boulders that crashed down from the tops of the Santa Ynez mountains to rest here, millennia ago. The Garden is alive. The Garden is hopeful. The Garden is our vision of the future, a landscape wrought of the choices we make today.
In the June, 1930 edition of The Santa Barbara Gardener, is an article entitled "Medicine and Magic." An excerpt reads as follows:
Incantation addressed to Medicinal Herbs. From a 12th Century Medical Treatise in the British Museum.
Now all you herbs of might, I beseech and supplicate your majesty; ye whom our Mother Earth hath brought forth and given as a gift to all nations, upon whom she has conferred the gift of healing and majesty in the sight of all men; be ye now a help and a profit to me....be ye here with all your virtues...and, so far as your virtues may extend, give ye healing and a good case and the grace of health....Grant that I may ever be permitted, by the favour of your majesty, to pluck you and to gather fruit in striving for you: Grant this, and I will give you thanks in the name of the majesty which hath brought you to life.
From Life in the Middle Ages, Volume I, Cambridge University Press