Thursday, April 9, 2009


My pictures may have captured only a small measure of the scenic beauty, but I’m presenting them here anyway: my sole souvenirs from my Monday trip to Santa Cruz Island.

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I’ve lived in Santa Barbara since 2000, but only just recently did I set foot on any one of the Channel Islands. They’ve been there the whole time, however, looming in the distance like clouds. I even remember the day I realized that my freshman dorm, San Nicholas, took its name from one of them — the setting of Island of the Blue Dolphins, no less.

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Nine years later, I can report back that those cloud islands feel every bit as firm underfoot as the mainland, though practically every other aspect of them makes them seem farther away from California than the two-hour boat ride would indicate. As far as topography and plant life, they look superficially similar to those of rural Santa Barbara or even the grassy backwoods areas I grew up around in Hollister. The biggest difference, aside from the lack of oak trees: Those familiar places boast rolling hills upon rolling hills. On the island, the grass abruptly gives way vast expanses of ocean — dark blue panorama nearly as far as I could see.

Despite being the very definition of a natural setting, the island felt downright unnatural to this person now accustomed to people and noise. I hiked up a small hill, high enough to escape the barking sea lions and could feel quiet pressing in my ears, like a presence. Even the occasional bird didn’t make much noise. Why would it, if it had grown accustomed to not having much else around to hear it?

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Down below, reporters and visitors milled about, but the only regulars are rangers and park workers who maintain the island. These workers stay in old buildings, at least some of which exist as remnants from the days during which ranch operations called Santa Cruz Island home. I’m sure island fever strikes, but I can’t imagine ever stepping off the boat and not feeling a profound sense of tranquility. Just you and nature, with the distance to the next person over being limited only by how far you’re willing to walk in a given direction.

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I lost track of time during the hike. That means nothing — I lose track of time during walks to the grocery store. But even a person with a better awareness of what’s happening around him could easily float about chronologically. The old buildings take you back to a time when white people were still new to the place — and, by extension, a time white people were new to any place.

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Though I didn’t happen across any that I recognized as such, many Chumash artifacts still remain on Santa Cruz Island. The idea that these enduring bits and pieces hide just under the surface is enough to take you back further — thousands and thousands of years, to the point that the people who braved the ocean to get to there would have been barely recognizable as the Chumash we now associate with inhabiting the place. I can’t help myself from forming an entirely incorrect association with Limuw, the Chumash name for the island, and that number one Candace Waid word, liminal.

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And because the work being done on the island aims to restore it ecologically — that is, to make it as much as possible like it was before anyone set foot on it, with rare animals and plants interacting with each other in the balanced fashion that humans so famously ruin — you can go back to a point that I’m not sure I can properly imagine: a world without us, where trees would theoretically fall noiselessly. I’m not sure any place has ever made me this: timeless, removed from time, and altogether stuck in my time with only the vaguest hints of any possible alternative.

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