Living on the Edge

Karen Telleen-Lawton’s Canyon Voices Reminds Us How to Love Santa Barbara

by Hannah Tennant-Moore

Most of us non-native Santa Barbarans end up here largely because we love being outside. Whether it’s hiking, surfing, rock climbing, or suntanning we can’t live without, there are few willing to battle Santa Barbara’s housing market without a stake in the great outdoors. Ironically, it is this very attachment to outdoor activities that sometimes separates us from nature. We use the front country’s easily accessible trails for our daily jog or walk of the dog; the beach becomes just another place to party or go on a date or pine after someone else’s tan; our relationship to the ocean is defined by how good the surf is. For many of us, the outdoors risks becoming just another playing field in our drive to succeed.

In Canyon Voices, Karen Telleen-Lawton reminds us of the simple reasons we’re so crazy about nature, and, by extension, Santa Barbara. A refreshing escape from human drama, the book portrays a world in which the enemy is poison oak, sex is between rattlesnakes, and feuds are among fish. The first-time author reminds us of the fortifying complexity the natural world offers us if we approach it on its own terms — rather than as a means to an end — by taking us on a botanical, spiritual, historical, ecological, and artistic tour of Rattlesnake Canyon. Each chapter of Voices presents the canyon through the eyes of a different expert, instilling in the reader a wealth of knowledge on everything from hang gliding (ever wondered how hang gliders relieve themselves on long flights?) to rattlesnakes (or why male rattlers have two penises?). As Telleen-Lawton put it, “Everything is fascinating once you learn more about it.”

Her success in communicating this lesson was apparent to me when I hiked Rattlesnake soon after reading the book. Instead of purposefully winding myself to get a workout or setting out with a destination in mind, I approached the trail with a calm curiosity, pausing to rest on rocks and watch insects flit in the pools below, trying to decipher the meanings of various birdsongs, and boulder-hopping in hopes of finding the hidden caves of which Telleen-Lawton writes.

Canyon Voices itself is a sort of slow stroll through a pretty place. Though the reader is sometimes pleasantly jarred by an elegant turn of phrase or lively image — such as a female priest and a male monk skinny-dipping together in one of Rattlesnake’s pools — mostly the book carries us along with quiet observations and attention to small details. Telleen-Lawton’s interviews with the various “voices” of the canyon, for instance, are punctuated with descriptions of the sound of a truck backing up and the exact shade of someone’s hair. This ode to detail, combined with the book’s almost exclusive use of the present tense, suggests a way of being in the world that supports Telleen-Lawton’s implicit goal of environmental protection.

“I wanted to write a book not preaching to the choir, but for people who considered the environment other people’s problem,” she explains. Her writing makes it clear that when we are present for the details of our lives, moment to moment, we can’t help but be in tune with our impact on the world around us.

Though it is never explicitly didactic, Canyon Voices also presents more concrete suggestions about how to care for the earth. How many outdoor enthusiasts, for instance, are aware of the ecological havoc wreaked by family dogs exploring trails off-leash? A lifetime of gathering such lessons in earth stewardship began for Telleen-Lawton during the many happy weekends she spent at San Clemente State Beach as a child. While her parents grilled burgers, she and her siblings gathered trash to “earn their dinner.”

The book’s only shortcoming is that the language sometimes falls into the trap of cliché so threatening to nature writing. But ultimately, Voices goes far beyond urging us to “value more than me and mine” and appreciate the “grandeur and fear” of nature. Telleen-Lawton succeeds in convincing us that “Habitat protection is the most important environmental issue” — and that there are concrete steps each of us can take to preserve the Rattlesnake Canyons of the world.

The author is not oblivious to the seeming contradiction between this viewpoint and the fact that she owns a home in the canyon, which she bought with her husband in 2001 largely because she wanted to be near the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, where she now volunteers as a docent. While she “wouldn’t have built a house here” herself, she pays her dues for being able to live in relative solitude in a beautiful place by educating herself and her neighbors about septic waste that can end up in streams and light pollution that drowns out the night sky. She describes it as a lifestyle “where each person is on the edge:” not impossible, but you’d better not fall asleep at the wheel.

4•1•1 Karen Telleen-Lawton will read from and sign her book Canyon Voices on Sunday, September 24 at 3 p.m. at Chaucer’s Bookstore. Visit for other events.

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