Island warbler

Michael Vincent McGinnis

Island warbler

A View from Santa Cruz Island

A Great Seat in Our Amphitheater on the Sea

rolling in the sand, a wave caressed
earth hold me, take away my fears
Cover me with your skin of water

For the past several years, I have been visited by an island warbler who has flown across the Santa Barbara Channel to sit outside my window of my house in the foothills of our region. The island warbler is looking in on me. I decide it is time to visit the home of the warbler.

From a small beach on Santa Cruz Island, I am looking out across the Santa Barbara Channel and can see the Santa Ynez Mountains and Pine Mountain behind the range. It is a vantage point that reflects the unique connection that we share with the northern Channel Islands and our membership in a community that includes the animals, plants, and insects of these islands. The tapestry that shapes and defines our region includes the northern Channel Islands, the Santa Barbara Channel, and the transverse mountain range of the coastal range — or, collectively, our amphitheater on the sea.

I see that the bald eagle has returned and is hunting along the shore for small fish. The feral pig has been removed. The golden eagle, main predator of the fragile island fox, has been captured and taken to new hunting grounds on the mainland. Unique habitats like Bishop pine forests are slowly recovering from the impacts of nonnative species, such as the feral goats that have also been removed. These forests depend on the occasional fog that provides the moisture needed for growth and renewal. The re-wilding island reflects the regenerative power of species to overcome and adapt.

From the island, one can gain a deeper perspective of the intimate relationships between human beings and the natural world. As the author and activist Freeman House writes, “The history that will best serve to teach us to live as communities of place — to learn where we are — lies in the surrounding landscape.” Without a sense of intimate connection to a place, we are more vulnerable to the changes we face from human impacts and natural forces, too. Subtle changes in the currents and eddies of the marine environment are powerful and beyond our capacity to control. In the future, there will be less energy to consume, less water to waste, no place out of sight to dispose of wastes. This sea change is part of our natural history, and we need to develop ways of adapting to strengthen our security and resilience.

While looking out toward the Santa Ynez transverse range, I thought of a human community more intimate with the community that includes Bishop pine and tan bark oak forests; coast live oak and riparian woodlands; chaparral — coastal sage, purple sage, and coastal dune scrub; coastal strand with freshwater or salt marsh; vernal pools and seasonal wetlands; blowing grasslands over rolling hills and on coastal bluffs with rocky headlands; and orchards, vineyards, row crops and cattle-dotted ranches.

I remember driving to my home in the Santa Ynez Mountains, into the range that sets the stage for the region. I saw a large bobcat lying in the middle of the street off Highway 154 and pulled over to the side of the road. The bobcat was still panting and breathing. I cautiously petted the bobcat’s thick fur coat. His ears, teeth, paws, and eyes were large for hunting small prey. I thought of the bobcat looming in the shadows of the brush, waiting for the appropriate time to cross the road. The bobcat died. I took the bobcat into the hills of its origin to bury it under an old oak tree, near coyote brush, monkey flower, and coastal sage. The bobcat is now part of the soil and oak tree. The soil, bobcat, and oak tree are linked. They are part of the breath of this region and landscape. The bobcat reminds us that we are not far removed from the wildness of this region, place, and community.

Santa Barbara is still close to the earth. The soil is made up of the flesh and bones of every creature that shares this place with us. The presence of animals, plants, and soils are the gifts of this coastal bioregion. It is up to us who are alive now to translate this information into something more than memory.

Home is the region of nearness within which our relationship to nature is characterized by sparing and preserving. Human homecoming is a matter of learning to dwell intimately with that which resists our attempts to control, shape, manipulate, and exploit.

As you walk a coastal trail or spend an afternoon hiking up Mission Creek or Cold Spring Canyon, you can see the northern Channel Islands. In the landscape — a farmer works the landscape with his insights into the change in seasons; the painter of seasons colors our Mediterranean canvas; the poet and writer give voice to a place or pattern; the farmer is hard at work, and we benefit from his good work with the taste of dinner and with dinnertime conversation.

The role of local peoples, fending for themselves, is increasingly important in an era of decentralized policymaking, economic and financial hardship, and political frustration. A new generation of place-based philanthropy and leadership is needed in our region. As in the past, the region has been dependent on the compassionate leadership of citizens who have the political will to take risks and build the types of cultural bridges that unite diverse interests. We are each actors on a stage that is a context of ever-changing ecological, political, and social relationships. Local leadership also draws from the inspiration of particular places and parts of the larger community — drawn from the landscape and seascape, we can find the collective courage to address the challenges that lie ahead.

We live on an island. As in the past, we need to be prepared to adopt lifestyles that can sustain unique facets of the region. This requires that we become more attentive to the landscapes we inhabit, more aware of the marine system we depend on, more connected to one another.

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