Gwen Stauffer leads me through the gardens of Madame Ganna Walska’s Lotusland, and I can’t keep up with her. She’s running up ahead with what she calls “rambunctious enthusiasm,” and brimming with excitement because the cacti are flowering. While pointing out the bounty of blooms, Gwen tells me, “You’re so lucky! You’ve come on such a perfect day.”
Being happy at what you do is one of the most fortunate things that can happen to anyone, and as the executive director of Lotusland, Gwen relishes that reality. Originally from the East Coast, Gwen was recruited to come to Santa Barbara, but she’d known for years that Lotusland was one of the most important gardens in the world. Today, she continues the tradition of Lotusland’s outstanding educational programs and directs its innovative horticultural practices, which are shared for the benefit of botanic gardens around the world.
As we continue our walk through this whimsical place, Gwen points out a gorgeously landscaped walkway, and explains, “That is what my commute to work looks like.”
She took time away from tending her garden to answer the Proust Questionnaire.
What is it you like most about your job?
Gardens exist at the intersection of art and science, so my work allows me to indulge my passion for design as well as my passion for botany, ecology, and environmental science. The purpose of public gardens is to share joy, beauty, respite, and inspiration with everyone, and I love that aspect of my work. It is a privilege for me to lead one of the most beautiful and sublime public gardens in the world, so the payback is more than a paycheck. Lotusland exudes daily moments of pure transcendent beauty. A bad day at work is still a good day in the gardens.
Who do you most admire?
Dr. Peter Raven, former director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens and one of the world’s leading botanists and advocates for conservation and biodiversity. He has been named “Hero for the Planet” for decades of forging international collaborations to propel effective global efforts in plant conservation, and, at the age of 78, he has not slowed down. I mostly admire Dr. Raven because he is a reasonable man whose principles and opinions are based on scientific fact, and, despite his international standing and utter brilliance, he is one of the most kind, warm, down-to-earth, accessible, and funny colleagues in my profession. He is a mentor to everyone in my profession.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement, so far, is the culmination of my professional endeavors leading to my current position at one of the most prestigious gardens in the world. I believe my greatest achievements are yet to come during my tenure at Lotusland. Other than that, taking up surfing at the age of 48 feels rather impressive.
What do you most value in friends?
My rambunctious enthusiasm can be overwhelming, so I am grateful to my friends who embrace it, love me for it, and sometimes forgive me for it. If they can do all that, then they have a fantastic sense of humor, and we are laughing often.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Everyone who knows me will tell you my laugh is my most distinctive trait. I know this because they tell me so. It’s loud, genuine laughter that rises from somewhere deep down in my belly. It’s definitely better than crying. Hopefully it’s infectious.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I am a foodie, and I love to cook. Kitchen gadgets, rare herbs, special ingredients, and luscious wines are my extravagances. The creative process of cooking is also meditative. Best of all, I have tasty, nutritious meals and get to share the goodies with hungry and willing friends!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Perfect happiness is ephemeral, coming in fleeting moments. The trick is in recognizing perfect happiness when I have it, and then making the zen last as long as I can. Two of my favorite moments of perfect happiness come when I am surfing a long, glassy wave, and when my very best friends — my fiancé and our two dogs — retreat off the grid and immerse ourselves in nature.
What is your greatest fear?
My life is crammed with pleasures and responsibilities that are equally fulfilling, but I don’t want to miss out on anything. I always want to do more. I don’t want to finish life wishing I had done more, and not just for my family, my community, my profession, and our earth, but for myself.
What is your current state of mind?
A state of positivity, gratitude, and happiness is where I mostly exist, which is occasionally disturbed by ripples of urgency. I don’t want to miss anything!
What is the quality you most like in people?
People who have integrity are comfortable with themselves and who they are. This authenticity fosters deep, honest, and meaningful relationships. Throw in a great sense of humor, and the relationship turns friendly and warm.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Deceit is sad and disappointing, and best described by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov: “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
On what occasion do you lie?
As a child, whenever I lied I was always caught in it. Soon I figured out that I was lousy at lying and gave it up. It is easier to stay out of a lie than it is to get out of a lie.
Which words do you most overuse?
I made up a word, “skadillion,” which connotes an egregious amount greater than one can imagine. How many saved emails do I have? A skadillion.
Which talent would you most like to have?
My parents were music teachers. All of my siblings and I sang, played instruments, and performed. I love listening to music of all genre, but it would be a real thrill to be able to compose music — at least music anyone would want to listen to!
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My loud voice is very useful when I have to speak to a crowd without a microphone, but my enthusiasm is stronger than my “inside voice” capabilities. It could be easier to just get a microphone than it is for me to keep my voice down.
Where would you most like to live?
I love living in Santa Barbara for so many reasons that I can’t imagine living anyplace else. It’s a big world, though, so I am not finished exploring other options for my retirement.
What is your most treasured possession?
My most treasured possession is the engagement ring my fiancé, Mark, gave to me this year. It’s not about the ring itself (although it’s quite beautiful!), but what it represents. Before we met, I was doubtful about ever having a partner for life, so the real treasure is our future together.
What makes you laugh the most?
No one person or thing makes me laugh more than my dogs. I rescue black-coated dogs who suffered harsh beginnings. My current pack includes Jingo and Ebi. Dogs are mostly goofy and amusing to begin with, but it is especially delightful to watch an insecure and frightened dog grow comfortable in her personality and happy in her pack. The pure joy that I give to and receive from my very grateful dogs makes me laugh with pleasure.
What is your motto?
Well, I have two mottos. “Barn’s burnt down — now I can see the moon.” This ancient haiku reminds me that, even in disaster, there is the gift of possibilities which may actually make things brighter than before. It is up to me to notice the gift and apply the possibilities to make my life and my world better and brighter.
The other motto is “Practice gratitude daily.” Even when life is its most difficult, gratitude reveals the abundance of good things. Even when all seems lost, there is still something to be grateful for.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Rachel Carson. She chose a career in a male-dominated profession and, despite that disadvantage, which could have led to disillusionment, she always found sustaining inspiration in the daily miracles of nature and shared them to all in her writings. She also tenaciously advocated for and acted on her convictions.