Ric Rew has unofficially maintained and beautified the beachside area off Santa Claus Lane for eight years — he is sure of the number because it’s also the age of his toy poodle Cheesecake, whose need for exercise first sparked Rew’s daily visits to the beach. During a recent mid-July visit, however, overcast skies accented an already grim scene: a scattered mess of dirt and rocks, along with broken pieces of wood and several uprooted plants, where before had been the fruits — or blooms, rather — of the 62-year-old veteran’s labor.
Rew spent seven and a half years on active duty as a Navy photographer before he took to the Central Coast in 1984 to refine his craft at Brooks Photography School. Over the course of recent years, however, Rew has devoted his loyal service to a new, self-appointed post: curator of an eclectically designed patch of land dubbed the “Karma Garden.” The small land plot, once home to all manner of plants, wind chimes, and artfully arranged driftwood, was bordered on its sides by paths Rew maintained between the road and the beach, and on its front by ropes fastened to a post bearing the garden’s whimsical name. By mid-July, the only remaining sign was a small piece of cardboard with an anonymous message: “Karma Garden gone? Who would do this?”
Earlier this month, Santa Barbara County parks officials brought down the bureaucratic hammer on the garden, citing it as a liability for its “unnatural” design. On Rew’s July 5 visit to the garden, he encountered an official notice to vacate the premises within 72 hours. This deadline was an effort to ensure that no personal property would be destroyed when the area was leveled, according to Paddy Langlands, Deputy Director of County Parks. As promised, a bulldozer arrived on June 8 to upend what remained at the site.
It wasn’t the first time the unsanctioned oasis had drawn attention from local officials. Rew encountered a similar notice on another daily visit around a year and a half ago. He promptly got on the phone with Jeff Lindgren, operations manager for mid-county parks. Lindgren explained that the county was concerned about having to maintain the garden, which had not acquired the necessary permits to begin with. He ultimately agreed to let it stay, with the understanding that Rew would continue to maintain the area and prevent it from becoming a county liability.
This time around, such negotiation was not an option. “Tell me what you don’t like about it, and I’ll fix it,” he told Langlands. Despite this proposal, he was informed that officials planned to level the garden in its entirety.
According to Langlands, several reasons underlie the garden’s condemnation. Though parks had backed off a year and a half earlier, since then the garden “kept growing and growing, expanding in size,” until it allegedly threatened to encroach on the adjacent railroad tracks. Furthermore, he said, the tall, potentially insecure items such as the upright driftwood posed a danger to beachgoers and a liability to the county. But most of all, the “welcome” implied by the garden encourages pedestrians to cross a segment of the railroad tracks where beach access is illegal.
Where is the legal public access point, then? Currently, it doesn’t exist. According to Langlands, the railway company must outline proper safety regulations for such a crossing before it can be implemented. Despite the garden’s destruction, however, dozens of cars still line Santa Claus Lane, and surfers, families, and summer camp-participants alike still cross the tracks casually to visit the beach. Though this has been the case for years, the only existing fencing between the tracks and the beach is made of dilapidated wire that has been broken down in numerous places.
After the notice was posted, Rew quickly began dismantling his creation in order to save some meaningful elements from destruction. He pointed some out to me when I met him at the site, just a week after the garden’s demolition. One is a piece of upright driftwood, extending about ten feet from the spot where Rew recently anchored it out of the bulldozer’s path. A caption reading “EB 19 LIVES” is painted on the log around eye level. Rew explained that one day he had encountered a woman painting the caption; he asked politely that she stop out of respect to the garden. She then informed Rew that her 19-year-old son had died from cancer, and she intended to memorialize him in an area that he had found meaningful in life. Because of this significance, “I thought it was worth saving,” Rew said of the towering piece of timber.
One beachgoer, Texas resident Deborah Herczog, spotted us from afar and approached the memorial totem. A California native and avid bird watcher, she has gotten to know Rew on periodic visits to her mother, a local resident and founder of nonprofit Carpinteria Beautiful. She told Rew how upset she had been to see the garden go and commended him for “doing things that make life worthwhile for the individual and community.” After he began unofficially maintaining the area, she said, others began to help beautify it as well.
“I knew I didn’t have property rights there, but the area had just been trash and weeds and sand,” Rew said. He re-appropriated a couple of discarded tires for use in the garden, filling them with mulch to be used as planters. He anchored several large pieces of driftwood with rocks so that they stood upright throughout the piece of land. Over the years, he worked to create sustainable soil for plants such as cattails, lilies, dahlias, aloe, and agave; a narrow canal he dug diverted drainage pipe water to feed them. Some plants and other items were donations from frequent beachgoers, Rew says. “As I improved the area, people began to treat it better.”
Rew uprooted several plants before the garden’s demise, hoping to eventually replant them. Before I left Santa Claus Lane, he handed me two bulbs to plant where I pleased, determined still to share his garden’s karma with his community.