As the enormity of nature’s power and the growing tally of lost lives emerged from the devastation of January 9, Anders Johnson had what he called “an instant vision.” The imagery in his mind’s eye described a mandala or sundial composed of a massive boulder in the center of a circle. Since then, Johnson’s vision has steadily materialized into an ambitious memorial to the 23 Montecito residents taken by the 1/9 debris flow and to firefighter Cory Iverson, killed by the Thomas Fire in December.
The concept is straightforward, said Johnson, 60, a sculptor and stonemason. One large centerpiece boulder will be circled by 24 smaller, bench-like boulders, creating a site of remembrance and mourning. Fastened to the big boulder, he said, there could be a plaque with the names of the deceased, and each bench could be engraved with a personal symbol selected by their families.
While many details are in early-stage fluidity, much of the heavy lifting has already been accomplished. Late last month with a forklift, Johnson hoisted the 24 bench boulders from the debris flow that destroyed a neighborhood on Glen Oaks Drive, an area transformed from quiet residential living to a vast mudflow loaded with hundreds of battered sandstone boulders. “That nature can move that much material is inconceivable,” Johnson said. Even more astounding, he added, is that the centerpiece boulder — which measures roughly 10 feet in diameter and weighs approximately 40 tons — sits unscarred, “like it just floated down the mountain.” Johnson said the owners of the wrecked property now home to the big boulder have given him permission to take it for the memorial project.
Johnson — who grew up with five sisters and two brothers in a fixed-up garden shed near Hot Springs Road and East Mountain Drive — said moving the big boulder once could cost as much as $20,000. His nephew, Abe Powell — who’s on Montecito Fire’s board of directors and leads the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, a volunteer group digging out homes flooded with mud — has been spreading the word about the project and helping raise funds to rent a crane and truck. Until then, the big boulder remains, wrapped in caution tape, at the Glen Oaks property; the bench boulders — roughly 3,000 pounds apiece — have been moved to a field at La Casa de Maria. Johnson has been volunteering his time and said he intends to continue to do so.
A big question remains: Where to put it? Johnson likes a small but big-enough open space near the intersection of East Valley and San Ysidro roads. He also said a displaced couple has offered their property, which is now a hardened mud field, their home gone completely.
“We don’t have a permit to build the thing,” Johnson said last week. “But the concept is super-sound, and the more I run it by people, the more evident it becomes that it’s the right thing to do.”