Sonoma is a special valley, and those of us who love it, love it because it isn’t Napa. Napa gets all the press and has all the multi-million dollar wineries and art galleries and tourist buses. Sonoma is solidly a farming county. Sure we’ve got our share of coffee roasteries and trendy cafes. But the locals who come into them have mud on their cowboy boots. And that’s not mud, Partner. It’s probably cow, goat or horse manure. Because Sonoma, by and large, is very concerned with agriculture — albeit sustainable, organic, and heritage. So aggressively is Sonoma seeking to preserve its agricultural nature, that all the permitting is biased toward encouraging farm buildings and discouraging suburbanization. Still things are changing, and nowhere can you see the contrast more clearly than between our property line and our neighbors.
When we bought our land in Sonoma, our first thought was how to make it liveable while still preserving what made it Sonoma. How, in fact, to make it even MORE Sonoma. Our landscaping is probably not anything most people would refer to as landscaping. We’ve cleared acres of highly flammable Chamise and scrub — something nature used to do with frequent grass fires but now, because of aggressive fire-containment policies, is no longer possible. I calculate that we took out the flammable equivalent of 300 pounds of dynamite in oil-filled scrub. And we’ve only cleared a fraction. Then we started reintrocing native species that attract birds, butterflies and bees. What fencing we’ve put up is mostly to keep punks out and let animals in. Except for the vineyard. You just can’t fight it there, deer will strip out a full grape crop in no time, so three acres are deer-proofed (but still allowing space for coyotes, foxes and smaller critters uninterested in grapes to crawl through. And deer to walk easily around. They’ll hardly have to shift from their usual routes.) Our cleared areas, we’ve reseeded with a mixture of natural drought-resistance grasses. The critters love ’em.
One of the most exciting things we did was put in a small self-circulating pond. It was like a waterhole that opens up on the Serengheti. Suddenly frogs, dragonflies, deer and all manner of creatures made it the equivalent of their local coffee shop. The deer especially appreciated it, not just because we made a little “deer access beach”. Before Lake Charles went in, their water hole was confined to the seasonal creek that bounds our property. As they bent their heads to drink from it, they were conveniently within leaping distance of the Mountain Lion who had his lair above them. We’ve seen the evidence of the deer who was drinking a little too incautiously. Now at Lake Charles, they have plenty of room to stake lookouts. This doesn’t seem to have cut our Mountain Lion’s calorie intake (again judging from the deer bones we occasionally find), but it is reducing deer stress.
For the rest of the property, most of it is still in its natural state and will stay that way. What building that we’ve done has been done largely with rocks from the property and where the natural contures of the land allowed it (our bocce court and our amphitheater). We put the vineyard where the soil and the topography suggested it would be best.
Now in the early planning stages of our house, we are adhering to Sonoma County’s dictum that houses in scenic areas not distrupt the ridgelines. You’ll see no Monster Home or pre-fab castle looming up from Paolomonte (or Paul Mountain as some friends of ours have dubbed it.)
Which brings us to our neighbors. Who I have to begin by saying are very nice people. But I sometimes wonder why they decided to develop land in Sonoma, when their building plans seem to involve stripping out everything about their land that IS Sonoma.
Sonoma’s topography is famously hilly and rocky thanks to millenia of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. So the first things these neighbors did was get bulldozers in to shave off most of four acres to a flat plateau. Then they sited the vineyard where they wanted it, resulting in trucking in loads of the appropriate soil to replace what was there that wasn’t suitable for grape growing.
One of the saddest developments was what we call “The Demilitarized Zone”. There are extensive animal migration trails from the State Park that bounds one side of our land, through our property to the neighbors. On the advice of the guy who helped us put in nature trails, we worked with those critter-created pathways. Instead of dictating where the trails should go, John worked on improving and slightly widening the existing deer trails. In the end it was more economical. The deer had done most of the work and, as a bonus, they seem to have an uncanny ability to find the most scenic views. Judging from the evidence, the deer are inviting all their friends from around the county over to walk our trails.
Imagine our surprise after being away for a few weeks to find that one of the chief trails at the end of our property suddenly ended with a sixty foot plunge. That’s how much lower the neighbors had graded down their property. When we expressed some concern about whole families of ungulants plunging to their deaths at the foot of their wine cave, they obliged with a boundary ditch filled with rocks that wouldn’t be out of place between North and South Korea. All it lacked were the rolls of barbed wire. Now a large deer fence encloses their whole property ensuring that no wildlife will ever make it over, under or through.
We’re still watching in dismay as lawns are rolled out (a lawn in Sonoma where we get NO rain between March and November?!), formal flower gardens seem to be taking shape and a Monster Tuscan McMansion seems to be growing a foot taller every day (see the picture above). It now seems as if it will be covered with stone. We were in dread anticipation of orange stucco going on it.
Granted everyone doesn’t have our Cowboy Dream. And I’m sure our footprint isn’t entirely benign, even though we do have eventual plans for full off-the-grid solar power and multiple composting systems.
I just find it sad that a dream of a Sonoma home has to entail Kentucky bluegrass, a Midwestern flat landscape and the complete elimination of all the animals that make country living country living.
In the meantime, we’re training native vines to grow up our side of those deer-proof fences.
And if we get eaten by that Mountain Lion? Well, the neighbors will have the last laugh and “I told you so” rights.