Living History, A Brief Memoir
We usually have new green grass covering the ranch by Christmas time, with livestock and wildlife nibbling hungrily the new growth. 2014 has arrived without freshness or seasonal relief. The ranch is dry and all but barren of fodder. We are feeding hay to our cattle daily for the first time, which is an expensive and anxious pastime. Our once-independent beeves now crowd any white pickup truck they see, raising a cloud of dust and bellowing for their daily meal.
As many of you know, Central California, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, is in the grip of an historic drought. 2013 was the driest year on record, going back to 1849 in San Francisco. At least one scientist believes this is the driest year since 1580. The city of Paso Robles received just 1.9 inches of rain for the calendar year. Here at rain-favored Adelaida Springs Ranch, much higher and closer to the coast, we received only 4.33 inches of precipitation. Both totals are just 15% of the average annual rainfall.
Something about living through an historic event like this makes me feel connected to the past: taut threads vibrating with familiar patterns of nature, love, pain and achievement. Such ruminations also trigger visions of an uncertain, but probably familiar future, in which we strive and struggle with natural forces.
Since I could first read, I have been interested in tales and patterns of history. The first newspaper headline I remember seeing announced the death of Winston Churchill, as I carried the daily paper through our front hallway to my parents in January of 1965. I thought his famous, heroic round face looked so familiar. In truth, my historical interest started before I could read. As a small boy in Nova Scotia, I listened to adults discuss people and times past. They told stories of pioneers, architects, pianists, shopkeepers, of charming losers and unpublished poets. They told stories of great wars and gutted steel ships towed into harbor, of walks down country lanes and hunting in birch bark canoes.
Twenty years later, I was watching Palo Alto transform itself from a sleepy college town into the brain of Silicon Valley. I studied history at U.C. Santa Barbara, 1977 to 1981, during which time I never heard of a personal computer. Then I spent the next ten years publishing magazines about software development for PCs. I think they call that a paradigm shift. History was unfolding at an accelerated pace all around me, from transistors to integrated circuits in the 1960s, large computers to microprocessors in the 1970s, isolated personal computers to the all-connected internet in the '90s. I was a very small player, but I met the Bill Gates’ and Steve Jobs’ and many more who were envisioning, inventing and selling the future.
In the 1990s I published investment newsletters on the newly commercial Internet and rode the dotcom wave to ownership of Adelaida Springs Ranch in 2000. As I stepped out of the rushing tide, history swept forward: wireless networks and mobile phones are now everywhere. We routinely hold media-rich communications devices capable of accessing almost all of written history and visual media almost anytime, anywhere.
How interesting and wrenching it has been to step out of that world. My ranch life shares as much in common with prehistoric herders and wine growers as it does with Silicon Valley. I had a re-awakening to the joys and painful burdens of physical life. I changed focus from intangibles to a vividly tangible life of soil and sun, plant and animal, rain and drought. Our new life features old rhythms that peak with the birth of calves and lambs, the annual regrowth of the vines, or the pressing of a newly harvested wine. We reach mournful lows with the loss of animals or crops or water sources. One thing hasn’t really changed from our past lives or from those who preceded us in history: we feel the unrelenting anxiety of pioneering ventures and uncertain outcomes.
When we host wine tastings and ranch tours, a change will often come over our guests. Our scenery evokes a blossoming recognition of the natural world, as if they have re-discovered something. People sometimes tell us about their family’s farm in another part of the world, another time. We speak of homesteaders and ranchos in the old west. The threads of history begin to attach to our guests. The lowing of cattle and braying of sheep are Old Testament familiar, reaching back to the Fertile Crescent and before. “Previous, previous” as Van Morrison sings it. As they sip Rangeland wine, they see the native artifacts: arrowheads, grinding stones and bowls. These prehistoric tools of sustenance suggest a connection spanning thousands of years, and the web of history gains density. As we look over the ancient hills, we discuss their tectonic formation: the great conveyor of the Pacific plate crushing eastward under our very feet at the astonishingly slow (or fast?) rate of 3 inches per year. The stones and soil samples we display are old beyond comprehension, but the distinctive, lively minerality of our red wines reveals a sliver of the story. The dark, vivid flavors of our pastured meats offer the same delight and connection.
My family prospered helping to build, in a small way, the future. Of course we still rely on the internet to run our business, pursue our entertainment and connect with the world. But I am convinced that our future prosperity—and your enjoyment--here on the ranch relies more on an awareness of natural and human history than it does on technical innovation.
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