According to the Yanomami people, the world before this one was crushed when forces of chaos collapsed the sky, hurling Earth’s inhabitants into the underworld. Kinder deities raised a new one, and from the back of its fallen predecessor grew the forest where, when they clawed their way back above ground, the Yanomami came to live. They still refer to it as “the old sky.” For now the Yanomami shaman keep the ever-pressing chaos at bay, but if it should succeed in bringing the sky down again those kinder deities have another forest waiting and the land will grow anew.
The Yanomami make their home in the jungles of the Amazon, but it would be easy to believe in Big Sur as another battleground for such forces, dark woods and craggy cliffs a bulwark against a tempestuous sea and sky, the outcome of their striving ever uncertain. Unsurprising, perhaps, that it remains a haven for artists and dreamers and anyone who feels in need of a reminder that however powerful we as a species become, nature will always have the last word.
Mention the forests of Big Sur to someone with a passing familiarity of the area and the brooding redwoods will likely come first to mind. But there is another sort of wood along the iconic stretch of coast between Lucia and Monterey. Finches and blackbirds twitter and squawk amidst its joyful riot of sycamore, oak, cypress and madrone. Buckeye and dogberry and honeysuckle sprawl along meandering creeks. Admitting of mystery but in an accessible way, the feeling that around the bend something welcoming awaits.
And often it does. Around a curve on a low hill an abandoned redwood cabin decays gracefully into its surroundings, ready to spring back to form and function at the slightest touch of a human hand. A particularly thick stand of brush opens into a broad inlet with ducks and grebes paddling sedately through reeds. Follow the inlet and the sea awaits – a cliff-sheltered cove of quiet water and noisy gulls. Everywhere you look life explodes around you, symbiotic and parasitic and delighting in its own abundance, where vitality exults in itself and death is far away.
Step into Pfeiffer Big Sur and the mood is very different. This is a place that remembers the underworld, where the redwoods stand ever watchful and care little if the barrier they weave between the sky above and the earth below suffocates the life they are meant to guard. In the deep dark only ancient things flourish: ferns and fungus, moss and gastropods, the rain birthing banana slugs rather than wildflowers.
But the ancient guardians are not ageless, and the sky’s winter lightning carves deep, blackened wounds in their trunks, and now and again they fail and fall. The sun streams in and knobcone pines try to carve out a gentler space, where Douglas iris and Indian paintbrush might thrive at their roots and jays and squirrels find forage in their fallen seeds. The redwoods tolerate the interlopers for a time, until their saplings have grown tall enough to close the hole against the sky again.
When we drove up to Big Sur last October, Atascadero had gone almost two hundred days with no rain. I could easily have begun to think of the sky as an enemy in all of its pitiless, relentless blue. Big Sur didn’t seem to have fared much better – the leaf and twig boats my husband had whimsically floated down the river on our last cabin stay would have beached on the rocks before they sailed twenty feet. Every twig and leaf in Pfeiffer was coated in a layer of dust.
So we spent our first day at the shore. I photographed birds while my husband sought after a shot of Bixby Bridge that hadn’t been taken a thousand times before. The skies were unsettled and the water put on a peacock’s display of colors – from subdued slate grey and blood red to the brightest of ceruleans and aqua, swirling into view and vanishing again at the whim of sun and clouds and fog. The shorebirds stuck close to land as if they read portents in the sky, dozens of seagulls content to fluff out their feather and preen themselves on the sand. When a giant pelican soared through their midst they wheeled in agitated circles with raucous cries, expressing their displeasure to the disinterested interloper before settling down again.
And indeed that night the rain came, gentle at first then pounding on the cabin roof. Lying in bed the night before I could only hear the river if I concentrated on it, but now it chattered and burbled in happy resurgence. When we returned to Pfeiffer Big Sur all the dust had been washed away. Water drops glittered jewel-like everywhere I looked and each one, with a macro lens pointed at it, revealed a tiny wet world.
Although I have visited Big Sur often enough to experience its fickle weather – from sun to squall to sun again in the space of twenty minutes – I had never before been there for a sustained storm. The clouds seemed to have lives of their own, going about their mysterious errands or compelled at the behest of the relentless winds or the whims of the sun. An early morning fog bank rising up solid as a wall some distance offshore, holding some unknown line, broke and roiled toward us as soon as the first rays of an uncertain dawn crested a nearby ridge. Within five minutes wispy fingers caressed the cormorant-dusted rocks I’d been shooting before enclosing them in an occluding fist. In the same short span Bixby Bridge stood solid among a picturesque mist and then vanished entirely.
By evening the fog had retreated back offshore, watchful and wary. The sun sank dispirited behind a sullen grey wall, signaling its distress with a blood-red thin line bleeding into the ocean while upward shining rays tinted lighter, freer clouds with gold. In front of this nearly still panorama a tightly wound spiral of bright white clouds spun northward like a cloud herd of spooked gazelles, streaming on and on for long minutes. And while we gaping photographers stood lined up on a bluff capturing what we could of the moment the birds flew heedlessly by, sensible enough to seek shelter ahead of the next coming storm.
The Ohlone, Esselen and Salinan tribes who first made Big Sur their home are long gone. Nomadic hunter gatherers, they lived off the land as they found it. We who come later have the means and the desire to bring other lands with us, new flowers and trees (the palms at Julia Pfeiffer park never cease to be a little jarring), and in their wake the sturdy little creatures who have adapted themselves to living on the margins of our hard-packed paths and tamed gardens.
Here where so much is so vast – the sea, the sky, the “old sky” of the redwoods, the looming ridges that barely suffer the presence of our roads – perhaps we need the nodding heads of bird of paradise, the vibrant pink flowers in their pots, to feel that we have carved out a place we can nestle into, a small space in the vastness to call home.