Monday, January 21, 2008

Empress of the Universe

Sula and son Torre, 1993

Sula Nichols lives near the very top of Partington Ridge on part of the old De Angulo Ranch with her family of four children, three horses, a pony, one very old dog, several cats that come and go, and a bearded dragon lizard.

Empress Sula is deeply passionate, and a magnet for charismatic people. Planet Earth, she says, is the “opal of the universe” and many of the causes she espouses are about protecting our global environment.

Last Sunday afternoon I sat down with Sula at her kitchen table. Over a bottle of Piper Heidsieck Champagne we enjoy the afternoon sunlight, looking into each other's eyes, questioning and laughing. The incandescent champagne bubbles help the flow. Later, we nosh together on a plate of delicious pasta and crisp salad greens straight from her garden.

Her small, warm home bursts at the seams with a gallery of pictures of her children, siblings and self at various life stages, as well as the earthy landscapes in oil she's painted. Horse blankets, cowhides, a saddle, a piano, a white board listing to-do items, pots and pans and glassware and shoes and clothes and flower vases and more are scattered everywhere. This is artistic clutter to the 10th degree, factoring in four beautiful wild children and Sula's entrepreneurial spirit, in spades.

Sula grew up in Hydra, Greece and in Suffolk, England. At the tender age of 10, she developed a crush on an American GI stationed at a local NATO base. She loved American movies (from The Apartment to Easy Rider) and of course, that great American export, rock and roll. She was drawn to the dream of the flower children in San Francisco and the potential for continuing a bohemian life in a new world.

Noted anthropologist Giles Healey invited her to see Big Sur, after she met his daughter Kate in London. Sula heard the name as Big Sir, which she thought was quite silly. In her opinion we should call our home Grande Sur, as the Spanish did.

In 1977, Sula got her first taste of the American Dream in New York City and Hollywood, where she worked briefly as a nanny. She then took a Greyhound bus from Santa Barbara to Monterey, and hitchhiked down the coast to Big Sur.

It was foggy that afternoon as Sula’s ride took her to Nepenthe. While the restaurant's terrace was bathed in golden light when she arrived, the rest of the coast, north and south, was shrouded in heavy cloud.

Like the parties on Hydra she had enjoyed as a child, everyone who was anyone in those days danced their cares away at Nepenthe every night. Kate and her boyfriend welcomed her warmly, driving down the road together to Partington later that evening.

And then, the simplest magic: It’s warm at the top of the ridge, the night sky is crystal clear, she hears a symphony of chirping cicadas. The next day she sees the view, and vows to herself she will never leave.

I ask her what has sustained her over the past three decades on the coast. “The inability to take this place for granted, the weight of the continent, my love of the land. I've been to many beautiful places on the planet, but Big Sur remains the crown jewel. I can always pour whatever sadness I have into the ocean. She receives it, and gives me back a sense of calm, of happiness, of feeling complete.”

“I carry Big Sur inside myself now. It is the most powerful land, a polarizing touchstone, really. It’s a place to ground, to release and receive energy. There are two opposing poles of energy here, contrary powers of positive and negative, intensifying each other, yet in balance. In these conditions, there can be no denial of absolutes.”

In this vein of combining poetry and science, we discuss polarization, and prisms. When you look through a prism, the twist in the middle, where the light changes, is the most powerful point, where it’s most alive.

So, the polarizing energy of Big Sur creates the possibility of intense change. If you have something in you, you can see it as a blessing or as a curse. Here in the land of no denial, you must work with it.

At 21, Sula married Giles Healey’s grandson Lewis Nichols, obtaining both her visa and her beautiful first-born daughter Sarah. She has raised four children, now aged 26 to 13. I’m curious about what effect Big Sur has on family life.

“My children say it’s marvelous to have a place in one’s childhood that is magical,” she says. “And I believe that children, especially teens, need to get out of our little village in order to experience a different reality."

"It’s a beautiful point of departure, they learn how to be quiet in nature, but it’s so important not to get stuck here.” Happily, she’s been able to travel extensively with her brood, from Fiji to Mexico to the UK, and also has a home away from home in Mendocino.

“Growing up here my daughter Sarah appreciated the horses. My son Torre has great friendships, while Layla and Jasper connect with the land more.” We laugh over a memory of Layla, aged 8, playing in the waves at Pfeiffer Beach, in December, draped in kelp and wearing nothing but a Santa hat.

As the twins come tumbling into the kitchen, she says with a smile, “Here come the children, my terrible children." Later, reverently watching the sun sink into the Pacific, Scribe and Empress embrace in contented silence.

If you are curious about Sula's nom de guerre, here is a clue—

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this, Linda. It's beautifully handled!