Thursday, August 14, 2008

A very special season

It's late afternoon in summer at the ball park, warm sun casting long redwood and sycamore tree shadows on the infield. The crack of bat against ball, thwack of ball into mitt, voices calling out “Nice hit!” “Go, go, go!” and “Come on home!” And sweetest of all to a former “four eyed", ball-wary kid, "Nice try!"

Some years back, a very eccentric lady used to play a wooden flute to discombobulate the opposing team. When up at bat, players braced themselves for Crazy Jane’s serenade. Today, strains of Bob Marley stream across the field, played on someone’s car stereo.

Once again, Big Sur "Socko" Softball is in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The park celebrates its 75th birthday on Saturday August 23. "Socko" a close relation of softball, was introduced in Monterey in the 50's. It's been played in the Big Sur State Park since 1976. In the rogue's gallery of winning team photos you can identify retired players, and see the fathers of some current ones. The fashions have changed, but the collective glee of the winners is consistent down the years.

Is Life a drama or a game? With sports, there’s drama within the game, but the objectives are always clear, hit the ball, make the run, score the point. The opportunity to make a memorable play, the one your friends talk about after the game, is always out there. And then there's the audience of neighbors, families, and friends. Hanging out and watching the game is a favorite pastime too.

With 16 games canceled due to the huge Basin Complex wildfire that threatened the park last month, league players are happier than ever to play ball. Pitchers pitch to their own team members, so the batters get the pitches they like. To offset this advantage they get only two strikes, not three. So there's lots of hits and lots of runs in this game, making them much more interesting than pro games, with their stolid pace and intense competition.

On this field, players can make mistakes! There's a preponderance of fly balls. Team members encourage each other through the good and bad plays and loudly dispute the bad calls. Joshing each other as only small town intimates can, they gossip behind home plate, steal bases, suffer minor (and sometimes major) injuries. Above all, they laugh, a lot. Umpires mimic big league banter to everyone's amusement. Where else but on a locals' playing field can a 50-year old sport the imprint of baseball stitches on his forehead with pride?

It feels like real play.

Players are waitresses, bartenders, chefs, gardeners, business owners, salespeople, health center, hotel and construction workers who double as artists, surfers, renegades and all-around bohemians. In yet another strange twist of fate, this past Sunday the Cielo restaurant at Ventana Inn burned down in a fire that began in the kitchen. This afternoon Ventana's team is out on the field, playing Fernwood's Dogs for a bit of "normalcy."

Socko Commissioner Chris Counts says, "Big Sur Socko is the Wild, Wild West of Softball. We have 8 teams and over a 100 players in a town of less than a 1000 year-round residents. Just about anything can happen out on the field, and much of it is very funny. We might look serious out there from time to time, but for the most part, this is a very lighthearted league."

Big Sur Socko has a couple of interesting rules, unique to the park's habitat: the "Tree Ball", meaning if your batted ball hits the sycamore tree encroaching on left field, or the redwoods on the edge of right field, you're entitled to sashay over to first base.

Counts' favorite rule is the "In Play" vegetation rule: All balls that reach vegetation between the left field line and the embankment (known colloquially as the dyke) in right-center field are "in play." "In every other league, they would call balls that go into the vegetation 'dead,'" he says, "meaning that a player gets one base and has to stop. By making those balls 'live,' defenders confront an interesting dilemma ... is it worth getting poison oak to stop a runner from scoring?"

In addition to the pleasure of whooping and hollering for your friends, the softball scene is a special treat: sitting on the benches outside the diamond, fans look up to see the formerly green, now charred, slopes of Mt. Manuel. The lines are the same, the peaceful face of the mountain looking down onto the ball field, inspiring faith in a world made safe again, at least for a while.

Rosie Kenworthy, grown up tomboy, has been playing ball with the boys in her neighborhood since she was 9 years old. Before batting, she paws the dirt with the ball of her left foot, does a quick little hip shimmy, then, crack! She's off to first base. Real Big Sur ball players carry their mitts in their cars, artfully dodge the multiple squirrel burrows that pock-mark the field, and are always up for a little celebration post-game. Despite rivalries that sometimes arise even in this bucolic setting, at each game's end opposing team members high five each other, and say, "Good game."

"Field of Trees" photo by Chris Counts
Hayden Will with Dad's mitt
Dale Diesel comes home
Slopes of Mt. Manuel
Rosie at bat
"Good game"
(photos by Linda Sonrisa)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fire relief, Big Sur style

Some of what I'm hearing from my neighbors and friends these days:

"I'm home. It looks the same, but everything is different."
"My attention span has evaporated. I can't relax completely, can't even distract myself with a book or a movie."
"I have fire dreams."
"It feels like we're in a time warp, living a dream."

Or maybe like a movie, when at the end, we realize the heroine has been dead all along, and we've just watched a flashback of her life's last moments. Living in Big Sur is dream-like anyway. We constantly pinch ourselves at our good luck in being here. To think that really, Big Sur is gone, and we're only playing out her idealized survival in our minds, is just too eerie. This ghoulish thought fades away though, as I see the ferns growing back, already, in the ashes. Renewal!

One thing I think many of us feel now, is a kind of nostalgia for the present moment. I thought the possibility of a certain experience was gone forever, and here I am living it again. For example, listening to my neighbor's enormous orange rooster, Harold, crow throughout the day from his coop in the redwood forest below us. Miraculously, he and his sister hens survived, let loose in the forest during the 2 1/2 weeks of mandatory evacuation. Or simply sitting and looking at the ocean, hearing the crickets, feeling the warm summer breeze.

Last weekend, a local couple brought a free meditation weekend workshop to the Big Sur community, at the Big Sur Lodge, led by the folks at the Art of Living Foundation. It was well-attended and very rewarding, according to friends who participated. I almost went, but stayed home to record the minutes of the ridge's annual homeowners' meeting, an exhaustive post-fire debrief. We also painted the entire inside of my house very bright colors, which helped too. It's easy to be cheery in a house with walls of celadon, pumpkin and turquoise.

As I looked at the delicate Peruvian lilies in my kitchen sink Saturday morning, trimming them up and putting them into a vase, I remembered learning about flowers from a book I bought at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden after my house burned down in 1991: The Clover and the Bee, a Book of Pollination.

Quite the naughty title, I remember thinking. I read it thoroughly and centered myself, coming to earth again as I looked at the precise drawings of pistils, stamens, stigmas, corollas, petals and sepals. Not to mention the glorious, moist anther! This morning I inspect each flower's nectar guides, little landing strips for pollinators. It's all about da birds and da bees, I mused. Even flowers advertise sex. Eat here! Pollinate me!

There's nothing like a children's book if you want to learn something new, perhaps something you wished you'd learned as a child. The presentation, the language, the use of illustration, in this case, impeccable, by the "grandmother of contemporary botanical artists", Anne Ophelia Dowden. These books are all geared for the openness of a child's mind. Ideally this is how we all can learn, throughout life, approaching learning like play.

Taking a breath, pausing to really observe something simple, brings my soul into focus. This process helps me trust life. If I can savor each moment, then the terrors around the corner just aren't that bad.

And support, like renewal, abounds: If you'd like to help our community as it faces the rock and landslides to come this winter, you may want to attend the Big Sur Fire Relief Gala Benefit on Saturday August 9, at the Monterey Conference Center. Or make a donation! Funds will go to the Big Sur Fire Relief Fund, the Big Sur and Mid Coast Volunteer Fire Brigades, the Big Sur Fire Management Planning Process, and the rebuilding and restoration process.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Come back to the five and dime, Sarah Jane

Here is Big Sur's own lovely Sarah Jane Nichols, born in the Dome House on Partington Ridge on July 11, 1981. Nature child, accomplished horsewoman, Londoner, actress and aspiring celebrity. A woman of unique confidence and experience, Sarah is a beloved soul.

My first vision of the teenage Sarah: On a summer afternoon, sunlight filters through the dust on the road, the air smells of bay and eucalyptus. I’m energized from my long walk. I hear the rhythmic rustling of leaves and look up to see a maiden on horseback coming up the path, bathed in picture-perfect light.

Atop a bay horse, she wears a proper riding helmet and sits in an English saddle. Horse and rider move quickly past me and then break into a canter up a small slope on the other side of the road, birds twittering in their wake. It was a scene right out of my imaginary childhood, a glorious moment.

Sarah was on horseback before she could walk. Mom Sula Nichols sat her on Sheba, her Aunt Kate's mare. There was a mule that used to follow Sheba everywhere, and she'd sit on the mule. Sula taught her the fundamentals of the ancient art of horsemanship. "When I was a little girl, before I could ride on my own, I used to dream of galloping horses by myself," she says. Now, when she rides Jake, a Friesian horse, she says she feels like a knight, in shining armor.

These days, she does "3-day eventing" working with the equestrian set in Pebble Beach. This is cross-country, show jumping and dressage. She trained and competed in France, England and Germany for four years. "If it's in your blood it doesn't go away," she says. "Horses are the most intuitive creatures on the planet. They're amazing athletes and performers. I love how they communicate, especially the problem ones. I'm kind of a 'horse therapist'," she laughs.

When she was ten years old, Sarah lost her Dad, Lewis Nichols, in an “over the edge” car accident. The narrow roads and steep cliffs in Big Sur are unforgiving to wild young men. The event, she says, shaped her life. She wears a sweet tattoo in the small of her back, composed of a horseshoe, a California poppy, and her Dad’s initials.

“When something hurts so bad, it is almost a relief when it starts to hurt less, even though you’re still in pain. You know you will never feel as bad as you did at first.” Talk about a mature perspective. To go through life knowing what real loss really is, she says is both "a strength and a weakness." Sarah is a rare creature, profoundly sensitive and tough as nails. Growing up in Big Sur with her loving family has helped her enormously, she says.

Some of her favorite first memories include: "The smell of the dirt in the summer time, going up the road. The smell of the heat and the dirt, maybe it's the oak or bay trees that give the air that smell, I don't know. The feeling of the air, not too warm, not too cold, perfect." Spoken like a true horsewoman. "Calling out to my cousins, Vanessa and Warren, who live up the road, with bird calls. We used to go down the hill in our Big Wheels, totally naked, using out bare feet for brakes. We did that as long as we fit on the bikes. Covering ourselves in mud and painting designs on ourselves with pomegranate seeds. Oh, and bareback riding in the moonlight."

When I ask Sarah what she wants most in life, she replies, without missing a beat, "To be famous," then quickly backs away from that, talking about happiness, and the usual blah blah blah. I encourage her to go for what she really wants. She's ridiculously photogenic, and has great presence. Perhaps most important of all, she has grit. She's our own young Brigitte Bardot, a vibrant siren with a tender heart.

The Basin Complex wildfire that touched down on Partington Ridge destroyed Sarah's family home. Nestled against the mountain, looking down the canyon to the ocean, it's a spot where you are often above the clouds, eye-to-eye with hawks and condors, looking down on all of creation. The family plans to rebuild, and she'll be part of that process.

Sarah Jane's fans hope she'll always come back to our five and grace us with her light.

Sarah as a wee sprite
With equine friends Derek Zoolander and Jake
Puppy pile in Mexico with brothers Torre, Jasper and sister Layla
Glam shots of Sarah
No, that's not Sarah on the right, but Brigitte Bardot, in the '60s