Friday, July 11, 2014

The Four Elk of Old Cotineva Ranch

At the end of June, I spent a long weekend up the coast in Fort Bragg for a family reunion, from which area (the Mendocino coast) my father's side of the family hails, all the way back to my grandmother's great grandmother, Mary DeVilbiss Lowell, who arrived here in the 1860's in a covered wagon train, recently widowed by the Civil War. 

This year, I got to walk the songlines of some of my ancestors along the Mendocino Coast. My grandmother drew me a family tree (which she'd written about to me several times, but which I still couldn't keep straight!), and with my parents and my brother, I set off to find in particular the old Cotineva Ranch, 1,000 acres that reached right up to the Pacific tideline somewhere north of Westport, which was originally owned by Mary Devilbiss Lowell, then her younger son George and his Irish wife, Ellen Roach, parents of my great-grandmother Edith, who was known as the best bareback horse-rider in Mendocino County, and who grew up on that ranch full of fruit trees, sheep pasture, cows. It was a place so beautiful and beloved to her that after her father died when she was still a teenager, and the land passed on to a less agriculturally inclined brother (I believe!), she couldn't bear to go back and see it un-tended. 

First, we stopped in Westport, and admired an old white house right along Highway One that looked out down the coastal bluffs to the ocean. Later, my grandmother said—why yes, that's the Phee's old place, my cousins! Naturally. I soon realized that there were family houses all over Westport, a town which was once a thriving lumber port, and which now is a very lonesome haunting place, made more ghostly by the pall of illegal marijuana plantations deeper in beyond the hills.

It is a beautiful place all the same, and human history a complicated, layered thing: at once I long for the past of my great-grandmother riding bareback on the coastal ranch of her childhood, and her mother, grandmother Mary, and on down the branches of the family line, before Westport became a haunting husk, and yet I know that their lives here were predicated on the abuse, the destruction, of the native people who loved and tended this land before them with more grace and dignity than any of us can hope to replicate.

And even so, to see the grave of my great great grandfather Patrick Roach, buried right beside his wife Kitty Purcell, in a sweet little graveyard overlooking the ocean, California poppies blooming above them—this moved me deeply, as did all of my encounters with family places that day.

Down the street from where my great-Aunt Teresa (really my great great Aunt), the youngest sister of Edith (who was one of fifteen!) lived, bluff and beach (up to the tideline) that were once owned by Edith's husband, Buster Stanley (are you lost now?), are now protected wild-land. Thank goodness. Nobody should own a beach; and yet that was how the world worked then, and it is that said Buster loved this land with all of his heart.

My brother and I stood on the bluffs, looking out over this great maze of rock and foam, as cormorants and oystercatchers wheeled and called, and laughing, said, well of course, it's no wonder this is my favorite sort of landscape. Both of us, the same love for a wild coastal California shore, that particular slant of bluff, the grass gone gold, the firs dark green against the hills to the east. We both felt it stirring in our blood, a shiver up the back of the neck. Maybe land stays with us, somewhere, especially land that was loved.

We kept driving a good fifteen miles or so up the windy One, until it headed inland, east, where there is a great break in the ridges. That's where the Cottoneva Creek meets the ocean. The creek was also called "Cottonwood" by early settlers, of whom A.J. Lowell, Mary DeVilbiss' second husband (and therefore not a blood ancestor of mine) was the first. This fact of course gives me some unease, because naturally there were other people there, the people who named the creek Cotineva, which in their language meant "low gap." I take this to be a reference to the low-point between the ridges created by the creek-valley. And what a nourishing place it must have been for those First people; a lush, alder-lined creek thick with fish, that lead right to the prodigiously bountiful ocean.

In any case, we drove along, beyond that "low gap," looking for a sign for Rockport, which was to be our indication that we were nearing the old Cotineva Ranch. Suddenly, out the window, I spotted this:

Of course, dear readers, you can imagine my excitement, given my general love of elk, and my current project, Elk Lines. In fact I made some sort of bellow from the back seat and yelled to stop the car! There was nowhere to stop, and though I was in something of a froth in the back, we kept going, until we reached a very big bend in the road which my grandmother had said would be the sign we'd gone too far; the ranch was all the land south of the bend in highway One, where it goes inland to meet highway 101 (the old Camino Real). So we turned around, and then I remembered the satellite image my grandmother and I had looked at on google-maps (yes, this song-line travel involved not only oral history but satellite technology)—a long, thin patch of land beside the road that was the old pasture.

We returned to the place of the four roosevelt elk, because they were grazing at the fenceline of the Old Cotineva Ranch. Yes indeed. I could hardly believe it; I was downright shaking when I got out of the car and went toward the elk. In fact I could hardly bear their beauty, and the beauty of the land they grazed. I could imagine my great-grandma Edith, who I never met, riding between pastures, and I wanted to cry. The elk grazed just beyond the beautiful alder forest lining the Cottoneva Creek (not cottonwoods at all— this must have been a misinterpretation of the native word on the part of the settlers). I have a particular love of alders. In my favorite patch of them nearer home, at Muddy Hollow in Point Reyes, elk abound, rubbing them red with their incisors and antlers, leaving their enormous hoof-prints along the muddy creek. I felt a dizzy mirroring, standing at the shore of this land, guarded by alder and elk. 

An old house still stood, and several sheds, just where my grandmother said they would, all looking as though they were about to collapse into the earth. My brother went up to investigate while I stood gaping at the elk, and returned rather shaken, having walked right up to the windows because he was certain the place was abandoned, only to see a mattress, a blanket, chairs. I had to be dragged away from the elk, and the alders, and the sweep of meadow, before anybody noticed us parked right by the house—and me bouncing about giddily after the elk with my camera no less!

Across the road, the property extended beyond a "No Trespassing"-signed gate. I suspect that the pathway you see below is the one my grandmother spoke of, which led to the little family graveyard and then down the ridge to the ocean, where her mother's family, and her father's before them, sea-fished, gathered abalone, sent boatloads of sheep down the coast to market. I wasn't quite brave enough to jump the fence without being sure it was the right one (family have rights of passage to the graveyard), knowing this to be the sort of place where people really don't appreciate trespassing, but I hung over the rungs for a while, dreaming.

Elk and alders, fir forest, ocean and coastal meadow, old families, old ranches, the native stories held deeper and older within the land; well, it turns out all of these things are woven deep into my Elk Lines too, and not on purpose! Though perhaps it is not an accident either, but rather by some need in the heart and blood, some path the body and the mind follow along with the writing hand. So if you haven't yet subscribed, and would like to, click on that handsome fellow above (who is part of a wee surprise for Elk Lines subscribers upon receipt of their first installment!), or this link here.  Subscriptions are open until July 21st for the first installment, which will arrive by Lammas, August 2nd. 

I suppose I didn't know it, but in walking the family songlines that day, I was also walking the elk lines. And whatever the case, I stood so very close to those elk with their antlers all in velvet that I could hear them chew and snuff the air at one another. They looked me in the eye, wild and gorgeous beyond all words, and I will not be the same again, for that beauty, and how they regarded me with gentle, ungulate unconcern, breathing softly, utterly confident in their velvet strength. 


  1. You are so very lucky to be able to trace the gnarled branches of your family tree down to the deep reaching roots. And luckier still that there is a physical and spiritual resonance there. What a trip! How magical when the serendipitous reveals itself as quite fateful. Much luck to your project. I eagerly await the first installment.


  2. Sylvia, my dear, what a wonderful tale. A girl shootin' straight for my heart. Oh please do share more family stories! I promise I'll share more of my tales of the land here up North, though never as eloquent as yours. Pure magic. Thank you. :)

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