Living the Good Life with Ardis and Philip Hyde
Part Five: Agricultural Influences
(Continued from the blog post, “Living the Good Life 4: Failure in Carmel.”)
“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”
~ Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac
About This Series: “Living The Good Life”
In 2002, two months before my mother passed on, I asked to interview her about her locally popular organic gardening, homemade preserves and all natural cuisine. I also wanted to capture the essence of my parent’s philosophy of living, their low impact lifestyle and long-term sustainability way before the word “sustainability” existed or the philosophy became a trend.
While the tape recorder ran, my mother joyfully began to answer my questions about more than 56 years of vegetable gardening, flower cultivation, ornamental breeding, gardening for butterflies and birds, natural pest control, fruit tree pruning, grafting and much more.
Unfortunately, we only made one tape. She died suddenly while I was 3,000 miles away on the East Coast before the interviews could continue. The afternoon after that fated first taping, she handed me her personal copy of Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World by Helen and Scott Nearing. She first paused to hold the book and look at it for moment, put it in my hands with gravity and said, “This was our Bible.”
The Nearings and their methods as professed in Living the Good Life, spiritually led and inspired the 1950s “Back to the Land” movement. The Hydes were at the early edge of this movement, leaving the Bay Area in 1950 to settle first in Indian Valley among the remote mountains of the Northern Sierra, then on a rocky flat bench of land on a branch of the Feather River Canyon, looking down on Indian Creek and up at Grizzly Ridge towering more than 4,000 feet straight up above the house they carved out of the wilderness.
This series of blog posts examines how Ardis and Philip Hyde, while not on the road or on the trail in pursuit of flora, fauna and photographs, adapted and invented their own version of “The Good Life.” Part One serves as an introduction, citing sections of the book and how the Hydes applied them. Part Two reviews Ardis and Philip Hyde’s respective childhoods and how their influences brought them together and eventually to their own land in the country. In the third episode of “Living the Good Life with Ardis and Philip Hyde” I reflected on the changing seasons and passing years as their dream home and their way of life continue here. Part four of Living the Good Life, came from my interviews of Dad about defeated attempts to establish a home in Carmel near the photography market as he and my mother were advised to do by his mentors and friends Ansel Adams, David Brower and others. Failure in Carmel surprisingly took them overseas to Morocco in Northern Africa and eventually back to California where they built their dream home in the Sierra. More on Morocco in future articles and blog posts.
Part Five: Agricultural Influences
Before continuing the more or less chronological story of the Hyde’s “Living The Good Life” dream with the construction of their home to include passive solar and other green or passive energy features in Part Six of this series, in this Part Five I will share how my mother’s ancestors helped found part of Sacramento and through their ranch contribute to the agrarian lore of the Great Central Valley. My mother orchestrated at least a start in agricultural knowledge during my childhood.
My father, born and raised in San Francisco, sought out nature all over the Bay Area. His father was an artist, draftsman and furniture designer and maker who also loved nature and loved the Sierra. He descended from a long line of schoolteachers. For more on my grandfather Leland Hyde and Dad’s other early influences, see the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 4.”
In contrast my mother’s ancestors were early pioneer families of the California Central Valley. My mother grew up in the greater Sacramento area, spending most of her childhood in the rural outskirts away from the town that is now downtown Sacramento. My mother’s maiden name was King. Ardis King Hyde’s father, Clinton Samuel King, Jr. grew up on the King ranch outside Sacramento. Mom’s mother, Elsie Van Maren King grew up on the Van Maren Ranch. The King’s sold their ranch when my mother was too young to remember. However, my entire life, until my mother passed on, she talked about her vivid memories of the Van Maren Ranch.
The Van Maren Ranch was located in the part of Sacramento that is now called Citrus Heights. The Van Marens were one of Citrus Heights founding families. Van Maren Boulevard was named after the family. The main ranch house, roughly in the center of the 1,000-acre ranch, stood on a hill that has now been removed where a shopping mall now sprawls.
One Van Maren family myth had it that during the Great Depression, my great grandfather Nicholas Van Maren exclaimed one day in exasperation that his greenbacks were worth so little that he might as well pave the lane into the ranch house with them.
“I’ll call it my Greenback Lane,” he cried out. From then on the family and their friends called the road Greenback Lane. This was how the familiar Citrus Heights thoroughfare received its name.
The main crops on the Van Maren Ranch were wheat, oats and barley, with a secondary production of grapes, almonds, apples and olives. There were also a number of milk cows, horses, chickens, goats, lambs and pigs to supply the family pantry. My grandmother Elsie had three sisters and no brothers. The four girls grew up doing the farm chores that in those days were usually done by boys, in addition to the household chores as well. My grandmother was a superb cook, who could easily feed a few dozen people. My mother, who had three brothers and no sisters, as the only girl in her generation, was constantly in the kitchen with her mother. Some of my mother’s best recipes were handed down from generation to generation.
My mom remembered trips out from the suburbs to the rural area that is now Citrus Heights to the Van Maren Ranch on weekends one or two times a month. She learned to ride a horse on the ranch as a little girl, milked cows and helped out with all of the tasks on the ranch that her mother had grown up doing. Mom loved visits to the ranch and did not mind pitching in and working with her grandfather around the ranch and grandmother in the kitchen. Mom was quite capable and hard working, even as a child. Her grandparents in turn enjoyed the companionship and help of their eager, inquisitive suburban granddaughter each time she visited. She remembered hauling water from the hand-dug well to the house by bucket the old-fashioned way and making everything in the kitchen by hand.
Both my mother and grandmother were tough as nails. They could out work and out rough-and-tumble any boy or man their whole lives. Part of what attracted Dad to Mom years later was how comfortable and fearless she was in the outdoors, yet how she also carried herself with grace indoors.
Besides being an artist in the kitchen, my mother was what gardeners call a “green thumb.” She could make flowers grow from rocks, which is essentially what she did for close to 60 years at our home in the Sierra Nevada. She had not had her hands in the soil much at all though for many years when my parents finally bought the property in December 1955.
Soon after, Mom and Dad walked the property with their friends Cornell and Pat Kurtz from nearby Lake Almanor, who also were accompanied by their four-year-old daughter Kit. A tangle of branches, decimated small trees and bulldozed piles of dirt and rock, the house site had been a logging staging area. Not much dirt mixed in with the Grizzly Formation igneous andesite rock. Indian Creek over geological time cut down through a giant rockslide that came down off of Grizzly Ridge and dammed up the creek. The bench a few hundred yards above the present riverbed consisted mainly of angular fracturing Grizzly Formation rock with some dirt in between to further wedge in the rock and make it hard to move.
This was more than 15 years before the publishing of Dad’s renowned book, Slickrock with Edward Abbey, but Dad and Mom had traveled much in the Southwest where the name “Slickrock” was common as were other names with “rock” in them such as “Smooth Rock” or “Balanced Rock.” For more about Slickrock see the blog post, “Who Was Edward Abbey?”
Recently Pat Kurtz described that she and Cornell had visited the Hydes in 1956 while they were still living in one of the neighbor, Bill Burford’s houses, before Mom and Dad started building our home in 1957.
“I remember picking up the sharp, pointy rocks on your land,” Kit Kurtz added. “The rocks I were used to at Lake Almanor were rounded. I was already thinking, ‘this is rough rock.’” While showing the Kurtzes the land, Dad mentioned that they could not think of a name for the place.
“Your Dad looked down at Kit,” Pat Kurtz said. “He asked, ‘What do you think?’ and Kit said, ‘Rough Rock.’” Dad and Mom looked at each other and at Kit with smiles of acknowledgement and agreement.
“That’s it,”Dad said. “That’s the name.” Our home has been Rough Rock ever since. I will say with great assurance that to this day it lives up to its name in spades, or despite and intensely in spite of spades, or any other digging implement.
Dad even had to blast or chip a few giant rocks. Tons more he removed to pour the foundation. The rocks taken out of the trenches for the foundation were distributed along the hillside to make terraces. My parents filled in behind them to build the soil for a garden. I was not born until 1965, but the pickup truck hauling program was far from over when I got old enough to wield a shovel or pitchfork. I remember a childhood filled with trips to nearby ranches and farms to clear manure, used hay or combinations of the two out of horse stalls. We made those trips in an old 1952 Chevy Pickup we called the Covered Wagon when it still had a corrugated steel camper shell-like canopy on the back. For more on the adventures of Covered Wagon all over the West see the blog post, “Covered Wagon Journal 1.” We also hauled dirt, sand, grass clippings, straw, wood chips and just about anything else that would make soil. I will write more about the gardens and gardening in future blog posts.
Besides being a laborer and off and on participant in Mom’s gardening efforts, thanks to my mother I was exposed to other agrarian influences. As a very small boy, probably around age three, my mother took me to a nearby dairy farm, introduced me to the farmer and to his dairy cows up close. Mom and I watched while the farmer milked his cows. We tasted the milk and I even took a turn at milking. When I was young we had milk delivered by a milk truck as part of a regular milk route. Later, I would go with my mother to pick up whole milk directly from the dairy farms that sold it. Mom skimmed the cream off the top and used it to make butter or to whip cream. We also made homemade ice cream from local whole milk.
My mother raised me on unpasteurized milk. I lived a highly active, sports-filled life and never broke a bone until I was in my 40s far away from my childhood home. I have never had any allergy problems either. A substantial body of scientific evidence links pasteurization, hormone supplementation and genetic modification of milk and dairy cows to food and pollen allergies.
My mother and my mother’s brother, Nick King, taught me how to care for, prune and organically fertilize our apple trees. For more on my uncle’s nursery, apple farm and beekeeping, see the blog post, “Actor, Photographer, Apple Farmer and 1960s Activist Nicholas King’s Memorial.” Every year Dad and I helped Mom pick apples in our mini orchard of three trees. Mom tried many other types of fruit trees, but few of them bore much fruit in our mountain climate and elevation of 3600 feet above sea level. Just before she passed on in 2002, Mom planted a plum tree in front of the house that just started bearing fruit four years ago. It produced a heavy limb-bending crop of plums one year, but unfortunately the raccoons ate most of them.
Another agricultural, small farm activity Mom instigated at Rough Rock when I was a kid was raising chickens. They were bantam hens named Henny Penny and Peg Leg. They laid a slightly smaller egg than most chickens, but they each produced one to three a day, which was all we needed. Dad built them a chicken wire cage inside our garden shed. They would go in at night and out during the day. I fed them around the same time each day as I fed Pad, our German Shorthaired Pointer dog.
Pad was our primary domesticated animal. Pat Kurtz originally found her for us and named her P. – A. – D. after Philip, Ardis and David. The Kurtzes had a long line of their own German Shorthaired Pointers for many years. Pad would stay with them when we traveled. Pad was also good with the chickens. She hardly even went near them. She ignored them with disdain and distaste. We never knew why. After a few years Peg was taken out one day by what must have been a raccoon, or possibly a Bobcat or even Mountain Lion. All we found were a few feathers. Penny lasted a few months longer before suffering a similar fate.
I am grateful to my mother for introducing me in small ways to farming and ranching. While I did not grow up on an actual working farm or ranch, I had at least enough taste of it to understand what the lifestyle was like and what producing your own food is like. Farming is hard, but highly rewarding work.
(The passive solar, energy efficient, ahead-of-it’s-time construction of Rough Rock will be featured in “Living the Good Life 6.”)