Written by Traci Prendergast and photographed by Kalie Ilana Cassel-Feiss
Steeply pitched uphill, past Stinson Beach, a shared dirt driveway on Panoramic Drive leads to a creaky aluminum gate. Climbing down to open the gate and maneuvering the car inside, I am instantly transported to some south-facing beach on the Mediterranean Sea. Facing outward is an entirely new perspective on the beaches of Stinson and Bolinas. Like the view from a plane, everything fits into frame; the two towns, the surf breaks, the lagoon, even the cabins at Steep Ravine. Miniature and far away, yet close at the same time. Noisy waves crash as if we sit beachfront, and not a mile away.
Atop a plane on the sloping hillside sits Black Rock Ranch. Coastal winds here frequently speed eastward at fresh gale forces or stronger. Yet the morning is warm, and promises heat come noon. It’s not just the weather and surrounding olive grove that feel Mediterranean. The house is stunning.
Its architecture is a blend of Mexican, Rustic, Modern and Spanish aesthetics, the best and most refined of all of them. Clearly its construction was a labor of love. Story tells that the previous owners camped on the land as they built, dividing their time between Stinson and Mexico. Their dream cut short by a scuba accident, it sat on the market a long time, more than just a real estate transaction. That is until the remaining owner met Sandra.
It’s no surprise. Sandra emanates warmth. She greets me with a hug, scooping a recently awakened baby out of my full arms. As she welcomes us inside, I manage to keep my internally gaping mouth shut. Adobe walls, railroad tie door jams, rustic furniture, and crystalline light; beauty is in every detail. Immediately she is feeding us her delicious eggs and bread and a fava bean pesto.
We set out while there is still some coolness in the air, and begin to wander the property. In a grove of mixed fruit trees wander the resident chickens. There are 75 mature birds and pullets, distributed over three separate coops. Ten different breeds in total, raised on a mixture of organic feed, bugs, worms and whatever else they find in the ground. The hens look as though they have been freshly bathed. Their coop is newly bedded, and littered with colored sunlight shining through stained glass. As we continue, more signs of impeccable maintenance emerge; the paths, recently refreshed with wood chips, lead us past perfectly ripe favas, artichokes and early spring flowers.
Sandra and her husband Rob moved here just five years ago. Despite retreating from the pressured worlds of public service and law enforcement, they have clearly not been resting. One thing has lead to another as they try to best care for their property, with it’s challenging soil and steep slope. Not wanting to draw on scare resources, they set up a rooftop water catchment system to irrigate the olive trees. All one hundred and fifteen are Tuscan varieties chosen to thrive in this temperate climate: Leccino, Frantoio, Maurino, Moraiolo, Pendolino and Rosciola. Some are pollinators. Last year, their entire crop was lost to the olive fly. While they still won’t reach full maturity for several years, they expect to produce a harvest this year. Sandra’s brief stint with the California Olive Oil Counsel honed her palate and informed the flavor profile she will seek out with her oil once pressed.
After years of research and thoughtful consideration, four Santa Cruz Island sheep were acquired. Initially, the sheep were intended for grazing under the olive trees. Through a class on Carbon Farming, it was learned that rotational pasturing would also promote invasive weed and fire control, thereby sealing their destiny. Besides the threat of winds and dry brush, the adjacent property is the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, making their land the first and last line of defense in a wild fire. In the short time the sheep have been roaming here, Sandra has seen the native grasses return.
As we trudge upward, their silhouettes appear above. A critically endangered species, they were originally brought to Santa Cruz Island in the mid-19th century; and later left behind when ranching operations there ceased. For seventy years they subsisted, resulting in adaptations to drought and poor forage. Slight and shy, they are the product of decades of solitude and wind, a seemingly perfect adaption to the conditions at Black Rock Ranch. Thus far their soft wool has been claimed by members of the Fibershed community, its’ skirting (unusable bits of wool containing vegetative matter, mud, poop, etc.) cleverly used as a ground cover to trap nutrients at the base of the fruit trees. The fine wool is known for its elasticity. The girls graciously pause for a photo before retreating further uphill.
As we circle back to the house, a full picture of the guiding principals here begins to emerge. First and foremost, there is a deep commitment to preserving and enriching the land. Not by way of business plan or mechanized execution, but from careful listening and thoughtful implementation, and almost entirely without help to boot. Like all the best things in life, their process is guided by heart. We will be so lucky to enjoy the fruits of these labors in due season.
Black Rock Ranch eggs are available for local delivery in the Stinson Beach area. Email Sandra [at] blackrockranch.com or call (415) 342-2699 to coordinate a delivery.