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House Talk

No. 34 - August, 2009

A Partnership with Nature
A talk with Electra de Peyster

Judith Glass and Sheila Sabine are always interested in how people live in their homes and surrounding gardens. In the East Bay, where a multitude of climate zones merge, it is a gardener’s paradise. It is also a paradise for friendly deer, raccoons and other wildlife. For the avid gardener, this situation can be stimulating and frustrating at the same time. The following is a wonderful story about how one family chooses to live with nature and the surrounding wildlife.

Recently, Sheila had the wonderful opportunity to visit her friend, Electra, who lives in the Santa Rosa hills. It was one of those foggy cold summer mornings reminiscent of Ireland. As if on a scavenger hunt, Sheila followed Electra’s detailed directions winding round and round, making right turns and left turns and gradually making her way up a hill where she found herself in an elegant circular driveway. She was invited in and Sheila and Electra sipped hot tea in the living room as her friend began to unveil her story. Due to a job change in 1994, Electra and her family decided to move from the South Bay to the North Bay. As their home search evolved, they realized that the most compelling focus was not about having a large fancy home but rather it was really about stewarding and caring for a piece of land. The home would follow. They settled on a remote fourteen-acre parcel on an extremely private hill about a fifteen-minute drive from Santa Rosa. The site had been a former cattle ranch. For the first year they enjoyed total privacy as they had the entire hill to themselves before other families began building on the adjacent large parcels.

The construction of their lovely two-story Mediterranean complete, the family moved in thinking that they were the only residents. They were mistaken. Many residents from the animal kingdom were very curious about their new neighbors and began introducing themselves. The long glass windows in the living room became a perfect home museum to view the deer, bobcats, lynx, eagles and wild turkeys that passed by like a wildlife movie. A mother and her baby fawn came many times and peered through the glass, hoping to be invited in for tea and cookies. A wild turkey planted herself on the patio. Electra thought she was injured as she just sat there without moving. Suddenly she stood up and much to Electra’s surprise, she had been sitting on her brood of fourteen babies. The main rule of the house for the family has been not to interfere with the animals. Since this land was the animals’ home too, they are given plenty of space to look for food and water.

The one exception to this rule has been the rattlesnakes. Electra admits that these critters are her least favorite guests. In the beginning, the rattlesnakes really did not want to relinquish their territory. They would stretch out on the large boulders in front of the house and sun themselves - perhaps waiting for cool drinks to be served. If the boulders got too hot, they would slither into the cool garage or relax in the rose bushes for shade. Electra finally decided to take a stand. She began talking to the snakes. She acknowledged that they were on the land first, but asked them to please stay away from the outdoor patios and garage. They were welcome to be anywhere else on the hill. Some of the more stubborn guests had to be physically removed. The family was well aware of the cry ”Rattlesnake”—they knew the drill. Electra’s husband and two sons would run for the tall glass jar and rakes. The uninvited guest would be gently and VERY carefully lifted into a glass jar from its cozy spot in the garage and transported to the most distant corner of the property as far from the family home as possible.

Another amazing aspect of Electra is her love of seeds, flowers and plants. Indeed, as a Sonoma County Master Gardener, Electra has an extensive background in gardening and landscape design. She began her gardening work as a volunteer at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California in 1980. She became a lavender grower in the early 1990’s. In 1999 she began developing her interest in saving heirloom vegetables. She has done extensive research on seed saving. Her newest projects include Garden Starts which provides information for starting vegetable gardens and “Neighborhood Food”, a resource about local food. She is also exploring the integration of landscape design with green building design and experimenting with the use of native plants to attract bees, birds and other pollinators.

Walking with Electra through her winding gardens and pathways is like visiting a magical paradise. All colors, shapes, varieties and scents of the plant world are displayed in living color. The various plants and flowers are like free children skipping about in a relaxed environment. Each is left to grow at its own pace with little interference. The animals can feast on whatever they want and whatever is currently in season. The hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and birds fly about happily enjoying the latest delicacies - not to mention the deer and other wildlife.

Like the human world, living and dying are occurring simultaneously with re-birth and new seeds germinating constantly. Electra noted that seed saving began over 10,000 years ago and it allowed people to settle in one place. Today, there is renewed interest in seed saving as many people acknowledge that our future ability to provide food for the world may indeed depend on what seeds we save today.

To further appreciate and document her extraordinary garden, Electra is also an accomplished photographer. She has hundreds of wonderful photos and has recently published a photo journal entitled “Portfolio” which can be purchased at Blurb.com. She says that photography allows her to capture nature’s remarkable and ever-changing beauty.

Sheila ended her relaxing visit to this wonderful paradise by saying goodbye to the mother robin that was happily sitting on her nest outside the front door. Electra called Sheila the next day to say that four baby eggs had hatched and the mother and babies were doing fine. By way of a closing comment, Electra says that she is honored and inspired to be surrounded by so many different kinds of wild animals. She has learned so much from them, but most importantly she has learned to keep her needs and the needs of nature in balance - it is a partnership.

If you would like further information about this impressive woman or to set up your own private gardening consultation with Electra, she can be reached at www.ElectradePeyster.com.

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