The spirit of wild places

The Big Sur coast | Adobe Stock

By Kate Woods Novoa

I’ve been enchanted with the spirit of wild places most of my life. I went backpacking to the top of Mount San Jacinto when I was 9, long before the tram was built. My family and I took a weeklong mule trip to the high country camps of Yosemite when I was 10. We camped every summer when I was growing up. I grew up as a Girl Scout and wild places were very much part of my life. We were taught to pack it in, pack it out, just because … well, what else would one do? Long before there was a “leave no trace movement,” it was what we were taught and what we did.

This upbringing probably contributed to my love affair with Big Sur. It was a natural extension of my wildness education in many of the most beautiful places in California and the West. I learned to water ski on Big Bear Lake and hike in the Sierras. We traveled to Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and other wild places of the West. I wish others had the opportunities that I did. Sadly, most of these places are overcrowded and overrun now. The experience is not quite what it was. The wildness is becoming harder and harder to find.

We have wild places in Big Sur like these. The Ventana Wilderness and the Silver Peak Wilderness are still wild. That doesn’t mean that they are untouched by man,. Despite that, there is still a wild spirit here that must be protected. How long that wild spirit remains depends on us.

I saw a bobcat on my way home yesterday. It took my breath away. Fauna sightings used to be a daily event, now they are more unique. Today, as I was holding the hose and watering my potted plants on my deck, a hummingbird came to me for a drink. He hovered right up to the gentle spray coming out of the nozzle. I held perfectly still while he got his fill. After he left, I found a terracotta saucer for one of my pots, and I filled that with water and set it on the large spool I use as a table. These are the moments I live for. These are part of the spirit of this place.

I have a theme going in the books I am currently reading. Last year, that theme was current politics. I read prolifically in an attempt to understand what was going on in my world. This year, I am taking a breather for a healthier reading theme. I am reading Richard Power’s “The Overstory” for the complete joy of it. I am not rushing through, I am reading it five to 20 pages a night, just before bed. It is a book I want to sip and swish and swallow reluctantly lest I run out.

During the day, I am reading “Wilderness Ethics” by Laura and Guy Waterman. This one I am reading as something I can study and learn from. I read with a highlighter in my hand. I have “The Wild Places” by Robert MacFarlane, Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitude” and “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben in the queue, among others. With Woods being my birth name, trees have always been a big part of my life in the wild places. My favorite book to read to my children was “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. Time to give that to the grandkids to read to their kids.

I read for knowledge, for inspiration, or for guidance. Currently, I read for all three. I am concerned about what I am witnessing in this place called The Big Land to the South and wondering what I can do to make a difference — to keep it as wild as possible for those who follow — our grandkids and their kids.

I read a National Geographic article  some months back and made notes for an article on caring for a place — this place, Big Sur. It was about a man who lived alone on an island for 28 years. He gets no compensation for caretaking the island. He said something that struck me so deeply, I made a digital poster of it.

“I’m not a botanist or a biologist,” Morandi says. “Yes, I know names of plants and animals, but my work is much different than this. To be able to care for a plant is a technical task — I try to make people understand [why] the plant needs to live.” Richard Power does the same thing in his book, “The Overstory,” with trees. He wants his readers to understand why they must live and what they represent.

Big Sur is its trees, its mountains, its wildlife and its waters. It’s home to the southernmost stand of coastal redwoods. They are often referred to as a cathedral by those who have experienced them up close, not just from the confines of their cars. Big Sur is also home to the majestic white or valley oak (Quercus lobata,), with whom I am inextricably entwined. These trees are my sanctuary, along with their cousins and neighbors, the Quercus agrifolia and the Quercus chrysolopis. Some of these trees are ancient. One must stop, touch, feel, and listen in these forests — whether redwoods or oaks — or one will completely miss their wildness and what they have to share with us. They exist on a very slow time continuum, compared to the human’s frenetic existence. If one does not slow down enough, one cannot experience the world these long-living creatures occupy.

All those who have been drawn to Big Sur feel the magical, spiritual presence of her being. That is what has always drawn people, until now. Now it is the TV shows, the selfie shots, the competition over who can get the most likes, comments or whatever ego satisfaction their particular brand of internet social media provides. People are not slowing down for Big Sur or our planet’s other wild places, but buzzing through as fast as they can without stopping long enough for anything other than a selfie.

Big Sur is one of God’s finest chapels. We want to share it, we really do, but racing vehicles inside this chapel is sacrilegious. Setting fire to it is irreverent. Having a big, loud, obnoxious party in its stillness is blasphemy. Leaving human waste all over its carpet, graffiti on its pews, and trash strewn over its altar cannot be tolerated. We must speak up and never allow these atrocities to go unchallenged and let them become a new normal.

We must fight to protect the wild places, the quiet places, the places where we can find ourselves and each other. Indigenous peoples have known this and have shouted it at us as we drifted further and further away from our connections. Finally, some of us are hearing these shouts from our indigenous peoples, our trees, our critters, and our wild places. Once one hears them, one can never be deaf again.

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Kate Woods Novoa

About Kate Woods Novoa

Since 1985, Kate Woods Novoa has lived in Big Sur, working as a public defender for Monterey County. She started the bigsurkate blog ( during the 2008 Basin Complex fire and kept at it when she didn’t intend to.