Writer, biologist, and philosopher Wallace J. Nichols was living a charmed life until the pandemic took away his livelihood and the fires his family’s home up the ‘Slow Coast’ north of Santa Cruz. Rather than run from the pain of it all, Nichols chose to feel it — and of course write it.
If you know him, if you’ve read his book, or heard his lectures, or have some familiarity with his contributions to the science and philosophy of well-being, then what Wallace J. Nichols did when faced with a sudden, crippling, and irretrievable loss makes perfect sense.
A day or two after he discovered the ash-heap ruins of the house that he and his wife, Dana, had designed and built, the house in which they raised their two daughters, Nichols stood alone near what used to be his home in a redwood grove north of Davenport.
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The air was choked with smoke, the trees drooped in distress. Almost every material thing he owned in the world lay at his feet, carbonized beyond form and function. Short of a loss of life or injury — thankfully, there was none — he and his family confronted the most complete personal loss imaginable.
So, he sought out water.
Amidst the moonscape of ash, he stripped naked, and slipped into a neck-deep swimming hole in Mill Creek, a spot on his property where he and his family had bathed countless times, in a creek from which they drew their drinking water.
At this moment, though, the creek never felt so good to him. Despite the cold water, he lingered until his anguish — at least the most immediate part of it — was washed away.
“I just didn’t want to get out,” he remembered, “and it was very, very cold.” By the time he did emerge from the water, “I just felt so grateful that I got to live there for the time that I did.”
An original, even by Santa Cruz standards
Nichols is certainly not a typical Santa Cruzan. He is, in fact, a kind of exemplar of what Santa Cruz, as its most self-realized, aspires to be: a scientist and theorist, an evangelist for eco-consciousness, a philosopher-king of the community/ecosystem north of Santa Cruz known as the “Slow Coast,” and an original thinker when it comes to the relationship between humans and water.
In 2014, Nichols — who holds a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology and Evolutionary Biology — published a trailblazing book on the deep psychic connection between the human brain and large bodies of water called “Blue Mind” (Little, Brown).
The book’s thesis was captured in its unwieldy subtitle: “The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do.”
“Blue Mind” turned Nichols into a kind of guru and chief disciple of an idea that combines scientific data and imaginative leaps of intuition and is catnip for the TED-talk realm of cutting-edge thought. As a result, Nichols was able to build a career around the book and its ideas, traveling the globe as a teacher, lecturer, researcher, and writer.
His research expeditions have also taken him to big water sites on every continent and allowed him to build professional relationships with institutes and organizations all over the world. To take the most local example, he’s a senior fellow at something called the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.
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To say the least, in the realm of his professional mission, things were going swimmingly.
Then came 2020.
The pandemic and the resulting shutdown in March brought Nichols’s career to a grinding halt. Four separate teaching gigs in Asia were canceled. The lectures and workshops dried up. He and his wife supplemented their income by opening their beautiful home to Airbnb visitors. That also stopped abruptly.
Five months later, the CZU Lightning Complex fires brought about what may be the most destructive natural disaster in Santa Cruz County history. The fires’ devastation mapped almost exactly with what Nichols has designated as the “Slow Coast,” the broad but sparsely populated coastal expanse that includes northern Santa Cruz County and southern San Mateo County. The custom home Nichols built with his wife was not spared.
Everywhere you looked, a story
Every one of the nearly 1,000 homes lost in the fires last August — be they pre-fabs or mansions or otherwise — represents a tragedy. But the Nichols home reflected the values and personalities of the family that live there in a unique way. Nichols and Dana moved in 20 years ago, just as they were about to start their family, which would eventually include daughters Grayce and Julia.
The house — a half-mile or so up a dirt road just off Swanton Road — was built from old-growth Douglas fir, salvaged from a razed warehouse in Stockton. The beams were enormous. The planks that made up the flooring were 14 inches wide and two inches deep. (“I think it was built stronger than it needed to be,” said Nichols.) The style was simple, elemental, Shaker-esque. There was no drywall to be found in the house. It felt much like a barn.
“If you walked around the house, everything you could look at, touch, or point to had a story to it,” said Nichols. “It was not a fancy place. It was the opposite of that. It took the years or wear and tear well. The more scratches, the more stuff that got in the cracks of the floorboards, the better.”
Inside the house were touches that reflected its Slow Coast origins, a chandelier-style ceiling piece built with wine-barrel straps from Bonny Doon Vineyards, hand-blown glass lighting fixtures from Davenport-based Lundberg Studios. Inside the house were countless treasures and heirlooms, including a piano that once belonged to Nichols’s grandmother.
Little time to make a plan
On Aug. 16 and 17, millions in California were witness to a surreal and mesmerizing mid-summer spectacle, a rain-less lightning storm. Nichols, like countless others along the Northern California coast, caught the natural light show and was impressed by its beauty. He thought fleetingly that the lightning might result in a fire or two, but was not alarmed.
The next day, Dana and the couple’s oldest daughter Grayce flew to New York where Grayce was to enroll in her freshman year in college. Nichols was at the house alone, doing some prep for plaster work he was planning to do the next day. He opened a bottle of wine, turned up the music. He was, in no way, prepared for what happened next.
A couple of phone calls from worried neighbors and friends clued him in to potential danger. Taking his dog, he trekked deeper up the dirt road a bit to see for himself. Turning a corner, he saw fire engulfing both sides of the canyon, and moving toward him quickly.
I have apologized to my family for kind of blowing it, for not thinking about all the other things I should have saved.
— Wallace J. Nichols
From that point forward, he wasted nearly no time, fleeing with the dog and little else. Today, Nichols is still wrestling with the regret of not salvaging what he might have been able to, given more notice and time. “I have apologized to my family for kind of blowing it,” he said, “for not thinking about all the other things I should have saved. But I’m sure the house was in serious flame within the hour.”
A day and a half later, Nichols hiked in to his property on the dirt road from Swanton Road. With him was his teenaged daughter Julia. He advised her that what they would see might be painful and that she might consider staying behind. She refused. “I’m glad she was with me,” he said. “It was a moment we’ll always share.”
The feeling of dread as they walked was palpable. In his heart, Nichols felt there was zero chance his house had survived, even partially. He was right. When they reached the home site, it was all ash, except for the still-standing stone chimney. The fire had burned so hot and so fast, that the ashes were cold by the time they arrived.
Shortly after, he called Grayce back at Syracuse with the news. It was a short phone call.
“I called her and I could hear her crying and it just broke my heart. I couldn’t speak. So I hung up and I just started writing.”
A pain shared by many
Nichols wrote to his daughter to express what he could not in the moment vocalize. Grayce forwarded it to friends and extended family. Someone posted it on a blog, and soon, the letter was out in the world, ricocheting across social media and e-mail inboxes.
A couple of weeks later, he read it aloud on NPR. It became an evocative and heartbreaking communication between father and daughter, half intimate memoir (“I imagined you looking down after a bath through the railing upstairs”), half tormented apology (“I hoped it would be yours one day and I was working hard to keep it.”)
What was lost in the fire affected more than the Nichols family. They used the home as a kind of social touchstone, an always-open safe place for friends and families. Weddings were held there, as were holiday parties. Writers, artists, researchers from around the world visited regularly.
The house was home for Nichols and his family, but it was a home-away-from-home for concentric circles of friends and colleagues. As a result, the Nichols family members have not only had to bear their own grief, but that of many they know and love.
I would get e-mails that would say, ‘I heard about your house, and I’ve been crying all day.’ That made it especially hard.
— Wallace J. Nichols
“I think I could handle my own pain,” he said. “But my children’s pain, my family’s pain, my friends’ pain ... I would get e-mails that would say, ‘I heard about your house, and I’ve been crying all day.’ That made it especially hard.”
As 2021 dawns, Nichols and his family are living in a rental in Carmel. He is often asked whether he plans to rebuild. So far, his answer has been modest. Part of his grieving process is to give his fullest attention to clean up.
What was once his prized possessions are now just so much potentially dangerous detritus. “I hope to be the proud owner of a little wildflower meadow,” he said. “I’ll pitch a nice tent on it.”
‘I do not feel resilient at all’
Four months on, Wallace J. Nichols is having to contemplate how he picks up his life post-pandemic and post-fire. He ponders where the Blue Mind movement might go from here. He asks himself “Am I done with this work?” He said, for the last few months, he’s been more Gray Mind than Blue.
But mostly, he’s still facing down remorse that he didn’t do more to save his family’s legacy. “I just felt responsible, rightly or wrongly,” he said. “I felt like I blew it. I didn’t protect my kids’ house and the house that my friends loved so much. I didn’t protect whatever the future was going to be for my kids when I’m gone.”
He is collecting thoughts, perhaps for a new book. He is honing some raw ideas. But one thing he is not doing is falling back on comforting bromides about resilience. He has no doubt that he and his family will bounce back from this incalculable loss. But he’s not bouncing quite yet.
It’s layers and layers of loss to deal with and the process of cleaning it all up and putting something back together takes lots of time.
— Wallace J. Nichols
“At the moment, I do not feel resilient at all,” he said. “I know that it will all work itself out. People are saying, ‘Oh, you’re so resilient. You’ll be fine.’ My thought is, no, I’m not. Thank you for saying so. That builds my confidence, I guess. But it’s not like you can just watch the resilience TED Talk and you’re good to go. It’s layers and layers of loss to deal with and the process of cleaning it all up and putting something back together takes lots of time.”
The home was insured but Nichols said they can only hope the cost of cleanup and debt owed will be covered. When it came time to find another place to live after the fire, Nichols was not choosy. He found a friend who would rent him a place in Carmel for a good price. It met the only criterion he had, as he told his wife earlier.
“Let’s just find a place where we can hear the ocean.”