“Bay of Life,” a project from Bonny Doon photographer Frans Lanting and writer Chris Eckstrom, is on display at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History with an idea of providing a comprehensive profile of the Monterey Bay.
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A couple of weeks back, when we were all being battered by an endless series of atmospheric rivers, I was standing on the river levee on the Watsonville side of the dangerously swollen Pajaro River, chatting with a few strangers about the conditions. I think it was during that brief respite after Storm No. 6 — but honestly, who can keep count?
I wondered aloud about the opposite side of the river, the tiny town of Pajaro, which had been devastated by flooding back in the storms of 1995. One guy beside me waved his hand in a who-cares? kind of gesture. “That’s Monterey County over there,” he said.
He was joking (well, I hope he was joking). But that comment unnerved me. It made me brood on the boundaries we erect in our minds as we define the world around us, and as we determine which parts of that world constitute “home.”
A county is a political designation, an otherwise arbitrary line on a map, but for many people, a county line is a psychological barrier, a boundary between home and not-home, between us and them. Even we media folks — especially we media folks — do it. My mandate as a reporter that day was to report what was going on in Watsonville, on the Santa Cruz County side of the river. It was unclear, at least in my mind, what my responsibility was for that other side.
Obviously, storms pay no heed to county or city boundaries, nor does any other natural process. And, sure, such boundaries are useful in dividing up jurisdictions, determining tax rates, and figuring out who to call when you need law enforcement or animal control. But we too often allow them to infect our psychological/emotional conception of home. Another county is another country.
It is, then, a revelation to be liberated from that kind of thinking, which is exactly the point of the big new show at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz. It’s called “Bay of Life,” and it’s the work of photographer Frans Lanting and writer Chris Eckstrom, longtime husband-and-wife residents of Bonny Doon.
“Bay of Life” is a big-picture recasting of what it means to live in the wider Monterey Bay region, relevant to anyone within that region, whether they live in Ben Lomond, San Juan Bautista, Moss Landing or Carmel Valley. When it comes to elements such as rain and fog, fire and wind, we are all living in the same place, county jurisdictions be damned.
Lanting and Eckstrom have traveled to every corner of the planet, documenting the earth’s wild places for National Geographic and others. No one you know is more well traveled than they are, has been to more far-flung places than they have. When the rest of us were dealing with the storms of January, Frans and Chris were aboard a research vessel in Antarctica, and it certainly wasn’t the first time they’ve been to the “bottom of the world.” That’s just what they do.
Which means that these two people could live literally anywhere, on any continent on the planet. And they’ve chosen to live here for more than 25 years. Lanting and Eckstrom have seen the best that Earth has to offer. And they’ve built their home in the Monterey Bay.
“‘Bay of Life’ is our tribute to this region,” said Lanting, standing alongside his wife in the MAH’s second-floor Solari Gallery amid the exhibition they put together. “It’s our way of expressing gratitude about everything we’ve experienced here.”
There are no hard boundaries, but the Monterey Bay region stretches roughly from Half Moon Bay to the north to Big Sur in the south and eastward out to around San Luis Reservoir on Pacheco Pass, just on the edge of the Central Valley. It envelopes the Santa Cruz Mountains, but also the Gabilan Range and the Santa Lucia Range. It extends to the watersheds of the San Lorenzo, the Pajaro, the Carmel and the Salinas rivers. It contains a staggering variety of utterly unique places, each one an ecological and biodiversity treasure — from Point Lobos, to Pinnacles National Park, to the elephant seals breeding ground at Año Nuevo, to the redwood groves at Big Basin and Henry Cowell, to the deep underwater canyon just offshore at Moss Landing, which rivals the Grand Canyon in size and depth.
“Bay of Life” gives equal weight to land and sea, with a particular emphasis on how those marine and terrestrial environments interact. It gives respect, even love, to the coastal fog that so many of us curse for smothering the sunshine in the summer (but which allows most of us to live without home air-conditioning). It acknowledges the vulnerability of the region to wildfire and drought. It also recognizes the native cultures that existed in this region for centuries before European settlement.
Lanting’s photographs famously exclude people, for the most part, which is all good and well. His job is to document the majesty of the world outside human influence. But “Bay of Life” is very much a human story that acknowledges not only the Indigenous peoples’ interaction with the land and sea of the area, but also the free-for-all exploitation of it largely during the 19th century when plunder and destruction went on almost completely unchecked. Of course, the last part of that story is the rebound, the awakening of subsequent generations to preserve what was once ransacked.
That awakening, by the way, is ongoing. As part of the promotion of this exhibition, the MAH and Lanting/Eckstrom have partnered with Santa Cruz Metro to produce “wraps” on city buses that essentially turn the buses into rolling billboards and give Lanting’s amazing photos the kind of scale and exposure they deserve. Ultimately, there will be 30 buses, each with a unique image carrying the “Bay of Life” message.
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Think of how all those buses will interact with the enormous (and unrelated) “Sea Walls” art project that launched in the fall of 2021. Those are the various murals around town by artists from all over the world, all on a theme of Santa Cruz’s sea-life legacy. Imagine what it’s like for someone who hasn’t visited Santa Cruz in a few years to experience all that imagery in a familiar terrain. It communicates, with a new urgency, the need to recognize and appreciate the unique natural bounty of this place.
It’s often easy and comfortable to draw smaller circles around what you might consider “home.” But there’s also a vertiginous kind of thrill that comes from expanding that idea, to embracing an ecological notion of home, to laying an emotional claim to the giant swath that encircles the backward-C shape of Monterey Bay.
My own house is a short walk from the exact spot where Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties all converge. I think, psychologically at least, that proximity has allowed me to embrace all three of those arbitrarily designated tracts of land as part of my psychic home. And that’s a great gift.
The “Bay of Life” project allows everyone who lives in the influence of the Monterey Bay exactly that kind of expanded vision. It’s a great gallery experience, but it will also compel you to get out of the confines of the museum, and to experience your psychic home with a new perspective.
The “Bay of Life” exhibition at the Museum of Art & History is open Thursdays through Sundays, noon to 6 p.m., through April 30. The book “Bay of Life: From Wind to Whales” is now available.