‘Goodbye Bonita Lagoon’: Peter and Donna Thomas bid farewell to a beloved natural landmark with a beautiful new art piece

Peter and Donna Thomas' painstakingly crafted book "Goodbye Bonita Lagoon"
Peter and Donna Thomas’ painstakingly crafted book “Goodbye Bonita Lagoon.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

With the tiny body of water that sits between their Black’s Beach home and the Pacific Ocean disappearing, Donna and Peter Thomas have lovingly crafted what they call a papermaker’s elegy, made with paper literally created from the various plants surrounding Bonita Lagoon.

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I’m sitting in the beautiful beachfront home of Peter and Donna Thomas, gazing out at the Pacific Ocean across the sands of Black’s Beach from the Thomases’ living room picture window. And I’m thumbing through a book.

That’s nothing unusual given that Peter and Donna are professional book makers — that is, they are artists who create either limited-edition or one-of-a-kind fine-art pieces that happen to be made in the form of a book. But the book I’m looking at is not one of those. It is, in fact, a conventional book, nothing special in its paper or binding. Inside, however, is a comprehensive catalogue of the Thomases’ work going back decades. It’s a book-length bibliography, with color images of several hundred of their dazzling artifacts, most of which are now in the hands of collectors and libraries around the world. The thing is more than 400 pages, with almost 1,000 photos, and retails at $100.

I jokingly tell Peter and Donna that, when the time comes in the afterlife that they meet their Maker and have to account for their lives, all they have to do is slap that bibliography on the table and say, “Any questions?”

But this is not the book I came here to see. That book — which I gingerly paged through before I saw the bibliography — is indeed one of the Thomases’ art pieces, and because it’s just been finished, it’s not even in the bibliography. Of all the art pieces listed in the vast catalogue of their works, none has the immediate Santa Cruz-centric orientation of this new work.

The disappearing Bonita Lagoon.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s called “Goodbye Bonita Lagoon,” and it is an elegy, what you might call an eco-lament for what looks to be the inevitable loss of the tiny lagoon that sits between the Thomases’ home and the ocean. It’s a gorgeous product, its pages featuring linoleum-cut prints and stylized text, on handmade paper literally created from the various plants surrounding the lagoon — Kahili ginger, New Zealand flax, pampas grass, wild radish.

The Thomases have made only 30 copies of “Goodbye Bonita Lagoon,” and they’ll be on hand to chat about the book, the lagoon it celebrates, and the process of its creation, at an event on Tuesday, May 30, at Little Giant Collective in Santa Cruz.

“We’ve made 260 edition books so far,” said Peter Thomas, “and this one took every single skill that we’ve developed over the years to make. There were just so many different tools we had to use to make it happen.”

Bonita Lagoon is small, but it’s big enough to be labeled on Google Earth. When the Thomases first moved into their home overlooking the lagoon more than 40 years ago, it was a substantial year-round body of water, even big enough for a paddle boat or two. “Our kids had a rubber raft they could push around in,” said Peter. “It was probably 4 or 5 feet deep,” added Donna.

Since the 1980s, however, various storm surges have breached the natural berm that protected the lagoon. Those breaches, along with the retreat of beach sand through erosion distinct to Twin Lakes Beach, and years of drought have transformed the lagoon. On this beautiful mid-spring day, the lagoon is tiny but apparent. Before the wet winter of 2022-23, however, it would regularly become dry for most of the year.

What’s more, said the Thomases, flood-control projects upstream from the lagoon have doomed its natural process of regeneration. “It used to be that occasionally a flash flood would come through and blow all that [collected storm-related] sand out again and scour the whole area,” said Donna.

Pointing to an old map showing another now-extinct lagoon nearby, Donna said of Bonita, “As time goes by, it’s going to disappear, like the other lagoon that was just around the corner from this one.”

Peter actually made the paper from the various plants around the lagoon way back in 1987, long before it became necessary to bid farewell to Bonita Lagoon. The idea even then was to make a book about the lagoon from that handmade paper, though certainly not a goodbye gesture. It was, in fact, to be a project that the Thomases would do with friends and neighbors, painter Dave McGuire and writer Jim Houston.

“I was going to make the book with Dave and Jim,” said Peter. “Dave would do the illustrations and Jim would write the text. We thought it would be a great opportunity to do a neighborhood thing, but that didn’t happen, and we got involved in other things.”

The plant-based paper was stored for more than 30 years. The Bonita Lagoon book project is, in fact, a product of the pandemic. It was during the creation of their 400-page bibliography that Peter rediscovered the paper. “I thought, I gotta do something with this,” said Peter.

The result is a tribute to a vanishing natural feature that many Santa Cruzans aren’t aware of, but the Thomases and their neighbors have been looking out upon for decades. There isn’t a lot of text in the book, but it’s enough to outline the local history of the lagoon, its role as a resource for birds, fish and other animals, the urbanization and development it has endured, and the likely future for the lagoon.

“Bonita Lagoon has no natural mechanism to restore itself,” reads the text. “Unless someone does something to repair the damage, soon migratory birds will just find sand where they used to feast, and locals will be calling it ‘Bonita Beach.’”

The text also explains the process of making the paper from plant material, a much more laborious task than making paper from wood pulp or cotton rags.

Part of the process of book making is “damping,” that is, preparing the handmade paper to hold ink by wetting it and drying it again. For this book, that process was taking place at the Thomases’ home papermaking shop in the early days of January, when an enormous weather drama was playing out at Black’s Beach and many other points along the Santa Cruz County shoreline. The same storm surge that crippled the Capitola Esplanade and doomed the Seacliff pier brought a huge volume of water and sand into Bonita Lagoon, raising the water level to a mark no one had seen in decades and flooding the papermaking shop. A video from that day shows Peter and Donna scrambling to find higher ground while the surge overwhelms the lagoon. They were printing the first page of a book designed to bid farewell to a tiny lagoon which that very moment was enduring a devastating surge.

“We just had to keep going,” said Peter. “That’s part of the magic of this book.”

“Bonita Lagoon: A Papermaker’s Elegy” by Peter and Donna Thomas will be on display on Tuesday, May 30, from 7 to 8 p.m. at Little Giant Collective, 115 River St. South (next to Mobo Sushi in Galleria) in Santa Cruz.

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