The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Sonoma County

The Center was asked to investigate Sonoma County, north of the San Francisco area, for an exhibit about land and art at the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa, California. The museum is exhibiting an experiential space by James Turrell, as well as models of his Roden Crater project, and the Center’s Formations of Erasure exhibit, about the decay of earthworks. In addition, an aerial survey of human-made landforms in the county was conducted by the Center, and is being exhibited in the museum June 21 - October 19, 2003.

531Part of Odiyan, the reclusive hilltop buddhist retreat in northern Sonoma County. CLUI photo

THE LANDSCAPE OF SONOMA COUNTY is a monumental blend of exposure and concealment. The bare, rolling hills broadcast a bucolic scene, a showcase land of wineries, farms, and touristed Victorian towns. Elsewhere, the trees have reclaimed the land from the lumber barons, forming a dense storybook forest of hidden retreats and rushing rivers. To the east, the mountains divide Sonoma from its more moderated sister, Napa County, while to the west, the cliffs of the tectonic rift zone that is the coast crumble into the sea.

Sonoma is also a mixture of romantic escapism and suburban bliss. From the Russian River bohemians to the hilltop Buddhists, Sonoma’s retreats are as exotic as they are notoriously unknown. The hippies and utopianists who have headed to the hills here, and even the corporate communities, like Sea Ranch, Rohnert Park, and the curiously hexagonal Cotati, each have a planned vision of the future, a pride of place, and a persistent optimism.

The image and myth of this superlative place is supported by its denizens and promoters, and by the equally epic mechanisms of the working landscape. Lake Sonoma, for example, the county’s largest body of water, was created from scratch, less than 20 years ago, to reduce flooding along the Russian Riverone less valued valley permanently flooded to protect another from flooding. Here and there in the county, gravel pits dug into the hills pull the raw ground up earth out to build the roads and subdivisions of the expanding suburbs, while other hills are formed by the mountains of trash these new places generate.

The energy that drives the stumbling but stable economy of the county creates forms like the hole in Bodega Head, from an aborted nuclear plant project (built in another form in Diablo Canyon), and the miles of pipes in the remote northeastern corner of the county where the ground itself is plumbed and tapped to draw the heat of the earth into electric turbines, in the largest geothermal complex in the country.

Looming over all of this is the 4,300 foot peak of Mount St. Helena, topped with communications towers and transmitters, bathing the landscape in the bitstream. At the bottom of the county, on San Pablo Bay, sea level is seeping back into Skaggs Island, slowly flooding the foundations of a former village of Navy spies, who abandoned their post a decade ago, taking their secrets, but leaving the doors open.