Cambrian: Opinion

Benches and bucolic beauty on Cambria’s iconic ranch

The popular dolphin bench on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve was designed and built by Jay Burbank.
The popular dolphin bench on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve was designed and built by Jay Burbank.

It’s Saturday, July 26, 2014. As an astronaut soaring weightlessly 248.5 miles above Earth in the International Space Station, you approach the West Coast of the U.S. around 1 p.m. PDT. An avid photographer, you aim your 400-meter long-range lens toward the Central Coast.

Aha! There’s tiny, forested Cambria, snuggled against the mighty Pacific Ocean, but you can’t spot a house on Kerwin Street, one of six stops on the Great Kitchens of Cambria fundraiser for Friends of Fiscalini Ranch Preserve (FFRP).

Your lens doesn’t detect a reporter pouring 4 ounces of cold beer into 5-ounce plastic glasses on the back patio of the Kerwin Street home. You can’t see 300 folks — 30 or 40 at a time — enjoying grilled bratwurst and sauerkraut, washing the morsels down with chilled brew.

But what you do see from space (11 blocks north of Kerwin Street) is the 437-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, a bucolic island of stunning natural beauty (more than 182 bird species and scintillating views of migrating gray whales) in the middle of Cambria. The Kitchen Tour has raised money for the maintenance of this coastal marvel for 14 years.

A sidebar story would reveal how, in 2000, committed Cambria citizens raised the funds to wrest the ranch from developers who had visions of housing projects and hotels dancing in their heads. Instead, there was dancing in the streets when the ranch officially became community property.

Meanwhile, if the space station had access to a powerful spy satellite, you might spot the 14 benches on the ranch.

You might even see plaques affixed to those benches. To wit, the commemorative inscription on a Bluff Trail bench — overlooking the exquisite tidal zone, Otter Bay — reads: “In Loving Memory of Beatrice ‘Bea’ Morrow. From her Husband Jack, and Family. One Earth One Chance.”

Reached by phone, Jack Morrow explained that Bea passed away seven years ago. Having moved to Cambria from Long Beach because Bea “always was thinking about living by the ocean,” the couple rented a house — and later bought a house — near the ocean in the Marine Terrace neighborhood.

In time, Bea was diagnosed with lung cancer. Sadly, a few short moments after Jack brought her home from an appointment at Stanford University Medical Center, she suffered a sudden stroke and was gone. “Because of her love of the ocean we thought it would be very appropriate to have a bench for her on the ranch,” Morrow explained.

Morrow, 88, still walks the ranch trails, plays tenor saxophone in a jazz group, and is proud that he was part of the citizen activism that purchased the ranch before it could be dotted with development instead of a place Cooper’s hawks, great blue herons, bobcats, coyotes and even an occasional cougar call home.

The most striking, natural world-themed bench on the ranch has to be the dolphin bench, beneath an ancient cypress tree on the dusty Ridge Trail, accessed via Huntington Street. The dolphin bench — featuring three dolphins and five turtles — was designed by Jay Burbank in memory of Pat Burbank’s parents, Mary and Howard M. Little.

The Burbanks, heavily involved in the fundraising that saved the ranch, invited a reporter for coffee at their Windsor Boulevard home on the last day of July. Jay explained that by 2012, the original slab bench he and Pat placed in 2005 needed replacing, so Jay spent a couple of weeks designing the dolphin bench and about 300 hours building it.

Why three dolphins and five turtles? “The bench had to have humor, because Pat’s parents had humor in their lives,” Jay explained. “Mommy turtle is leading the family, and then there’s dad, and kids don’t always do what they’re told, so one kid is at the top of the bench.”

To say, as Jay and Pat do, that the dolphin bench has “given a lot of joy to walkers,” is understated. Indeed, this reporter’s exercise is a brisk walk on the Ridge Trail.

He passes the dolphin bench, sees happy children playing on it (and touching the turtles), while their parents focus on the steel blue Pacific in the distance.

And while the view from the International Space Station is no doubt awe-inspiring, the view from the dolphin bench, or from Jack Morrow’s bench — or from anywhere on the ranch — is pretty amazing in its own right.