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Her mountain in all its glory

1 March 2004

William Etling

Everybody knows that poppies and lupine light up the San Rafael Mountains like a neon sign in the spring. A discerning few, like Figueroa mountain resident Cheryl Alter Morris, see a parade of blossoms year-round.

Her photography exhibit, "Scenes from Figueroa Mountain ," opens Sunday at the Santa Ynez Historical Society and Carriage House Museum , and is on view through May 8.

"Cheryl's photographs provide visitors with a unique window to the vast wilderness of Figueroa Mountain ," said Mary Elliott, museum director.

"People think that once the poppies and lupine are over, there's nothing out there. That's not true! There are flowers all year long," said Ms. Morris. "As early as January, the milkmaids come up. They start at the bottom of the hill on the Midland School property. Once I see those, I start looking for others. As the air warms up, they start moving up the hill."

Ms. Morris moved to the mountain with her parents in the early 1960s from the San Joaquin Valley to take over a cow-calf operation started by her grandparents, Johnny and Mildred Franzina. At one time, the family ran 250 head on 40,000 leased acres ranging from Figueroa through Davy Brown to Sisquoc.

It was a family operation. Recalled Ms. Morris, "If they said, 'Be home to work cattle,' I was home to work cattle."

It's a vanishing way of life. The U.S. Forest Service ended cattle leasing some years ago, and there's no longer private grazing in the forest.

Ms: Morris lives on a peaceful 80 acres set within the forest, which her grandparents purchased from the Tunnell family. Visitors include coyotes, bobcats, foxes, squirrels and the occasional bear. "We saw a young one a couple of years ago. They get in the garbage."

The road up the mountain was dirt then, sometimes times blocked with snow and mudslides as she made her way to Santa Ynez High. “It was an interesting time, not knowing how you were going to get to school some days," Ms. Morris said. `When it was really wet, my dad drove us."

Their telephone was crank-operated, working off the line going to the fire lookout. At first there was only a generator for electricity. "We just had butane and kerosene lamp, It wasn't until I graduated from high school in 1966 that we had power."

That changed when the Forest Service brought power to a well nearby.

Cheryl married and moved away, returning just over five years ago.

“That was the year we had 60 inches of rain, and the mountain was just alive with flowers. That piqued my interest."

She jumped into photography.

"Neil Brundage at Village Frame and Photo helped bring me along. I like to catalog the wildflowers that come up every year. I take the Catway Road, and go down into Davy Brown, check the hillside, look over the edge, and climb where I can climb and take pictures."

Rainfall and fire affect the cycles.

"From our house, I can see an open hillside toward Figueroa Mountain . The first year when I came back we had all that rain, and because of the fire there was a lot of brush that hadn't grown backup, and that little meadow was first yellow, then it turned pink I walked down the Davy Brown trail, and the sides of the canyons were just covered in Chinese houses. They were literally white. I've never seen it like that before. There were a lot of things that came up that year in such mass that hadn't before.

"Last year was an excellent year. Everybody commented that they'd never seen so many lupine."

Her advice: “When you go looking for wildflowers, look over the side of the road, not just along the side of the road. You'd be surprised how much you miss when you don't leave your car."

In connection with the photography series, the museum is hosting a members' opening from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday.

For more information, call 688-7889, or visit the museum Web site, www.SYVM.org.