The dream of rural living that Jeanne Walker once shared with her husband became hers to fulfill alone in the aftermath of tragedy, and she is legendary among all who know her for her one-woman industry, creativity, and inspiring resilience. In this interview Jeanne spoke about her thirteen years at the Hollister Ranch, her new life at Sea Ranch, and the wisdom she has accrued in the course of her journey. Her thoughts on grief, learning, and wonder are eloquent and profound.
“You make a deal with yourself. Okay, I can feel that I’m afraid about something, but if I just do this little step toward it and see how that goes, then maybe I can take a second step, and it’s okay. Or I can just go backwards. It’s all right. You try to cut it down into smaller pieces."
"We were there and we saw that the world was around us, and it was amazing beauty from time to time."
A WHOLE WORLD OPENED UP
This interview took place on September 10, 2014 at Sea Ranch, California.
JW: I was born in Berkeley, California on September 29, 1954.
CCW: Tell me a little bit about your growing up, your childhood.
JW: I grew up with my mother and father and my older brother who is a year and a half older than me, and we moved from the San Francisco area down to Los Angeles for my father to take a job at UCLA when I was very little, about a year old. I remember living in an apartment building until I was three, and after that we moved to a house my parents bought in West L.A.
CCW: And you’re the oldest daughter?
JW: I’m the oldest daughter and I have two younger sisters.
CCW: Your dad was a physician?
JW: My dad was a physician by education but he preferred to work in research because he felt his bedside manner wasn’t quite there and he enjoyed research, so he became a toxicologist which is a specialist studying poisons.
CCW: I bet he was very smart.
JW: He was very smart. He taught pharmacology at UCLA for many years and then he went to work for a private laboratory to basically test people who had been poisoned to find out what was poisoning them and select an antidote. So lots of emergency work.
CCW: I love that picture of you as a little girl running by the ice cream truck and I wonder if you have any images or memories like that from your childhood. What did you love to do?
JW: I loved to get ice cream from the ice cream truck! (Laughs)
JW: That photograph shows me in the front of the house, on the sidewalk; we lived on a dead end street, and there were many children about my age, all the rest of them were boys, I was the only girl, and we loved to play in the street on our bicycles. We built forts in empty lots, we had shovels, and we played all kinds of mostly boy games. And it was myself, my brother, and about three or four of the neighborhood boys. We lived next door to the Veterans’ Administration so we had a lot of empty areas nearby that we weren’t really supposed to explore but we did. And it was a very safe neighborhood, lots of families and dead end streets, not a lot of traffic, and it was fun. That was until I was ten. By that time I was older and I didn’t really play in the street anymore anyway, so it didn’t matter. We moved to another house, a larger house, in West L.A. as well.
CCW: Did you think of yourself as kind of a tomboy girl?
JW: I did. I was.
JW: I guess I was. I was just me.
CCW: I don’t know why I have that hunch about you.
JW: I don’t know.
CCW: A lot of times we talk about the sense of place, and you’ve been here for a year almost exactly. I wonder if you would like to talk about how you came to be here, and how you feel about here, or would like to look back for a moment at the experience of having been at the Hollister Ranch for so many years.
JW: Well, all of it is connected, so I don’t really know what to tell you. My choice to move here was probably the result of the experiences I’ve had in the other places I’ve lived, and the thing that stands out in my mind about all those places that I chose to live is that all of them had a story. They had a history. They had characters. They had sort of a separate story to the area they were within. I felt they were special places. They were unique. So I don’t know. They’re all connected and in some ways they’re all similar.
CCW: So maybe we should go chronologically because...well, I connect you so inextricably with Gaviota and the Ranch. I always will. I mean, you’re part of that story.
JW: A huge part of me will always be there, in my mind. Yes.
CCW: And I feel it. I think of you every time I go up that canyon.
JW: I think of you in my new house too.
CCW: So maybe we can just talk a little bit about how you came to find the Hollister Ranch.
JW: I had traveled for over two years, ended up going around the world. Hitchhiking, backpacking, and working part of the time. And I returned to Santa Barbara where I’d gone to UCSB, and I was partway through UCSB, so I was not sure what to start with there, but I thought I’d settle back there where I knew a few people and I knew the area because I preferred it to Los Angeles where I had grown up. So I stayed with friends and took a while but I found a place to live, which was in a remote area up San Marcos Pass called the Trout Club. And so I moved up there as a roommate in a house, and after I had lived there some time, I found that I really enjoyed living in a rural area that was very wild, with neighbors that I felt close too. And this was really the first place I lived that had a sense of time and a story about it.
And I met my husband there, and we decided we wanted to build a house and live somewhere rurally, and we ended up selecting Hollister Ranch because the land was the cheapest land we could find in Santa Barbara County and it was absolutely beautiful. So we ended up buying part of a parcel up there and planned to build a house.
CCW: Just a quick backtrack, your husband’s name was…
JW: Richard Walker.
CCW: And you met him the Trout Club?
JW: I met him at the Trout Club because he was one of my neighbors. And we decided that we should get married and have a child, and…
CCW: And how old were you?
JW: I was 23.
JW: Wow...so...(pause)...he was a commercial diver and he worked primarily in the oil fields. Occasionally he would have other work but it was few and far between jobs.
CCW: Was he...I’m just trying to get a picture of Richard, never having met him...was he funny? Was he serious? Was he hardworking?
JW: He was very funny. He was very hardworking. He was sometimes serious. He was very artistic. He had been an artist. He had had an unusual childhood moving around from place to place with a mother who married more than once. And he was athletic, and intelligent, and delightful, and a kind person. And a lot of fun.
CCW: Was he about your age?
JW: He was seven years older than I was. So, he would work on a contract basis for different diving companies and so he had quite a bit of time off in between and he liked to use that time to pursue the project of building a house. He was doing many things. He tore down a barracks building at Vandenburg so we’d have some wood to work with, and we were looking for a place to build, and we filled our time by looking towards our future, really. And he loved his daughter very, very much when she came along, and liked to spend a lot of time playing with her, even though she was just an infant and a little too young to be highly responsive. But he was absolutely delighted with her. So.
CCW: He knew her.
JW: He knew her very, very well, and just delighted in every new thing she did. So that went on...unfortunately not very long, because he was killed in the North Sea on a job when she was 13 months old, leaving me there with the land still to buy, and the dreams. Were they my dreams, his dreams, the dreams for our daughter? I decided that they were my dreams too, so I wanted to someday live at Hollister Ranch, and because I really didn’t have a trade or any way to support us except sewing, I knew it was going to take a while, which it did. Many years later I actually had to trade the property that we originally purchased for another property up there, because it was my dream to live there.
CCW: So you had already purchased a property on the Hollister Ranch?
JW: We were paying off a property. There were still another nine years to pay off before it was ours. So I did that and I lived in Santa Barbara and slowly got to the point where I could buy a house, so we had a small house in Santa Barbara, and we actually could make a home instead of renting places, and feel a little more secure.
CCW: “We” meaning…
JW: My daughter and I. So she grew up of course very quickly and ended up going off to private high school and then off to Northwestern University and doing very well, she was very bright, and very directed and very responsible. About the time that she was graduating from Northwestern I was able to trade the property that I own for the property that had a small cabin on it that I was able to fix up so I could live there. And it was just me by that point.
CCW: And where was that?
JW: That was Parcel 94. Sacate Canyon. It was about a mile from the ocean and really beautiful.
CCW: So, prior to that, you had some kind of arrangement with the Campbells and that was the property…
JW: Right behind the Hollister House. About a mile from the beach as well, another beautiful piece of property.
CCW: So you purchased 94 when Marisa was of college age.
JW: Marisa was just graduating from college about the time I traded one parcel for the other parcel.
CCW: Was that in the 90s?
JW: That was 2001. That was the beginning of the year of 2001.
And then I realized it was a building that was going to require quite a bit in the way of repairs before it was a place where I could live, so I couldn’t move there immediately. I still had a house in Santa Barbara, which I stayed in until I was able to get the Sacate Canyon house fixed up.
CCW: That was the house on Diana Lane?
JW: On Diana Lane, yes. So, soon enough I was able to get everything repaired, and it became a very small, and lovely, and very comfortable little house. Next door to you!
I guess that’s how I got there.
CCW: It seems to me that being there meant many things to you, on many levels.
JW: It did. It was an opportunity to have quite a bit of space around me and I could plant a large garden, I could grow some fruit trees, I could live very close to nature. It was solar-powered, so I would be self-sufficient in more ways than just being about to support myself financially. I could kind of live in balance with my surroundings and it worked out very well that way.
And I learned so much. I learned so much about operating equipment, and I had two houses that required remodeling prior to this, or three actually, and I found that I enjoyed working on buildings, not just how they looked but how they worked as well. Making things work and understanding the physical world around me. It made me feel comfortable. It made me feel safe.
I think for a lot of time especially shortly after my husband died, I felt, how will we ever take care of ourselves? How will I provide for my family? How will we be safe? How will any of this work? So to tried to find within myself the ability to deal with and solve problems and make us comfortable and make us safe. That was very important to me. And I really feel like that was something I have been pretty successful at learning and feel comfortable with. At least I now I’d know when I needed to call someone, who I needed to call and what they needed to do, and I felt good about it.
CCW: We’ve talked about this a lot: there’s a magic there. It’s an intrinsically beautiful place. But it sounds like it’s also connected to your husband, and you were living out the dream that you had shared with him, which is also kind of beautiful.
JW: I was. At first I had to question whether I was just doing something that he wanted to do, or if it was only something that we wanted to do together...which also meant was it something I wanted to do alone? And I decided it was all of those things. It wasn’t easy. It was a big commitment in terms of finances and my time and my energy but I did feel it was my dream, and it was very tied up with feeling that his goals were still important, even though he had died, so it was sort of an “us” thing, but it was also a “me” thing. I kind of had to alter how I looked at it, ‘cause I was gonna have to do all the things that were originally his part of the work, but sometimes I felt I was sort of channeling his energy, or his wisdom, or his ideas. But because we really agreed on a lot of those things, it wasn’t as though I were doing somebody else’s stuff. It was my stuff, but with his assistance. So sometimes I didn’t really feel alone.
It’s a very spiritual place. You can feel that people who had occupied that canyon for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, did a lot of the same things that I did there. There’s an oak grove, and they no doubt had found my little piece of paradise to be a great source of food for them, because the oak trees produced the acorns, a source of their food, and water was available in that canyon. Even in the summer there were springs. So it felt like it was a fertile valley that comforted those living there and protected them. We did have wild animals but I didn’t feel like we couldn’t live together peacefully. They had their space, I had mine. It just seemed to be a very comfortable place to be and to call home. And it didn’t feel like I was the first one to have lived there. People lived there for hundreds of years and you could sometimes hear them there. You could hear their voices and their laughter. You could just feel that they were there, and happily there.
So it was good. It was a good place. And I had good neighbors.
CCW: I’m not supposed to interject too much, but what you did there still takes my breath away: the things you built, the things you planted. It was a beautiful place but you coexisted and created within it. It was very inspiring to me.
JW: Thank you. That was important to me, that I not do too much to disrupt what was already there but that somehow it could all be a harmonious blend of what I was bringing and enjoying and what was already there, so I really enjoyed all the things that I did there. I had a lot of freedom to create. I could experiment with materials and stone and wood, all kinds of stuff. It was a lot of freedom. There weren’t a lot of things I needed to change about it to make it a place I liked. Coexistence was something you could...you could coexist in a very harmonious way there. It wasn’t a very large space, it was a small space. It was a large canyon, but it had little places within it that were like separate rooms. There were side canyons, there were lots of walks you could take that would take you to little secret places, and you could hear your own thoughts because they weren’t interrupted with the sounds of traffic.
CCW: Just the music of the creek.
JW: Yeah, you could just hear the creek and the wind in the trees. There was a lot of wind in the trees! (Laughs)
CCW: Lest we make it sound too perfect. But I think you channeled some of those good spirits.
JW: I think I did too. I think I still feel those really strongly. I was there 13 years. I lived there most of the 13 years I owned the place. And they were wonderful years. They were years where I felt very comfortable. I felt like I had made good decisions on how I wanted to spend a part of my life. And I learned a lot. And I had great friendships. It was a way to grow. It was an opportunity to see what life was like on kind of the edge of the world, because it was. It was a safe distance beyond the end of the road, is how I used to feel about it.
And when the rainstorms would come and you knew the floods would come and make the roads impassable, it was really important to be home, not on the other side where all the facilities existed, but home, where you could really take care of your own. Even in the great flood, when entire trees came down the creek, even during that, it really felt like, “I’m glad I’m in a safe spot.”
And we had each other. We had our neighbors that were close by.
And then we had the sense of adventure. We could still be the child within us and go down and see what had happened on the creek, and what had happened on the ocean with all this creek water coming down, and finding trees, all kinds of things. It was just a wonderful chance to explore and not be too insulated by city streets and pavement and structures. It was wildness.
And the ocean was always there. It was really important to see the ocean, whether it was calm or rough or warm or cold, whether it had a lot of creatures in it or was empty that day. It was always changing.
So life really had a lot of unexpected turns to it. One never knew what would be around the next corner. There were so many times like that, like the day we went for a walk on the beach and the sand was covered with what at first looked like little bits of blue glass, and it turned out they were the ancient mariners, I think they were called. And they were little tiny jellyfish, but they were a brilliant cobalt blue, and they had beached themselves, thousands upon thousands, all along the beaches, so it just glittered with what at first I thought was beach glass, and I picked one up and found it to be jelly. They were beautiful. No one even knew what they were. And then they disappeared. Three days later they all had washed back out to sea as if they’d never even been there.
And there were pirate ships. Things most people never see.
CCW: And foot stools.
JW: Yes! (laughing) All kinds of things that you would never notice if your experience with the ocean was limited to a city beach. The petrified whale vertebrae, which always became for me a touchstone because if you ever wanted to feel like you were a small, small bit of sand in this world, all you had to do was go down and find one of those, and they were everywhere. Because I think they’re 130 million years old, and that whale once passed by here on its way north or south, and it’s been here 130 million years, so your worries for today are really quite small, whatever they might be. So it was interesting to get a perspective on life here, and all the shapes it takes on, and we’re reminded of that continuity. We worry day-to-day about things in the future, we worry for our children, but it seems as though everything evolves, that everything is a part of everything else. To see those connections with such a long time ago in something that’s so familiar, a vertebrate. It still looks like a vertebrate; it’s just a fossil now.
CCW: I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone talk so eloquently about the experience of living in a place like that. We’re really lucky we shared some of that.
JW: The people who live there, if they spend time there and give it a chance, probably will feel those things and many more, related to their own lives. But it is a place where there’s space for that. That was such a luxury, when I visited other places and realized how crowded things are, and how insulated most people’s lives are, and how they may live in an apartment building or a beautiful home or whatever, but it still doesn’t have that sense of history. It’s so easily discovered when you live in a place that’s less developed. You see it. You see it every day. You see ancient plants living in the creek. We had those horsetail ferns living in our creek in one of the sulfur springs areas. And they’re a plant that existed in the time of the dinosaurs...probably in the same place...so you just have this great sense of it.
CCW: And yet you do have this sense of community that’s less diluted. When you need your neighbor…there’s a reality about that mutual need.
JW: Well, therein comes the other part of it, of course: the people. The people that have been there before, the people that are there now. There aren’t too many of them to feel that most of them have a connection to each other and to you. You’re really a part of a community. You’re not invisible, an unknown face or story. And you know their stories, or some of those stories at least. And you know stories of people that have been there before you, because there were not too many of them. There were so many stories about the Hollisters that had lived there in the big house, or not in the big house, and all of the adventures that they enjoyed there, and then there were stories about people from the other areas that knew them, and the families, and connections, and then right there, at the time we were living there, there were families and their connections, and it was a human scale to a community instead of being a civic scale. These were real people. It wasn’t just “the neighbors” or “the residents”. The sign at Gaviota still says a population of 94, which I believe has been on that sign for the last 35 or 40 years, and we don’t really know, is the truth. We really don’t know who lives there. People come and visit. Not many really live there. So I was one of the few.
CCW: You really were. And I always felt like we bore witness to something. Together.
JW: We did. We were there and we saw that the world was around us. And it was amazing beauty from time to time. Little things and dramatic events and not so dramatic events, and we noticed them. We walked down the road and we’d see what had flooded after a storm…
CCW: And where the cow bone was.
JW: And where the cow bone was! (laughing) We could tell you, instead of telling you how long it took to strip a car that was stranded on an expressway, we could tell you how long it took the wild things in our canyon to strip every bit of flesh from the bones of a 2,000-pound cow. And you know what? It doesn’t take very long! And they do a great job. And believe it or not, the creatures that are not nearly that large move it miles from where it fell. It’s amazing.
And we watched it. We watched it. We were there. This wasn’t something that happened a hundred years ago.
CCW: Isn’t it something?
JW: We saw rattlesnakes. We nearly stepped on them many times. And yet we didn’t. And most of the time we just let them go and live and be rattlesnakes wherever they were, unless they were right at our house of course.
CCW: Then we declared the perimeters.
JW: We had to declare the perimeters. This area is not available to rattlesnakes. All kinds of things…
CCW: I’m glad we’re talking about this. I think it’s important now that you’re beginning this new chapter to look back and assess.
JW: I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for there. I’m sure of it. Because as I got older and life got a little harder for lots of reasons. Back surgery, arthritis, the economy...it kind of looked like I should be realistic and it was important that I be able to take care of myself, and maybe the challenges of Hollister Ranch, my home, were going to become too hard, and it wasn’t realistic to think that I could be there for a lot longer. So it still was important to find a place where I could enjoy some of the same things that have become so important to me. Other people suggested, “Oh you could buy a condo…” I still needed to live on the edge of things.
And this is a different edge of things, but it has that storied past, it has the open spaces, it has its own beauty, it has characters in the area, and again, the small number of people, so you’re not an invisible person. You’re not just someone who inhabits a box on the street. You have a connection with people. People are curious about you because there aren’t so many people around that you’ve gotten tired of being curious about people in your area. It’s so important to feel that you are a person and that you can explore things about yourself. This area is filled with older people, mostly my age or older.
CCW: I’ve noticed. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody younger than us.
JW: Not many. And many of them have been here for a good part of their lives, but a lot of them have relocated just like I have, at a different point in their lives. We’re all different...but somehow it unifies the community, it makes it work, it makes us feel like we’re still an important part of this community, that we’re not old and in the way.
We have to do what we have to do here. It’s us. The people that come here assist us when we need help. They tend to be about our age, probably wouldn’t be the case in Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, it would be young people showing up at your door, and we have some guy my age showing up to fix my plumbing or fix my roof or cut my trees down. Whatever has to be done.
It’s kind of interesting. I never thought that I would be moving from place to place. That wasn’t so much how I grew up. That was you pretty much stayed in the same place, you don’t move, this is permanent, and all that. And I actually found early on, maybe traveling, you could be someone who inhabited many places and you could find different things in each one, and it didn’t have to all happen in one place, that you could reinvent yourself, you could make new friends, you could keep old friends. You could take the knowledge that you learned in one place and apply it to the next place. And it’s a lot of fun.
CCW: You mentioned that you learned a lot, and I’m just wondering if you could articulate some of the fundamental lessons or things you learned, or maybe just learning how to do specific things, from your experiences.
JW: Well, I guess my experience taught me if I was going to be at least somewhat self-sufficient and understand what was around me and how to utilize what was around me, and make it work for me, was that knowledge existed all around me in other people and I needed to ask them to be my teachers. It might be as simple as going to buy a part at the store and knowing I didn’t know what to do with it after I bought it unless the person that sold it to me could explain it to me. So I got to be very adept at asking people questions in such a way that they wanted to help me. I seem to have changed the way I communicated with people, to my advantage tremendously, but also hopefully they felt good about it too. I think they did. I think whenever you approach people if you are asking them to help you, if you’re asking them to teach you, they’re delighted to do so and you can learn so much if you listen. So really that’s what allowed me to do everything I’ve ever been able to do, is I’ve asked other people for help. I’ve asked them to show me...I haven’t asked them to do it for me as much as I’ve asked them to show me how to do it for myself.
And it’s been fun. I know that for a lot of those things it’s been sort of nontraditional things like how do I put the starter back in this old Chevy truck that I just took apart because I had a screwdriver and I thought there might be something wrong with it. But there I am, somehow.
It was necessary, because we didn’t have much money and I knew I would have to retreat to a situation I didn’t want to be in if I couldn’t manage for my daughter and me when she was really young and we were alone. So I just learned how to ask questions. I think that’s the big thing, really, because there’s a lot of knowledge out there if you just know how to look for it.
And people like to tell you their stories.
CCW: That’s so interesting and perfect that you said that, because I always think of you as one of the most independent, autonomous people I have ever known, and now you’re telling me that your secret is...getting the knowledge from others...asking other people for help.
JW: Asking other people to help and telling them that you would like the knowledge. That you value them. Really, it’s that you value them. You value what they know and what they’ve learned. Because it’s like a hand up.
I looked at people surfing. I did a lot of kayaking because I had friends that did that, and I loved it so much. I would watch the people on the boards and think why did I ever think I couldn’t do that? I could just ask somebody to show me how to do that, and I could go and do that too. And I found out that was true. And I found the same thing out skiing, and snowboarding was something else I didn’t grow up doing, and it dawned on me one day when I was up there looking at all these people on the snow having fun, “Gee, I wish I could do that! I don’t know how to do that!” and thinking there can’t be that many people in the world that somehow were born with the ability to do all these things. They learned! I could learn!
So a whole world opened because I wasn’t afraid to say I don’t know how, but I’d like to learn. And really, people might laugh at you, and you get past that. Like the guys in the store when you buy some tool that was sort of heavy equipment, like the big saws. “Little lady, you better be careful not to hurt yourself! Are you gonna use that by yourself? Is that for your husband?”
And you just kinda go, “Well, I think there’s an instruction manual. I’ll call you if I need help.” Because actually it’s not what we think it is. We really have the ability to try a lot of things. We’re better at some things than we are at others, and we find out what those things are, but it isn’t because of how we grew up, or whether we’re a man or a woman. Really it has to do with whether you’re interested enough to pursue something. It’s trying things. It’s just trying things.
CCW: I was going to ask you, how did you get so brave? But maybe you don’t see it as bravery.
JW: I wonder about that. Because I don’t think of it that way of course. And now when my granddaughter, who’s two and a half, one of the things I’m sure her parents have been talking to her about is looking at new situations, ‘cause she often says, “I’m going to be brave.” I heard her say that and I thought, “That’s interesting.” So we talk about that a lot especially, she and I. And so we’re brave about a lot of things.
And it’s made me wonder when did I ever think about these things? Being brave really wasn’t something I ever considered about myself. I did things because I needed to do them, and there were things that really frightened me and I think because it was important that I do them I just did them and then I realized later the first step was always the hardest one. If I could just make myself try it, or if I could just move forward, each little step leading me to the next one, being brave simply meant taking a chance. And a lot of times if I had really thought about it I’d realize there wasn’t any other choice. I had to do it. Either because I happened to be trying to support a child and was not very well equipped to do that...or...it was just necessary. And if you think of things as necessary perhaps you stop thinking of them as intimidating, and you just move forward.
If you find a way to talk to yourself about it, you make a deal with yourself. Okay, I can feel that I’m afraid about something, but if I just do this little step toward it and see how that goes, then maybe I can take a second step, and it’s okay. Or I can just go backwards. It’s all right. So you just have strength. You try to cut it down into smaller pieces.
You look at a house. I bought a house that was in total disrepair. The only bank that would lend on it was hundreds of miles away because at that time there wasn’t the internet and they wouldn’t know how much was wrong with it. But I bought it because it was all I could afford and we needed a home and I figured I’d figure out how to fix it later, which one step at a time I did. But I had a neighbor there who was very helpful. His name was Jim, and he was a “do-it-yourselfer” he told me, and he certainly was. He was an engineer so he had a lot of experience with how things worked, and he had an interest in that, but he was happy to teach me and tell me what I could do, what I needed to do, how to look at a problem, but most of all, he said, well, he said a couple of things that were really wise. When I felt sorry for myself, he said, “The world does not owe you a living.” I thought about that many times. I thought it was true, actually. It made sense to me at that point, actually. It helped me a lot to stop feeling sorry for myself.
And then he also said, “You can’t look at the whole house like you have to fix the whole house, because nobody can do that all at once. Just decide you’re gonna fix one light switch. Fix one little thing. Today you’re gonna do one little thing. And then that’ll be done. And next time you have to think about it, you look at something else. Just divide it up into things you can deal with. And then go forward.” And that was very helpful, because it was true. None of us can get a PhD when we become an undergraduate freshman at a university. We have to get the first class first.
CCW: The sequence.
JW: The sequence. It all builds on things, and a lot of times it builds upon relationships. All aspects of your life.
CCW: I feel like a lot of the questions I ask, you’ve answered. What is your source of strength? How have you gotten through hard times? I think you’ve been sort of talking about that, but is there a different way to answer that?
JW: I guess my feeling is that at first you have no clue how, and it’s really scary. At least for me.
CCW: Well, you were really tested.
JW: For me the experience that I think of...and other people might think of other things that were important...but when someone comes to your house when you have a little tiny child and says your husband’s at the bottom of the sea, and we don’t know if we can get him out or not, and we thought we should tell you. And then they couldn’t get him out of course. And of course he was probably already dead anyway. Things happen so quickly that you never conceived of. And you can’t really even somehow grasp it. It doesn’t seem true. So, most people do have life-changing experiences, I’ve probably had a few. But that certainly was the biggest. Other things happen, but that was one where I had to learn so much, so it helped me actually to deal with other ones that might come along.
CCW: So in many ways that was formative, that really shaped who you are.
JW: I was so young. I was 23 still when that happened. Or 24. I can’t remember.
CCW: It’s hard to get your mind around it.
JW: And it was such a complicated situation too because it didn’t just have to do with what happened to me, but there was the whole issue of how can this thing happen to anyone, certainly anyone who worked at that job. There was another man with him as well. I realized that it was an unacceptable situation, and I couldn’t just let it go by and let it happen again. Of course it would happen again, but I just couldn’t let them essentially get away with what they were doing. So that was a whole separate thing from how do you go on with your life.
CCW: So obviously there was a personal element but you also perceived there was some sort of moral duty.
JW: I felt very strongly that I had a moral duty. That at least a lesson would be learned from what happened. Because you can’t bring people back. So it just seemed really important to pursue that as best I could. And we were, very fortunately, successful at getting the attention of a lot of people about what was really going on. So that was a big thing. But it took place at the same time when I needed to be concerned really with what was best for my child. It was crazy.
CCW: I should ask you, since this is an interview that others will read or hear...it was a big oil company that you were forced to do battle with?
JW: Well, it’s complicated because they set this all up in such a complicated way to protect themselves from any liability. The way I understand it’s often still done, the way it was done then, is the oil companies contract out to diving companies who contract out to divers when in actuality they hire divers and other people to operate the equipment. So he was working for a diving company, which was contracted to an oil company, so it all had to do with the oil industry, which is around the world.
CCW: So it was just a general practice that was oblivious to the welfare of these people, putting their lives on the line.
JW: Completely. And they weren’t very respectful of human life, their own workers or people around them, the countries they operated in, anything. And it’s still the same now. Look at Deep Horizon in the Gulf, three years ago or whenever it was. It was basically the same players playing out the same kind of scenario and making the same choices, not based on what was morally correct but based on their financial situation. Profit.
So, well you try.
CCW: I just wanted to put that into context because the nature of this is some people might not know what you were referring to.
JW: So I learned from having so many difficult things to deal with all at the same time to just kind of deal with them as best I could, but I had enough breakdowns. It’s very emotional. It’s very difficult. And it’s painful.
CCW: I can only imagine.
JW: But you still ask, what value is there, if you don’t get some good out of it. If you don’t have a good life, then what...People wouldn’t want you to endure greater suffering because of suffering that’s happened. It’s important that you keep sight of your basic goals, to live a life the way you want to live a life, that it is actually your life. Other people’s lives are separate from yours. They connect with you, but it’s you…you’re gonna have to make those choices. For you.
CCW: It sounds to me that you were in survival mode for a long time. Once you had sort of swum to shore, did you find solace in your art, your creativity? What brought you comfort? What brought you peace?
JW: I think I sort of went back to things that I had always found important to me, things I had enjoyed. I like to do art of different kinds. I like to create things. The physical world, creating objects, gardens and furniture. And paintings at one point, clay at another point. Using different kinds of media that are around. The aesthetic was important to me. So that was always a challenge. It was rewarding if I liked what happened. It was a rewarding experience even if I didn’t. But it was important to pursue it. It was important to be involved in it. It was time I thought was well spent.
So solace, I don’t know. I like to be out on the ocean. Swimming, surfing, kayaking. All that was wonderful as well. There are just lots of different things. I think you find out there are a lot of different aspects about you if you allow yourself to pursue things that bring you pleasure, then over time, time will heal grief or disappointments, however you might term them, we all have them. That’s the human condition. To think that you’re alone, well that’s wrong. That won’t help you. To think that there are others, there’s a human condition, it’s a universal thing, I think that’s helpful.
CCW: I agree.
JW: Because you see models out there. You see other people survive things that you can’t even imagine. You see people who have survived a war or a horrendous genocide, yet they still want to enjoy life. I think enjoying life is just the way you make it all worthwhile. Somehow that’s the goal.
CCW: Very well said.
CCW: I do have two more questions, although I feel like I could talk to you for days. But I was just thinking about this: having a grandchild. What does that mean? Has that brought you joy, comfort? Is it over-rated? Does it give you some sense of continuity? I’m just curious because of my own stage of life.
JW: I have a hard time believing that I could have lived long enough to have a grandchild. Because in my life, when I think of my grandmother, she seemed old. So old! I’m probably older. So it’s a funny thing. But it’s wonderful, it’s absolutely wonderful. To have another child but you don’t have to take care of the child, you just have fun with the child, it’s really cool. And then when the diapers are dirty, you say, honey I think the baby needs a new diaper. You don’t have to do that anymore. You get to enjoy the good parts.
And you know, quite honestly raising kids is hard. You wanna help your children do that, but they have to raise their child the way they want to, so you don’t want to interfere.
CCW: It must be hard to find that balance.
JW: I don’t know if you can. You try. You sort of go, oh did I say too much? Oh, I should have said something else. But you know, they’re kids. They’re unique individuals. You get to know them just like any person, but yet you see things about them that are so familiar. Their appearance might be familiar, their mannerisms and stuff. It has to make you wonder, how much do we inherit? How individual are we, really? I don’t know. It’s kind of magical. The speed at which it’s occurred is pretty scary.
CCW: Isn’t that true of life in general?
JW: Life goes by so quickly. It’s scary. I think if I’m gonna do something, I better start today, because there’s not a lot of time.
CCW: And that’s why we’re doing these interviews, Jeanne. We feel...before we pass each other by...we want to ask, what did this person learn? And this is probably an appropriate moment to give you a chance, is there anything else you’d like to say, any advice, any closing thought? And this is where most people turn speechless, because it’s a pretty big question.
JW: Oh, it is. Oh my God. How do I fit into this world? I guess many times I’ve found great comfort in the thought that I am just a tiny grain of sand. I’m really, really small. I don’t make a big difference in any way, shape, or form, and I have the freedom to do a lot of things I want to do because it really doesn’t matter.
CCW: God that’s so exquisite. The very thing that might make some people just feel insignificant…
JW: It’s so good to feel small. It’s so good to feel like really, you can do whatever you can, that you’re so insignificant...and it’s really okay...I love that thought.
CCW: I’m supposed to be the detached interviewer...but I love you, Jeanne.
JW: This is when I remember that thought finally being words in my head: I was driving down from Mammoth, and you come down, it’s almost like coming down out of the sky. You see there's lots of God-light up there, it’s high elevation, Sierras, summer or winter, whatever season, but there’s lots of different layers of atmosphere, and you come down the pass on the highway and you descend into this deep valley, the Owens River Valley, which is one of the deepest gorges in the world, so you see these tremendous mountains that are so steep and so daunting, invincible and strong, and you’re so tiny. So it always puts things in perspective. You don’t have to feel like everything has to be such an earth shaking decision. You can decide again a different time. Nobody will ever even know.
CCW: Thank you.
JW: So I can do what I want up here, because it doesn’t really matter.