Susan Brooks remembers her mother telling her, “It’s a big world out there, Susie. You should live and experience it.” And she certainly has. A self-described surfer girl who grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley, she started college at the age of fifteen and went on to a PhD in biochemistry and a career in cancer diagnosis. Now retired, she’s a naturalist and an artist who has never ceased to explore, learn, and appreciate.
“And I’ve always told myself that one needs three pillars. Imagine a tripod for strength, so that if any one of those legs gets weak, you at least have the other two to balance yourself...And those three legs are: family, close relationships, however you get that, through a loved one, through family, through groups; passion: my passion was surfing to get me through that period; and then third, something that can give one independence, and for myself as a woman, it was an education that led to a very fortunate career position that allowed me to see the world.”
BE KIND, BE GRACIOUS, SHOW GRATITUDE
This interview took place on July 11, 2014 at the Hollister Ranch, Gaviota, California.
My name is Susan Brooks. I was born December 1950 on Highway 246 in Buellton, right next to where the Hitching Post now is, and is now called Point Conception Winery and Tasting Room.
Would you like to share any early memories of what it was like growing up there in the Santa Ynez Valley?
We lived in Buellton. My father was a farmer. He farmed where Thumbelina Village now is. We moved into Solvang and then subsequently to Ballard. I went to Ballard School. So my memories really start with Ballard and being a kid in the neighborhood playing under the oak trees, gliding down through the golden grasses, and flipping tarantulas all over the place. And we had our own creek, which was Alamo Pintado Creek. Those were the days when you got home from school and you ran around and played with your friends and went exploring and hiding in the oak trees. So my memory is pretty much of growing up in the country.
Since we are here at the Hollister Ranch right now, I wonder: how did you happen to find this place? Can you tell me about the first time you came here?
Well, I was thinking last night about my first Ranch stories, and in doing so, I realized the Ranch in my world early on meant the entire ranch, including the Bixby Cojo Ranch and Hollister Ranch, and if anything, more the Bixby Ranch. I learned how to surf probably in 7th or 8th grade. Living in the Santa Ynez Valley, and not having enough money for my mother to send me to summer camp, a lot of mothers would get together and take groups of us to Refugio State Beach and set us up for what seemed like weeks and weeks (I’m sure it wasn’t) with parents trading off as chaperones, and we learned how to surf there.
When I got into high school, I badgered my mother endlessly to call up Elizabeth Janeway, one of the owners of the Bixby Ranch that had a large ranch over in the valley to ask her permission to go through Jalama into the Bixby Ranch and go surfing. My mother finally asked and Mrs. Janeway was very gracious, and said no, it was just too big, dangerous and remote for a young lady to be going surfing. However, there was a group of Santa Ynez High School guys that were surfers, as opposed to being car guys or cowboys in the valley, they were surfers, and one of them had the combination to the Bixby Cojo Ranch gate.
Now I wasn’t romantically involved with any of these guys, but I would go up in a van...I’d be the only woman, and there’d probably be five or six guys. Where my mother thought I was, I don’t know. We would go in through the Bixby Ranch gate probably about midnight, go to Cojo Reef, spend the night in the van or whatever, until morning, and go surfing. We didn’t know anything about Cojo Point, we just went out at Cojo Reef. And then the cowboys would come and find us and chase us away and that was before the days when it got rough, and maybe because there was a young woman with the group, we never had any trouble. So those are my earliest memories. I don’t know how I was invited. Like I said, I didn’t have a boyfriend in the group. So that was my first exposure to being a surfer girl.
How old were you?
I went to college at fifteen, so I was probably thirteen at the time.
Wow. Did you skip grades or something?
I skipped three grades.
So those were my first memories of the Ranch.
My next Ranch story––and I was still in high school––there was an organization called the Santa Barbara Surf Club. At that time the Hollister Ranch was still owned by the family and hadn’t been sold to Macco yet. The Hollister Ranch, together with the Bixby Ranch, allowed sportsmen, hunters, fishermen, and some surfers in. And the surfing was part of the Santa Barbara Surf Club. I signed up to get in when I was still in high school. There was a long, long waiting list. By the time I hit my freshman-sophomore year at college, which was UCSB, I was in. My name came up on the list! And I will never forget the first meeting. I remember the president I think, his last name was Knight, and it was held at Star Rug Cleaners down at Cota Street in Santa Barbara. So I walk into the room of the Star Rug Cleaners, a pretty large room, there were only guys. Surfers. I walk in, and I’m the only female. All the conversation in the room goes silent.
So it was another example of how even though a female, I was into this new world pretty much independently on my own, no connection to a family member, a relative didn’t get me in, a boyfriend didn’t get me in. I was just there.
And close after that time, or about that time, the Hollister family did sell to Maico and those hunting and surfing clubs were then restricted to the Bixby Cojo Ranch, so I would go in a lot through the Jalama gate and surf, pretty much Government Cove and Perko’s.
Another great memory is I had a little Volkswagen bug, and I was afraid to drive on the beach, and I was at Perko’s one day, and I see this kinda big long old American car with a surfboard on it driving on the beach, and I stop and talk to this guy. “How do you do that?” And he goes, “Oh, it’s easy!” And he punches it and he goes bounce-bounce-bounce-bounce along the rocks. It was George Greenough.
Can you recall the names of some of the other people that were there in those days?
I don’t. I have to say because I came out of Santa Ynez Valley, went to UCSB, and this is even going forward, I was never part of the Santa Barbara surf scene and didn’t really know any of those surfers. Our little valley surfer universe was pretty much Refugio Beach to Sands Beach. About that time because Maico had purchased Hollister Ranch there were some of the early employees of Maico we now know from Hollister Ranch days...Ward Wade Walkup, John Damon, who actually came down from the Bay area, and went to high school with my current husband, and we’re close friends, and Jerry Wallner may have been in that group also. And then Andy Mills was floating around perhaps working for Bixby Cojo Ranch side of things.
Continuing on, during this time I was going to UCSB, surfing a lot. Sands Beach, Isla Vista, all of that. I went through undergrad and graduate school, and ended up with a PhD in biochemistry in 1978. When I was first at UCSB as a freshman I had a roommate and we would hitchhike to the beach, to El Capitan. We didn’t have a car. We had our thumbs out, and this local Goleta surfer came along and picked us up. His name was Carl Woodcock. His close friend at that time was John Elston. And so as a result of being picked up along the side of the road with my girlfriend and surfboards going to El Cap, Carl had to decide between these two women, which one he was going to ask out, or whatever you want to call it. And I won. So during my years of undergraduate and graduate work at UCSB and surfing a lot, Carl Woodcock and I were in a very close relationship, a very passionate, soul-mate kind of relationship. And because of that, I would say, along with my mother, he was one of the most influential people in my life, and has given me a lot.
So my next Ranch stories happened while being the girlfriend of Carl. Carl was one of those men who did things with his female relationships: we surfed a lot, I was always going along with the guys on surf trips, and we all bought a boat together, and we called it the P and J, peanut butter and jelly, because those were the only sandwiches we ever had, and we launched it off the Gaviota Pier for years and years, so again, my surfing stories are “the full ranch” because that would include the Bixby and Cojo Ranch and a lot of days at Government Cove, and Perko’s. We would pretty much go by Lefts and Rights and Rights and Lefts, ‘cause that was so crowded and we could be in the big open free space.
So that was years and years and eventually in 1978 or ‘79, I got my first real job outside the university in Santa Barbara and amazingly I bought a twelfth share on parcel 4 from Al Baroni. He was a big sailor, I believe he ended up on Maui. So I actually had a share at the Hollister Ranch and had access through the gate, and I was working, beginning my working life career, and surfing. And again it was something I felt in some ways I did on my own. There was no family member, I didn’t inherit it, I had a loan from a friend, but I was my own person.
And talking about being a female surfer in those days––the sad part was the Vietnam War was going on then, or maybe a little before that––so it was a good time to learn how to surf, and the waters were pretty open, but I was on my own. The only women surfers whose names I remember, there was a Margo Godfrey that was fairly well known. I believe she lived in Montecito. And then on the Ranch, Candy Woodward? Jon Brough’s old girlfriend. We used to surf a lot. I felt like we were pretty much peers, and we had a lot of respect for each other, surfing, being females on our own terms. She owned her own share or whatever. So those were really good times.
And I would comment that the Ranch has been part of my life, but parallel to that, I got a position with a Danish company, a cancer-diagnostic company. I started as a bench scientist, and after about fifteen years I became responsible director of operations, a Food and Drug regulated company, with a lot of responsibility. Copenhagen, Denmark became my second home. So I used to go between Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, and Copenhagen. Virgin Atlantic, upper class, where the limo comes and picks you up at your door. I had a favorite place to stay in London because we would fly through there and had facilities in Oxford and Cambridge.
But it was something I did on my own. My husband, boyfriend, didn’t really like to travel. My mother, who I would have loved to have taken with me, and I could have afforded to take her, and she would have loved it, unfortunately slipped off the roof of her little cabin on Paradise Road...we inherited a cabin on Paradise Road...and was a paraplegic for the rest of her life and couldn’t travel. So that was a sad memory.
I’m interested in the big, formative experiences that might have shaped your world view. Does anything come to mind? Maybe you’ve been talking about them all along.
I’ll just jump in. Despite a lot of hardship and some sadness on a family level, I feel that I’ve been blessed. And the reason for that, what has given me that, I would say, is growing up in a rural setting, Santa Ynez Valley at the time, being able to run free. I was an only child. My father passed away of cancer when I was thirteen. My mother raised me. We were on the lower end of the economic scale. She felt she wanted her daughter to get an education. She was a secretary at Lockheed, Martin, Marietta. She worked really hard and she didn’t want that for her daughter. So she pushed me, and I was fifteen and a half years old when I went to UCSB. I didn’t really have too much of my own thoughts then, although they were good, about what I wanted to do in the world, but I was in a university.
The other thing she hammered into me was never get married too young, and to not have children too young because, “Susie, it’s a big world out there, and you should live it and experience it.”
And I’m sure, I don’t really know, we never talked about it in great depth, but that may have reflected her own life and she didn’t want the same thing to happen to her daughter, whatever kind of life she had. So I was launched into the education world, and I do firmly believe, for myself, being a woman, that there’s an advantage to having a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, maybe not necessarily a PhD, but a lot under your belt.
And I’ve always told myself that one needs three pillars. Like imagine a tripod. For strength. So that if any one of those legs gets weak, you at least have the other two to balance yourself. And those three legs are: close relationships, however you get that, through a loved one, through family, through groups; passion: my passion was surfing to get me through that period; and then third, something that can give one independence, and for myself as a woman, it was an education that led to a very fortunate career position that allowed me to see the world.
And so if anything got wobbly, okay, say the relationship with the boyfriend got sour, you still had your work, you had your source of income, and you had your passion. You lost your job? Hey, you got the passion, and you got the relationship.
I was going to ask you if you had any advice for young people, but maybe that’s it.
And the other piece of information, I did go through a long period, because Carl Woodcock and I were so close––he was a great individual, I owe really a lot to him––but we were going our different paths. We met when I was sixteen or seventeen, and I was going off on the career-education path, and it just wasn’t working. But it was very difficult, and I went and saw some psychologist, and I’ll never forget this woman psychologist telling me...because at that time in life maybe you chase men and opportunities and you jump at those...and I remember her saying to me, Susan, if you see something in another individual––usually a man in this case––that you want, or you’d like to live that lifestyle, and you are chasing after that individual, you’re giving yourself to that individual. Realize that if that is so important to you, you should incorporate that and go after it for yourself.
Along those lines I’ll also add that I had the opportunity when I was working to buy my own starter house–I wasn’t married at the time–and I distinctly remember not wanting to do it because of the fear of being viewed by a potential mate as being too strong or too independent if I had my own home. Can you imagine? That’s the way it was in those days.
What inspires your creativity, and how do you express your creativity?
My upbringing, my education and my job and my nature, was very analytical. My mind was very analytical, very detail-oriented, and I analyze everything to death. So in my career job which was a 50-60 hour job working with a lot of scientists, and managing people, in order to balance that out, I started taking art classes at adult education. There was one by Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. And I took that, and I enjoyed it. I liked the feeling of how I felt when I was drawing. And it was similar, I would say, to how one feels when one is surfing. Paddling out into the water, and you can become very––this a new term––mindful. You’re there in the water. It’s very engrossing. For me, that very, very early experience with drawing was a little bit of an out of body experience, and I really enjoyed it and stuck with it.
About that time, Don Anderson, my husband, and I were renting homes and we had the opportunity to rent a home for the summer next to the artist Ray Strong, who was known as the father of landscape painting in Santa Barbara. He founded the Oak Group and he had a studio right next to the house we were renting. So needless to say, I was over there a lot and I fell in love with his golden paintings. He himself had a pretty strong science background so we started to talk about astronomy and geology, and we were a bit like like minds, and I loved his work. I always admired it.
Fast forward. From drawing, I learned about an artist named Hannah Hinchmann, who wrote a book called The Illuminated Journal: Journal as a Path to Place. And it was really the beginning of nature journaling and field journaling. And again, I was someone that liked to be outside, surfing, being at the beach. And I loved it: sitting in one place, doing sketches, observing the birds, and the flora and the fauna.
And that followed into, when I retired and we’d moved to the Santa Ynez Valley, signing up for natural history training at UCSB Sedgewick Reserve to become a docent. I knew nothing about oak trees. I didn’t know there were three kinds of oak trees. I was a surfer girl...what would I know? So to absorb and learn all this new knowledge, about the names of plants, names of rocks, and all that, I started field journaling and nature journaling even more and more.
And that led to wanting to do art work. So now I’ve been painting for about three or four years in oils, landscape painting. I paint outside one or two times a week, I take a still life class to learn technique, and I’ve been fortunate to take some workshops. Somebody I really admire is named Michael Workman. He’s Mormon. He’s very spiritual. However, his lesson to us students was that in art, there’s the vision, the poetic side, and there’s the technical side. And I feel from my love of being outside in the landscape and growing up with it, that I do have the vision. I see the beauty, I see the spirit in it, I see the moment. But I don’t yet have the technical mastery. So there’s a gap between the vision and the execution. And that’s what I’m working towards.
You mention the spiritual aspect. I’m interested in whether there was any religion or spirituality in your growing up, and where you find that now, although you may have already just addressed that.
When I was growing up in my family, there was no religion. There was no spirituality at all that I can recall. I can remember going to the Presbyterian church in Ballard, whatever the young people go to, I can’t remember what it’s called, I did that for a year or so, but when we graduated to the church, it didn’t ring true. My parents didn’t go to church. I can remember my mother again being very concerned that I would not fit into future life and be happy because I did not know the bible. It was like learning social skills, what people did, having a sense of knowing the bible would be important in life in the future. So when I went to UCSB I took religious studies classes, and that was the closest I got to spirituality and religion.
And thinking about it a little more, Carl and I used to go Easter Sunday to Ojai to Krishna Murti’s speeches. He had an institute there. I do remember reading a lot about his thinking, and what I do recall is that he did not believe in the concept of experts teaching others knowledge. It was more by example. That’s about all I remember. So I have to say, no. Religion hasn’t played a part in my life. I would say I’m an agnostic.
But the spiritual has come in through art. In particular I was influenced by that art workshop–it was in Sedona, Arizona–with Michael Workman. I don’t know much about Mormonism, not sure I want to, but his goal for the students in that workshop was that it would be a spiritual journey, and he was successful. And now when I think about my vision, looking out at the landscape, and what I want to capture and interpret for myself, I do see...I don’t know if the right word for me is spiritual...but there is something out there.
How has your life been different from what you imagined?
...Well, I never had children.
Did you think you would?
I don’t know. Children were never a big factor for several reasons. One, my mother very early on saying don’t get married too early, don’t have children too early, it’s a big world out there. And two, my husband Don, he’s from a very normal Beaver Cleaver family, three kids, very happy, he never wanted to have children because you never know what’s gonna happen, and they may end up not loving you and they’re more hassle. And then as my own personal life, and Don’s and my life evolved...and our work, we both loved our work...and we loved the surfing, and we took up skiing and cycling, it never seemed like there was time to stop and give what’s required to have children. The only time I thought about it, and this isn’t a good way to think about it, is “Gee, I wonder who’s gonna take care of me when I’m old.”
Well, there’s no guarantee anyway.
My life is good.
What are you proudest of?
That’s a complicated question for two reasons. I could answer it in terms of self, that I feel I’ve had a blessed life. Sure I’ve worked hard. I wouldn’t call it being lucky. I was prepared and the opportunities came along. I’ve had the three pillars. The passions for surfing and recreation, and now it’s moving into art, which is something new and interesting. I’m proud of that. And now I’m proud of still having my health. And of staying curious. I think curiosity brings a freshness, an openness, a continual learning.
The thing I think is weak in terms of the pride thing are contributions externally. I did work for a cancer diagnostic company and the products that we made, that I helped make, helped diagnose cancer and hopefully improve people’s lives and impacted their lives, so I’m very proud of that. But as I’ve gone into retirement, one looks at how can one continue to contribute, and I’m not sure. I volunteer mainly with children’s environmental education at Sedgewick Reserve. And one of my goals for my art, if it will go there, is to get good enough to be juried into shows and have it contribute to fundraising efforts for nonprofits such as The Santa Barbara Land Trust or saving areas of the national forest. I’d love to do a fundraiser for the humane society or wildlife rescue, for the animals.
Anything else you want to say, now that you have a chance to say it?
My message, advice, and wisdom is a wrap-up. I’m repeating myself. It’s to remember the tripod pyramid. Your passion, your close relationships, and it’s true, you need a source of income for independence, and particularly being a female, I truly believe that last one provides balance. And an education can help get you there.
And, I heard a great quote the other day, read it in the NY Times, and this hit me. People were interviewed and asked what they felt were the greatest sins. And one of them replied that they felt the biggest sin was ingratitude.
So my advice would be: be kind, be gracious, and show gratitude.