There are many places on earth where human-made and non-human-made landscapes are set apart in stark contrast. In Pebble Beach, CA, that contrast goes beyond stark to downright eerie.
I just returned from a five-day writing conference being held at the prestigious Stevenson School, a private boarding school less than a mile from the water in Pebble Beach. The campus, like everything else in this community, is surrounded by both classic central coast forest land and obsessively manicured golf courses.
Each day, as I left for my morning run, I walked out of the dormitory into thick, chilly fog. As my eyes adjusted to the limited visibility it afforded, I saw towering Monterey pines silhouetted against an opaque gray sky, their limbs—at once angular, curved, twisted, and straight—grappling their way through the moist air, making a multi-layered collage of grays. And below them sat a putting green—flat, green, and uniform.
I turned onto a road bordered by sand on both sides, and ran in the direction of the beach. After just a few hundred yards, I could access a series of trails that are part of the Del Monte Forest, an area of relatively undisturbed woodlands that was once a division of the enormous Del Monte Hotel Resort complex. These trails wind through Monterey pines, Monterey cypresses, coast live oaks, and a lot of classic central coast undergrowth (which includes poison oak).
Even though the roads of Pebble Beach are generally deserted at 6:30AM, I was still very happy to be running on soil rather than concrete and to be dodging tree trunks rather than potholes. For short stretches of time, I would feel like I was in a larger, more remote forest; then, I would climb up a bit and emerge from a stand of trees into an open, dune-covered area, where I would find myself adjacent to a fairway or a multi-million-dollar house.
From most of these viewponts, I could see both the irregular rocky coastline with its array of blues and browns and the incredibly regular medium green of the golf greens that seemed to surround me in all directions. The borders between these zones were clearly demarcated; there was a place where golf course ended and where open space began, and that line is so definitive it is almost certainly visible from an airplane.
I ran over and around the dunes in ankle-deep sand, winding behind both newer mansions and ones dripping of 1970’s nostalgia, to arrive at 17-Mile Drive. This famous road is, as the name suggests, a seventeen-mile-long meander through the gated community of Pebble Beach. The route was laid out in 1892 as a way to access and draw visitors to the Hotel Del Monte, and both horse-drawn carriages and cars navigated it until 1907, when it was restricted to cars only.
Today, you have to pay $10.50 to pass through the toll booth and drive through land owned by the Pebble Beach Corporation. This entity has passed through several sets of hands, including those belonging to a consortium of railroad barons, Rupert Murdoch, a Japanese investor, and, most recently, a group consisting of Clint Eastwood, Arnold Palmer, and Peter Ueberroth.
Pebble Beach’s website describes the landscape covered by the drive as an “enchanting world full of dramatic coastal cliffs, snow-white beaches, mystical forests and iconic golf courses.”
I’d say that’s an accurate description. For me, however, that combination is more than a little odd. Once I hit the seaside on my runs, I was relieved to be looking out to the untamed open water, hearing the sea lion and gull orchestra, and cruising along sandy paths covered with saltbush, verbena, and ice plant. This is the California coastline I know and love.
Only, periodically, that coastline would be interrupted by a fairway. Once again, that varied and textured landscape of the Monterey seashore was visually limited by bright green sameness. When I looked behind the putting greens, I saw mansions built of concrete, arranged in rectilinear blocks, and painted white.
I am tempted to refer to one scene as “natural” and the other as “artificial,” but I have been in the practice of letting go of those terms lately. Human beings are as natural as any other creature on the earth, even if we have created processes, landscapes, objects, and chemicals that are themselves very unnatural. I think it’s safer and more accurate to call these ecosystems “human-made” and “non-human made,” and, in doing so, notice their distinctions.
Human-constructed environments tend to be very linear. They use lots of straight lines, right angles, and hard edges. Their colors are homogenous, and their overall structures repetitive. Yes, golf courses have some curves, but they are calculated ones. Nothing is left to chance in this terrain.
Non-human constructed landscapes are much more variable. Rarely do you encounter perfectly straight lines in them, and curves—especially irregular ones—dominate. Colors come in every possible shade and tone, and they often seem to be thrown together at random. In short, these areas are diverse and unpredictable.
There’s a lot to be said for diversity and unpredictability—in life and in landscape. There is a reason that people are drawn to nature for healing, and I believe this is a big part of it. We just get tired of hard edges and right angles, of visuals that are orderly, methodical, and untextured.
Sometimes it takes an assault on my senses to remind me of that.