Preserving the Landscape | Ranches & Rolling Hills Art Show


By Elisabeth Ptak

Few places in the United States provide a pastoral landscape as appealing and memorable as that of western Marin County. Winding roads curve around vast panoramas of land and sea. The passing scene is enhanced by family farms that line the shores and are tucked into unspoiled canyons reaching deep into the heart of the countryside. It’s a landscape shaped by human activity, to be sure, but compared with the way it looked 150 years ago, not much seems to have changed. Parts of the San Francisco Bay Area that once had a similar look—even other parts of Marin County—have been altered dramatically. In fact, in the late 1960s, plans for sparsely populated West Marin included an urban development of 125,000 people living in the San Andreas Fault Zone on the shores of Tomales Bay. Highways, dams, and golf courses were all envisioned.

What has occurred in the intervening years to keep West Marin looking much the way it did a century and a half ago? How, in the face of the same development pressures that have turned the greater San Francisco area into a metropolis of seven million people, has coastal Marin retained its rural and agrarian identity?

“Marshland by marshland, bay by bay, ridge by ridge,” answers Harold Gilliam in his introduction to Martin Griffin’s Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast, “over a period of forty years of toil, sweat, and tears, environmentalists fought the developers to a standstill … and preserved some of the most idyllic natural sanctuaries—in land and water—in any metropolitan region on this continent.”

Partners in protecting the land then and now are the agricultural landowners of West Marin. For those who belong to one of the farming families who have been stewarding the land for six or seven generations, it’s the landscape of his or her personal history—and well worth protecting. For ranchers a little newer to the business, it’s the landscape of promise and possibility—and equally worth protecting.

Now artists hoping to preserve the land that inspires them have joined the ranks of these ranchers and other conservationists. The men and women participating in the art show called Ranches & Rolling Hills play their part by capturing the spirit of West Marin’s farms, ranches, and open spaces. Each spring, the best of their work is offered for sale, transforming the rural Nicasio’s Druid Hall into a first-rate gallery for one weekend a year. The proceeds of that show are used by Marin Agricultural Land Trust to help preserve Marin County farmland.

Marin County lies due north of San Francisco on land surrounded on three sides by water. Native people first made their homes in the area some 5,000 years ago, and the county takes its name from one of them—Marin, Chief of the Coast Miwok Indians. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Spanish adventurers, followed by Mexican settlers, overtook the Indian lands and laid waste to their cultures. During the California Gold Rush of 1849, the conquerors were themselves displaced as word of the discovery of the valuable ore brought thousands more schemers and dreamers onto the scene. Among them, according to Kevin Starr in his book California, were accomplished painters who first trickled in, then “arrived in significant numbers in the early 1860s, and by the late 1870s had firmly established California as a center of landscape painting.”

Artists were drawn to the western territories by tales of the land’s magnificence. Some were hired by the railroad, “receiving train tickets, meals, and lodging in exchange for a specified number of paintings inspired by the artist’s journey through the West,” according to Sarah Anschutz Hunt in the book, Painters and the American West.

When the artists took to the road, they found inspiration at every turn. They depicted some of America’s greatest landscapes, including the Yosemite Valley, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. Their interpretations have forever affected our own perceptions and memories of those places. Other artists, such as Percy Grey, William Keith, and Gottardo Piazzoni, were drawn to Marin County. Here they found a dramatic convergence of land and sea as well as simple, pastoral settings on the many small dairies and farms established by immigrants from Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, and Ireland. Mount Tamalpais was a favorite subject, as were the native coast live oak trees that thrived in the Northern California climate.


Those early illustrations helped shape the experience for pioneers, gold miners, government explorers, and tourists who, lured in part by these works, later “tamed” and modified the virgin landscape, including the eastern part of Marin County. Many of the painterly landscapes were changed forever, an unintended consequence, but a reality nonetheless. Today, bridges connect Marin with the entire San Francisco Bay Area. A dirt road where cows once grazed is now Highway 101, and suburban communities domino onto one another all along its multi-lane Marin County route. Most of the county’s population live and work along that corridor. While still a beautiful and desirable place, it retains few hints of its former life as productive farmland. In the western part of the county, however, something different took place.

Geology and climate shaped the wilderness and grasslands that define coastal West Marin, but human perseverance has played a significant role in saving it. The area has had a land-based economy for 150 years, and though San Francisco is only one hour away, the tradition of family farming still has a strong hold. While ranching and farming also represent a modification of the landscape, today we value Marin County’s remaining agricultural lands for local food production, open space, and wildlife habitat.

Large portions of Marin County are protected as parkland in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore, part of the heritage of environmental advocacy described in Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast. Fitted into this federally protected natural world is a hive of dairy and beef ranches worked by descendants of people who have been producing food and forage from this land since the Gold Rush created a market for their farm products. The National Park Service bought the historic ranches within the seashore in the early 1960s; many of the former owners continue to operate as lessees.

Another 100,000 acres outside of park boundaries are zoned as farmland, meaning non-agricultural development cannot take place there—at least as long as the zoning holds. To protect the land permanently from subdivision into rural estates or hobby farms, Marin Agricultural Land Trust has purchased—and extinguished—the development rights on some 40,000 acres of these agricultural lands, providing a conservation option to the owners. The land stays in the hands of the farming families, and a tradition of local, sustainable agriculture continues.

But the future of West Marin as a source of sustenance and inspiration is by no means guaranteed. With 75,000 acres still at risk, this agrarian tradition and all its benefits are in danger of being lost to non-agricultural uses. Even though MALT has been a model for land conservation organizations from Hawaii to Vermont, threats to farmland continue here as they do throughout the United States. What else, then, does it take to protect the landscape for future generations—to hold the land in trust?

William Keith, who portrayed bucolic scenes of Marin County at the end of the nineteenth century, said, “What a landscape painter wants to render is not the natural landscape, but the state of feeling which the landscape produces in himself.” The images of farmland permanently protected from development being illuminated by the artists in this book give a sense of the conservation ethic at the heart of a new partnership. It links artists with environmentalists and family farmers in a common goal of saving the land they love. Over the years, Ranches & Rolling Hills artists have visited and drawn inspiration from 80 or more West Marin farms and ranches. There they’ve been witness to the ideal of hard work and the love of the land that ranchers and farmers in West Marin seem to wear like a second skin. They’ve created a pictorial and artistic record of West Marin farmland and open space that had not existed before, and they’ve shown that the connection between the landscape and the landscape artist is an inestimable one.

And so the work of conservation and cultivation continues. Meanwhile, the art of Ranches & Rolling Hills reminds people everywhere that something valuable can be preserved, not just as a painting, not just as a memory, but in real life—if we set our minds, our hands, and our hearts to it.

This essay is excerpted from Ranches & Rolling Hills: Art of West Marin—A Land in Trust, published this spring by Windgate Press in Sausalito, CA. Elisabeth Ptak is associate director of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.

Featured in August 2008