What the Montecito Birds Have Taught Me

After nearly thirty years in NYC, I now live with my husband, Ray Sawhill, in a cottage in Montecito among flowers and many different kinds of wild birds. You may be asking how we can afford to live in such an expensive place. The answer is it's a small rental on a street that was once where the Montecito help lived.

A dove de-stresses and chills in the trees

It's a beautiful piece of paradise but I never, ever, thought I'd live in Montecito. I never thought I'd return to Santa Barbara, even though I grew up here. But in 2009 my older brother, Daniel, died. Ray and I began making regular, long visits out here. I wanted to be with my mom and step dad and Ray, who'd taken a buy-out from Newsweek magazine where he'd worked, had been lobbying to move here ever since I brought him out in the 1980s. Like a lot of Easterners he spent the first six days of our weeklong February visit with my family making fun of the spacey, zonkedness of people in Santa Barbara. Hey, I'm nothing if not a spacey, Cali zonk and proud of it! But on the seventh day Ray proclaimed his plan to move here. Isn't it amazing how NYC snobbery about California vanishes when people check the difference in weather between here and back East?

We moved here a year ago, and when we went looking for an apartment I didn't at first even bother searching places in Montecito. I'm a Goleta Girl. Goleta is North of downtown (actually it's West of downtown, but I won't get into the directional confusions of this part of the coast). It has never been considered chic or elite. In fact, a few years ago I was on a Mediterranean cruise and met a woman from Santa Barbara. I told her I'd grown up here and often went to visit my mom and step dad. Without any prompting, she told me the name of the lane they lived on, and waited for me to impressed. The moment someone in Montecito tells you they live on a "lane" you know they're talking big bucks and high gates. She then asked what lane I'd grown up on. When I told her the name of the street my mom lives on she looked blank.

"It's in Goleta," I said. The woman looked incredulously at me, as though how could someone from Goleta possibly be on this small, elegant cruise ship seated next to her? I explained that we were on the cruise thanks to the generosity of my husband's sister. And I was about to say to her, "You must be a recent transplant to Montecito because none of the people I know from old families there would be snobs about their street address." But I didn't -- best not to alienate someone you might be stuck sitting next to at dinner. However, I guess I rendered her speechless because she turned and walked away and never spoke to me again during the cruise. Yes, Montecitoans seldom go into Oldtown Goleta.

The fact is, though, fish-out-of-Montecito-water that I am, I now love living here. However, not for the reasons that so many people do. Many people love living near other people with great stock portfolios and county club memberships and the same plastic surgeon, because for some reason the rich love looking exactly like every other rich person. And the ones who aren't rich like looking as though they are.

Me, I love the proximity here to wildlife. The animals I've gotten to know here are almost entirely birds. There's one squirrel who we call Sneaky, (isn't there always a Sneaky the Squirrel wherever there's birdfeed?) but otherwise it's a society of ravens, crows, doves, juncos, finches, woodpeckers and a pair of scrub jays we call Scruffy and Hoppy. What I love about all these birds is how intelligent they are. 

Montecito certainly has its share of smart people who managed to make enough money to get here and buy a mansion. But the birds here are smarter than the smartest of financial wizards. Maybe the birds don't have a massive stock portfolio, but maybe they also realize they don't need one to be happy. And anyone who believes that birds don't think is just not a thinking person. Take a look at this photo of Scruffy and tell me he isn't thinking big thoughts about the nature of life. Move over, Friedrich Nietzsche, there's a new philosopher on the block.

Scruffy contemplates The Meaning of Montecito

I'm not saying we can't all learn lessons from the rich of Montecito. As in: if you can pay your Coral Casino membership fee of $300,000 you can still have lunch there even if you declared bankruptcy (and the Coral Casino is waiting for that check) and the people you talked into that unfortunate Ponzi scheme are having to seriously downsize.

As in: don't yield to anyone, even if you're in your Model S Tesla at one of the traffic circles on Coast Village Road and the only really pressing thing you need to do is buy another $700 Wendy Foster sweater to wear over your yoga pants. No, don't wait for your turn, just cut off the person ahead of you and make the lone pedestrian (probably a tourist) jump out of the way.

As in: you may be a bat-shit crazy woman with Borderline Personality Disorder. I've discovered there's a lot of those in Montecito, women who live to cross boundaries with you and then complain when you back away that you're cruelly ignoring them. But no one at Lucky's is going to suggest a BPD lady start taking meds if she orders the most expensive bottle of wine.

But the birds do yield and they do respect each other's boundaries. I'm always impressed at how much humans could learn from how the various species of birds co-habit. When they do scuffle, it's over resources, like food and water, and it's over quickly. They don't carry out endless pointless toxic wars the way humans do. And they don't use drones when they do battle. Birds don't need drones, after all, they are better than drones at sussing things out from above.

I'm also impressed at how they look out for their own. The ravens will call to each other (after letting me know I need to put out some cheese, or better yet, pieces of the bread I just baked), and then they'll wait until they're all assembled and take their turns with the food.

Another thing that impresses me about the birds is how much they bask in the sunny days as though they know theyre living in paradise. Relaxing in is not something I notice many Montecitoans doing much of. I'm always amazed at how stressed out many of them seem. Perhaps maintaining their lifestyles in paradise is stressful, but the birds know something they don't. The birds know how to live simply and in the moment.

I'm always entertained by seeing that typical Montecito woman hurrying to her yoga class as though she has exactly 90 minutes to feel spiritual and then say "namaste" and get back to the stresses of living with too many things and a $200,000 kitchen that she doesn't even cook in, let alone know how to turn on the oven. Perhaps if that woman were to stop on her way to that yoga class and talk to one of the wild birds here, she'd find a the spiritual side of Montecito right there in her back yard. The birds know that they already have a connection to the divine and are living in paradise.