Brooks Firestone shares stories about Santa Ynez Valley
Mountain lions, bobcats, horses, coyotes, elands, alpacas and snakes, oh my!
Between the Santa Ynez mountains to the south and the San Rafael mountains to the north, the Santa Ynez Valley is home to all kinds of four-legged creatures.
Brooks Firestone and his wife, Kate, have lived in the Valley for nearly half a century, and they have seen firsthand and experienced the gradual changes of the Valley over time.
Mr. Firestone has been heavily involved in the community, working as a tire executive, a winemaker, a ranch owner, a California assemblyman and a Santa Barbara County supervisor.
In 2010, he published “Valley Animals 2010 — True Stories about the Animals and People of California’s Santa Ynez Valley” (Daniel & Daniel Publishers, $16.95).
The book contains dozens of stories from residents about encounters with animals, from pets to commercial animals to show animals to wild animals.
A decade later, he has published “More Valley Animals 2020,” with the same kinds of exciting, colorful stories. But the new book highlights the shift of the culture from traditional Spanish ranchero to modern life.
His love for storytelling is clear in both his detailed, riveting written tales and when he tells a story in person, setting the scene, creating suspense.
And leaving the audience wanting more.
“I’ve always had a yearn to write something and I never had a chance,” Mr. Firestone told the News-Press. “But over the years we had our cattle ranch, for some reason, I just jotted down these stories and so I had a file of these things, and I just said, ‘I’ve got to do this thing.’”
Each short story in both books is wildly different from the last.
They vary from a condor sighting to tourists picking up an unconscious dog on the side of the road who appeared to have been hit — only to find out later when he came to, that dog was actually a coyote.
“You’ll find that the Valley is just a little bit of a different place than anywhere we live in the world,” Mr. Firestone said. “It has a special nature, and part of that is the relationship between animals and people.”
He said the first story of the second book, “More Valley Animals 2020,” exemplifies this unique relationship.
A famous jazz pianist and city boy, Jim Pugh was wheelbarrowing mulch, part of his volunteer job with the Santa Ynez Valley Botanic Garden in Buellton.
Suddenly Mr. Pugh encountered a large cat emerging from under a park bridge and sauntering toward him.
“Something in the air caused a pause as the two approached each other,” Mr. Firestone wrote in the book. “Man and cat stood looking, a few feet apart …
“After a silent moment, the big cat quietly turned and padded off back under the bridge. Jim continued shoveling mulch.”
Turns out, the cat was a mountain lion.
“To me, it symbolizes the whole book, because it’s city versus country,” Mr. Firestone said. “The Valley spirit for volunteering to help with the garden, wanting to be a part of the country, and then the wild coming to the civilization and sort of meeting each other and saying, ‘OK, we can get along.’”
Each captivating story was logged by Mr. Firestone, and eventually, he began to seek them out.
“Each one is different,” he said. “Some are by accident, some by word of mouth, sometimes a neighbor, sometimes I read about it in the paper and follow up on it.
“They (locals) knew what I was looking for, and said, ‘I heard this thing’ or ‘This darn bird came and did this.’”
What began as logging entertaining stories over the years turned into displaying the transformation of the Valley over time.
“There’s been some changes in the Valley. It’s a little more urbanized, not quite as ranch-y as it used to be,” he said. “There’s just more people, more traffic, more commuters.
“When I came here in ’72, the ranch culture and cattle culture was a big part of the Valley, and now it’s not as evident,” Mr. Firestone added. “You’d go to Solvang at six o’clock in the morning for pancakes and there’d be horse trailers. Now, no more … I miss it.”
The author hopes to keep the shared stories alive with his book series, and as he’s currently in his 80s, he hopes he can write a “Valley Animals 2030.”
When asked why he wrote each story down, he said, “The outlook and life philosophy of people is country, and the relationship between animals illustrates this, so (he wrote it) to describe the Valley through that relationship and to help perpetuate it, because I think it’s just a rare and pleasant outlook on life.”
Mr. Firestone said the most amazing thing he’s ever personally seen in his life was a large bird (likely a hawk or an eagle) hunting its prey (a snake).
“If a snake is dozing and they can get it, they will swoop down and grab a snake, then take off in the air and drop them and kill them that way,” he said. “I could hardly believe that, but I actually saw it happen.”
Mr. Firestone said that he hopes readers of his books gain “a sympathy with animals and a sympathy with the past,” but he wants it to be “a realistic viewpoint, not an emotional one.”
“Animals eat each other. They don’t have a sentimental outlook,” he said. “That’s our Valley.”