Joan Easton Lentz’s memoir about more than feathered friends
Joan Easton Lentz has been referred to as the “Godmother of Birding,” so it is no surprise that her new book is titled “Story of a Santa Barbara Birder” (Mission Creek Studios, $35 and $14.95).
But the story is about more than her passion for her feathered friends. It’s a memoir about her illustrious family and her affection for Santa Barbara, where she was born in 1943.
“I hit the jackpot. I inherited my love for writing from my grandfather and father, and my roots are in Santa Barbara, which is a special place in the United States for its variety of birds,” said Mrs. Lentz during a phone interview from her home in Montecito. “I love teaching, I love writing, and I love birds.”
Her maternal grandfather was Frederick Faust, the prolific author of Western novels and magazine stories in the 1920s and 1930s.
“Most of them were under the pen name of Max Brand. He also created the Dr. Kildare characters, which were serialized on television in the 1960s,” said Mrs. Lentz. “My paternal grandfather was Robert E. Easton, who graduated with a civil engineering degree from UC Berkeley and came to Rancho Sisquoc to survey the boundaries of the 40,000-acre ranch.”
Mrs. Lentz’s parents were Robert O. Easton and Jane Faust Easton, who met on a blind date.
“Their backgrounds were completely different. My mother grew up in Italy in a Florentine villa, and my father treasured the times he spent riding with his dad, exploring the Sisquoc Ranch and beyond. It turned out to be a match made in heaven, and they remained deeply in love throughout their lives,” she said.
“My father, who graduated from Santa Barbara High School and then went East to Andover and Harvard, was groomed for a future in business or one of the professions, but all he wanted to do was be a writer, which was fine with my mother because she truly, truly believed in writing and books. She encouraged him to be a writer. He also taught English literature at Santa Barbara City College and was an environmental activist in the 1980s and 1990s.”
Mrs. Lentz bubbled with enthusiasm as she reminisced about her childhood, living on the Riviera with her parents and her three sisters — Katherine, Ellen and Jane.
“We lived in a George Washington Smith house that was rather ramshackle. My mother was a tall — 6 foot — elegant woman who was knowledgeable in all sorts of subjects, but she didn’t care about furniture and other material possessions,” said Mrs. Lentz. “My bedroom was upstairs and had views of the beaches and the city and the islands. This is where my love for Santa Barbara began.”
Days were spent riding around town on her bicycle, at various beaches with her mother and sisters and hiking and backpacking in the backcountry with her father.
“I was always interested in birds but never told my friends about it for fear they would call me a nerd,” said Mrs. Lentz with a laugh. “It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I decided to take an Adult Ed class in birding, and it really perked up my attention. I found people who were looking at birds in a whole different way. It was proactive. I became very excited.”
She began to go out in the field two or three times a week to bird watch, often with Karen Bridgers, the late bird columnist for the News-Press, and she began writing articles and books about birds.
Paul Lehman and Jon Dunn became mentors.
“The 1980s and 1990s were groundbreaking years for birders in California and the United States. I happened to get in on it. I was in the right place at the right time. I discovered that someone would employ you for your knowledge about birds,” said Mrs. Lentz, who taught birding classes for Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education (now the Center for Lifelong Learning) and led field trips for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
She also wrote books: “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region,” “Introduction to Birds of the Southern California Coast,” “Great Birding Trips of the West” and “Birdwatching: A Guide for Beginners.”
In addition to her career in birding, Mrs. Lentz was also enjoying life with her husband, Gib Lentz, a local lawyer, and her daughter, Jennifer, and grandchildren Alex and Annabel.
Then, in 2018, everything came to a screeching halt.
“One day, I was out hiking and the next I was in Cottage Hospital in the intensive care unit with sudden onset pulmonary fibrosis. I was there for a month, and from the beginning, a phrase popped into my brain — old overnight. That’s the way I thought of myself,” said Mrs. Lentz.
Although her lungs are ravaged by the virus that attacked them, she was determined to learn how to cope with the chronic disease.
“That’s when I decided to write this book. I made a vow in my hospital bed that I would finish a memoir describing my life with birds, my growing up in Santa Barbara, my passion for nature in this place I live,” said Mrs. Lentz.
In the introduction to her book, she writes, “I wrote this book to share with you how birds and nature have influenced my life. When I observe birds in their natural habitats, I am inspired by wonder and excitement. A feeling of deep joy and appreciation adds to these moments, intensifying the effect of the natural world . . .
“Hand-in-hand with birding goes my affection for Santa Barbara and its surroundings. To love this land is to thrive and blossom in a place I’ve known since childhood. I was given an extraordinary chance to pursue my passion for birds in the region where I had roots. Growing up in Santa Barbara and returning here to spend my life pervades my feelings for birds and nature.
“These interwoven facets scoop up my family, the houses we lived in and the places I visited as a child. It’s a mish-mash, an agglomeration.”