Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That may be the fate of the mortal coil, but humans have never had much truck with letting flesh have the final word. “Rock, stone, mosaics, ceramics. These are the lasting materials of any civilization,” says Donna Billick, the founder of Billick Rock Art in Davis, California and Todos Artes in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. “Rock art is the only uninterrupted communication throughout human history of who we are culturally. It is a statement of who we are in our time as well as the transmission of ourselves through time. When you look back across the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, China, Mesoamerica, you will find ceramics and mosaics embedded in the culture, still informing us today in vibrant and dynamic detail about those ancient lives lived.”
In fact, ceramics – clay hardened by heat – are so durable that NASA incorporates the material into present-day spacecraft engineering. The space agency actually has a page on its website devoted to “Superhero Ceramics!” noting that ceramics are “stronger than aluminum, fireproof and able to withstand meteoroids.” Among many other uses, the entire lower surface of a space shuttle orbiter is covered with ceramic tiles as part of the spacecraft’s thermal protection system. But there is another material that is equally compelling to NASA and that is “pound-for-pound more effective for shielding against cosmic radiation than aluminum.” Plastic. In fact, the same material used to make household trash bags, polyethylene, can be chemically modified into a material that has three times the tensile strength of aluminum and is 2.6 times lighter.
That type of durability is highly desirable for space travel, particularly for any humans interested in traveling to Mars who would have to endure high levels of radiation for up to 30 months. But the very durability that makes your plastic trash bag seem like Superman’s cape in space, makes it a more of a Lex Luther-grade menace when it simply envelopes your trash in a landfill on earth. It can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and in the process it can release toxic pollutants into the air, ground and water that threaten our very existence on the planet. It is probably safe to say that we would all rather have our first trip to Mars be by personal choice then by mandated evacuation order.
Donna, who has a degree in genetics in addition to art, started the Art & Science Fusion Program during her tenure as a professor at the University of California Davis. It is therefore not surprising that she and her Todos Artes “quaranteam” of artists, surfers and environmentalists Isabel “Issy” Von Zastrow and Will Worden, saw their two worlds happily collide around the durable properties of ceramics and plastic. It all started with the ecobrick. Explains Will, “An ecobrick is a plastic container like a Coke bottle or a garafon (large water container) stuffed to the brim with non-biodegradable plastic waste. This makes a very strong, reusable and long-lasting building material that can be used to make many things including furniture, garden walls, and sculptures. Issy and I were working on ecobricks for our new home, when we happened to observe Donna giving a ceramic mosaic workshop. The lightbulb kind of collectively went off for all of us, and we all saw a great way to mitigate the extremely negative impact of plastic waste’s durability, with the culturally positive impact of ceramic’s durability. When we take the ecobricks and encase them in concrete and ceramic mosaics, it makes a beautiful and enduring piece of art. From the basic building block of an ecobrick, you can make lamps, tables, chairs, really all kinds of beautiful, functional pieces.”
When Donna got out of graduate school in the mid-1970s, the governor of California at the time, Jerry Brown, mandated that 2% of the budget for all public buildings be devoted to art. For Donna, this was the answer to her father’s daily question during her childhood, “so what is your big idea?”, and she’s spent the last 42 years producing large scale art for public spaces. But having her art enjoyed by everyone, not just a few private collectors or gallery owners, is only part of Donna’s Big Idea. “Community build is really where it’s at. Jerry Brown saw public art as a key component of an enlightened, vibrant and thriving society. And when the community itself participates in making a piece of art, it creates a sense of collective ownership and pride in the art that is simply not possible any other way.” Donna, a founding member of the Community Built Association, brought community build to Todos Santos through Todos Artes and her annual Heaven on Earth workshop. Two of her ceramic mosaic pieces built by Todos Santos community members, the Aztec Calendar just off the Todos Santos town plaza, and the Los Todos Santeños wall along the well-traveled route of lower Topete, are now some of the most-photographed, most-loved, and iconic images of the town.
Issy outlines how the ecobricks can fit into a long-term community build program for our tourism-driven area. “There is a difference between impact and influence. One way that the communities of Baja California Sur can influence the impact of tourism on our towns is to invite all travelers to contribute to the ecobricks. Each hotel, restaurant and Airbnb rental can have an old garafon in a central area and invite travelers to stuff it with their plastic waste. When the garafon is full, either we at Todos Artes will come pick it up to turn it into functional art, or we can share with the proprietors how to do it themselves. We invite visitors into our communities to experience the area’s great natural beauty, and this is a great way for them to help ensure that the place will be just as beautiful the next time they visit. They can influence the impact they have on the community in a lasting, beautiful way.”
There is a group called The Long Now Foundation that is in the process of building the 10,000 Year Clock – a clock it expects to keep time for 10,000 years – with the help of ceramic bearings of course. The clock is a monument to long-term thinking and Alexander Rose, the executive director of the project notes, “It is not the engineering [of the clock] but the civilization around it which we hope to shape as one that cares for both the present and the future. We hope that by building such things…they challenge us to become better ancestors.” The Todos Artes team sees ecobricks in much the same light. Says Donna, “The ecobricks are a great way to increase the environmental literacy of our community, to engage the current generation in a completely fun way in the preservation of the stunning nature all around us for future generations.”
Perhaps when the 10,000 Year Clock strikes its last hour all those centuries into the future, and the archaeologists are writing their books on the ancient artifacts of the 2020s in Baja California Sur, they’ll be struck by the care that society took to turn one of its most enduring problems – plastic waste – into some of its most enduring works of art. Rock, stone, mosaics, ceramics. With ecobricks we’ll be transmitting who we were culturally to all the generations to come. We’ll be proving ourselves good ancestors. And, if all goes according to plan, those receiving the message will still have the option to live on a vibrant, thriving and enlightened Earth.
Chito. In Baja California Sur, if you’re talking about Chito, it’s the same as if you were sitting in the offices of Rolling Stone talking about Sting or Bono. Surnames are simply superfluous. Chito is the owner of Rancho Santo Domingo, 2,500 hectares of spectacular land in the Sierra La Laguna mountains that has been in his family since the 1700s. Like most rancheros in Baja Sur, Chito (christened Alfredo Orozco Castro) has all the skills he needs to thrive in a remote area: he knows how to build houses, run a business, train horses, lasso cows, deal with snake bites, make cheese, handle poachers, distill plant-based medicines, fight forest fires, roast pigs and track missing hikers. And that’s just for starters. Ranching has been his way of life, all his life, and when he looks to the future he sees, well, something different.
“Around 35 years ago things started changing,” says Chito. “We used to have rains every January and February, sometimes three times a week, but now we really only have rain during the summer hurricane season. Water, of course, is life, and with this much longer dry season we can’t have as many cows, we can’t make as much cheese, we don’t grow as many vegetables – the impact on the ranching way of life is huge.” Right now selling cows is Chito’s main source of income but, at the age of 60, he’s ready to embrace a post-cow future. “I really see the future of Rancho Santo Domingo in ecotourism.”
In 2019 Chito started working with Todos Santos Eco Adventures (TOSEA) on a luxury tent camp in the avocado, grapefruit and mango orchard that his grandfather planted for his grandmother at the ranch. (Disclosure: the author is a co-owner of TOSEA). With his own hands he built a traditional ranch kitchen with a beautiful brick, wood-burning stove that is the heart of the camp, and this is complemented by walk-in tents throughout the orchard that feature locally made furniture, real beds, rugs, lamps, rocking chairs and other details that make staying on Chito’s ranch not only incredibly fun, but super comfortable. Chito often guides guests on hikes and mule rides throughout the mountains, and loves chatting with folks around the campfire at happy hour afterwards. His incredibly accomplished 7 year old grandson Alfredito often accompanies him, always making sure that there is enough wood for the stove and always ready to share a laugh with camp guests. Together they demonstrate a truth that has been known in the area for centuries: the ranchers of Baja California Sur are some of the most gracious and welcoming hosts on the planet.
They are also accomplished artists. Using the tools handed down from his father, Chito is a master leatherworker and his beautiful saddles, bridles and other leather items are highly sought after. He is also a natural teacher, and a leather working workshop with Chito is the highlight of many guests’ stay at Camp Cecil de la Sierra, the luxury tent camp on his property.
Chito inspires his fellow artists as well. Renowned ceramic mosaic artist Donna Billick, the founder of Todos Artes in Todos Santos, was so impressed by the time she spent with Chito that she created the BioSphere, a magnificent ceramic homage to Chito, his ranch, his cowboy roots and his ecotourism future. And she’s not stopping there. Todos Artes artists Isabel “Issy” Von Zastrow and Will Worden will be working with Donna to lead plein aire watercolor workshops at the camp, where visitors can seek inspiration and subject matter from the ranch and the fantastic natural beauty of the area. Alfredito took one of Issy’s first watercolor classes at the camp. He was so impressed that he came back the next day with his cousin Damian and demanded another one. Alfredito’s stated goal in life is to follow in Chito’s footsteps. With his natural gifts for people, ranching and art, we can all look forward to Rancho Santo Domingo’s continued success as a joyful place where visitors can seek respite and inspiration. In the generations to come, ranching ecotourism may well come to be encapsulated in just one name. Alfredito.
A tumultuous, exhilarating, infuriating and irrevocable shift of population, outlook, culture and vision is sweeping the lower part of the Baja peninsula. Some residents who have been here for a time are eagerly embracing the evolution, spreading the new concepts one joyous Instagram post after another. Others remain faithful to the old days and ways, testily resisting the transformers one grumpy Todos Santos Newsfeed post after another. Who is really a Todos Santeño? Paraphrasing Colson Whitehead’s beautiful tribute to New York, “No matter how long you have been here, you are a Todos Santeño the first time you say, ”That used to be Café Santa Fe” or ”That used to be Santana’s.” … You are a Todos Santeño when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now….You start building your own private Todos Santos the first time you lay eyes on it.”
For Greg Schredder the first time he laid eyes on Todos Santos was in 1961 from the sea, but he’d been driving down the Baja peninsula for a couple of years by then. “A bunch of us southern California surfers started coming to Baja in 1959” recalls Greg. “Because there was barely a road and certainly no gas stations at that time, we retrofitted our old truck with a custom-built 55-gallon gas tank and brought what we called our Tijuana credit card, a one-inch tube that we’d use for siphoning the gas we bought at the ranches. The ranchers were always incredibly welcoming and ready to help us with gas and anything else we needed. Of course, we didn’t always find them in time and we were often stranded for days. We didn’t care, we were just always looking for waves.”
The fishermen were equally welcoming. “We would travel with 10-pack cartons of unfiltered, Delegado cigarettes, and one carton would get us up to 50 pounds of lobster. Everything was so abundant then. We’d actually get tired of eating lobster and so we’d use it as bait to go fishing. It was not uncommon to see 600-pound groupers in the Pacific lagoons in those days, and the fishermen would actually catch these giants with their hand lines. We loved staying in the fishing villages on these trips. We would surf, dive, fish, and learn incredible stories of these people living in the most remote locations. You could hear your heartbeat for a quarter mile it was so quiet and still. We would always bring baseballs, gloves and Playboy magazines, and we made friends and had a great time everywhere we went.”
Greg’s introduction to Todos Santos was rooted in much more glamorous transportation than the type that required a Tijuana credit card. “In the 1950s and 60s, most of us surfer kids in Newport, California worked on the yachts of famous people like André Previn, Julie Andrews, and Humphrey Bogart to make money, and they really treated us like family. In 1965 I came to Cabo on Ralph Larrabee’s yacht, Goodwill, and stayed for about a month. At that time Cabo was really just a small village with no electricity. Larrabee’s friends like Donald Douglas (of Douglas Aircraft fame) and John Wayne would fly in to spend a few days partying and fishing, then fly back home. It was during these downtimes that I first explored the Pacific Coast between Cabo and Todos Santos. It was a surfer’s paradise.”
Greg’s friendship with the likes of Douglas and Wayne ended up lasting decades and inspired many of his business ventures across Mexico and Costa Rica. “I would often travel with them over the years, and they are the ones who motivated me to get a real job. As a surfer and diver I decided to set up factories in La Paz and Tijuana to make rubber products related to those activities. We expanded that business into setting up factories for many Fortune 500 companies who needed inexpensive, repetitive labor. We were the largest employer in La Paz and Ensenada for over 20 years. Of course, before the highway came in, it could take up to 2 days to drive to Todos Santos for some surfing.”
“I have always loved the Pacific side of Baja, and in 1979 I bought Rancho Gaspareño, 50 acres of remote land along a quarter mile of the Pacific coastline, not too far from Todos Santos. One of the people who drew me to the area was Carmen Salgado Agramont. She had a little cantina with a hitching post out front for horses where she’d serve up warm beer and hot food. She was quite savvy, and bought the first gas refrigerator in the area. She almost couldn’t keep up with ranchero demand for cold beer after that, and there were always dozens of horses around her cantina. I loved that place, and it was Carmen’s son who set me on the path to buying the ranch, which actually has the name and signature of Benito Juarez on the original land grand title. Since then I’ve been growing coco palms on the ranch, and have also been experimenting with growing plants from Hawaii like breadfruit that have excellent potential in Mexico.”
Greg loves the history of the area. “Rancho Gaspareño was named after a Spanish galleon that went aground on the point, the Gaspareño. It was one of the so-called Manila galleons, Spanish ships that sailed between the Philippines and Acapulco for 250 years, bringing spices, silks and other luxuries from the far east to New Spain. All these galleons sailed the Pacific coast of Baja on their way to Acapulco, so naturally enough the area became riddled with pirates, many of them English and Dutch. There are many tales of buried pirate treasure in the area, and local school groups still come to explore the cave at Rancho Gaspareño each year to tap into the lore. Treasure hunters have reason for optimism; in 1974 when the road from La Paz to the ferry terminal at Pichilingue was being built, a pirate chest of plundered loot was discovered by road workers.”
“I think of this part of the Baja coastline as the forgotten area” continues Greg. “People drive past Rancho Gaspareño going a hundred miles an hour on the new 4-lane highway and have no idea of the history of the area.” The Guaycura and Pericue Indians were the original inhabitants before the Jesuit’s arrival in 1697, and they were essentially wiped out by the time the Jesuits left in 1768. The Jesuits built their theocracy based on a promise to the King of Spain to get rid of the pirates who were plundering his ships, and the pirates faded away with the demise of the Manila galleons in 1815. Dominican Padre Gabriel González had a ranch near Gaspareño from 1825 to 1850, and the tobacco, rum, sugar, corn, and livestock he produced there made him the richest man in Baja California. From his ranch the padre engaged in espionage and guerilla warfare during the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848, and – thanks in part to the Padre – Mexico won a major victory near Gaspareño (but lost the war). By 1855 the Padre had lost his political backing and left Baja for good. For the next one hundred years entrepreneurs made fortunes in the sugar cane industry with fields in areas like Gaspareño, but in the 1950s a severe drought and price drop lead to the demise of the industry; the last sugar processing plant closed in 1974. In that same year the trans peninsular highway made its way to Todos Santos, bringing new life to the town, and in 1985 renowned artist Charles Stewart arrived from Taos, planting the seed for Todos Santos’ current incarnation as an artists’ colony. It remains an agricultural center and surfing hotspot, only now it is firmly on the radar of major developers.
62 years after his first trip down the Baja peninsula, Greg is ready to carve out a little hacienda for himself and his art collection, but let someone else take over the bulk of the land that is Rancho Gaspareño. He has kept his 50 acres wild and free, but would love to see someone with vision and passion create a place of beauty that celebrates the area’s thrilling past, and embraces an artistic, sustainable future. Someone who started building their own private Todos Santos the first time they laid eyes on it.
Of course, letting go of a big piece of the ranch is bittersweet for Greg. Paraphrasing Colson Whitehead’s tribute to New York once more, “We can never make proper goodbyes… Maybe we become Todos Santeños the day we realize that Todos Santos will go on without us. …. Naturally we will cast a wary eye toward those new kids on the block, but let’s be patient and not judge too quickly. We were new here, too, once.” Yes indeed. A tumultuous, exhilarating, infuriating and irrevocable shift of population, outlook, culture and vision is sweeping the lower part of the Baja peninsula. It always has.