Like a giant’s sandy belly rising up from the gentle chill of the ocean, Torrey Pines Natural Reserve was a mythic force in my childhood imagination. Yet during a recent visit, over 30 years later, I became freshly aware of the ways that memory can dilate and stretch, and how places that seemed enormous from the wide eyes and small stature of youth can feel so different in an adult body.
Torrey Pines Natural Reserve is located in what is now called San Diego, the traditional and unceded lands of the Kumeyaay people, where I spent my first years of life. A famous golf course up the road, which occasionally hosts the U.S. Open, takes its name from the Torrey pine—as do several local schools. My memory of the reserve is a blur of family hikes and elementary school field trips, a composite out of sequence. Although my family moved away when I was in third grade, Torrey Pines State Beach and Natural Reserve formed a corner of the world that we came back to year after year.
This is what I remember: in order to even arrive at the first trailhead, you would hike up a steep, Sisyphean hill with sparse refuges of shade. The sand at the beginning of the trail was very warm and loose, and would always get in your shoes. If you were lucky, a cool ocean breeze would come along and wipe away the heat that liked to mellow on the trail, populated by lizards, bees, and the occasional squirrel. In springtime you could also see yellow cactus blooms and carpets of purple flowers and pinkish buckwheat, all contrasting dramatically with the deep blue ocean. Torrey Pines is a good place to remember that you are a body—not just that you have a body—sustained by earth, air, and sea.
During a recent visit with my husband, Ben, I was amused to discover that the “Sisyphean” hill could be briskly hiked in 10 minutes, and that one of the “giant” walls of white, partially eroded sandstone was no more than 12 feet tall. It felt like someone had taken a tilt-shift lens to my mental picture of the landscape, leaving it smaller—even toylike—and thus a bit less mythic and more in need of care. Still, the sand remained warm at my ankles, and I was now tall enough to feel more ocean breeze. The healthy Torrey pines at the start of the trail looked just as I remembered them: a bit scraggly, windswept into unique forms and dotted by large pine cones.
My heart sank as we turned a corner that overlooked the ocean and green estuary below. The vista was framed by an unsightly collapse of dead trees left in place, like rough skeletons folded over after a battle. I knew that the Torrey pines had struggled with bark beetles for some time, marked by large, black plastic traps strewn throughout the park, reminding me of solemn lanterns. But I remembered smaller patches of dead trees—not an entire hillside. Was this another detail that had been dilated by memory and distance?
Yes and no. A combination of drought, fire, and beetle infestation has indeed reduced California’s two Torrey pine colonies (the other is in the Channel Islands) from 9,000 trees in the 1970s, dwindling to 3,000 today. So when I visited as a child in the early ’90s, the diminishment of Torrey pines was already well underway. At school, I absorbed the urgent calls to “save the rainforests” and “save the whales.” Yet whereas those losses were more abstract, the Torrey pines were my first encounter with something being left to die. I remember wondering why no one was doing more.
Of course, the individual conservation stories of my childhood pale in comparison to the climate crisis children grow up with today. I thought about these different scales of disaster when we came across a sign that explained how historic levels of drought were making the Torrey pines even more vulnerable to bark beetles. Although there were plenty of bark beetle traps around, the sign explained that conservationists couldn’t give the trees extra water to help combat infestations because it would interfere with a “natural ecological process.” Although I recognized the impracticality of watering the huge park, this reasoning didn’t make sense to me: why justify one form of human intervention (extermination via bark beetle traps) but not another (more water)? If climate change driven by human carbon emissions is intensifying California’s experience of drought, then we have already been intervening in Torrey pine ecology, in a negative way. Limiting action to the invisible hand of “natural ecological processes” obscures other possible ways of imagining care.
For example, many Indigenous traditions offer ways of thinking about human agency as a beneficial part of nature and ecological processes, rather than separate from nature. In Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist and Potawatomi member Robin Wall Kimmerer explains how sweetgrass “likes” to be selectively harvested; it is measurably healthier when someone cuts it partially back. In California, a similar case is being made for bringing back Indigenous burning practices in fire-prone landscapes, like Yosemite National Park. Under what conditions did the Kumayaay leave the Torrey pines at today’s reserve, and how did they care for them during past droughts? This is a gap that the reserve’s official website entirely skips over.
Although I failed to find an answer, I discovered that a few trees didn’t wait to be watered, or moved, through human intervention. The local conservation nonprofit Nature Collective notes that several trees have unexpectedly “escaped into coastal wildlands including San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve,” which is located about seven miles north of Torrey Pines Natural Reserve. Ecologists suspect that scrub jays may have been harvesting seeds from Torrey pines in nearby gardens, resulting in new germinations.
While I worry for the pines and the ecology they support on the ocean bluffs, I smile to think of them “escaping” into a brackish lagoon through the work of enterprising scrub jays. These rogue trees are a reminder that other living beings are ecosystem engineers. They intervene in their environments, creating niches and habitats. The rogue trees also show how preserves are temporary and porous things. If we pay close attention, the Torrey pines not only convey stories of damage and danger, but also introduce small, surprising spaces of unexpected abundance.
If memory itself is a kind of nature preserve, safeguarding the recollections of childhood, perhaps the pines show us an alternative to waiting for deterioration to set in. Memory is something that can still grow and change, that should be cared for, and that can even escape its historical boundaries. Maybe an old memory can take up residence in the lagoon of a new experience, or seed a new connection.
As we walked back down the trail that day, Ben noticed a granite bench under some shade, and suggested we sit down to admire the lagoon view. The breeze smelled like salt, and we watched the Amtrak train go by. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped there ever before.