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Mendocino County Native Son On Living in the ‘Ashes of the Redwood Empire’

– Eric Lee Burch is an eighth-generation Mendocino County resident who spent 15 years as a photojournalist and graphic designer for The Willits News, Lake County Record-Bee and The Ukiah Daily Journal. His work has also appeared in the Willits Nickel & Dime, The Mendocino Travelers Guide and 101 Things to do in Mendocino County. Though Mr. Burch lives a somewhat quieter life these days, he continues to write and shoot photos; capturing the essence of Mendocino County and California’s north coast. – 

[All pictures of life in Mendocino County provided by Eric Lee Burch]

I was born in Willits, a rural community along the 101 corridor, deep within the heart of California’s rugged north coast, in late 1975. Back then, it was still considered the Redwood Empire. Timber put food on tables. In a sense, fishing did too. It was also an important rail hub for the Northwestern Pacific and California Western. Even though there was a pretty big migration of back-to-the-land folk, moving out of the concrete confines of the San Francisco Bay Area, Mendocino County and the north coast still had plenty of wide open spaces.

Of course, my history with this land actually extends a lot further back than the year of my birth. The family lineage can be traced to 1844, when Fernando Feliz moved into the Sanel Valley with a herd of livestock to establish Rancho Sanel. He would remain in Hopland until his passing, but by that point, most of his land had been partitioned out. From stories I’d been told as a child, some of the remaining Feliz clan moved south into Sonoma County.

Aletha Feliz, my grandmother, married Douglas Rowley when they both lived in the Bay Area during the war years. After moving north to Healdsburg, they had my mother, and in 1952, ventured further up the 101 corridor to Willits, where they planted roots. This is how I came to be.

Growing up in Mendocino County during the 1980s was rather enchanting. Children of my generation were very outdoorsy. We fished the rivers, hunted in the mountains, and played in areas steeped in history. I could sit here and tell you so many tales that still resonate within my soul.

Though my mother was a single parent and worked hard to provide, she also made time for us to have plenty of adventures in Mendocino County and beyond. By the time I was ten, I knew every country road like the back of my hand. It was also through her that I developed a keen sense of creativity behind the lens of a camera, not to mention a strong desire to explore and document my home. It would serve me well after I got my license at 16.

In a lot of ways, Mendocino County has changed so much since then. We now live in the ashes of the Redwood Empire. Timber has made a bit of a comeback, yet it does not sustain us like it used to. These days, when you think “Mendo,” tourism, wine grapes and cannabis come to mind. The landscape is still as rugged as ever, yet life north of the Golden Gate is a bit softer.

I am a photographer. My aim up here has always been quite simple. I document. Time and changes that come through it’s passage absolutely fascinate me! I don’t sugarcoat my work, and make no attempts to portray this area from an almost fantasy-like point of view. There are plenty of very talented photographers who do fine art quite well. My work is blue collar. They are snapshots of life in the every day.

What’s cool about living up here and doing what I do, is that I have been able to share it all with my son. Our own adventurous nature has bonded us, as it did with my mother and I when I was that age. It’s been awesome to see how he views Mendocino County from behind the lens, and in turn, that inspires me to keep pushing my own boundaries in photography!

And… it ensures our family’s legacy with California’s north coast continues.

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5 replies »

  1. It was the early 70’s when I was first introduced to Mendocino county by way of the Boys Club Camp out by North Spur. I was 12 and knew immediately that I would love to live here someday. We bought our first home here in late 2008. Please share more photos and stories.

  2. Great story! Thanks for sharing. I first came to Mendocino Co in 1968. Moved here permanently in 1990.

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