The word “smitten” has several meanings, ranging from being hit with a heavy blow to caught in a trance of obsession or becoming love-struck. Here, we are using smitten as a synonym for enraptured or enchanted, like a teenager who casts a first sight on the new girl in class and immediately starts talking in nonsensical rhymes.
Except for possibly those of us who were born here, we might all still remember the moment we were first smitten by Sonoma County. The deep green and golden yellow natural beauty, the warm air, the cooling fog, an ocean and meandering river, redwoods, fields and farms, small towns, mellowness, refinement, patches of funkiness, happy people and a fidelity to traditions and a living heritage.
Changing landmarks tell us we are changing, too. Today’s Healdsburg would not recognize itself from as little as 30 years ago. Can you imagine that some of us became smitten with Healdsburg while it was still the “buckle of the prune belt?”
Can we still remember that first moment of enrapture? Whether we have been here for a few decades or just a few years, it only takes a few doses of reality to quell our love-struck impulses. Like the teenager who gets to know the girl a little better, we all find out nobody or any place is as perfect as first thought.
Plus, the Sonoma County we fell in love with months, years or decades ago no longer exists. This place shared with 500,000 other inhabitants in nine cities and various hamlets and crossroads keeps changing daily — smittened, subdivided, CEQA’d and sometimes squandered.
And, now we have come to a time following last October’s landscape-altering wildfires, where we all must accept unwanted, but mandatory, changes to our enchanted Sonoma County. If we do not accept this reality, we could lose forever the soul and heart of our original affection and smittenness.
Perhaps our Sonoma County was already at a tipping point before the firestorms destroyed 5,300 homes and is dislodging many thousands of former residents. Already, our desired Sonoma lifestyle was becoming more and more exclusive and out of reach for even our own children.
The social and economic upheavals from a post-prohibition cannabis industry have been rolling out for some time as well. Our welcome mat for seven million annual tourists was showing some wear and tear. And too many of us have turned elderly and less mellow.
Our stubborn fondness for the Sonoma County that exists only in our smitten memories has put us in a bind to accept physical changes to our cities, neighborhoods and economy.
We can still be in love with the Sonoma County we first discovered on our summer family campouts along the Russian River when we were tourists. We can keep gathering at our farmers’ markets and town square concerts. We can marvel at our accustomed pursuits we champion as farm-to-table, greenly sustainable and UGB-protected livability.
But the more we try to encase all this in yesterday’s smittenness, the more exclusive and pricey our Sonoma County becomes.
The first European settlers and farmers changed Sonoma County forever. The following generations of farmers did the hard work of preservation and husbandry. Hippies went back to the land here in the 1970s and this place acquired a new generation of artists, entrepreneurs, educators and leaders.
The Latino workforce is now changing the face of the county again. But so is the lack of housing and the economic dominance or two monoculture industries — wine and cannabis.
There is no mistaking that Sonoma County is at a tipping point. Will it become more and more exclusive? Or, will it embrace a more inclusive character that will enchant, empower and reward a next generation’s smitten dreams?