THE LAST VACQUERO ON TASSAJARA ROAD: A REGRET
A conversation with Fred Nason, the Esselen Native American with Swiss Ancestry on his life as a California Rancher
15 min, 2019
Camera: Susanna Knittel
Editor: Teri Brewer, Peter Wilcox
Gifted to the Esselen Tribal Administration, November 2020
Vimeo Link: THE LAST VACQUERO ON TASSAJARA ROAD: A REGRET
This interview with Fred Nason happened the first time we met. He was the rancher of partial local Native American descent (who connected with the tribe in late life, supporting the federal recognition application and linked land claims, he encouraged others to appreciate the wild lands of the Santa Lucia’s and the Big Sur area).
I felt it was urgent because of his advanced age and fragile health and because I was staying nearby at Tassajara, the Zen Buddhist monastery. I seized the opportunity with another Tassajara visitor, a non professional camera person in a borrowed car.
Susanna Knittel: - Carmel Valley was once my home, when I was new in America, coming from Switzerland. The experience of the rural West blew my mind. I was one of a group of artists and makers who wanted to live off the land in community. We lived simply, had time for each other, helped each other out, paid by trades. Then over the next three decades, a real estate boom took over this quiet rural valley.
I wanted to make a film about the mix of people living along this road in the valley.
The original idea for the film title was: The Cowboys, The Native Americans, The Buddhists and the Bohemians lived happily at the end of the road until Real Estate came.
I also wanted to investigate the forces that brought about these dramatic changes in Carmel Valley, the land divisions driven by market forces, the building boom with ranchettes, mansions and grape growing that began to dominate.
In the end, I only got a chance to begin one aspect of the film I envisioned. This interview with Fred Nason happened the first time we met. He was the rancher of partial local Native American descent (who connected with the tribe in late life, supporting the federal recognition application and linked land claims, he encouraged others to appreciate the wild lands of the Santa Lucia’s and the Big Sur area). I felt it was urgent because of his advanced age and fragile health and because I was staying nearby at Tassajara, the Zen Buddhist monastery. I seized the opportunity with another Tassajara visitor, a non professional camera person in a borrowed car.
Several years later, Teri Brewer and I began to talk about whether there might be enough in the existing interview to develop a short film from.
Teri Brewer: - Susanna and I met at a dinner where the California experience with intentional communities was under discussion. She was recalling her experiences with intentional community in Carmel Valley more than three decades ago, and she mentioned that she had hoped to make a film at one time which would have given a sense of that community, and juxtaposition with some other distinctive communities you could find just along that one road, home to a Buddhist monastery, a very old fashioned family ranch outfit, and an increasing number of incoming boutique wineries, often started by young yuppies with the assumed financial backing of their dot.com company profits. As an ethnographic filmmaker I was interested in what she was saying, and we discussed what footage she had shot. I offered to have a look at it knowing that when filmmakers don’t get what they hope for, we sometimes need someone else to get fresh eyes on it and perhaps see a way forward. I had a look, and although the footage was very brief, and simply a first interview that was not followed up, I saw some potential to try an experiment with it. I suggested to Susanna that she head back up to shoot some extra background footage if she got a chance, and I would provide the fresh eyes and my own chief editor, and see what we could do with it. As it happened, at that point Fred Nason had passed away,
Together with my chief editor Peter Wilcox, we took Susanna’s old and new footage, blending the two to take key elements of the longer interview with Fred, showing him in the context of his home, his land and his family. What we passed back to Susanna was a little experiment, a sort of poetic elegy developed from her more straightforward but very brief original interview, but where we tried to give it the flavor of her own later mood and reflections about the experience of the interview, about the change in the land, and the passing of a very interesting man whom she did not have a chance to get to know better in the end.
In recent years, the Carmel Valley History Society hosted an excellent exhibit on the ranching history of the Piazzoni ranching family in the area, all descended from a pair of Italian Swiss brothers, one of whom had married a woman of local Native American and Spanish descent. So at last the background to Fred Nason’s story as recorded by Susanna became clearer, and the obituaries for him which appeared after his death cast even more light on his Esselen connections. None of these things are covered in Susanna’s film of course, but her footage adds another dimension to the public record on this respected man for whom there is still great affection in the memory of older locals, a man who lived his life on horseback in the valley and mountains that he loved and knew so well.
For further information about this film, please contact Susanna Knittel via Instagram @drumming_bodies_dancing
Susanna Knittel is an artist, somatic educator writer and activist based in Santa Monica, California.
Teri Brewer is an anthropologist and filmmaker based in Frome, England.