Napa's Secrets: A Terrapsychological Inquiry

Jean Santullo


Places behave as though they possess an imaginal interactivity or ‘presence’ that reflects what was done to them and upon them, and they communicate this to their inhabitants and investigators through dreams, trauma, folklore, and replays of unhealed past events. (Chalquist, 2007, p. 53).

I have always enjoyed being in nature, especially with and around trees and rocks. From the time I fought with my parents when I was about seven years old because they wanted to cut down the tiny evergreen tree in our backyard that I liked to sit under because it was not in the “right place” to being blindfolded and unknowingly handed a piece of the Berlin Wall and immediately “seeing” red and feeling people screaming, I have felt energetically connected to my environment. At times, I can walk into a room or be on a trail and I immediately sense something. Sometimes I get a definite hit and other times it is a sense there is more here than meets the eye or something is “off.”

Originally for this assignment I planned to apply the attentiveness techniques in Terrapsychology: Reengaging the Soul of Place (Chalquist, 2007) to my local community in Oakland. My plans changed, though, on a recent weekend get-away to Napa, CA when I took a hike in the Lake Hennessey area. I was so moved and saddened by the messages or energy I experienced on this hike that by the time I returned home I knew I needed to write about it.

Studying the Terrapsychology Inquiry process (or “TI” as it is referred to), I realized it goes into a depth of study including the history, culture, industry, myths, geographical dimensions, architecture, political climate, and presence associated with a particular place. Additionally, the psychological state of the observer needs to be taken into account in any place interpretation. A study of this length is beyond the scope of this paper, but I still wanted to make use of the TI process to begin to understand what I was feeling from the environment on my hike. Therefore, I let my intuition, personal observations, and research lead me as I touched upon each of the four domains of the process: 1. Locale; 2. Infrastructure; 3. Community; and 4. Genius Loci and I will begin this exploration with a description and accompanied pictures of the actual hike.

Preparation Phase and Experience of Place

I have been to Napa, CA on many occasions since the time I moved to California from New York in 1990. Over the years, I visited family friends and spent weekends with my Uncle Nick before he died. More recently, I was reconnected with friends who I worked with at Nestle Foods through a mutual friend and we spend weekends at their house off of Route 128 near Lake Hennessey in north-east Napa. Our weekend retreats include wine tasting at the local wineries, visiting upscale markets and food stands and cooking scrumptious meals together, playing with brother and sister resident dogs Rocky and Lulu, star gazing, and hiking. On my last visit, my friends and I decided to go on a hike on an old fire road that leads toward Lake Hennessey.

From the moment we crossed the highway and entered the gate leading to the fire road I felt as if I had entered a different energy field. I immediately slowed my pace and began to tune into the sights, sounds, and smells of the environment, something that automatically occurs when I am in nature. (My friends are used to me going off on my own or stopping when something catches my attention and catching up with them later.) Before entering the fire road, I first had to cross a dry river bed that had previously swelled and flooded the highway during the rainy season in January. But, as I now stood in the riverbed I could not sense water. On other hikes, for example in Sedona, when I hiked in a dry riverbed I could sense the water rushing and there was a lushness about the area even though the river was dry. This was not the case. This riverbed felt arid, barren, and parched and the stones appeared to me as skulls.

Dry Riverbed

I continued along the fire road and noticed a barbed wire fence on each side of the dusty road. I acknowledged that it is the end of summer and the earth is expectedly dry, but this land was beyond being thirsty while it waited for the first rains of the season. There was a feeling of deadness, not dead, but deadness in the sense of hopelessness and the barbed wire fences felt like they were keeping something out while also locking something in or hiding a secret.

As I continued along the road, the vegetation began to grow thicker closer to the road and in my sorrow I saw trees being cut by the barbed wire fence.

Barbed Wire Cutting Tree

The trees appeared to be in so much pain and I wanted to free them. As I looked closer, the barbed wire had grown into their skin and had become a part of them. The trees seemed isolated somehow and they called for my attention. There were giant old oak trees and pine trees with their roots exposed and dried moss hanging from their limbs. I felt sorrow, which is not the case when I have been in the company of other trees. At those times, the trees stand in their majesty or they converge in a grove whispering, but these trees seem isolated and my only connection with them was a sense of sorrow.

Dried Moss and Roots Exposed

Continuing my walk, there was more of the same. The trees had limbs broken off or cut off and the land was dusty and smelled like dry, burnt wood. Suddenly, I heard (or sensed - I do not remember) that something was on the hill on the other side of the barbed wire fence. As I stood silently, I caught a glimpse of a buck swiftly walking up the hill. Its antlers were uneven and I sensed he was old. After he disappeared and about five to ten minutes had passed, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Through the trees in the distance a deer was walking through a clearing and then disappeared. Immediately after, a doe came through the same clearing and stopped. It had its back towards me and we were both standing perfectly still. Something inside me wanted to get its attention and I made a tiny noise by snapping my fingers. The doe immediately turned towards me and we stood there staring at each other. I do not know how long we stood there: it could have been ten seconds or one minute, and then the doe was gone.

After the doe disappeared, the sounds of birds began to get my attention as black and white Woodpeckers and vibrant Blue Jays swooped in the sky. A wild turkey moved in the brush and I turned around and began my walk back to the highway picking up different feathers along the way. I joined my friends and something eerie happened. An older man on a horse and a younger man walking behind him approached us from the opposite direction. At first, I thought they were in the military because they both wore army cloths, but what scared me was the fact they were both carrying rifles and I got an evil vibe from them. As they left our view, my friend Aidan told me they were probably poachers and wished he had a cell phone to call the authorities. I feared for the buck, deer, and doe I had just seen and was also relieved I had not run into these men when I was on the road alone because I had a feeling it would not have been safe and I also acknowledge I have no idea if this is true or not.

When we arrived back at the house, dripping sweat from walking up the dirt driveway that leads to my friend’s house on the top of a hill, I jumped into the pool which cooled off my body, but did not rid me of the hopelessness I experienced on the hike. When I sat and wrote in my journal and concentrated on the experience, the message from the place was of suffering and pain as if it was being tortured. Then as I looked at my pictures there was also so much beauty in the lines and curves of the trees and moss I had only peripherally noticed when I was hiking. I was left with a sense of, “though I am dead on the surface, life still stirs deep in my soul and I will return.” It was then I remembered I had been hiking deep inside the valley.

Assessment Phase

Locale – Focus on History

Before embarking on this paper, I knew very little about the history or geographical qualities of Napa. Napa, which is sometimes translated from Native American Indian as grizzly bear, house, motherland, or fish, once produced many crops. Since the 1960s, Napa has risen to the distinction of being the top ranked wine making region in the United States. But, prior to the Beringer, Markham, Sterling, and Christian Brothers Wineries, the Napa region was inhabited by the Patwin Native American Indians. The Patwin lived off the land finding sustenance from the likes of wild roots, acorns, small animals, and earthworms and it is believed they did not surpass a prehistoric population of over 5,000 people (Wikipedia n.d., retrieved September 3, 2007, p. 2) occupying the Napa hills and valleys depending on the season of the year.
Taking a leap forward in history to the early to mid 1800s, the Napa region, and most of what is today California, was under the control of the Mexican government. Numerous “ranchos” divided the area and grazing cattle and sheep was the main livelihood. In the 1830s the first white settlers arrived in Napa and this is where my historical research divides.

On the one hand, when I reviewed the popular or mainstream books and websites about Napa, they speak of the entrepreneurial drive of the American pioneers and how they built the Napa region into the thriving wine capital of the United States it is today. These sources discuss how land was granted to the American settlers through marriage into powerful Mexican families or due to the Mexican government’s acknowledgement of their contribution to the community. The Mexican-American War and Bear Flag Revolt are offered as inevitable outcomes of the movement west and only mentioned in passing. “Following the event of the Mexican-American War, Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 and the Mexican Cession in 1848, settlers were granted deeds from the original ranchos during the 1850s thorough 1870s” (Wikipedia n.d., retrieved September 3, 2007, p. 3).

On the other hand, according to Howard Zinn (1995) in A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present and Ronald Takaki (1993) in A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, many of the white settlers and newly formed American government aggressively turned against the Mexican inhabitants in the name of manifest destiny and “this was intermingled with ideas of racial superiority, longings for the beautiful lands of New Mexico and California and thoughts of commercial enterprise across the Pacific” (Zinn, 1980, p. 152). Both Zinn and Takaki paint a very different picture of how the land changed hands from the Mexicans to the Americans then do the glossy books about Napa. Zinn and Takaki also reference journals and letters written by United States army officials and locals during the period of the Mexican-American war. Takaki quotes a letter from a United States officer, George G. Meade: “They have killed five or six innocent people walking in the street, for no other object than their own amusement. . . . They rob and steal the cattle and corn of the poor farmers. . . .” (1993, p. 175). Members of the American army murdered Mexican people and stole the land from beneath their feet with the same genocidal motives they perpetrated against the Native American Indian peoples. Beneath the lush hillsides and vibrant valley floor of current day Napa is a history of racial entitlement and bloodshed.


Despite the exalted status of winemaking and all its attendant hype, this region is, at heart, farm country. The major crop may be grapes—hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth by the time they are turned into wines—but for the most part, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties are rural or at least semi-rural. (Reigert and Olmstead, 2000, p. 1)

The advertised Napa reminds one of Tuscany. Riding along the Silverado Trial or route
29, highrises will not be found, but instead estates surrounded, or partially hidden, by beautiful landscapes abound. Restaurants and businesses aimed at pampering visitors be they touring by car or bicycle are in abundance. But, turn off one of these main roads and follow it for just a little while and the scene is very different. On these streets you will find low income housing and trailer homes inhabited by those who my friends refer to as the local rednecks.

Downtown Napa is similar to other towns across the United States with strip malls and track housing expanding more and more along Route 29 and 121 leading into and out of the heart of wine country. I am amazed at the expansion I have witnessed over the years. Where there used to be open fields I now see rows of identical houses and the usually suspects of store chains. Though, when you cross above Trancas Street, which connects the Silverado Trail and Route 29, these commercial elements are no where to be found. There appears to be definitive property boundaries enacted to keep certain elements out of the “proper” Napa wine area.


Much of the culture in Napa is not surprisingly focused on the growing and harvesting of the grapes and making of the wine. Most of the public events, sponsored by the wineries, are focused around food, wine, and cars and come with an expensive ticket of entrance. In February, the blooming of the wild mustard is the beginning of the Napa Valley Mustard Festival which includes wine tasting, cooking demonstrations, and art exhibits. In May, the Vintage Race Car Festival combines classic cars with classic cuisine.
Though I have not attended either of these events, when I have been in Napa I noticed a vast split between the “haves and have-nots.” One moment I can be at a road-side stand buying produce from a local couple dressed in T-shirts and Jeans who speak with a Spanish accent and appear humbly proud of the fruit and vegetables they are selling and an hour later I am in the Oakville Grocery buying cheese and I feel like I walked into a fashion show.

As I mentioned in the Locale section above, the historical focus is on the men who built up Napa and the historical landmarks littered throughout the region are a testament to this. Other than street names, the Mexican heritage is all but invisible in the mainstream winery community. Landmarks include the Old Bale and Chiles Mills, Charles Drug Winery, George Yount Blockhouse, Peter Lassen Grave, and the Napa Valley Railroad Depot. In fine print, or if even at all, is a small reference to the rancho the land was granted (stolen?) from.

Genius Loci

Returning to the history of Napa, during the Mexican-American war, blood was spilt on the fields where grapevines now grow. Thousands of United States and Mexican soldiers and civilians and Native American Indians bled into the soil that now yields the grapes that are made into wine (the “Blood of Christ” comes to mind.) The theme of spilt blood continues today with every barrel of red wine. Additionally, as with the handful of Mexican landowners and subsequent American landowners, Napa is now owned by a male conglomerate of winemakers, the spillers of wine/blood. The process of winemaking, big machines crushing little grapes, continues a theme of the strong crushing the weak. From the outside, the Napa Valley appears to be a hidden gem among the mountains, but it also hides a traumatic history beneath the surface. The periods of droughts and then floods and socioeconomic gaps experienced in Napa represents a place that is split and off balance and hides from its shadow and sorrow. I believe this is what the place was trying to convey to me on my hike. In hindsight, seeing the two “soldiers” or as we assumed poachers, it appeared like the soldiers from the Mexican-American war are still roaming the valley floor.

My experience when I was hiking was a sense of sorrow, pain, isolation, and hopelessness. The scars in the trees from the barbed wire fences run so deep that the abuse has become a part of the tree. This reminds me of a mindset of accepting one’s lot in life or caste position because that is the way it has always been. Though my impulse was to remove the barbed wire, I was not sure if removing it would cause even more pain for the trees. If I had stayed busy chatting with my friends at the onset of the hike, I do not think I would have experienced this.

Thinking back to my visits with my Uncle Nick who lived in an old part of Napa most of his life, his life was representative of some of my experience of place. Without going into too much detail, my Uncle’s family had a family secret that led them to keep to themselves and they split off form the rest of the family. It is not that he did not keep in touch with us, but it only went so deep. After his wife died and his two children moved away, my Uncle cut himself off even more so and he would like to dish out judgments about family members, directly to them, via email. He seemed jealous of what other people had. But, as cranky and ornery as he got, especially when he was drinking, we connected and he reminds me of one of the tree that I met on my hike.

Finally, it is amazing to me that my experience of place led to this paper. I gained an introduction to the Napa community and history I did not know existed. On a personal note, the theme of integrating my shadow and looking at the secrets of my psyche has been a constant process for me over the past couple of years. I wonder if my openness to this experience helped prime me to be open to what I experienced on the fire road.



Chalquist, C. (2007). Terrapsychology: Reengaging the soul of place. New Orleans, LA: Spring
Journal, Inc.

Riegert, R. & Olmstead, M. (2000). Hidden wine country. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press.

Sweetland, H. & Kramer, D.T. (Eds.). (1987). Wine country California. Menlo Park, CA: Lane
Publishing Co.

Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston: Back Bay

Zinn, H. (1995). A people’s history of the United States: 1492—present. New York:
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Wikipedia (n.d.) Napa county, California. Retrieved September 3, 2007, from,_California


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