Zipping down Highway 101 through Carpinteria, right past the storage place but before the wholesale flower merchants, you often spot it: a gray-brown strip of desolation that sits between the road and the pricey homes that face the sea.
During the summer it seems parched and barren, and winter's heavy rains can overwhelm it, causing it to spill its silt and water all over the highway.
But get inside, look around, and the Carpinteria Salt Marsh, a soggy bog at the center of an estuary, reveals to all intrepid visitors unexpected life, color and subtle complexity.
Look, over there--a willet flaps and preens while a snowy egret probes the mud for a live morsel, perhaps a horned snail or any one of a number of mollusks or fish that call the marsh home.
Or there, at the edge of where UCSB scientist Dave Hubbard is slogging through the carpet of rather drab pickleweed are the lovely and endangered salt marsh bird's beak and goldfields, which compete for space with the pushy yet delicate sea lavender, an aggressive nonnative.
Each moment spent in the marsh makes one more conscious of life and time: Tides rise and recede rather dramatically, connecting and separating different links in the food chain.
At low tide, the channels empty, creating branched, ghostly imprints in the sand, which are both a memory and a premonition.
Six hours later, the new tide, carrying life and nutrients, floods the channel and continues the life cyle of this delicate ecosystem.