Stories from California: Nature’s Church

The seventh in an eight-part series from multimedia documentarian jesikah maria ross about the people, land, and stories of rural California’s Cache Creek.

Cache Creek is the place where God has been made real to me. —Sarah Motley, Episcopal Priest

Part of my goal in creating Restore/Restory was to document the many different ways people have used the land that is now the Cache Creek Nature Preserve. To me, the Preserve is a microcosm of California history. It’s been home to Native Californians, European explorers, Spanish ranchers, Mexican farmers, Anglo settlers, industrial miners, and—after a protracted environmental battle—restoration ecologists and environmental educators. Those (hi)stories are pretty well known and, consequently, easy to find. But I wondered about more unconventional uses of this place.

When a friend mentioned she’d been to a baptism at the Preserve, I knew this story needed to be included in the project. So I looked up the priest who performed the ritual, Sarah Motley, and asked her to take me to the spot where she performed the event and tell me about it.

I had expected Sarah’s recounting of the baptism to be intriguing. I mean, how often do you hear about priests in Northern California dunking their baptismal candidates in the flowing waters of your local creek? But I didn’t anticipate how moved I’d be by her deep personal connection to Cache Creek and the surrounding landscape. Standing ankle deep in the pea-sized gravel that lines the stream banks, with the creek trickling softly in the background, I recorded this remembrance—which remains one of my favorites of the whole project.

Many of us feel that nature is our church or get our dose of spiritual sustenance walking trails, being on (or in!) rivers, traversing mountains, or simply spending time in open spaces. This story reminds me of the power of place to reconnect us to our family history, our personal creed, and to our shared future.

What are your outdoor spiritual go-to spots? —jesikah maria ross

Go here to read an interview with Sarah Motley. To read and listen to other perspectives on the history of the area, visit


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