Chay Peterson pushes back her chair and walks to a cubby on the wall at the end of her kitchen. She returns with a dead snake in her hand, maybe 4 or 5 inches long and hardened with age. She's keeping it to show to the local naturalist.
"People think my life started with canyon politics," she says.
Peterson is a petite woman with wild blond hair, and her voice is so light and airy it carries on the wind. Under this soft demeanor, though, she has become one of the greatest activists for the remaining rural areas of Orange County, specifically her home base of Silverado Canyon. Its oaks and scurrying critters are woven into her makeup. "I was a free spirit," she says, "and I didn't like to be held down, so I would just do what I wanted to do. . . . I just wanted to go out and explore."
Her childhood memories are painted with lazy Sunday drives down Santiago Canyon Road and sticky, summer camping trips to O'Neill Park. She was hardly amused by what her home in Santa Ana had to offer. "When I was little and I was in the city, I would collect butterflies," she says and chuckles. "They were dead already. I just wanted their wings."
Eventually, after years of activism across the globe, including cycling to the USSR at the height of the Cold War on an anti-nukes mission (Soviet officials refused to let her in), she moved into the canyons of her childhood. In her 26 years there, Peterson has helped run the Silverado Children's Center, sometimes as the resident rattlesnake catcher. She and her husband raised funds to host a surf camp for their sons and other canyon teenagers. Peterson organized a group to travel to the south to rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina and started the Canyon Land Conservation Fund with a few other residents to fight the McMansion developments that try to crawl into the canyons every couple of years.
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When horrific fires came to Silverado in 2007, the Petersons didn't evacuate. "We know all the trails that take you out of the canyon," she says, "so we didn't want to leave unless we had to. We figured we could be useful." Sneaking around the sheriffs, they took food to neighbors, fed pets and cleaned up tinderbox yards. "I love helping people during disasters," she says and laughs. "I don't know what it is. It's this psycho craziness that happens to me."
Peterson has been in this guardian-angel cycle since she was a kid. "When I was little, my mom did that. She was PTA, Bluebird Mom, Campfire Girls, she helped bring the bookmobile to Santa Ana, read English books to Mexican kids at the park," she says. "So when I got in a small community . . . I dunno, it was in my nature to care."
Everything Peterson does is with a streak of whimsy, in a way that seems as though it will keep her young forever, a fairy bouncing from treetop to treetop, her spirit contagious (she frequently dons fairy wings during Silverado shindigs). When she saw the natural hills she had romanticized as a child in danger of being pockmarked by suburban neighborhoods, she asked her friends, "Who's going to fight this? Where are the people?" She pauses, "And we walked out of the café that day knowing it was us."