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An Islander Enjoys Nature's Handiwork and His Own : Carving a Destiny

February 18, 1988|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

He revved a four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle up an undulating hillside on Santa Cruz Island, eyeing the decomposing sheep carcasses that nature and hunters had left littered across the grassy slopes.

Pulling alongside one mound of dirty wool, the retired high school principal poked around for a spinal column from which he could carve one of the odd figurines that decorate his ranch house in the valley below.

But the bone proved too fragile, so he threw it back and set off again, chuckling as the roar of the bike scattered a herd of grazing sheep on this sparsely inhabited island 20 miles from the Ventura shore.

"I'm glad that I have this place of refuge," he said. "The longer I've stayed out of the mainstream, the more I enjoy the solitude of a place like this."

Meet Duane Owens--former principal of Ojai's high school, island steward, Mormon church leader, family man, bone-carver.

Fit and muscular at 64, Owens has spent the last four years living alone on the eastern end of the 96-square-mile island, the largest of the eight Channel Islands.

He is there by virtue of his eldest son, Jaret, who had sought permission several years back to fly groups of ram hunters out to the island. Oxnard attorney Francis Gherini, whose family has owned the 6,700 acres of the eastern end since 1869, agreed to the arrangement on the condition that a caretaker be there at all times.

The senior Owens, having just retired from three decades of life in a jacket and tie, thought he would give it a try.

Since then, he has weathered loneliness and ocean storms, restored the century-old former sheep ranch where he lives, discovered muscles he says he never knew he had and produced a remarkable collection of carved sheep vertebrae, many of which bear portraits that closely resemble Owens himself.

"I'm sure he gets lonely, but not like the normal person," said his wife, Doris, who comes to visit regularly from the family home in Ojai. "He tries to bring out the positive of any situation."

A balding man with a gray beard and jutting chin, Owens scarcely leaves himself time to ponder his isolation.

Days Are Full

Rising before the sun, he puts in a full day pumping drinking water for several thousand wild sheep, chopping the firewood that allows him hot water, harvesting the squash and chili peppers that grow in his vegetable garden, cleaning up damage wreaked by fierce winter rains and raking flotsam from the small strip of sand that provides boating access to his camp.

At sundown, he fills up a bathtub and soaks away his aches. Solar panels provide electricity for his small television, but he seldom watches it. Before falling asleep, he might read a little from one of the bird-watching books at his bedside table.

"I don't have that kind of unrestricted time to just fiddle around," said Owens, a father of five who left the island only three times last year. "I'm driven by a work ethic, I guess."

Still, to satisfy a lifelong passion for carving, he is often willing to put his daily chores on hold. In those moments, he will see a dragon in a knotty piece of driftwood, an impassioned preacher in a horse bone.

Most of all, he has found a way to carve sheep vertebrae so that they take on the sullen-eyed face of a bearded man, his cheeks deeply sunken where the bone curves in. Out of the back of the man's head, where the bone juts out like a beak, Owens carves the faces of birds and wolves.

Dozens of individual vertebrae can be found scattered around his house on shelves or the fireplace mantle. Others, still stuck together in the form of a spinal column, sit on nails like miniature totem poles.

"The bone just sort of dictates what I do with it," Owens said. "I just follow the bone."

One of 12 children from a poor farming family, Owens grew up riding bareback and milking cows on a small ranch in Show Low, Ariz. With help from the GI Bill, he attended Brigham Young University in Utah, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in English.

After earning a master's in educational administration from the University of Southern California, he moved to Ojai, where he took jobs as principal of Matilija Junior High School, Nordhoff Senior High School and Chaparral Continuation High School.

As strict a disciplinarian at school as he is in his faith, Owens later spent four years as a bishop in Ojai's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"He is the sort of person that, if I had to make the westward trek, I would have wanted him on my wagon train," said Freda Clegg, who for 21 years was Owens' secretary in the Ojai Unified School District. "He is the basic pioneer."

Reverence for Nature

Indeed, the stern-looking but good-humored man seems at home in the rugged splendor of Santa Cruz Island. He talks with reverence about the crisp sea air, the star-laden sky, the sheer cliffs, and the heavy silence that shrouds the place.

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