Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Month: April, 2014

Notes from the field: The seedbank of Mount Sutro.

My essay “The seedbank of Mount Sutro” has been published: it appears in The Fourth River, a journal of “nature and place-based writing” according to Chatham University, which publishes the journal. This was my first serious attempt to work with the biologists and their findings to describe and explain the bizarrely fraught conflict between California’s native plant advocates and those who prefer non-native plants. The piece straddles two genres. It’s both a traditional feature article with an interview as a framing device and an attempt, which is the true spirit of essays, I think, to understand and explore the murk of public sentiment as it relates (or chooses not to) to ecological restoration in California. And trees. Eucalyptus trees, specifically.

I like eucalyptus. I’ve been looking at them my whole life, first from a car window speeding down the 405 freeway in Southern California. There, standing in straight lines on the flood plains that sweep down from the Santa Ana mountains, stood eucalyptus trees, frozen in their role as wind breaks for the now-vanished farms of Irvine. My father told me of the folly of the men who imported the eucalyptus. “They brought ‘em here for wood,” he said. “They didn’t know the wood was no good!” He laughed openly at the idiots who spent lots of money making this mistake.

The lesson was clear: know what you’re getting yourself into. The guys who brought these trees here didn’t.

But California are generous and so they decided to love the newcomer trees and also, there’s an idea that …well. How do I say this delicately? Eucalyptus trees were and are considered more attractive than California’s native plants, which are apparently ugly. Take a look at some of the public comments on UCSF’s draft Environmental Impact Report which was intended to describe the university’s long-term management plan of Mount Sutro. They demonstrate a surprising negativity reactions to form, not ecological function, of California’s native plant life. One opponent warned UCSF that those who favored restoration didn’t know what they were getting into.[1] “They do not realize,” the writer intones, “that this city looked like the Marin headlands,” before the eucalyptus were planted.

“Ugly” is a word that occurs four times in the public comments, always with reference to native vegetation. “Barren” is another favored adjective. “Virtually bare” is still another pejorative description of California in her native state. “Please don’t tear it down for scrub and grasses…” pleads yet another commenter [2] (“scrub” and “grasses” being synonymous, one may assume, with the words “barren” and “ugly”.) In a state that prizes beauty, persons, trees and shrubs alike are ranked according to looks.  The cries, lamentations and warnings of the anonymous commentators to stay away from California’s ugly plants should not be underestimated. Beauty has brought mighty men trembling at her feet; she can do the same thing to entire swatches of California’s last-remaining native grasslands and coastal shrub communities as well. Last fall, UCSF abandoned their plan to restore less than eight acres of the sixty-three acre preserve to native plants. Only one acre was going to be planted with native plants.

What do Coyote bush or Coast Live Oak contribute, really, to the beautification of this state? Our native trees and shrubs are small, modest in shape and outline. They cannot compete with other trees and shrubs on the image-obsessed coast of California. In Newport Beach, coconut palms line the bluffs above Corona Del Mar Beach, a landscape inspired by western notions of the hot blue nights of Araby and Scheherazade, instead of what was probably there. That would be California’s Live oak, a tough little tree, with many different bio-realms dependent on it, larval, avian and mammalian.

To the indigenous peoples of the San Francisco peninsula,” declared historian Pete Halloran in the excellent anthology Reclaiming San Francisco: History Politics, Culturethe Coast live oak was more than a symbol; it was perhaps the single most important plant species.”[3] The same is true for the acorn woodpecker and numerous microlepidoptera, or the tiny moths. Fifteen different species have been shown to be dependent on Coast live oak leaves on Mount San Bruno[4]. This tiny Yggdrasil was cut down across California  as colonial settlements were transformed into sprawling coastal cities. The acorns could find no purchase in the soil shaded by the new, tall, dramatic trees, real drama queens, with huge canopies that kept the ground underneath them dark and the sun out of the blinking eyes of California’s settlers, many of whom hailed from the deciduously rich East Coast. They were unused to the sun’s frank regard. They needed shade. California with its lush spreads of coastal scrub communities was derided as “barren.” And so the acorns were deprived of the future as mothers-to-many, as trees from all parts of the world were pressed into service.

Today, San Franciscans need a different sort of shade: privacy, a get-away, refuge from city neighborhoods that are getting more crowded as more people pour into the seven square and inflexible miles of the city. San Francisco can be an extroverted city, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t introverts amongst us who want away from the madding crowd. That’s where Sutro Forest comes in. “It is a quiet, secluded introspective space,[5]” writes one San Franciscan. “Loss of such a space will be detrimental to the emotional health of San Francisco.” In order to escape, some San Franciscans need the deception that Mount Sutro (which is really a hill) is an actual forest (it’s a “forest” in much the same way that a reservoir is a “lake”) in order to be soothed.

Mount Sutro is a tree plantation masquerading as a “cloud forest”, a definition used only by its boosters in defiance of the scientific definition of a cloud forest: a delicate ecological space that boasts of a dense display of fog-fed plants with a species denseness that often numbers in the thousands. Mount Sutro, which has little biological diversity, is a place with a falsified past (old growth eucalyptus trees! A forest that is hundreds of years old!) and a thoroughly marketed present. It is a site to wander wrapped in a dream of illusion and no-whereness, a place that is virtual rather than actual.

As a teenager in Southern California, I loved spaces like these, places I could co-exist with my fevered, racing brain. So, too, the adult inhabitants of San Francisco still seek “reposeful places” for “solace, sweet and inspirational, in the song-haunted shadows.”[6] (Can a bush do that for you? Who can hide in coastal chaparral with its frank regard for the open sky?)

You can live in the city and yet leave the city, be not of the city. This is what the landscape of Mount Sutro guarantees, assuming the people who live in the expensive neighborhoods that rim the perimeter of Mount Sutro accept your presence. “I can see no benefits from this action…” says a man named Michael of the proposed management, “only distress to the local residents…and general peace and quiet and enjoyment of our homes.”[7]

Acorns can’t grow in this private, shaded space some call a forest. Funny, that. What makes a forest a forest is its diverse nature. Actual forests make room for all kinds of plants.

Like a manzanita. The manzanita is the first plant that identified for me by my father when I was young. I admired it and wanted to snap off a branch to take home with me. He didn’t let me to touch it. “That’s what everyone wants to do,” he said. People liked its glossy burgundy red wood, he told me. They liked it too much. “They used to cut it down to make furniture from it,” he told me. “But the wood’s not good for that,” he said. Manzanita has grown in the Presidio- in fact, a remnant stand of Franciscan manzanita, a species long thought to be extinct, was discovered during the re-build of Doyle Drive back in 2010. A few may have once grown on the flanks of Mount Sutro. On Mount Sutro’s Draft EIR there are five arctostaphylos (manzanita) species listed as “potentially” occurring in the reserve[8]. Two species grow in serpentinite soils. Since Mount Sutro is made of Franciscan chert, these species are not expected to be present. Three other species (A. imbricate, A. montaraensi and A. pacifica) could grow, but probably won’t grow “due to the density of competing non-native vegetation.”

I think Manzanita wins on looks. It is beautiful, this shrubby and sometimes tree-like plant with its glossy oxblood-red limbs. But beauty, of course, is in the eye of the bedazzled beholder. In the case of Mount Sutro, Beauty has a tenacious grip, with public opinion clutched firmly in one hand and an entire ecosystem held fast in the other.

 

Elizabeth and an Arctostaphylos densiflora outside of Calistoga

Elizabeth and an Arctostaphylos densiflora outside of Calistoga

For more information about the Sutro Stewards and their vision of  ecological restoration, go to: http://sutrostewards.org

[1] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf, Comment # 4

[2] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #48

[3] Holloran, Pete. Seeing the trees through the forest: oaks and history in the Presidio. Reclaiming San Francisco. Brook, Carlsson and Peters. City Light Books San Francisco CA

[4] http://jeffreycaldwell.blogspot.com/2004/12/plant-diversity-supports-animal.html

[5] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #387

[6] http://www.sfmuseum.net/sutro/bio.html

[7] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #115

[8] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/Mount_Sutro_EIR_1_18_13_with_Appendices.pdf

Chronicles of Ubo: Private Road, Newport Beach

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

 

There’s a road named “Private Road” in my home region of Ubo which, appropriately, I never noticed much or at all until I came back to live there for four months in the fall of 2012. I was in a sleuthing and investigating mode then, à la Nancy Drew. A secret lake, a lost Indian spring, the provenance of my brother’s illness, mysterious culverts that crisscrossed the two cities of Ubo: all of these things pre-occupied me with their unknown origins. And when I thought I could neither discover nor query anything else, I found a street entitled “Private Road”. How prosaic, I thought irritably. Who names a road “Private”?

A land developer, working in the frontier of early suburban development in Southern California, that’s who. I don’t know who it was that coined the name, but it’s likely that he (it was probably a he) looked over the bluffs of the neighboring estuary and saw a view, a prized feature. The view was public and thus un-monetized, a situation that could not stand. It was transformed into a private view, on a private street, something rare and exclusive. (How do you make money from the intangibles of space? Ask any Newport Beach land developer. They’ll tell you.)

The name worked like a charm. I had never noticed the road. Had I noticed, I would have obeyed its finger-wagging admonition to Stay The Hell Out. Private Road stayed off my radar of the many locales, destinations, spaces and sites that, when assembled, created the geographical and social space I called home.

Private Road, which is on a grade, curves up from Irvine Avenue, the long street that starts in the uplands and ends at the western bluffs of Ubo. Standing at the bottom of Private Road, you’re forced to look up, an aspirational gaze which tallies with the effort it would take to purchase a house there. The view is tantalizing. The street ends in the sky, making it look mythic, heaven-bound and unapproachable for those of us with no money.

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Private Road is in a wealthy neighborhood, which seems to be the fate of many neighborhoods in Ubo. The median house prices are, of course, stratospheric and the spatial dimensions of the houses are similarly unbound: they’re huge and getting larger. The pseudo-Eichler houses built after the Second World War with their modest square footages are being ripped down as their original owners die and the property is sold. Bigger house with more square footage and ersatz French Chateau-like exteriors are replacing them.

This is an old complaint and not a very interesting one: I come home and everything has changed, cries the adult, who left while they were young, and so inadvertently imprisoned the place they left in an inflexible memory.

I can’t complain about Private Road (I don’t know, exactly, how a road that was built and maintained with state and county money could be considered legally private…?). It is protected from my memory by the simple expedient of naming it “Private”. Perhaps this name-as-inoculation was the most important magic to be worked by the name-spell. I, like many others, had knowledge of other spaces, some of them very different, like Santa Ana, for instance. It had (and has) small pink and blue houses with many people living in in them and chickens in the front yard. I lived on Croftdon Street, which was the first house my parents owned in Costa Mesa. When I was 7, my parent’s friends brought their children with them on a visit, thinking we would get along nicely and play well together. The kids they brought were total assholes, as it turned out. There was a South East Asian family across the street, and a Mexican family living next to us, and a Japanese family further down. This unsettled them. “What does it feel like to live in a ghetto?” one of them asked us sneeringly.

The namer/developer of Private Road would never have asked this question because he wanted never to know. His query was more complex, his concern different: how could any space in Newport Beach— well on its way to attaining the sort of agonized and self-conscious air of exclusivity it has today— co-exist both in my consciousness and the consciousness of the well-heeled Newport Beach homeowner, given that I played with Raj, the brown-eyed boy whose mother was from Ireland and whose father was from Gujarat? The road was less than half a mile from the Costa Mesa City limits! Privacy accomplished this.

The gap in my memory is a deliberate and purposive act of segregation, forestalling not only my physical presence, but stopping me before I could make and hold in the commons of my memory, an association of Private Road as a part of the place I lived in together with the images of Raj or Mr. Leon, an elderly Mexican man who lived next door to us on Croftdon.

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Today there is a white, slightly rusted sign affixed to the neatly trimmed hedge that marks the entrance to the road. I want to be alone, the sign seems to sigh in an exhalation of weary ennui. The other streets and roads and avenues that border Private Road don’t have this attitude. They’re open, friendly tree-lined streets that I traversed as a child, going here and there between the beach, or the dentist on Balboa Island, or my grandparent’s house on Aliso…or our bookstore on 17th street. Santiago Drive, 23rd Street and Tustin Avenue: I know them and love them all, especially Tustin where, in the dusky evenings of the nineteen forties cars would speed recklessly and sometimes crash into the swamp at the end of the street.

Anyone with a computer can look at Private Road now. Go ahead. Type in the words “Private Road, Newport Beach, CA” into the Google search field, select the little Google manikin and drop it squarely on the entrance to Private Road. See the cunning little red bridge next to the private pagoda? It’s adorable— a wonderful example of the Orientalist decorating craze so common in Newport Beach back in the fifties. Please notice the stand of bamboo just to the right. Click some more and proceed. At 2317 Private Road, two women stand chatting in the driveway, having what could have been a private conversation, were it not for the omniscient gaze of a Google camera.

Hey! Yeah, we just thought we’d drop in! Where’s your icebox? Where’s the punch?

Moving on, you can see the house next to them, with its cute rose-bedecked bower and small grove of aspen trees. Swing around sharply to your left and look at the kidney-shaped pool. Legions of happy, sun-tanned Newport Beach children grew up in this pool, safely shielded from the public gaze which would surely have burnt their tender skin with all that avid public curiosity.

Have the inhabitants of Private Road given up the battle to maintain their privacy? The space opposite them, the Upper Newport Bay, sure isn’t private. Through the efforts of Frank and Francis Robinson, the bay was rescued from the same obliterating vision of private development, and was instead restored and opened up to public access. Not so for the historic site called “Cherry Lake”. What used to be a spring — a democratic place, surely— that provided fresh water for the Tongva, the Native American tribe who had been in residence since they sprang into being as a people, is now a private lake.

What were the inhabitants of Private Road rejecting? What did they think was being kept at bay? What did they want to keep hidden, shielded from scrutiny? Was Precious getting bombed?

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

The other day, as my mother and I were out, I told her I had something new to show her, in a familiar neighborhood she once lived in as a young mother. I turned down Irvine and made a left, heading up the road and into the secret cul-de-sac. My mother gaped at the pagoda.

“My god,” she said. “I never knew this was here!”

“You weren’t meant to, “ I replied. “It’s private.”