Notes from the field: The seedbank of Mount Sutro.

by Elizabeth C. Creely

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

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