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English: Transamerica building, downtown San F...

English: Transamerica building, downtown San Francisco, CA, USA. Photo taken from Coit tower. Français : La Transamerica Pyramid, dans le centre de San Francisco, en Californie (États-Unis), photographiée depuis la Coit Tower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the Edge: Stories about the Creation and Early Years of California’s Monumental Coastal Protection Program.

In the Beginning: an oft-told story.

In the autumn of 1972, I was a card-carrying, pot smoking, alternative lifestyle living, unemployed, hirsute Hippy San Franciscanus. It was about noon on a glorious fall day. I was wandering about in downtown San Francisco wondering what I was going to do about lunch. I was just passing the newly built Transamerica Building on my way to North Beach, hippy central during those times. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a very tall, very skinny, bearded man emerging from the forest of columns supporting the somewhat pyramid-shaped building. He was rapidly approaching me.

He dressed more or less in the style of my cultural sub-group. That is, he was not wearing a business suit or clothing purchased from any retail store not dealing in second-hand garments. His outfit was accessorized with a red bandanna around his neck and an aluminum Sierra Club drinking cup dangling from a rope belt tied around his waist. He grabbed my arm with his long skinny fingers and Moses-like, but in a surprisingly squeaky voice, said:

“You must help save the Pygmy Forest.”

Now, the societal fringe movement to which I belonged at that time was very sensitive to anything that could be considered a portent of an emerging transcendental experience. Here, the sun was at its zenith and I was standing at the base of an almost pyramid and detained like the wedding guest by the ancient mariner. Clearly, a portent portended. So in the polite idiom of the denizens of New York where I was born, raised and had so recently left, I answered:

“What the fuck is a Pygmy Forest?”

“Come with me,” he beckoned with a long bony finger.

The tall skinny apparition led me through the columns that made up the base of the pyramid and into the sparsely furnished lobby of the newly completed building where several large easels were set up in some sort of ad hoc exhibition. My guide introduced himself as John Olmsted. I was later to learn that he  descended from “The” Olmsted, the high school dropout from Connecticut who became a journalist and in the latter stages of the Nineteenth Century parlayed his journalistic abilities and his political connections to win the competition to design NY’s Central Park becoming thereby one of the most successful landscape designers of his generation.

John stood me before the easels and proceeded to explain all about something he called an “Ecological Staircase,” and about the “Pygmy Forest.” Now, at that time, I was vaguely familiar with the word “Ecological,” at least enough to know it had something to do with nature, but what it had to do with staircases had me mystified and curious. To explain it, he had a large chart set up on one of the easels. The best I could make out was that logically it had something to do with “The Pygmy Forest,” and that John was going to connect it all up for me.

John then pointed to a photograph of what appeared to be one of the ugliest plants I had ever seen. Had it grown in my garden, I would have pulled it out by its roots hoping I acted quickly enough to prevent it from infecting the rest of the place. To John, however, the sight of it seemed to have instilled in him an almost religious ecstasy.

He enthusiastically explained that the stunted monstrosity was a full-grown tree. My excitement at that revelation was muted.

Unperturbed by my lack of response, John continued with his presentation.

According to John, it seems the ground around a place called “Jughandle Creek,” located somewhere along the coast in Mendocino, a county lying about 100 miles north of San Francisco,  had, over the eons, risen and fallen beneath the ocean. Each time it rose the incessant waves carved out a ledge. About five or so times this happened sculpting the land to appear to the imaginative obsessive as a giant staircase — hence the Staircase to which Ecological was appended. It was all beginning to make sense.

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John explained that the ground on the top of each step (for some reason that I have forgotten), became packed as hard as cement. Over the years, the soil settling on top of that cement became more and more hostile to just about any living thing except for flesh-eating plants, these benighted trees, and illegal marijuana farms.

Apparently, the roots of the trees could not push through the cement-like hard-pan causing the stunted growth of these three-foot high monstrosities. “Natural Bonsai,” John crooned. They did not look like any bonsai I ever saw, but hell, who was I to argue with the crazed hippie descendant of “The” Olmsted.

The looming tragedy that prompted John’s hysteria that resulted in the exhibit and my selection as a potential acolyte, was a developer’s plans to build a motel right in the center of the first step of John’s beloved Ecological Staircase, thereby ruining it for future generations of, I assumed, people like John, as well putting  the nearby forest of stunted trees at risk.

Although I suspected that any tree that could thrive in that soil was a match for any developer, I nevertheless heard myself say those eternally fateful (and often regretted) words, “That’s awful, I used to be a practicing attorney, what can I do to help.”

About two weeks after my almost mystical encounter with John Olmsted in the shadow of the TransAmerica pyramid, I found myself traveling to Mendocino and Jughandle Creek with my friend Jeanne McMahon. I  smelled the beginnings of an adventure and it intrigued me — if strolling among flesh-eating plants and stunted trees with a tall, skinny, obsessed hippy could be considered as having the makings of an adventure.

I do not remember how we got there. I did not have a car at that time and neither did Jeanne. I guess we hitch-hiked which was the preferred mode of travel for those of us eager to join the counter-culture (you know “On the Road” and all that).

Jeanne was a freckled-faced, relentlessly positive young woman from Dubuque Iowa who, in the late sixties, like many others had left the mid-West farm belt to join the nationwide migration of those eager to experience “what’s happening” in California. She walked with a spring in her step, her face resolutely pressed forward toward whatever new experiences life she was sure would lay at her feet.

A few years later, she decided to go to medical school to become a doctor. She went back to school to acquire the proper science credits. She was successful and was admitted to medical school. To celebrate, she and a companion decided to go camping and hiking for a few days in the Trinity Alps a few miles north of Mendocino, an activity she loved.

While hiking, she slipped and fell off a cliff, her friend ran to find help but was not able to bring it back in time. Jeanne died alone and in pain as most of us ultimately must. Her friend and I accompanied her body back to Dubuque for burial. Two weeks later he drowned while swimming.

But that was then in the future and as now it is in the past. That day we were off on our adventure blissfully and thankfully ignorant of our futures (John himself died a few years ago after a long illness).

John lived in a little cabin (Actually a two story Victorian type of thing, but I always thought of it as the cabin) in the redwoods along Jughandle Creek. A sign affixed to the cabin announced “The Jughandle Creek Conservancy.” Inside, John and a friend had just returned from mushroom hunting and had laid on the table before them an incredible collection of dirt encrusted bizarrely shaped fungi that they both were obviously enthralled with. They invited Jeanne and me to join them in sampling their earthy delights. We declined.

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After a while, we unrolled our sleeping bags on the porch outside and slept soundly lulled to sleep by the rustle of the wind through the redwoods and the periodic hoot of an owl on the hunt nearby.

The next morning, John took us on a tour of the “Ecological Staircase.” In some ways, that hike changed my life as much as anything ever has. Never before had I experienced anyone that seemed to have such a passionate love of nature, or of anything really; musicians or those sexually bewitched maybe excepted. Perhaps those who met John Muir or explored the marshes with Mrs. Terwilliger (“Spend the day at home and you’ll never remember it. Spend the day outdoors with me, and you’ll never forget it.”) may have been equally affected as I was during this walk. For me, it seemed both revealing and somewhat disquieting.

I grew up on the East Coast in and around New York City. I could be included among those who that passionate cynic Don Neuwirth said get nose bleeds when the soles of their feet are not in contact with cement. To us the “Woods,” as we called it, was somewhat forbidding and dangerous, a place approached with care and where possible avoided (I to this day believe all “woods” to be inhabited by ravenous bears and rogue biker gang members).

As we walked along, John pointed things out like a tour guide in the Sistine Chapel. He would stop, dip his hands into the mulch of the forest floor breathing in its earthy smell then urging us to do so also. At times, he tenderly touched this or that shy plant explaining its particular remarkable attributes. I soon realized I was experiencing someone who appeared to be speaking about his beloved.

To John nature was nothing less that a symphony of renewal. I, on the other hand, could not go quite that far, the smell of the earth although pleasant still possessed the faint odor of decay. Where he saw in a green shoot pushing up through the browned fallen leaves the miracle of regeneration, I saw only the catabolism of the dead.

And yet, and yet, I could not resist his infective enthusiasm and hoped, no wanted it all to be true.

Or, I suddenly thought, was this in fact just another example of something I once read, of, “…our peculiar American phenomenon of seeking guidance or redemption within nature.” From what could John be seeking redemption? Not being “The Olmsted?” Something that happened during recess in grammar school? A secret life perhaps?

Among the stunted trees, John explained how the nitrogen-depleted soil encouraged the plants in the area to evolve to trap insects from which to obtain that chemical so necessary for life.

Pygmy Forest.jpg

As we trudged along we passed through the towering redwood forests that grew where the hard-pan had been broken at what could be called the staircase’s risers, crushed by the incessant geological forces as they thrust one step above the other.

As we walked in the silent spaces between the giant trees, John referred to it, as many do, as nature’s cathedral. Like a cathedral’s columns, the massive trunks climbed up to where, far above, sunlight filtered through the branches as it does through a cathedral’s stained glass clerestory windows. Far below, in shadow, the ground revels in silence.

But, in reality, even I knew the trees grew that high in order to expropriate the sun’s energy at the expense of everything below.  Just like, I assume, the builders of the great cathedrals sought to expropriate the grace of God, leaving the few worshippers scurrying about in the gloom and quiet below. Whenever I visited one of those grand churches, although I enjoyed the brief respite from the vicissitudes of existence offered by the silence, I, nevertheless, soon found myself longing for the excitement and distraction of life’s bazaar outside.

As we turned to go back to the cabin for lunch, I was a bit relieved, fatigued from scrambling across the wild terrain and somewhat overwhelmed by my sudden immersion into the intricate mysteries of nature. I guess, we usually simply absorb our momentary experiences with Mother Nature in unthinking contemplation but, wandering about with John, however, was more like a post-graduate course in ecological transcendentalism. It was made even more exhausting by exposure to a lovers passion that you, the observer, could not really share.

Still, unless one is simply hateful or irredeemably cynical one usually hopes the lover succeeds and perhaps thereby you gain some vicarious empathic connection to what you could never experience directly.

Watching them plod on ahead of me, Jeanne determined to wring all that could be wrung from her experience and John, in the lead, shining like Gandalf the White, I felt a chill and I thought about redemption.

We all seek redemption for something. For me, perhaps, it was absolution for that morning long ago, hearing my wife screaming over and over, “My baby, my baby is dead,” while I tried to breathe life back into that tiny purple and red-splotched body and failed. Or later, feeling nothing but anger at the stares of the mourners and the somber burial on some forgotten hilltop?

Could an innocent excitement about the future and a lovers enchantment redeem anything?

I followed them back to the cabin.

Back at the cabin, we ate a lunch of elaborate home-made trail mix and some locally grown fruit while John explained how to, “use the techniques of the private real the estate market to protect resources.” It seems he had managed to cajole many of his neighbors into selling him relatively low-cost options to buy their land. He raised the money for the purchase of the options from various endeavors including peddling “Jughandle Creek” Christmas cards. His goal was eventually to sell the options to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Unfortunately, the Department did not see Jughandle Creek with the same urgency and significance as John.

Nevertheless, John’s approach of using the private market to preserve nature impressed me a lot since, among other things, it indicated some creative thought regarding getting something done beyond simply pressuring government to figure it out and do it. This approach affected some of the implementation policies that several years later I wrote into California’s Coastal Plan.

Since I had already been hooked, I spent the remainder of the afternoon discussing, planning, and plotting our strategy for preserving and protecting John’s beloved Staircase.

It was clear to me that John was a lover and while he, like any lover, believed he would fight to preserve from harm every strand of his beloved’s hair, he was not, a defender. The difference to me was that the defender operates more or less by the following rules:

1. If the conflict is severe, damage is inevitable. (The lover often can neither conceive nor tolerate of the slightest harm to his beloved.)
2. You cannot protect anything if you are dead. (The lover, on the other hand, swears he would give his life for his beloved, but in fact rarely does, and because of that is prone to rash and foolish decisions.)
3. The opponent has to know right down to his shorts that he is in the battle of his life.
4. The defender will be disposed of the moment those defended believe the threat is past. Any songs that will be sung will be sung only about the lovers or those who merely survived the enemy’s rout.

(If this all sounds a little Seven Samurai and the Magnificent Seven, it is.)

Anyway, eventually, over the following month or so, we began the defense using all the traditional methods; protests, demonstrations and the like (John had many allies and supporters he could call on) and I joined in. Then came the litigation.

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John Olmstead years later but still partial to funny hats.

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