Keeping the Municipal Forest Healthy

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Keeping the Municipal Forest Healthy

To maintain its continuity, a municipal forest should have trees of all ages with a preponderance of them young.  Annual plantings ensure that younger trees are in place to replace aging ones, and the benefits of the forest, whether shade, clean air, blossoms, fruit, autumn color, or psychological balm may be enjoyed by city dwellers without interruption. Imagine the reverse: if all trees were the same age, a significant portion of the canopy would be lost by old age alone. Only volunteers would be left to carry on.

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Sheet Mulching: Eco-friendly Weed Control

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Sheet Mulching: Eco-friendly Weed Control

Let’s face it - nobody likes weeds, and there are plenty of pernicious and unrelenting varieties out there. Accordingly, there are as many weed control techniques as there are weeds. Choosing the right option for your lawn can be a daunting task, but there are a few guidelines you can follow. A general rule of thumb is to steer clear of weed-killing chemicals. Glyphosphate, which is found in many popular chemical herbicides, has been scientifically proven to harm human cells, and should probably stay away from your lawn. This is especially important if you plan on using trimmings or grass clippings in your compost pile! Additionally, there are some herbicides that promote the growth of new, resistant, strains of weeds. If you do feel the need to use an herbicide, there are plenty of organic herbicidal options that are better for your lawn, with varying degrees of success.
 

This leaves you with a few options, but most notable are landscape fabric and sheet mulching with cardboard. At Our City Forest, we definitely suggest using sheet mulching instead of landscape fabric, for a variety of reasons. First, and most importantly, landscape fabric will not stop weeds from growing in your yard. Those pesky perennial weeds will find a way to grow through or around the cloth. The fabric also decreases the amount of water that your yard can absorb when it rains, which creates more runoff, and a drier yard. Not ideal for growing things! Finally, some plants like to spread out once they get established. The landscape fabric restricts the amount of viable ground those plants have to work with, ultimately resulting in the plants being stunted or strangled.
 

A lawn conversion to a drought-tolerant garden, using sheet mulching as its base, is a great way to save water and eliminate most of the weeds in your yard.

 

At Our City Forest, we have a program called “Lawn Busters” which offers low-cost turf conversions to qualifying residents of San José. For all of our Lawn Buster projects, we use sheet mulching - a process that uses cardboard as a base layer to smother the grass along with layers of compost and wood chips.

Click for detailed infographic PDF with steps.

Click for detailed infographic PDF with steps.

It has a variety of long and short-term benefits. Its main purpose is to suppress weed growth without the use of chemicals, just like landscape fabric. What makes cardboard so useful, is what it can give back to your yard! The weeds under the cardboard are eventually composted, as is the cardboard itself, which helps your dirt become healthier and more nutrient-rich. It improves water retention in your soil and encourages worms to hang out there. Plus, you are using materials that would otherwise be thrown away (or hopefully recycled), which is so much better for the Earth! It is important to note that it is still possible for some weeds to grow with this method. There can be seeds in the mulch that you use, and some grasses are incredibly persistent. The best way to deal with these few issues is to pull weeds as soon as possible, so they don’t get established in your yard.

Our process is simple enough, if not a little labor intensive, for you to grab a few friends and do it yourself. If you don’t qualify for our low-cost Lawn Busters program, we have some upcoming workshops to demonstrate the best practices when converting your lawn.

FREE DIY Lawn Conversion Workshop:

May 6, 2017, during the Martial Cottle Park Spring Festival at 11AM and 1PM in our new site. See our website for more information.

You can also watch the mini tutorials on the entire Lawn Busting process on the Our City Forest YouTube channel: 

Need plants for your yard? Visit Our City Forest’s Community Nursery Thursday-Saturday, 9am-12pm, for a wide selection of shrubs, grasses, trees, and succulents. There will be a Spring Plant Sale Extravaganza on Saturday, April 29 from 9AM - 3PM. Learn more about it on our website or join the FaceBook event.

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Life as a Docent at the Community Nursery

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Life as a Docent at the Community Nursery

We couldn't Plant it Forward without our volunteers!

Sarah Viaggi at OCF's Spring Plant Sale Extravaganza 2016.

Sarah Viaggi at OCF's Spring Plant Sale Extravaganza 2016.

The docents at Our City Forest’s Community Nursery--Carol Arnoldy, Sharon Schuetze, Sarah Viaggi, and Judi Wilson--are volunteers who help customers during the nursery’s open hours, which are 9:00 am to 12:00 pm Thursday through Saturday. In addition to showing visitors the trees and shrubs they wish to plant, and discussing which species are best for their needs--an important task considering that the nursery covers two acres and has an inventory of some 10,000 trees and other plants--the docents assist with ongoing nursery work, namely pruning, propagation, weeding, watering, and updating inventory records.

Judi Wilson writing up a receipt for a resident at the Fall Plant Sale Bonanza 2016.

Judi Wilson writing up a receipt for a resident at the Fall Plant Sale Bonanza 2016.

As nursery manager Nara Baker puts it, “It’s cool to have people at OCF who have been there for so many years and know its programs and practices as well as the docents do. They are always willing to help, and are a great example for OCF’s younger members.”

Carol Arnoldy talking to residents at the Community Nursery.

Carol Arnoldy talking to residents at the Community Nursery.

Why the docents continue to volunteer year after year comes down to two shared desires: they are dedicated to OCF’s mission of greening San Jose, and they enjoy being at the nursery.  As Carol says, “I love gardening, being outdoors, learning about how things grow, and being with like minded people.” What more could one want in a volunteer position?

Sarah, who formerly worked as a registered dietitian and is a sailing enthusiast, clearly is in her element. She calls her backyard at her South San Jose home “Big Basin” because it has a stand of six coastal redwoods, two apple trees, an apricot tree, a volunteer hackberry, volunteer pistache, Douglas fir, and wisteria.  The most recent addition to her yard is a live oak.

Sarah up front on the right during her Tree Amigo class in Winter 2015.

Sarah up front on the right during her Tree Amigo class in Winter 2015.

She enjoys working with nursery customers: “I make customers think about what they want. The tree they choose is going to be with them for many years to come, so they better get it right.”  She ticks off the attributes a prospective tree owner needs to consider, for starters, adaptability to the desired planting site, function, size when mature, messiness, deciduous vs. evergreen, and attractiveness.  Sarah also loves working with the “young folks,” the AmeriCorps members who comprise the nursery team.

Sharon Schuetze at the Community Nursery's open hours.

Sharon Schuetze at the Community Nursery's open hours.

Sharon, who became a Tree Amigo five years ago, shares Sarah’s enjoyment of helping visitors.  “I enjoy interacting with the nursery patrons and telling them about OCF programs.” She is a gardener, and her enjoyment of the nursery extends to caring for its trees and shrubs. Sharon quips that she likes “digging in dirt,”  a pleasure not uncommon among OCF members, especially on the Lawn Busters team. She finds working outside therapeutic: “Being in nature and among trees calms one’s soul.”  She is a regular hiker of Bay Area trails, especially in the spring when wild flowers are prevalent in the meadows.

Sharon propagating grasses with former AmeriCorps Service Members in 2015.

Sharon propagating grasses with former AmeriCorps Service Members in 2015.

Judi, who completed the Tree Amigo class in 1994 and has volunteered at OCF intermittently ever since, also loves being outside among trees. When I see Judi at the nursery she almost always has a pair of pruners in one hand and cuttings in the other.

Judi Wilson watering trees recently potted at the Community Nursery during bare root season.

Judi Wilson watering trees recently potted at the Community Nursery during bare root season.

Judi recalls the early days of OCF when volunteers were urged to bring their own shovels to planting and the nursery was situated at small, temporary sites in Japantown, Watson Park, and Kelly Park. She speaks fondly of participating in the planting of 30 Chinese Pistache trees in 1995 at Guadalupe Park to create the AIDS Memorial Grove.  “Metal tags honoring AIDS victims were hung on the branches. Basketball players from Santa Clara University used their height to put the tags high in the trees.”

AIDS Memorial Grove Planting - 1995

AIDS Memorial Grove Planting - 1995

AIDS Memorial Grove - 2009

AIDS Memorial Grove - 2009

As one would expect, each of the women is a strong advocate of OCF’s mission. Carol, who began volunteering at OCF in 2001 is a Tree Amigo herself, and has lived in San Jose since it was called “the Garden City.” She sees OCF as restoring some of the city’s greenness that once was everywhere; the urban forest is “a way to combat the onslaught” of development in Silicon Valley.  Judi notes that OCF’s beautification of San Jose is not limited to planting street trees; it extends to parks, businesses, churches, and schools among other venues. She cautions that beauty is only one benefit of urban trees. She points out that OCF educates the public on the many ways in which trees are important: they help clean the air and are a habitat for birds and animals; they provide shade and psychological balm; they increase real property values.

Tree Amigo Carol Arnoldy working in the Greenhouse at the Community Nursery

Tree Amigo Carol Arnoldy working in the Greenhouse at the Community Nursery

Sarah remembers walking in her neighborhood with her husband several years ago and noting the absence of trees. “This isn’t right;” she said at the time. “We live in a parking lot!” Sarah accordingly launched a successful community tree planting in her neighborhood in fall of 2015.

Tree Amigo Sarah Viaggi is presented with a Thank You card by AmeriCorps Service Member Maggie after her successful neighborhood planting in 2015.

Tree Amigo Sarah Viaggi is presented with a Thank You card by AmeriCorps Service Member Maggie after her successful neighborhood planting in 2015.

Sharon, too, has brought OCF to where she lives: Lawn Busters converted her front lawn last fall, and she “now enjoys a drought-tolerant landscape.” In addition, she has two OCF trees planted in her yard - ‘Autumn Fantasy’ red maples.

Sharon, on the far left, re-took the Tree Amigo course last winter as a refresher to brush up on her OCF knowledge.

Sharon, on the far left, re-took the Tree Amigo course last winter as a refresher to brush up on her OCF knowledge.

With their belief in taking action, it’s fair to characterize the docents as activists, although certainly not with the negative connotations the word sometimes carries, such as quarrelsome and doctrinaire. They are gracious, friendly women who volunteer because they know personal initiative makes a big difference.

They know, too, that, passiveness--not doing anything--is the friend of parking lots.

Tree Amigos Judi and Carol_Plant Sale 2016.jpeg

Now it's your turn!

Our City Forest is always looking for more Judi’s, Carol’s, Sharon’s, or Sarah’s - locals who care and can dedicate time each week to helping us grow and reach the community! If you’re interested in becoming a Tree Amigo, start volunteering with OCF. Sign up for a community planting, volunteer at the nursery, help a lawn conversion project, join tree care on a watering route, or help us with some office work. Learn more at ourcityforest.org/volunteer or email volunteer@ourcityforest.org and let us know what you’re interested in doing.

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Our City Forest's Site Development Picks Up Steam at Martial Cottle Park

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Our City Forest's Site Development Picks Up Steam at Martial Cottle Park

Work on Our City Forest’s educational site at Martial Cottle County Park is gathering steam. Under the leadership of AmeriCorps member Kevin Nee, and with the help of community volunteers and other members of AmeriCorps, OCF is adding walking paths to the site as well as a demonstration of “lawn busting”-- an OCF service that converts traditional lawns to attractive, water-saving landscapes.

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The Remarkable Pat Pizzo

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The Remarkable Pat Pizzo

Patrick Pizzo is a man of many accomplishments. Pat created an acclaimed display of California native plants in his neighborhood that stretches for six-tenths of a mile. He continues to care for over 100 native oaks that he and his neighbors planted in 1994 with Our City Forest (OCF). He had a big role in restoring and improving Jeffrey Fontana and TJ Martin parks after Pacific Gas & Electric launched a campaign to cut down 140 trees. Pat is also a longtime Tree Amigo with OCF and a teacher--he is a retired professor of engineering materials at San José State University and presently a volunteer math tutor at Branham High School. If these accomplishments are not enough, Pat once received a Green Thumb Award from the Air Force for planting pumpkins at one of its bases.

Speaking with Pat about his many fascinating achievements.

Speaking with Pat about his many fascinating achievements.

Tim Fillpot, my fellow AmeriCorps Service Member and photographer, and I caught up with Pat near his home on Capitancillos Drive in Almaden. When we arrived, he was tending to his Native Plant Walk, a garden of shrubs native to California chaparral that he began planting in 2002 after retiring from SJSU. The garden follows the undeveloped side of Capitancillos across from his house. It is adjacent to a meadow that runs along the Guadalupe River and adds more color to the neighborhood with wild flowers. The garden showcases drought-resistant landscaping and provides gardeners with ideas for their own landscapes. As of March, 2009, the garden has some 110 different species, each neatly labeled.

Pat has added color and interest to the neighborhood with wild flowers, such as this fine example of Dendromecon harfordii (Island brush poppy).

Pat has added color and interest to the neighborhood with wild flowers, such as this fine example of Dendromecon harfordii (Island brush poppy).

As of March, 2009, the garden has some 110 different drought-tolerant, neatly-labeled species.

As of March, 2009, the garden has some 110 different drought-tolerant, neatly-labeled species.

The garden is placed among a line of 126 native oaks, mostly Quercus agrifolia, i.e.,California Live Oak. The trees were planted in 1994 by Oak Canyon residents in cooperation with Our City Forest, which, at that time, was in its first year of operation. Pat participated in the planting, but that was only the beginning of his involvement with the oaks, which has spanned almost 23 years. Since their planting he has watered the trees, pruned them (by his count six times since 1994 and most recently just a few months ago), painted their lower trunks to prevent bleaching, and planted replacements when some of the original trees didn’t survive. In 2003, his daughter purchased a large wagon at Orchard Supply Hardware for him to transport water more easily to the trees and shrubs. He recalls, “I crammed the wagon with jugs of water and pulled it down the street.”  A few years later, Pat and his neighbors began connecting long hoses, which they attached to homeowners’ faucets along the watering route. During the drought in 2014, they stopped watering entirely. “The oaks are drought-resistant natives,” Pat says, “and it was time for them to be on their own.” They are managing their own lives just fine.

126 native trees line Capitancillos Drive near Pat's home, planted by Oak Canyon residents in cooperation with Our City Forest.

126 native trees line Capitancillos Drive near Pat's home, planted by Oak Canyon residents in cooperation with Our City Forest.

Pat is a California native himself. He was born and raised in Willow Glen (on Norval Way to be exact) and attended Willow Glen High School before moving on to San José State and Stanford. His interest in gardening came early.  When he was six years old he crawled through the hedge on the border of his family’s home and and asked permission from his neighbor to start a vegetable garden. “My plot was about 12’ X 12’, and I shared what I grew with the people next door.”

Recalling that his father planted trees on land he owned at Alma and Minnesota that served as a “ranch,” Pat says that gardening “must run in my family’s blood.” His father used a planting technique that most would consider unorthodox today: he seated bare-rooted young trees in muddy ground. Pat thinks “the method is probably European in origin, maybe German or Polish.” However unusual it may seem now, the method worked: the trees his father planted in the ground can still be seen today.

Pat with one of the oak trees for which he has proudly cared for nearly 23 years.

Pat with one of the oak trees for which he has proudly cared for nearly 23 years.

Later, when Pat was an Air Force officer at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento County, his father gave him a generous supply of pumpkin seeds. The military seems like an unlikely place for a gardener to indulge his or her passion, much less win an award for it, but Pat was an exception. He planted the seeds everywhere on the base: outside the chapel and PX, by the commanding general’s quarters, and along the runways. They grew famously, and the Air Force gave Pat a Green Thumb Award.

Thanks to Pat's efforts, many trees were saved and restored at the Jeffrey Fontana and TJ Martin Parks.

Thanks to Pat's efforts, many trees were saved and restored at the Jeffrey Fontana and TJ Martin Parks.

In 2010 PG&E began cutting down trees earmarked for removal at Jeffrey Fontana and TJ Martin parks. High voltage power lines run the 1.2 mile length of the parks, and PG&E had tired of pruning trees that eventually would grow into them. Residents in the area were outraged at the loss and responded by forming the Martin-Fontana Association for which Pat chaired the important Restoration and Improvement Committee. The upshot of the Association’s work was that it saved some of the threatened trees and partnered with Our City Forest in a succession of plantings to replace ones that had been lost. Dozens of native shrubs were planted as well, and PG&E even raised the height of its power lines to accommodate the new trees.

No doubt there are other instances in which Pat was an energetic advocate for the urban forest and open space (one is his opposition in 2008 to the commercial development of the San José Fairground site, which he feared would result in “an economically-challenged Santana Row”).  An infomercial host, in presenting the highlights of Pat’s work in the community, inevitably would say, “But wait! There’s more!”

And there is: Pat, as noted earlier, is a volunteer tutor at Branham High School. He also is the steward of 27 trees, half of which are Quercus douglasii (Blue oak), that Our City Forest helped plant in January 2016 along the fence by Branham High’s football field. Until the rains began last month, an OCF truck hauling the 500 gallon “Buffalo” came to BHS every other Friday.  Pat and a group of eight or ten students would meet the truck and draw water into five gallon buckets from the Buffalo. Each young tree then received its biweekly ration of three buckets.

Quercus douglasii overlooking the track and football field Branham High School.

Quercus douglasii overlooking the track and football field Branham High School.

One of the Branham High School students working with Pat to water trees near the football field.

One of the Branham High School students working with Pat to water trees near the football field.

I remarked to Pat how impressed I was with the students; they carry out their watering duties efficiently and earnestly.  He replied, “Yes! They make me feel good about our future.”

Photography by Timothy Fillpot

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Alviso

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Alviso

Once a town in its own right and a steamship port that served San José when it was the capital of California, Alviso is now a community in San Jose of about 2,000 people.  Alviso is overlooked by residents of the South Bay because of its location -- a pocket nestled against the southern end of San Francisco Bay without a major arterial passing through it.  Another reason it may go unnoticed is that Alviso has avoided the development that is endemic to neighboring cities. That is to say, restaurants, hotels, condos, and tech companies sprout up around Alviso rather than in it.

However, if people took the time to turn off CA-237, and drive towards the Bay on either Gold Street or North First, they would find a historical community that is a pleasant change from the wholesale impatience that increasingly characterizes Silicon Valley.  Alviso is dotted with historical markers that identify its old buildings, such as the Bayside Cannery (‘the third largest cannery in the United States by 1931”), the Union Warehouse and Docks, and the South Bay Yacht Club, which dates back to 1888.  Lifelong resident José Ruiz puts it this way: “Alviso is calm and tranquil, yet lively.” He talks of the immediacy of nature in Alviso; the marshlands by the town are a major stop on the Pacific Flyway that brings large numbers of birds, and residents go to bed at night soothed by winds blowing off the Bay. Days in Alviso can have a festive vibe--José says he often hears banda and cumbia music.

Alviso also is an important ecological junction. The South Bay’s two largest rivers, the Guadalupe River and Coyote Creek, both flow into the Bay at Alviso. The Guadalupe River drains Almaden County Park and the Sierra Azul in the vicinity of Mt. Umunhum; Coyote Creek, which flows through the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern edge of Alviso, drains the foothills of the Diablo Range enroute to the Bay. Residents have endured flooding from both rivers to devastating effect: Alviso ls on a floodplain that is 12 feet below sea level.  Yet, it is the tidal marshland and bay that are more characteristic of the town than its rivers.

Diane R. Conradson, Ph.D. in Exploring our Baylands writes of the marshlands’ open space that borders Silicon Valley, but that it is not fully appreciated by its residents, “The salt marshes are a low and monotonous wasteland to many people. But nowhere else in the Bay Area is one able to see and feel so much space and solitude as in the vast stretches of marshlands.” This is especially true of Alviso, which is on the edge of immense space that is inhabited only by birds and native small animals. José points out that this vastness and the community’s distance from urban development, means less light pollution for Alviso than in neighboring cities and a darker sky with more visible stars. Noise pollution is minimal, too. The one exception is the Union Pacific Railroad whose tracks bisect the community on a levee facing the Bay.

Unfortunately, when land is viewed as a wasteland it is treated as such, particularly when it is a convenient backyard inhabited by no one. The east side of the Peninsula, from the South Bay to the Brisbane lagoon, long has been home to a string of municipal garbage dumps.  Remediation is ongoing.  At the same time Cargill, the privately held agricultural behemoth, created evaporation ponds for the harvest of salt by erecting dikes in the Bay.  For years Cargill's processing plant in Newark has maintained a white mountain of salt that is visible to hikers on Bay trails across the water and commuters on the Dumbarton Bridge.

The nadir of San Francisco Bay in terms of pollution, garbage, and eradication of tidal wetlands for commercial development, happened in the 1960’s.  Since that time, the Bay’s water quality has improved greatly, old-style landfills have closed, and wetlands are being protected.  Most importantly, what once was considered a wasteland is now valued.  A case in point is the public purchase in 2003 of most of Cargill’s property along the Bay. Led by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the deal secured 25 square-miles of wetland habitat for restoration.

Which brings us back to Alviso.  Alviso is one of three areas that is being restored under the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project (the other two are Ravenswood in Menlo Park and Eden Landing in Hayward). The largest area is Alviso. To date, 2,600 acres of salt ponds outside of Alviso have been connected to create tidal marshland along with the establishment of 240 acres of shallow pond habitat and 12 nesting islands.  More is to come, including additional flood protection for Mountain View and Alviso. The restoration of marshland itself affords some protection from flooding caused by storms and higher, climate change-induced Bay waters; the marsh acts like a sponge and absorbs water.

Diane Conradson’s comment on people dismissing a place because it isn’t sufficiently showy or entertaining is pertinent to Alviso.  It has history, quiet, stars, wildlife, and an immense landscape adjacent to it.  Even so, José, the lifelong resident of Alviso, says that “Alviso is more than just a nature area or a place to get away from city life. It is a home and peaceful community.”

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Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Lives of Trees

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Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Lives of Trees

The essential idea in the book is that the forest is a community of trees whose members care for one another rather than compete for water and canopy space.  Wohlleben states his case early on: “A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old.”

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23 of Our Trees Were Cut Down: What Now?

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23 of Our Trees Were Cut Down: What Now?

We lost 23 trees last week. They were saplings, planted only months ago. They were yew pines, chinese fringes. Their holes were dug by more than one hundred volunteers and led by AmeriCorps members. They were bought with money provided by San Jose, by Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio. They were grown in our nursery, tended to by our volunteers, by school groups and dedicated AmeriCorps members. These trees took time, effort and cooperation to raise. They took money, community investment and muscle to put into the ground. They took dedication to tend on our weekly watering runs. In a way, these trees were representations of us, as a community. If they had been allowed to continue growing they would have provided shade, flowers and air-cleaning to a hot and busy street. 

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Valley Carpenter Bees: Big, Beautiful Thieves

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Valley Carpenter Bees: Big, Beautiful Thieves

Imagine that you’re a honey bee (Apis spp.) that has left your hive in search of nectar. After a short flight, you have found it: a beautiful sage flower, full of sweet nectar. You zero in on your flower. A deep buzz comes from your right. You see a black object twice your size fly right by and land on the flower you had set your simple-heart-tube on. That object was your distant cousin, a female Valley Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa varipuncta) and your cousin is very important to the pollination of native plants. 

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Why is Everything Named Humboldt?

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Why is Everything Named Humboldt?

What’s the first thing you think of when I say Humboldt? If you’re from California you could be thinking of the countycollegebayfortstate park or wildlife refuge. If you’re from Nevada you might think of the river, the national forestwildlife areasinksaltmarshlake, mountain rangescounty or creepy ghost townDewy-Humboldt in Arizona, Humboldt IllinoisHumboldt KansasHumboldt IowaHumboldt OhioHumboldt WisconsinHumboldt Saskatchewan, it’s hard to escape Humboldt. Humboldt is everywhere. The Humboldt name graces multiple mountains and mountain ranges, forestsnational parkswaterfallsglaciersan ocean current. and a giant sinkhole Animals and plants including, penguins, squid, bat, monkey(s), skunk, snail, an entire genus of flowering plants, legumes, endangered cactus, a beetle, river dolphins, a carnivorous plant, oak, orchid, lily and mushroom all bear his name. Humboldt is in outer space, the Mare Humboldt on the moon and two asteroids bear the name. That doesn’t even touch the organizationsinstitutions, monuments and other random things that are all called Humboldt.

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