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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
Photography by Timothy Fillpot
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.”
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.
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.
What’s the first thing you think of when I say Humboldt? If you’re from California you could be thinking of the county, college, bay, fort, state park or wildlife refuge. If you’re from Nevada you might think of the river, the national forest, wildlife area, sink, saltmarsh, lake, mountain ranges, county or creepy ghost town. Dewy-Humboldt in Arizona, Humboldt Illinois, Humboldt Kansas, Humboldt Iowa, Humboldt Ohio, Humboldt Wisconsin, Humboldt Saskatchewan, it’s hard to escape Humboldt. Humboldt is everywhere. The Humboldt name graces multiple mountains and mountain ranges, forests, national parks, waterfalls, glaciers, an 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 organizations, institutions, monuments and other random things that are all called Humboldt.
The orchid family, Orchidaceae is enormous, containing 28,000 species. That’s just slightly more species than the population of Monterey, California. The species count does not include the 100,000 or so cultivars that have been bred by humans. California has only 31 native orchids (most of them live in the tropics). I didn’t realize that I had seen my first one.
A field of tomatoes wilts. A stand of tanoak trees dies. A forest of bay laurels and manzanita withers. An orchard of citrus yellows and decays. A wildland restoration project crumbles into dust. Potatoes turn rancid and spongy. These are the calling cards of Phytophthora, the destroyers of plants
Five feet tall, and half a foot wide, a white flower with bright gold stamens in the center, loomed over the nursery path. Since moving from Michigan four months ago, I had yet to see a plant that really blew me away.