Your Community Parks, Open Spaces, and Gardens Need You

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Picture a place in your community that you visit regularly to relax, walk, play, picnic, or just enjoy being outdoors. Have you ever helped take care of it?

If you answered yes, thank you.

For those of you who answered no (not yet), you are in luck because opportunities abound to do your part in keeping the outdoor spaces in your community beautiful, functional, fun, clean, and safe.

It is easy to talk yourself into believing that someone else will do it, especially when you are feeling overly busy and stressed out (or even when you are not). However, the reality is that public outdoor spaces are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Chances are that the hardworking employees and loyal cadres of volunteers who tend your community parks, gardens, and open spaces would appreciate your help.

Imagine the possibilities if you, me, and everyone else contributed even just one morning or afternoon a year to help care for an outdoor space that we feel is special. The number of trees planted, native plants rescued, playgrounds rehabilitated, walking trails maintained, picnic tables refurbished, weeds pulled, and pieces of litter picked up would be astonishing and wonderful.

Besides the obvious benefits to the community, these kinds of activities are good for your wellbeing, too. They require you to be present and to think about what you are doing not worry about micromanaging bosses, piles of laundry, or bickering family members. Working outside with other like-minded people is fun and gives you a feeling of doing something worthwhile.

Sometimes volunteer activities occur unexpectedly or by chance and turn out to be just the impetus you need to get started. That is what happened to me.

Something Happened on the Way to the Wildflower Show

A few weeks ago, I saw a notice in a newsletter from an environmental nonprofit called ECOSLO with a list of several volunteer opportunities for an event they were calling Seas to Trees Day. After consulting with my spouse, I signed us up in hopes that we would be helping with set up for the Cambria Wildflower Show.

Several days later, I received an enthusiastic email from Erin thanking me for signing up to remove invasive ice plant on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. I thought, “Oh no, not ice plant! I have been battling ice plant in our yard for years. Why would I want to volunteer to do it someplace else?” I considered asking for a reassignment or just telling Erin that we had changed our minds about volunteering.

The next day, I was still pondering what to do. “Hmm, we do enjoy walking on Fiscalini Ranch almost every day. This unwanted assignment provides an excellent opportunity for us to give back in a small way.”

We decided to do it.

Before I tell you how the day went, some background about ice plant and the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve might be useful.

Ice Plant

Ice plant is a hardy and fast-growing plant with long-lasting flowers that are quite lovely when it is growing along its native coast in South Africa. It is an unwelcome interloper where I live on the Central California Coast and many other places. Ice plant spreads quickly and has a way of taking over an entire area hogging all the sunlight, water, and soil nutrients for itself. Ice plant chokes out the native plants that are used to playing nicely with their neighbors and do not have a defense against this invader.

When my spouse and I moved to our current home about ten years ago, there were several places in our wild yard that ice plant had completely taken over by stealthily crawling over from neighboring yards. It took me several years with a shovel and a pair of loppers to remove the ice plant from our yard. I have tried explaining to the plants that they should avoid our yard because as soon as they reach over the property line I am going to cut off their new growth, but apparently, we are having a language barrier because they will not stop trying to build a new outpost in our yard.

Our ice plant situation seems insignificant to the enormous incursion at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

The Fiscalini Ranch Preserve encompasses 437 acres in the midst of our small town with trails along the ocean bluffs and through our precious Monterey pine forest. This special place exists because a dedicated group of people worked for years to block development on this land that had been used partly for grazing sheep and cattle. Eventually, they raised enough money to purchase the land and protect it forever.

As I mentioned earlier, my spouse and I walk on the Ranch many times a week, mostly on the bluff trail. During the two-mile round trip, we look for whale spouts, otters, and sea lions, watch a wide variety of local and migratory birds soar and swoop overhead, and observe the landscape as it changes throughout the year.

At some time in the distant past, someone must have planted ice plant on the Ranch. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, however, it has now spread down over a huge swath of the bluff cliffs and it is continually marching towards the nearby path. In some places, native plants are struggling to survive in the middle of large patches of ice plant or taking a stand along the edges. In other areas, the ice plant has completely taken over.

The nonprofit Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and other diligent volunteers have been successful at keeping the ice plant from crossing the path and moving onto the rest of the Ranch. They have also embarked on a massive and probably decades-long project to clear the ice plant growing between the path and the cliff edge. Native plants are making a comeback in the cleared areas.

Occasionally I have had a fleeting thought that I should help with the ice plant removal on the Ranch but I never actually did it, until the Seas and Trees Day event.

Seas and Trees Day Event

When Saturday, April 28 rolled around, I slathered on sunscreen and donned my California Native Plant Society t-shirt and a pair of gauntlet type gloves that I always wear to do yard work because I do not like creepy crawlies. I filled up my reusable water bottle and grabbed a pair of clippers my spouse had thoughtfully gotten out of the garage.

A group of cheerful people including several Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students greeted us at the designated meeting location. After signing waiver forms, we headed down the path a short distance to the day’s ice plant removal spot. Holly, who manages projects on the Ranch, gave us a plastic tarp and explained that the mission was to get rid of the ice plant without damaging the native plants. Clearly, this was going to be a finesse job that did not involve shovels or loppers—a new experience for me.

Ice plant stems are about the thickness of a highlighter marker and attach themselves to the ground with tenacious roots every few inches. Every part of the plant stores water so it is heavy. If you are lucky, you can grab a trailing end and pull up a piece that is three or four feet long. However, most of the work that day required using clippers to cut stems around the native plants and then pull up small pieces. I was surprised at how many itty-bitty native plant seedlings were gamely trying to make a go of it under the ice plant. Freed from a dense and almost impenetrable mat of ice plant they now have a better chance of becoming adult plants.

We tossed pieces of ice plant on the tarp until it looked like it might be getting too heavy to move. Then two people picked up the corners and carefully tried to tiptoe through the native plants and dump it onto one of two piles we were creating at the edge of the cliff. Holly and other regular volunteers had their own one-person sized tarps.

Bending over clipping ice plants stems, standing up and yanking out longer pieces, and hauling a tarp full of ice plant is physically demanding so I was ready to be done when our 2-hour stint was up.

Our work made a tiny dent in the ice plant, but we did meet some delightful people and made a small contribution to the wellbeing of the Ranch. I also gained a greater appreciation for the people who take care of the Ranch day after day, week after week.

Part of the Volunteer Group in Front of One of the Piles of Ice Plant Removed at Fiscalini Ranch on April 28, 2018
Part of the Volunteer Group in Front of One of the Piles of Ice Plant Removed at Fiscalini Ranch on April 28, 2018 – Photo Credit Holly Sletteland (also the 3 above photos)

An hour or so later, wearing the same clothes, my spouse and I enjoyed the wildflower show and I savored a delicious homemade lemon bar I bought at the refreshment stand.

Holly has my name and email address now, so chances are, on some future morning, my spouse and I will find ourselves standing in the midst of another patch of ice plant on the Ranch with clippers at the ready.

Call to Action

Certainly, if an unexpected volunteer opportunity falls in your lap, accept it. However, you can take a more active approach. Choose a garden, park, or open space in your community and find out what volunteer activities are available. Then pick one and do it.

If you do not want to or are not able to contribute your physical labor, there are sure to be other ways you can help.

Do you have an artistic flair? Volunteer to design a flyer for a volunteer day. Are you good at organizing information? Offer to keep track of volunteer responses and forms. Do you know your way around social media? Volunteer to do postings and engage with people on social media. Do you like writing? Offer to write a piece for a website, newsletter, or newspaper. Do you enjoy meeting and talking with new people? Sign up to be a docent or to staff a booth at an event.

Everyone has something to offer and it is up to each one of us to do our part to take care of the community parks, open spaces, and gardens we love.

Featured Image at Top: Bluff Trail at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA, May 2018 (notice the ice plant on the left side of the trail) – Photo Credit Green Groundswell.

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Thanksgiving – We are All Connected

On Thanksgiving step outside and share your gratitude.

This Thanksgiving I am mindful that people are part of nature not separate from it. Everything on Earth is worthy of our reverence and gratitude.

A few weeks ago, after an inspirational morning at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden in California, I knew that I wanted to write about the interconnectedness of nature (yes that includes people) for my Thanksgiving post this year.

It all began with a bowl of oatmeal.

But, before we get to the oatmeal, a bit of background may be useful.

My home is on the California Central Coast in the midst of one of the few remaining swaths of Monterey pine forest. Before we bought our home, the mostly wild yard had been untended for years so invasive plants had been encroaching unimpeded and some plants that had been purposefully planted had gotten out of control. Somehow, I got the possibly ridiculous and crazy idea in my head that we could restore our tiny piece of land and then it could encourage the neighboring land to go native.

With limited knowledge, a shovel and some clippers I set about removing the few invasive plants that I could identify. The flip side of invasive plants is native plants, which I am trying to learn about so we can encourage natives growing in our yard and plant others.

So, when I read about an upcoming event called the Chumash Kitchen at the botanical garden, I signed up my spouse and me. We were excited to have an opportunity to learn about native plants from two Chumash women (Jeanette and Violet) who are descendants of the people who have been living on the California Central Coast for thousands of years and we were looking forward to tasting some dishes made from locally foraged and harvested foods.

The Chumash Kitchen

The day was warm with just a slight chill and the skies were cloudy and gray.

We arrived just in time for breakfast. I was somewhat dismayed to find that breakfast was oatmeal (I think it had ground acorns, too) because I seriously dislike oatmeal and have since I was a little kid. Not to be deterred from fully participating, I ladled a small portion into my bowl and topped it with several heaping spoonfuls of cut up local apple pieces. I was thankful to see there was coffee and poured myself a mug.

Group Photo Beneath Ancient Oak Tree in El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo, CA
Group Photo Beneath an Ancient Oak Tree in El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

After breakfast, the group headed out for a hike up to a sacred Chumash site. Along the way, one of the young participants introduced us to an oak tree that she and others had gathered acorns under two days before. At a magnificent and ancient oak tree, we stopped to admire its beauty and sense of history and to pose for a group photo.

Sacred Grinding Stones

A short uphill hike brought us to a small open area with huge boulders embedded in the ground. Scattered across the boulders were round indentations that had been created by the Chumash people who had been grinding acorns here for thousands of years. This is a sacred site for the Chumash people who live here now and we were asked not to take photos of the stones.

By now, we were all warmed up and feeling fortunate that the cloudy sky was keeping the sun from beating down on our heads.

Jeanette began speaking of thankfulness and history and telling stories in a quiet and melodious voice. I remember her looking up at the cloudy sky, smiling, and saying, “The Mother is smiling on us this morning.” or something very close to that. What a delightful way of expressing gratitude for clouds.

View Looking Away from Sacred Chumash Grinding Stones near Eagle Rock Nature Trail in San Luis Obispo, CA
View Looking Away from the Sacred Chumash Grinding Stones near Eagle Rock Nature Trail in San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

While Jeanette was speaking, Violet circumnavigated the group carrying a smoldering bunch of white sage. She paused at each person and using her hand wafted the smoke over us. This simple act seemed to connect us all even though many of us did not know each other. I came away with the understanding that white sage is honored for its healing qualities and is used for blessing people.

Before making our way back down the hill, we were each given the opportunity to make an offering by placing a small pinch of tobacco leaves into one of the grinding holes and saying a prayer (out loud if we wanted to). My prayer (said silently) was that my children and everyone else’s children would have a habitable planet to live on in years to come.

Oak Trees and Acorns

Back at the garden event center, while Violet and a small contingent of volunteers were preparing lunch in the kitchen, we learned about the history of oak trees over thousands of years and Jeanette entertained us with stories.

Acorns were and still are an important food for Chumash people. We learned from Jeanette that some acorns are always left under the oak trees for those who do not speak. She referred to people, plants, trees, and animals as her kin. Hearing her speak with such respect and reverence for every living thing struck a chord in me. It feels right.

San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden Volunteers Preparing Acorns
Volunteers of All Ages Preparing Acorns for the Meals to be Served at the Chumash Kitchen Event – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
A Locally Foraged and Harvested Lunch

Before the lunch meal was served, Violet described the locally foraged and harvested ingredients and how they were prepared. I admit that once the mouth-watering plate of food was placed in front of me, I could not remember everything that had gone into making it.

I do remember a few things like the silky feel of the acorn gravy that had been ladled over a stuffed and roasted acorn squash. The Manzanita vinaigrette was tart and fragrant. Who knew you could make salad dressing from a Manzanita plant? The sautéed greens looking suspiciously like kale were tasty with a sort of acidic twang. I think ancient Chumash people probably did not have ice cream, but it was delicious melting on top of an apple crumble made with local apples and garnished with acorn dust.

The gathering ended with a traveling song. Feeling replete and uplifted we headed home.

Thanksgiving Gratitude

The reverence and gratitude that Violet and Jeanette had expressed for, well, everything stayed with me. So did the way they had spoken of the non-human members of nature as their kin and neighbors.

I frequently talk to trees, houseplants, and the variety of animals wandering and flying through our yard. However, I do not think I was conversing with them as peers, neighbors, or potential allies.

During the week following the event, I knew that something had shifted in my relationship with nature when I found myself apologizing to the ice plant that I was removing from my yard because it was choking out everything else. Another day, when a big buck deer wandered into the yard while I was working, I politely asked him if he would come back later. As he sauntered away, I could almost hear him thinking, “I was just passing through anyway.” When I noticed that somebody was living beneath and chewing on the roots of our lion’s tail plant, I suggested to the unseen neighbor that we try to work things out (the jury is still out on that one).

Although I do not fully understand how the diversity of life on Earth makes Earth, well, Earth, I do believe that everything connects somehow. People do not have dominion over nature we are part of it.

This year, I propose that we enlarge our gratitude circle beyond the family and friends gathered around our Thanksgiving tables to the whole of nature.

On Thanksgiving, take the opportunity to step outside for a few minutes or a long time and give thanks to a tree, a bird, a spider, a flower, a lake, a plant, or a mountain. How do you give thanks to a tree? It is up to you. Perhaps with a gentle hug, a prayer, a gift of water, listening, or just saying thank you. You get the idea.

“I see a world in the future in which we understand that all life is related to us and we treat that life with great humility and respect.” – David Suzuki

Happy Thanksgiving!

Featured Image at Top: Give Thanks in Block Letters with Fall Leaves, Acorns, and Pine Cones – Photo Credit iStock/jenifoto

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