FIRST WALKABOUTS: A Window and a Marsh (December 19, 2023)
Now that visual impairment is prohibiting my driving, I’m deliberately transitioning to pedestrian explorations. Moving slower, covering less ground, but looking more, noticing more and garnering small enjoyments. I’ve already identified a dozen intriguing destinations to visit, a short hike from our retirement community’s front gate. Others will require Nancy’s transport and companionship to reach more remote, walkable sites. Apart from the pleasures of discovery, the physical-exercise benefits should be immediate.
I’m calling these excursions “Walkabouts,” with a nod to the transitional treks of Australian aborigines. Teen males in that culture traditionally embarked on solo survival hikes through the arid Outback, marking their graduation from adolescence to adulthood. Early in my own adulthood, I was deeply moved by Nicolas Roeg’s dramatization of a cross-cultural encounter interrupting one such rite of passage. [Walkabout (1971).] Now Agile Aging invites me to undertake a senior adjustment and adaptation, converting new constraints to opportunities.
My plan is to set off on a series of occasional Walkabout rambles, inserting their write-ups into the continuing stream of regular blog posts. Here’s an initial pair. Let me know what you think. firstname.lastname@example.org
A WINDOW ON THE HOOD
A mile’s walk to the east of our retirement community, Roberts Market is a cherished local institution. Originally established as a San Francisco butcher shop in 1889, Roberts is still owned and operated by the third and fourth generations of the same family. This store and its equally prospering twin in nearby Woodside employ a combined staff of 130. Both outlets could be accurately described as gourmet neighborhood groceries. But the proprietors deliberately avoid the “gourmet” label, preferring to maintain an old-fashioned, welcoming atmosphere. Nancy and I shop at the Portola Valley branch at least once a week, particularly appreciating their organic, locally sourced, fresh produce.
On a recent visit, my eye was caught by the large (3’x5’) bulletin board attached to the market’s front wall. I’d probably walked by this display a hundred times without paying it any attention. But when I paused for a closer look, it occurred to me that this patchwork of pinned notices offered a surprisingly revealing window onto our community and its culture.
Portola Valley is a curious but cordial mélange of occupations, lifestyles and age groups. Demographically very upscale but not ostentatious or snooty. Its 4,000 residents include old ranching families, super-rich owners of secluded estates, canyon-clinging artists and artisans, Stanford University faculty, and young couples with children, attracted by the town’s excellent (public and private) schools. The attractive wooded town stretches across the eastern foothills just below the coastal Santa Cruz Mountains. Its best-known geographical features are the 1,400-acre Windy Hill Open Space Preserve and the earthquake-prone San Andreas Fault. Economically, Portola Valley is definitely a privileged enclave. Residents’ median income is $235,000/year (compared with $38,000 for California statewide.) The community atmosphere is laid-back and quirky, but there are lots of Teslas in the parking lots.
Intrigued by the posted messages, I began looking for patterns. One obvious first impression was that this was a DIY collage. Made at home with loving hands. Several typed texts, some with tear-off phone-number strips, even a few hand-written notes. There were a half-dozen photos but no sophisticated graphics or professionally produced ads.
Here’s a representative sample of messages that I jotted down in my notebook. To give you tone as well as content, I’ve reproduced them verbatim, omitting only names and contact details:
- House-sitting and creature care. References on request. [An accompanying photo showed a show-worthy, satisfied cat.]
- Jin Shin Jiutsu. A subtle, ancient healing art. Requires no disrobing or oil.
- Ceramic Art: December Open Studio Sale. Featuring latest new textures: “Gingko” and “Scallop.” Sorry: because of stairs, studio may not be accessible to those with disabilities
- HOLIDAY FLORAL SWAG WORKSHOP. For your table or mantle. Looks attractive, smells diviner! 90-minute session. $65 ticket.
- PENINSULA RENOVATION. Home renovations and remodels
- 2021 Giant ATX 26” Hybrid Bike. $400 (Retail $577.) Original owner. Receipt available on request. Only ridden 6 times. Vibrant blue!
- TRAPPING & REMOVAL OF NUISANCE ANIMALS. We specialize in live catch of foxes, bobcats, raccoons, skunks, opossums, rabbits, squirrels, gophers, moles and rats. Our methods: no poisons. Disposal of animal carcuss included.
- RED BARN EQUESTRIAN CENTER. We’re hiring grooms! $24-25/hour. Spanish speakers are welcome to apply.
- UKRANIAN CHRISTMAS IN WOODSIDE. Food. Arts. Crafts. Performances. Workshops. Exhibitions.
- THROW ME A BONE. Where your dog is family. Est. 2010
- ANIMAL PORTRAITS IN OILS. [An engraved business card featuring elegant portraits of a German Shepherd and a Thoroughbred.]
- WINDOW WASHING. Residential. No streaks guaranteed! Free estimates.
- CHILDREN’S TUTOR. 1-on-1 tutoring with Professional Tutor. Credentialed teacher with 20+ years’ experience. Toddler to 5th Kindergarten readiness skills. Intervention and enrichment in reading/writing/math.
- DECLUTTERED HOME, DECLUTTERED MIND! Order over chaos in your home or office. Free virtual or in-person quote.
- A DREAM TO HAUL. [Adjacent photo of a long, sparkling horse trailer and pickup.] 2005 Sundowner 2-horse Straight load. Gooseneck with electric lift. Extra tall, extra wide with Ramp. Large dressing area. $13,000.
- 1-on-1 Training. (Also couples and groups.) Self-defense. Boxing Combos. Strand-pulling. Kettlebell. Box Squats. Bodyweight training, yoga, meditation, healthy weight loss.
The range of subjects and services was both generic and distinctive. You’d expect to find ads for pet-sitting, home improvements, fitness training, holiday-craft workshops and fairs in any American community. Uncluttering seems to be a national preoccupation, especially since consumers typically accumulate so many possessions that they have to rent self-storage space.
On the other hand, while keeping working horses is a common practice in rural areas, multiple equestrian ads in a suburb like ours is a clear confirmation of prosperity. True to form, corrals and horse-riding trails can be found on virtually all Portola Valley roads and residential streets. The extensive list of nuisance animals subject to trapping was also distinctive: a reminder that our community directly abuts extensive wildlife habitats. We’re very much a border settlement.
The Jin Shin ad had an exotic Oriental allure. And the one-stop-shopping fitness studio’s menu spanning boxing to meditation made me wonder if business was bad or good. I must say I was intrigued by the cat photo accompanying the “creature care” ad. The well-fed feline had two forepaws resting contentedly on an empty birdhouse. Could catered snacks be included in the upscale bill-of-fare? More seriously and poignantly, was the Ukrainian festival a traditional immigrant celebration or a fund-raising appeal linked to the devastating invasion back home?
I was struck by the ads’ language as much as their subjects. In a small town like Portola Valley, paying careful attention to nuance and sensitivities helps preserve cordial cohabitation. I suspected, for example, that the Asian healing art’s references to “no disrobing or oils” might be a reassuring signal that no suspect massage parlor had intruded. (Donning my matchmaking hat, should I introduce the non-streaking window-washer to the fully clothed healer?)
Another suggestive reference was the equestrian center’s encouragement for “Spanish speakers” to apply. This sounded not so much like political correctness as a tacit signal that here was an equal-opportunity employer.
The vocabulary of the trapping ad seemed almost diplomatic in its restrained ambiguity. On first reading, I interpreted “live catch,” “no poisons,” and “removal” to signal a catch-and-release service. Then, “disposal of animal carcuss” (even with colloquial spelling) left little doubt this was definitely an extermination service. No lethal toxins would be employed, but the live-caught critters would not long remain breathing. Which begged the question, what poison-free killing technology would be utilized?
The marketing notices were laced with promotional nudges. “Est. 2010” in the dog-sitting notice was a marker that these kennel-keepers were no novices. The horse-trailer ad didn’t even identify its product as a trailer, but spared no pains listing technical features. This was clearly a notice for knowledgeable buyers. Meanwhile, the bike-for-sale ad charmed me with its combination of earnest transparency and buyer’s remorse. “Original owner,” and “receipt available” signaled full disclosure. “Only ridden 6 times” reminded me of a fitness-club membership purchased as a New Year’s resolution, only to realize it wasn’t a sustainable passion.
The text of the Children’s Tutor ad was carefully crafted to appeal to community values. I knew I was showing my age when I gasped at tutoring services “for toddlers.” And I winced only half in jest when reading of training in “kindergarten readiness skills.” (I flashed on my mom dropping me off at Mrs. Stadtmiller’s kindergarten. Ready or not, once out of the car, I was on my own at age five. I still remember being forced by the stern proprietress to go nap-less, confined to the back-yard lunch table until I ate my peas. Don’t remember who won that battle of wills. But I still resisted peas for decades.) “Intervention” and “enrichment” were coded euphemisms. I inferred they might refer to tutoring for slow learners and fast. I’m aware that privileged parents across America are starting early to give their kids a competitive edge. Here was one more reminder that even our laid-back community feels the pressure of this disheartening rat-race.
I came away from this bulletin board’s quaint informality appreciating its content and voices. Wondering how the host market was enforcing board discipline, I asked a friendly grocery clerk about ground rules:
“There aren’t any.”
“No registration or sign-up sheet?”
“Not at all.”
“No posting fee?”
“Notice size limits or maximum-time limits?”
“What about prohibitions of obscene or controversial messages?”
“It’s never come up. Why would anyone use bad language? It’s THEIR board!”
I was equally curious about how well the board was doing its job: attracting customers for the advertised goods and services. I reached out by phone to a half-dozen notice submitters. One vendor’s feedback seemed to capture the spirit of the entire display: “I’m an old-fashioned guy. No high-tech marketing. All my customers come from the bulletin board and word-of-mouth. I probably could do more advertising. I’m sure I could. But I’ve got all the business I can handle.” Another glimpse of local values preserved within the paper collage.
It’s always a delight to discover a fresh invitation for walking. Palo Alto is Portola Valley’s eastern neighbor. An intellectual boomtown, it hosts Stanford University and dozens of high-tech innovators. Embarcadero Road is a local artery. From its western terminus at the edge of the university campus, the road runs due east through commercial and residential neighborhoods, jumps over US101and continues past anonymous Silicon Valley facades before ending at a visually striking border. Behind lies bustling urban development. Ahead, spare and sprawling waterfront emptiness.
The Baylands Nature Preserve is a 1,900-acre (three square-mile) expanse, the largest tract of undisturbed marshland remaining in the South San Francisco Bay. Its unique mixture of tidal and fresh-water habitats attracts substantial varieties and numbers of migratory and resident wildfowl. Fans consider this shoreline one of the best bird-watching areas on the entire Pacific Coast.
What most struck me about this ecologically significant sanctuary, in addition to its survival, was its lack of distinguishing features. In marked contrast to National and State Parks across California, there were no visually dramatic features, no peaks, canyons, cascades or redwoods. And almost no structures. The only ranger station was a small, aging cottage, closed to the public. A lidded box on its fence protected a thin stack of faded brochures.
The Nature Interpretive Center was more substantial but equally deserted. I wondered if COVID and budget cuts had scaled back the posted hours. On a winter weekday morning, I counted only 17 parked cars dispersed among three trail-head lots. Nancy and I encountered five other visitors in our two hours of picnicking and rambling.
It took me some time but I soon adjusted to this “neglect” and isolation. First regretting the lack of staffing and services, I came to marvel at the very existence of this “unimproved” open space. The muted gray-blue palette and level landscape began asserting a Zen appeal – an invitation to walking meditation.
Best by far were the inviting boardwalks. Stark wooden causeways extended for what seemed like miles across the marshes. Although anchored in mudflats, their elevated straightaways gave the impression of walking on water. Wooden benches at junctions offered welcome resting spots and observation vistas. (Carefully designed railings left Plexiglas gaps to peer through from a seated position.) There was thankfully little litter among the reeds. Tidal ripples gained momentum as we watched. Few birds were in evidence at mid-day. But I began to appreciate gradations in gray skies and shallows. Bright white mounds on the distant East-Bay shore were stockpiles of commercially evaporated sea-salt. It was quiet, cool and breezy. Even the occasional airliner landing at San Francisco Airport to the north, or a small plane taking off from nearby Palo Alto Airport didn’t shatter the prevailing calm. A soothing, restorative and uneventful getaway.
This initial walkabout was enriched by a dip into historical sources. To my surprise and embarrassment, what I’d taken for pristine preservation was in fact a hard-fought restoration.
“Embarcadero” in Spanish means “port” or “dock.” In the late 19th Century, this road ended at what was then the water’s edge, in the vicinity of today’s US101. A bustling marine transport hub serviced passengers and freight bound to and from San Francisco. Redwoods felled in the Santa Cruz Mountains and milled in the foothills were hauled to the port for transshipment to San Francisco’s construction boom.
The Baylands’ second developmental surge was launched in 1930 when Palo Alto City Engineer J.F. Byxbee promoted adding and reclaiming land for an ambitious recreation area. Soon the constructed features included a giant salt-water swimming pool, yacht harbor and clubhouse, seaplane basin, game reserve, municipal airport, golf course, playgrounds and picnic areas.
Less high-minded was the simultaneous exploitation of the marshlands as a private- and public-sector dumping ground for Palo Alto’s garbage, sewage and other refuse. Waste-disposal landfill continued from 1900 through the 1960s. Adjacent processing facilities included a sewage-treatment plant, recycling center and composting drop-off program.
Development pressures seemed to climax in the 1950s with a grandiose real-estate proposal for shoreline condominiums, a hotel and marina. An accelerating grass-roots conservation protest was spearheaded by three tenacious heroines:
- Lucy Evans, a former local schoolteacher and member of the Audubon Club;
- Senior citizen Harriet Mundy, driving force behind a development-blocking Baylands Master Plan; and
- Former City Council member Emily Renzel, laboring for 20 ultimately successful years to restore and enhance salt-water wetlands and create a 15-acre fresh-water pond.
All of these Baylands combatants – opportunistic developers, aroused conservation activists and waffling State and local authorities – mirrored comparable environmental conflicts up and down California throughout the 20th Century up to the present. Aroused passions matched high economic and political stakes. The deceptively placid tidelands cover a fiercely contested battleground.
Pivoting to the future, expert climatologists project a three to six-foot rise in San Francisco Bay water levels. (The time frame for such forecasts used to be by-the-end-of-this-century. That estimated duration is being rapidly reduced.) More than enough to submerge the marshes or shift them significantly westward. Embarcadero Road may regain its marine access. With global warming, perhaps most shorebirds will fade to ornithological memories. What a curious reminder that every stationary site is in fact a passing fancy. Today’s landscape is only a snapshot, a residue and a phase.
On a subsequent visit to the Baylands Nature Interpretive Center, I had an informative chat with Professional Naturalist Corinne DeBra (“de-bray.”)
She explained that three general categories of birds populate the Preserve:
- Migratory birds including, for example, the Western Sandpiper, Barn and Cliff Swallows;
- Year-round local residents like the American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt; and
- “Hybrids” that both visit and linger, like Canada Geese and Robins.
The Western Sandpiper is a migratory miracle. Barely six inches long from beak to tail, it annually travels 5,000 miles in each direction between Alaska and Colombia. Along the way, it pauses at a dozen rest stops including Baylands for recuperation and refueling. The Swallows literally attach themselves to the Interpretive Center: Barn Swallows nest under the eaves, Cliff Swallows under the floorboards.
The marsh’s unusual blend of fresh- and saltwater inflows has propagated multi-purpose aquatic plants. Pickleweed and cordgrass provide food for marsh birds and mammals. During winter, pickleweed’s red tips siphon and extrude salt to reduce the shallows’ salinity.
Center staff are eagerly preparing for the next King Tides, scheduled for late December and January. Pulled by the unusual alignment of Sun, Moon and Earth, these surges can rise nearly 10 feet above normal. Wildfowl will assemble in large numbers; the matching extra-low tides give special access to bottom-dwelling prey. Serious bird-watchers will convene in tripod-toting flocks.
Ms. DeBra confirmed that the Preserve and the Center are experiencing severe staffing cutbacks. The Center employs only two part-time professionals, including herself. All other staffing is volunteer. And open hours have been reduced to 8 per week, and only on weekends. I asked if COVID has provoked these cutbacks. She said not; to the contrary, since most Preserve activities are out of doors, COVID actually stimulated a visitor boom. Instead the problem is budget constraints of the City of Palo Alto. The municipal authorities are trying to cover costs by charging for services. With no entrance booth or manned ranger station, it’s not easy to generate revenues at the Baylands.
As I expressed my thanks and goodbyes, the motivated naturalist conveyed one-parting endorsement for her Preserve. “Birds and tides aren’t all we offer city kids and their parents. We also show them a full 360-degree wraparound. From Mount Tam[alpais] in the north past Diablo in the east to Hamilton in the south. In their urban neighborhoods, these folks never get the big picture.”
THANKS TO CORINNE DeBRA FOR HER NATURALIST EXPERTISE, TO BAYLANDS FRONT-RUNNERS CLUB FOR ITS HISTORICAL RETRIEVALS, AND TO NANCY SWING FOR HER ALWAYS APPRECIATED PHOTOS.