I love walking. And there are few places better to walk in the world than in England. Where else can you scramble along rocky ridges, ascend beautiful mountains, and descend at the end of the day to a welcoming public house for a pint and a packet of crisps?
And there are few places finer to walk than the Lake District, and few finer walks that climbing Helvellyn by Striding Edge on a warm sunny day. It’s the third highest peak in England and marks the ancient boundary between Cumberland and Westmorland — counties that have long since disappeared but stay alive in the minds of many. Helvellyn is believed to be named in the ancient Cumbric language for the yellow (velyn) moor (hal) that coats its broad top.
Striding Edge is the classic way to attain the summit. It is also famous in my family lore. My great uncle Herbert slid off down the scree slopes to the edge to the distant tarn below while walking with friends. He lived to walk another day. Others have been less lucky. As you can see, I had a perfect spring day to scramble along the edge and reveled in the panoramic views of the Lake District all around. Can’t wait to go back.
California is a wonder land for tree lovers: in fact about 45 per cent of the state is covered with forests. The diversity is remarkable and that alone might be enough to set California apart. But what really makes California unique is that it is home to three world record beaters. It’s home to the tallest (a 379′ coast redwood in Redwood National Park), the most massive (the 52,506 cubic foot General Sherman Giant Sequoia), and the oldest trees (a 5,063 year old Bristlecone Pine). Not only are these record-breaking trees, but they are really record breaking organisms. Hang on, some will say, but what about that the aspen grove dated to 80,000 years, or the Creosote bush in the Mojave dated to 11,700 year? But I say, there’s something special about a single organism that has survived that long and grown unimpeded for centuries. This record-breaking Arboreal Triangle is truly an international treasure worthy of protection.
This past weekend I returned to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest high in the White Mountains of eastern California. Perched at 10,000 feet is the Methuselah Grove. In 1957 Edward Schulman and Tom Harlan couldn’t quite believe their eyes when the tree rings they were counting extended back to 4,789 years. This tree, whose location is a closely guarded secret, was the oldest know single trunk tree until scientists discovered a 5,063 year tree in the same grove earlier this year. It germinated in 3051 BC!
Walking with these ancient monarchs gives me goosebumps. You can literally see where the rocky soil has eroded away over millennia leaving roots exposed. Where else can you see geological time set against a living organism? It also makes me feel humbled and connected to the wider-world in much the same way as standing before the General Sherman in Sequoia National Park or walking amid the towering redwood groves of Redwood National and State Parks. I feel fortunate to have visited both in the past year.
In a time of rapid climatic and environmental change, these trees have so much to share with us about past conditions. Understanding how they have fared under past climatic regimes will help us better understand how to protect both these remarkable trees, and ourselves, as we head into uncharted territory. Unlike us, these trees are rooted to the ground and have no place to go. These trees have survived for thousands of years: with our focused efforts and help lets hope they continue to thrive.
If you have some free time this summer, what better pilgrimage is there for a tree lover? I can think of none finer.
This weekend Live Oak Park in Berkeley transformed itself into a small part of the Himalayas for the annual Himalayan Fair. The redwoods were draped with colorful prayer flags, the smell of exotic spices wafted down the creek, and the music of the sub-continent hung in the air. The grassy green was transformed into a colorful bazar where Tibetan prayer bowls jostled with cotton scarves for space.
As one lady who passed me said, “I love this festival, it reminds me of Berkeley in the 60’s.”
It reminded me of the week I spent in India last year. True, Delhi and Jaipur had a greater press of humanity and the colors and smells were more intense. But it’s the closest you can get without the long plane ride over the poles. Our boys sat happily munching Tibetan momo’s and then jigged along to the Indian dancers. This is what urban parks are all about — giving people spaces to come and enjoy the outdoors, community, and just occasionally the taste and smell of a distant land. And for the Tibetan community in the Bay Area its one of their biggest fundraisers of the year — thousands of delicious momo’s get made fresh and eaten by the hungry visitors!
What other cultural festivals do you enjoy that take place in parks?
I see that Google has miniaturized its StreetView technology and you can now strap it to your back as you take a hike, allowing anyone to relive your walk using only their computer. Pretty neat stuff. I took a quick look and saw some of my favorite trails already covered — from a walk along Cal Barrel road in Redwood National and State Parks, to the giant sequoia of Yosemite National Park, to the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon, to a multi-day trek up Kilimanjaro. While its no substitute for the real thing, it does bring the parks and these distant places into people’s living rooms. Perhaps allowing you to explore a new trail, or relive a familiar one.
It now has me thinking: if I could get hold of the kit for a few days, where would I take it and what would I share with the world? Top of my list would be the James Irvine Trail in Prairie Smith Redwoods State Park. I’ve walked that trail many times and never tire of it. To me, it has it all. From the open expanse of the elk meadow, through the verdant ancient redwood forest dripping with life, to the lively babble of the creek as it meanders through Fern Canyon before joining force with the Pacific Ocean.
Where would you go and what would you share? Let me know!
It’s funny how a place can feel like home even when you’ve never lived there. For me that place is Frostrow Fell in northern England. My parents live there and their home is situated where the arable land gives way to the rough moorland of the open common. People have lived in the footprint of the house for at least one thousand years — likely since the time when the Vikings came. They weren’t all marauders who dragged their ill-gotten gains back across the sea– some stayed and settled and made a new life. Some of them chose this place. And I can see why.
It’s aptly named Frostrow –there are a few weeks each year in the depths of winter when the sun barely crests the hills behind leaving a deep frost pocket behind. But on a sunny day — winter or summer — there is no place like it. The view across the valley to the Howgill Fells is mesmerizing. I like to imagine that it really hasn’t changed much in generations. Although the landscape has been deeply shaped by people for thousands of years it feels natural. It shows me that with care we can live with the landscape. The people who have made their home here for generations are as much a part of the landscape as the trees and rivers and moorland. Their careful husbandry of the land maintains its natural beauty — now recognized as part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
It’s a place that feels open and free. I see that now in the way my children react when they visit their grandparents. They exchange sidewalks for wide open spaces, parks for fields where they play “wild football.”, the water tray for becks they wade and splash in, and the local “little farm” for a landscape dotted with sheep. It’s a place I love.
California State Parks has new leadership and they have a plan. It’s called Brilliance in the Basics and one of the five goals jumped out at me. To have the cleanest restrooms in the country. Yes, you heard it right. To have the cleanest restrooms in the country!
This is a big country. There must be hundreds of millions of restrooms. And I am pretty sure there are some pretty fastidious cleaners out there. Despite sequester cuts I am sure President Obama’s commode is well taken care of….
So I am poking gentle fun at this, but I also agree that it’s an important goal. It’s important to take care of the basics before you can strive for excellence. And when it comes to parks, unless you provide a clean restroom many people will be turned away: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in action.
The rest of the plan presents an ambitious set of goals and actions for the coming two years while a more comprehensive independent review of parks is undertaken. I was happy to see Parks committing themselves to partnerships, to resource protection and restoration, to interpretation and education, and to purchasing additional land when this will address pressing park needs. A lot of the strategic plan calls for developing further plans to prioritize work before actions are taken. I hope they are able to move through the planning phase rapidly and move to implementation as that’s when we’ll start seeing changes on the ground. To paraphrase a military aphorism: a decent plan well executed beats out the perfect plan that never hits the ground.
Ultimately the challenge State Parks will face in the coming two years is they are highly unlikely to get additional public funds and the private donor community is already showing signs of fatigue. To be successful, State Parks will have to look first to how they can deploy existing resources in a more targeted manner. And this will present State Park staff and partners with some tough tradeoffs.
In his forward, Major General Jackson encourages all park staff and volunteers to read and understand the plan. I would take this one step further and encourage the myriad of park partners in the public, private, and non-profit sector to read and support the plan. The State Park system has always been more than just the Department of Parks and Recreation, and in tough times it becomes ever more important to fully embrace the myriad of park partners.
And if the next park restroom you visit isn’t up to your high standards, I am sure Major General Jackson would appreciate a call…..
Recent news coverage of The National Trust’s “50 Things to do before you’re 11 3/4” campaign had me reaching for my bookshelves. I had picked up a copy of this fun book and list when I was last in England.
“The Great Outdoors holds boundless opportunities: to create, to learn, to walk and run, and to spend precious time with family and friends. Memories that last a lifetime are made through these experiences. And that’s what 50 Things to do Before You’re 11 3/4 is all about.”
It’s a nationwide campaign in the UK to encourage children to get outdoors and enjoy classic activities from stone skimming to building tree forts. It’s also a campaign that the National Trust, one of the largest landowners in Britain, is taking to heart at its properties and historic homes. Go to a trust property these days and you’re likely to find places that kids can pond dip, build tree forts, or simply mess around getting wet and muddy. It’s part of a broader initiative the Trust launched a number of years ago called, “going local.” The idea was simple, the goal was to have local managers make decisions on how best to let the public interact with the Trusts properties. The velvet ropes that traditionally guarded quiet dusty rooms came down and people were let in to interact with history. They are now doing the same for their wild places. Letting people in to play and roam. It’s part of the broader “children in nature” movement that is gaining momentum also here in the states, spurred in part by Richard Louvre’s best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods.”
I can’t help but contrast this to many parks here in California. How many times have you been to a park only to be greeted by a long list of what you cannot do? Don’t ride your bike, picnic, walk off trail, dive in the river, walk your dog, pick any flower or stick or cone, and do watch out for mountain lions, poison oak, snakes, and perhaps stinging bees. Makes our parks sound pretty dull, if not outright dangerous places to be. Is it any wonder that for many people parks are not a place they really think of going?
Take the recent Yosemite plan that I wrote about recently. It proposes to remove bike rentals and an artists studio that sells paints and gives classes in the valley. How does either benefit the visitor or the park? Or look at our state park system in California that is on the verge of collapse after deep cuts and financial scandal. The legislature ordered a two year pause in park closures after the administration had announced the closure of one quarter of the system for budgetary purposes. The administration has a small window to remake California’s park system. I urge them to take a close look at what is happening in the United Kingdom at the National Trust. They have found a way to both protect precious resources, become financially self sustaining, and invite the public in to enjoy themselves. To me it all starts with welcoming people in, and that means having the courage to allow people in to find ways to make our parks fun once more. It’s good for the visitors, it’s also good for the parks who need a new cadre of strong supporters.
Oh, and in case you are wondering. I am at 45 and counting….
The man on the bike shouted out, “it’s great to see you reclaiming the park!”
I thought about it and yes we were. We were playing catch while people rode bikes, pushed strollers and ran dogs. One man living out of his van even lay out on the grass enjoying the sun and offering coaching tips for me and my son.
And the park we were reclaiming? A strip of grass under the BART tracks. The whole place has been fenced off for the better part of 18 months while the elevated tracks were retrofitted to make them a little more secure in an earthquake. A few weeks ago what was now grass was a barren patch of earth that had been dug and raked and prodded and poked and fenced off.
It made me realize that it doesn’t make much to make a park — its all about the attitude you bring.
On yesterday’s KQED Forum about places to get outside this summer, Michael Krasny made the off-hand comment that, “Muir Woods has become like Disney Land.” His tone led me to believe that he didn’t mean it was vying to be the happiest place on Earth. Well Mr. Krasny I would like to take issue with that!
Ok, I haven’t been to Disney Land for perhaps 20 years. But I remember enjoying it greatly — despite the crowds, nausea inducing tea-cups ride, and fake smiles — I had a great time. As it happens I was in Muir Woods last week with my three sons for spring break. Yes the parking lot was full, and yes there were plenty of people in the woods, but to me Muir Woods soaks up people and gives each of them a memorable stay. I sometimes think that every nation on Earth is represented on those boardwalks — and while I might not know what they are saying, I can tell from the tone of their voice and look on the face that they are creating a memory to last a life time.
Those of us who live in the Bay Area can get jaded and overlook what an incredible place it is. Where else can you see ancient redwoods, tiger lilies, spawning salmon, and unusual albino redwoods, and get a great grilled cheese? Working with Save the Redwoods League for 15 years, I visited Muir Woods dozens of times and never tired. And as you can see, I even go on outside work to enjoy it with family and friends.
Here are a few simple tips to help you enjoy it.
1. You’ll find fewer people during the week and before the tour buses start arriving around 9:30 am. Get in their early for a walk and then go and have breakfast! Or go late as dusk draws in.
2. There’s a great adventure Quest that will keep kids 5-95 occupied — just ask for it at the kiosk! You’ll soon be skipping through the woods and looking for goose-pens while you learn about the natural and cultural history of the place. Kids love the treasure box at the end.
3. If you like to walk and don’t mind some serious uphill, take the back route into Muir Woods. Park by the Deer Park fire road and take it to the top of the park through meadows and a fascinating old burn area. Then drop into Muir Woods on the Ben Johnson Trail. You’ll be on your own most of the way!
4. If you’re going on the weekends, ride the shuttle from the Pohono park and ride off 101.
5. The concession shop turned over recently and now does a great grilled cheese sandwich. I am told that some people go just for the grilled cheese!
So Mr. Krasny, let’s go take a walk in Muir Woods — the happiest place in the bay area. I’ll even pick up the tab for grilled cheese.
I met a colleague last week in downtown San Francisco and stumbled across this pocket park parked on the sidewalk. It had me thinking, what makes a park and how small can it be to still be a park? This one has the basic elements — greenery, a place to sit and watch the world go by, a splash of color, and even great design. It brightened my day and made me smile! It’s sponsored by the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District and part of the burgeoning movement to bring parks to otherwise drab urban spaces. Check out Park(ing) Day for a great example that started in San Francisco in 2005 and has now spread to 35 countries and 975 parks. So how small can a park get? This has to be a contender — but perhaps you have seen smaller ones. Let me know!