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Dispatches from the Last Year

(a sampling of articles)

Mountains Beyond Mountains

Week 10 of 2019 ||| Nashville, TN & Menlo Park, CA


[The view Southeast from Windy Hill, looking across the Coastal Range foothills, to the Pacific Ocean and the wide horizon.]

I grew up looking west at the Coastal Range, a series of mountains in California which run along the plate boundary, roughly parallel to the coast, all the way up into British Columbia. I could not, back then, imagine how tall they were.

They are the final geographical hurdle between the Bay Area and the coast. To go over them is to go over the last mountain range before endless water. I have lived elsewhere since then, and could always picture, in my mind, the mountains between myself and these ones, and then the coast beyond.

What's behind mountains? Mountains. More mountains. Mountains beyond mountains. And then my mountains. And then the sea.

The Coastal Range has amazing biodiversity - it's one of the few biomes where Redwoods and other sequoias grow (on this continent), and its slopes are home to unique flowers, newts, ferns, and grasses, as well as hundreds of introduced species.

California's environment has been exploited and disrupted by United States settlers since Pre-Victorian times. The history of the state is a history of water diversion, biological innovations, crop research, labor exploitation, and Victorian civic folly on a grand scale.

Eucalyptus trees, whose oil presents an enormous fire hazard, were introduced to be railroad-tie timber. After its wood was found to be unsuitable for rail (too twisted and too easily cracked), the tree grew freely in rights-of-way up and down the state, crowding out native trees with its soaring canopy, and covering the ground with its dry peeling bark and oily leaves.

Iceplants, a mat-like succulent species, were imported to stabilized the bases of man-made slopes, but have gone on to swamp and cover-over the coast's natural dunes and cliffsides.

That all said, the state has also seen wave after wave of eager and active environmentalists, who have systematically stabilized and preserved huge swathes of open land.


One of those people was Betsy Crowder. A longtime Bay Area resident, she spent the 70s as an environmental planner for the cities of Palo Alto and Portola Valley. In the 80s, she pushed for trail building and conservation efforts. In the 90s, she served the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, as their president and then as a board member.

She was killed by a drunk driver in 2000. She was 74, on her way back from a meeting of the Explorer's Club. That fatal crash occurred less than a mile from where her husband had been slain 30 years earlier, in an eerily similar drunk driver incident. That tragedy occured back in 1970, before Mrs. Crowder's career as a planner and manager of place.

I've hiked a lot of trails in the open spaces she stewarded. Rancho San Antonio. Crystal Springs Reservoir. Los Trancos. Coal Creek. Yesterday, I went to the mountains of my youth - Windy Hill Open Space Preserve, the very preserve that she lived by, and walked often.

I hiked the Betsy Crowder Trail, named in her honor, and then the Spring Ridge Trail, and I found myself, after an hour and a half, 1350 feet higher up, at the coastal ridgeline around 1900' above sea level. See the picture above for the view that welcomed me. I had summited Windy Hill. I could see the ocean. I could see where the mountains had no mountains beyond them.

What's behind mountains? Mountains. More mountains. Mountains beyond mountains. And then her mountains. And then the sea.

I grew up looking west at the Coastal Range. I could not, back then, imagine how tall they were.

Lost Creeks of the East End

Week 14 of 2019 ||| Pittsburgh, Penna.


[Monongahela Way, which is built atop the culverted Nine Mile Run. Storm water pipes from every neighborhood between Frick Park and the East Hills flow from gutter-side catchment basins down into larger and larger pipes, until they merge into the ever-flowing stream beneath this alleyway, just east of Braddock Avenue.]

I've been walking all around the East End from my little nest in Regent Square, and I've been trying to trace the water-scape. If you walk into Frick Park and down past the ball-fields, you can turn left and head up Nine Mile Run. The trail takes you up to Braddock Avenue. You emerge from the forest at the bottom of the trolley-track-lined parking lot of the CLASS building. If you cross Braddock avenue on foot, and head down into Edgewood, you will find all sorts of pedestrian infrastructure, from stairs to secret pathways.

On one such walk, I noticed the steel plates which reinforce the concrete walls of this alleyway, and asked one of the neighbors, who told me that the stream was underneath it, and that they built the whole thing to be very strong. Later that day, I asked some Wilkinsburg municipal workers about the culvert/alleyway, and they explained that all the different storm-water pipes from the East End consolidate and merge into that culvert, which daylights down at the bottom of the CLASS building parking lot, and then goes on into Frick Park and out to the Mon.


[The "headwaters" of Nine Mile Run, as it emerges from its culvert. Apologies for the odd image-capture in the center of the photo- the tunnel emits a strange and slightly earthy-smelling mist which doesn't photograph well.]

All over the East End, streets and houses replaced streambeds, and surface water was channeled into man-made pipes and culverts. These lost streams can still be found as subtle signs in the land - access hatches for mucking out larger tunnels, oddly overbuilt roadways, obtuse property lines, and other hints of early 20th century infrastructure hiding under the modern street grid.

I'd like to engage in a big public ritual art activity before I move elsewhere from the East End (so some time in April or May 2019), which recognizes these lost streams, and helps us restore the land a little bit.

If you live in the Nine Mile Run Watershed- Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Regent Square, Greenfield, Wilkinsburg, Homewood East, East Hills, Edgewood, Swissvale, etc, and a combination parade and trash-pickup-day is of interest to you and your family, please reply. I'd like to get together a captain from each neighborhood, and propose to you-all a processional vision.