Earth Day has a special meaning at the Gill Tract, where I had the pleasure of staffing a small exhibit booth for chavezpark.org on Sunday April 21.
Across the path from the exhibits stood a mound of compost five feet tall and maybe twelve feet in diameter. From time to time, young farmers came with wheelbarrows and carried loads of compost to the acreage behind the exhibits. Here, all kinds of plants, edible, medicinal, and ornamental grew under protective bird netting. Off on a side, dozens of kids engaged in an egg hunt. The Gill Tract is an urban farm, a real working community of volunteers who dig, rake, haul, water, chop, and do all the other things it takes to midwife the birth of plants from the earth.
Lots of kids of all ages had fun playing the “Name the Animals” game, matching the names of the creatures to their pictures on the board. I was again amazed, as I had been earlier at the Bay Festival, at the expertise of very young children in identifying animals. All who played the game learned that Cesar Chavez Park is a an environment where these animals and many others can be seen. A number of people had not been to Cesar Chavez Park before and did not know where it was, so this was an introduction and an incentive for them to visit, since they already knew the names of some of the animals they could see there.
Some of the visitors to the chavezpark.org booth had tough questions. One wanted to know, was there an ongoing program to plant natives? I had to explain that there had been such a program in the mid eighties, but that the budget was cut, and the soil was heavily disturbed by installation of the landfill gas system, so that ruderals quickly moved in, established themselves, and crowded many of the natives out. In the Flora Friday botanical series, we try to identify all the plants now growing in the park, and we find that natives are a minority. It would be unimaginably expensive to scrape most of the park’s surface and replant it with natives. Such an effort would also devastate the wildlife that has made its homes, seasonal or year round, in the introduced plant species that are naturalized here. Fennel, for example, a native of Greece, is the home to Red-winged Blackbirds in their spring breeding season. Once the fennel sets seed, it becomes a popular feeding station for numerous birds, both visitors and residents. Eliminating the fennel, even if it were possible — and many have tried and failed — would be an environmental catastrophe. So we have to accept that nature has moved on from where it stood a century or two ago. Like it or not, the plants that are at home here now, like the people, come from all over the world.