guest post by Elizabeth Newton
This winter morning was spectacular — the sun peeked through fluffy clouds and the moon was still large and bright in the blue sky. I eagerly donned my rubber boots, jumped in the car and drove out to Tolay Creek Ranch. There, Point Blue staff and AmeriCorps volunteers were joining students from Lawrence Jones Middle School in Rohnert Park (with accompanying parent chaperones) to plant two species of willow in a newly restored streamside (i.e., riparian) ecosystem.
The drive along Lakeville Highway was green and lush from recent rains. The rolling pastures were fresh with new grass on which goats, horses and newborn lambs grazed. Red-winged blackbirds showed off along a fence line, and a dramatic play of sun and clouds created a mosaic of light and shadow on the landscape. I thought about what a beautiful and special place Sonoma County is, with its farmlands and wild lands, its oceans and mountains woven together to create a unique and timeless fabric.
I parked at the site and hiked up the hill, the tall, wet grass soaking my pant legs. At the top was a circle of students, parents, AmeriCorps volunteers and Point Blue staff. Isaiah Thalmayer from Point Blue asked the students some review questions about the preparatory lessons they’d learned in advance and eager hands shot up around the circle. These young people really knew their stuff! They were able to explain willow-planting techniques, the special nature of riparian habitats, reasons for the restoration and names of the many species that would benefit from it.
Isaiah explained that, on this day, they would be planting two species of willows (red and arroyo). He mentioned that cattle, although they help to keep the grassland healthy, need to be fenced off from the restoration site so they don’t harm the creek banks. The students also learned about the importance of the site to local Native Americans and were instructed to note, but to leave in place, any artifacts that they might come across.
Soon, it was time to get started on the work. The kids were told how to handle the digging bars safely and to work in teams, counting to three together before plunging the bar into the rain-softened earth. They were taught to differentiate between the two species of willow cuttings, and how to match them to the colored flags that dotted the stream banks.
Admiring the progress, I asked one of the parent chaperones if she had passed along an appreciation of nature to her daughter. “No!” she laughed, “I was an urban kid, afraid of the outdoors. I’m here today to make sure my daughter learns to be comfortable and confident out in nature.” This mother understands the importance of environmental education and why we need opportunities for kids to learn in many different settings, not just in the classroom. This day was about providing an opportunity to engage all of their senses, to experience the earth and maybe even get a little muddy while planting baby trees that would one day grow up to cover and transform the same ground on which they now stood in their rain boots.
Soon, the air was filled with choruses of “PLANT INSPECTION!” as the newly planted willows stood awaiting the “tug test,” which would prove that they were firmly planted. Once their work was approved, the student teams moved onto the next flag and started again. Soon, the banks of Tolay Creek were covered with young saplings ready to put down roots to prevent soil erosion and to begin the process of creating habitat for birds, reptiles, fish and mammals.
After a day of good work, the students went home with the knowledge that the willows they’d planted would one day grow into an ecosystem that they would be able to visit — and one day, perhaps, bring along children of their own.
Elizabeth Newton is SLT's (awesome) office manager.
First two photos by Scott Hess: last photo by Elizabeth.
Sonoma Land Trust is a local nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, CA, that conserves scenic, natural, agricultural and open lands in Sonoma County for the benefit of the community and future generations. This blog focuses on SLT's stewardship team, whose members do hands-on work to directly protect, restore, and safeguard the land for generations to come.