Shadows, Flowers and Saviors


Is there such a thing as a perfect refuge?

San Bruno Mountain is a wonderful refuge, but those who might claim it as a perfect one don’t understand it very well.

San Bruno Mountain is a wonderful but conflicted refuge. So conflicted is the recent history of the mountain that even the definitions of the word “refuge” won't agree with each other when used to describe it.

A refuge is “something providing shelter,” as San Bruno Mountain does, providing precious habitat to countless beings, human and non-human.

Its steep slopes rising above hunched canyons and its smooth ridges flowing with fog are well-known as the most significant sanctuaries of three species of delicate endangered butterflies and a tremendous collection of rare plants, some of which grow wild nowhere else on Earth. The Ohlone shellmounds, village sites, and the little 20th and 21st century towns and neighborhoods tucked into its canyons, hillsides, and valleys reveal the mountain’s significance as an ancient and continuing home for many people.

However, another meaning of refuge is “a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble,” and the mountain is not in such a condition. San Bruno Mountain is not saved, as David Schooley and others who carry the saga of the mountain deep in their hearts cautiously remind us.

This may seem strange to hear at first, as it was for me, especially coming from David Schooley, one of the many great and powerful saviors of San Bruno Mountain. In Ravines of the Heart  he writes, “quietly, I was drawn into a struggle that has lasted for over 40 years and doubtless will continue for many more.”

We must understand the act of saving not as a one-time effort, but rather a process that must be constantly and lovingly renewed. It is an act whose outcomes are not all-encompassing; the successes are astounding and inspiring, while the failures feel heartbreaking and painful.

San Bruno Mountain is graced and haunted by so many of these stories:

The story of how thick creek-banks were swallowed under a four-lane asphalt parkway but a saddle was saved from a city of tens of thousands.

Or the story of how the mission blue and callippe silverspot butterflies continue their ancient cycles on the mountain’s grassy, colorful hills, but on its subdivided slopes they are only a memory now, commemorated by tall metal gravestones that serve additionally as neighborhood street signs.

I do not intend to continue pointing out the constellations of battles hovering over the mountain like the heavy night sky, nor will I list here the numerous threats that continue to rain down upon it.

Instead, I’d like to explore one of the mountain-saving acts that I most treasure, and depict it in the flesh, as it happens on the ground, every week of the year, in the company of many good people. I’m referring to the act of stewardship, which is intertwined with the act and meaning of saving.

To save is to “keep safe, to rescue from danger, to guard from injury or destruction.” The word “steward” carries this meaning with it, applied to the concept of a home. Steward comes from stigweard, an Old English term defined as a housekeeper. Stigweard is itself a meeting of two words—stig references a house and weard means to guard.

To steward is to save the home. To steward the mountain is to guard its many ecosystems, in other words, its many types of homes. Like the stig of steward, the eco of ecosystem means “house or household,” arising from the Greek oîkos.

One of the many ecosystems we work to steward is the coastal prairie ecosystem, the beautiful grassland habitat home to the endangered mission blue and callippe silverspot butterflies and the webs of life they rely on.

Native prairie plants laid out to be planted in the footprint of a removed shrub. Local youth help with the planting in February on the Mountain's grassland slope above South San Francisco.

Native prairie plants laid out to be planted in the footprint of a removed shrub. Local youth help with the planting in February on the Mountain's grassland slope above South San Francisco.

One of the main threats to the mountain’s grasslands are the invading shrubs, both native (e.g. coyote brush) and non-native (e.g. french broom), that have converted many acres of the butterflies’ prairie habitat into dense stands of woody shrubs, leafy shields that absorb nearly all the sunlight, leaving little for the grasses and wildflowers they rise above, spread over, and kill.

Battling against the tide of woody plants, referred to as “scrub encroachment,” is the most urgent management priority for those working to save the mission blues and callippe silverspots.

This was affirmed by Weiss, Naumovich, and Niederer in the “Assessment of the past 30 years of habitat management and covered species monitoring associated with the San Bruno Mountain habitat conservation plan” (see: ).

Those who read this assessment will finish with the acknowledgment that “San Bruno Mountain is not saved” - once again ringing in their minds, bouncing off the long list of challenges to the health of the mountain’s ecology.

No, the mountain is not saved, despite more than thirty years of habitat management activities under the controversial San Bruno Mountain Habitat Conservation Plan, and despite all the toil and tears of its guardians.

No, the butterflies are not saved. No, the prairies are not saved.

Yes, there is work to do, and fortunately there are many working together with hope, determination, and good energy.

The prairies were historically protected from the invasion of shrubs by the burning practices of indigenous peoples and the grazing of domestic livestock in the 19th and 20th centuries.

San Bruno Mountain Watch is collaborating with the San Mateo County Parks and restoration contractors like Shelterbelt Builders and West Coast Wildlands to protect and improve the prairies in alternative ways. In the past year we’ve worked on the hilltops and meadows of Owl and Buckeye Canyons, on the south slopes of the mountain above South San Francisco, and on the southeast ridge of the mountain.

In brief, many of the shrubs invading the highest quality grasslands in these areas were cut away or pulled up. During the months of December, January, and February, volunteers helped plant over two-thousand native prairie plants grown at Mission Blue Nursery in the patches where the shrubs had been.

Families joined our planting event on Valentine’s Day - who needs chocolate when you can sip the flowers’ nectar?!

Families joined our planting event on Valentine’s Day - who needs chocolate when you can sip the flowers’ nectar?!

Their first time on San Bruno Mountain involved a steep hike to the ridge and spectacular 360 degree views of the Bay Area!

Their first time on San Bruno Mountain involved a steep hike to the ridge and spectacular 360 degree views of the Bay Area!

We planted a mix of native grasses (purple needlegrass, California oatgrass, red fescue, California melic, blue wildrye, junegrass, and California brome), wildflower nectar plants for the butterflies (checkerbloom, California phacelia, brownie thistle, coyote mint, blue-eyed grass, coast buckwheat, narrowleaf mule’s ear, lace parsnip, California horkelia, California buttercup, hairy gumplant, yarrow, California acaena, California dandelion, Franciscan wallflower, and golden aster), and the three species of the mission blue’s lupine host plants (silver lupine, summer lupine, and varied lupine).

By March everything was planted and we were back to carrying weed wrenches up the slopes, plucking shrubs from the prairie, once again.

I’d like to share a poem I wrote about this cycling work and express my heartfelt gratitude to all the people who are are an essential part of these efforts; the County, the contractors, Ildiko and the friendly volunteers at Mission Blue Nursery who collected and grew the mountain plants, and the Stewardship Mountaineers who join me every Saturday to renew our shared commitment to save San Bruno Mountain through community-based ecological restoration and participatory stewardship.

Flowers and shadows
by Ariel Cherbowsky

During the drier seasons
we unravel the twisted and freckled
shadows of shrubs,
flooding the scars marking darkness
with the sun’s bright light.

When the winter brings rains
we return with what we grew,
bringing back the Franciscan flowers
and bunches of blades
we gathered nearby here as seeds,
to fill in the earth’s bare pockets
with our hands full of Californian prairie—
gold, green grasses,
petals and nectar.

Ariel Cherbowsy joined Mountain Watch in September 2015 as our Stewardship Coordinator. He recruits and trains volunteers and interns to work on stewardship restoration projects. See the Mountain Watch Welcomes New Stewards feature for more information on Ariel and his work.