Excerpts from David Schooley's Chapter in the book "Ten Years That Shook the City San Francisco 1968-1978," edited by Chris Carlsson and published by City Lights Books, available in June 2011.
It should be said the mountain wrote these words on me whenever quiet, the Place in its own defining/informing energies, the buckling of an ancient seabed, prehistoric summer fogs, their records written minute in helical couplings of bearberry, great migration of roots and seeds before advancing northern ice, its leavings, a Mianthemum kamchaticum (boreal huckleberry), a newborn hawk, millions of tiny deaths and hatchings, creeks fed into the bay, and man, Man to focus and name these energies, join them again with origin, investing the Mountain with sacredness or use, heeding its articulations (and where, heedless, liable to scrape its slopes and canyons bare diminishing also himself).
For the Ohlone native people who lived in its valleys, the Mountain was sacred as well as sustenance.
For the Spaniards who logged the oaks and souls for the church, grazed their livestock on the slopes, it was sustenance and obstacle.
To industrial man its articulations are merely obstacle, easy to remove.
The miracle is that San Bruno Mountain has survived so long. The tide of San Francisco suburbs parted at its base and moved on to leave the Mountain the last island of true Franciscan country left on earth, its plant and animal communities little altered, its Ohlone village sites surprisingly undisturbed by the bay, rare and endangered species visibly intact.
What first struck me about San Bruno Mountain was, "Why is it still here?" Surrounded on every side by cities and industries of the North Peninsula, it was one last hold-out of wild Franciscan land.
Early in the summer of 1969, from the window of a Greyhound bus traveling south on the Old Bayshore highway, I suddenly glimpsed a shimmering oak forest and chaparral ridge just before reaching the town of Brisbane. I couldn't believe how, after the Cow Palace and Visitacion Valley, and the odd flat terrain beyond the Old Railroad Round House, the road suddenly opened onto wild lands rising above an "industrial park."
I walked straight into what is now called Buckeye Canyon; silent, delicate scrub, graceful ridges covered with farewell to spring, a bubbling creek and mountain fold after fold of coast live oak up to Islais ravines. Then, a little higher, distant ridges – an impossible landscape, hidden in plain sight beside the slaughtered bay lands of Highway 101 and San Francisco Airport.
San Bruno Mountain felt like a vital open secret, hidden just below visibility in our cultural focus. No Yosemite, no looming Tamalpais. No redwoods. Not even a Bishop pine. It was mercifully the neglected stone, Lapis Exilis. I thought of it as the stone cast away by the builders, which, in Jesus' parable, it is said we must find and make our cornerstone as an altogether different kind of builders. If we could learn to see and involve ourselves carefully with its quiet life, there might be more than hope for the planet and ourselves on it. But mine has not been the only vision of San Bruno Mountain's destiny.
Early in botanical investigation of California, the Franciscan plant zone was considered to include the entire face of the Bay Region, from Sonoma to Monterey. A more attentive look in recent years has disclosed a much smaller "Type Area" covering the southern edges of Marin, the hills of San Francisco and ending at the southern limb of San Bruno Mountain and the northern ridges of Sweeney's Ridge.
It was James Roof, creator of Tilden Botanical Garden in Berkeley, a man born at the coastal base of San Bruno Mountain, Lake Merced, who told me more about the north peninsula’s geography, about its native plant life as an ancient island of San Francisco, and about San Bruno Mountain, whose manzanitas and butterflies are unique within the Bay Area.
The inner region, so long overlooked by us, was the biotic range lived in by Native Americans whose tribal, hunting and gathering territory precisely coincided with the set of conditions that form the inner Franciscan zone. Village names around the Mountain were Urebure/Siplichiquin to the south, Amuctac/Tubsinte to the north, and around San Francisco, of the Yalamu communities.
As warm valley air rises, cold wet Pacific air is drawn inland through the Golden Gate at the northern end and the Lake Merced/Colma Gap to the south. The full year-long force of this weather against the arc of San Francisco/San Bruno hills in between has given rise to an apparently treeless landscape where Ice Age plants have been able to survive and other coastal scrub plants have evolved varieties not to be found anywhere else: a dwarf burn-sprouting manzanita no more than ankle high; sandy, west-facing lessingia; a buckeye with tough-ribbed salt-weathering leaves; fog shadow canyons with nothing but hummingbird sage. At the same time, in sheltered ravines, the abundance of Pacific moisture nurtures intricate oak, Islais (wild cherry) and wax myrtle forests. The scale is vast, wild exposure with an intimate texture of abundance.
Village sites of both Urebure and Amuctac/Tubsinte tribelets of the Ohlone remain intact in the lower valleys of the Mountain surrounded by the plant life used for food, fiber, and medicine by their inhabitants. Beside a remnant estuary and salt marsh, once rich in shellfish and water fowl, the village sites and surrounding plant communities provide glimpses of the ghost of a direct economy.
On the other hand, efforts to use land for upscale residential and commercial development continue on land around San Bruno Mountain. Many of the people who now live around the Mountain recognize development proposals as a death threat to what little they have left of community and to San Bruno Mountain itself, which is by now a symbol of what we are fast losing to a blueprint vision of place as real estate, and community as something to be grid-planned and mass produced.
Except for San Bruno Mountain, there is no wild land left on the northern San Francisco peninsula. Professor E.O. Wilson of Harvard University calls San Bruno Mountain "a global treasure," one of "eighteen global biodiversity 'hot spots' in need of immediate protection," but adds, "as in the case of so many other global treasures, this great fortune is not being handled with adequate care."
Some planners and local officials recognized this in the 1970's and moved to acquire and preserve the Mountain as parkland. Though welcomed by local activists, the suggested scope of preservation seemed incomplete and inadequate since it left out the upper headwater valleys and softly undulating terrain most suited to a park.
Late one evening in 1969, Mike Kiser and Helen Sullivan, citizens of the Brisbane mountain, took me up to the wild town "acres" with a jug of wine and city records detailing Brisbane’s horrifying plans for the Mountain. At the Brisbane Library, Midtown Market, at city meetings, and from locals Byron and Milton Jensen and Tony Attard, I gathered more disconcerting information. Richard Burr and Paul Goercke told me about a plan to shave off the Mountain top. Luman Drake told me about how local citizens resisted the city of Brisbane’s once willing cooperation with San Francisco's massive garbage dumping in the Mountain's bay waters , for which Brisbane received financial benefits. These revelations, along with my increasing exposure to the Mountain’s ancient secrets, quietly drew me in.
Concern mounted and public pressure was to follow, in an uprising which miraculously took the first crucial steps toward stopping the machinery of development and demanding that a new look be taken at San Bruno Mountain and its meaning to the Bay Region.
One day in 1973, while walking through South San Francisco's Paradise Valley neighborhood on the Mountain's southern slope, I saw a sign in a front yard—"Save The Mountain." I knocked and Betti Higgins opened the door. That meeting led to the formation of "The Committee to Save San Bruno Mountain." Betti, Mimi Whitney and I formed a grassroots, non-violent, wild Mountain army. We took hundreds of people up on the Mountain in protest, celebration and wild theatrics. Hundreds of people came to County and City Park and Recreation meetings. At one critical San Mateo County Park and Recreation Supervisor’s meeting , along with concerned Native Americans, a mountain climber and a goat, we protested the small size of a "proposed park" on ridiculously steep, unbuildable land, and after our demonstration, the whole group marched out. The decision was postponed.
Before a number of County Supervisors meetings, the essential question was: would there be more Mountain people in attendance or building trades' allies, who supported development? Far more Mountain supporters almost always showed up.
During this period we distributed leaflets, bulletins, press releases, Mountain calendars and T-shirts to the neighborhoods, schools, stores and libraries at the Mountain’s fringes. When the Mountain’s owners, Visitacion Associates ( Crocker, McKesson, Amfac, Great America, Brookfield, Southwest Diversified Inc.) distributed their building plans to public officials and agencies in a slick, glossy text, we were able to qualify for Legal Aid Society assistance to help us develop a document exposing the real significance of these plans, and how their project would irreparably damage local communities as well as the Mountain. Dated May 23, 1975, our citizens’ document was released well before Environmental Impact statements were required and was far more honest, scientific and historically factual. It outlined predictable results of proposed construction, including the benching of hills, destruction of wildlife, new roads to service planned subdivisions, and expansion of infrastructure in surrounding communities, from sewers to schools. This document helped to educate the decision-makers in San Mateo County and the State and to shift them toward our side.
During this period we also started to work for pro-Mountain candidates in local elections and began to get direct political representation.
At one County Supervisor’s meeting in Redwood City Bette Higgins and Mimi Whitney expressed their vision in the form a huge, beautiful cake baked in the shape of a mountain , its most sensitive places marked with little candles. Presenting it to the supervisors, they said, "We, the local community for San Bruno Mountain have brought you our future park…" and offered the cake, inviting them to, "Eat it."
After ten long years, a critical part of the Mountain was saved when development of the "Saddle," the owner's most keenly sought-after project, was halted. After much political resistance, a state bond purchase finally became available. State and County sections were designated, and the result was the creation of the San Bruno Mountain State and County Park. While it preserved some land from development, it did not fulfill the vision of many for what this park might properly be, and still left much of the Mountain under threat.
The history of the last thousand years has been one of increasing legal recognition of inalienable rights, from the Magna Carta in 1215, to the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, women's suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement’s full-scale non-violent assault on racial segregation in the 1960’s and the new protection this country offered to threatened plant and animal populations through the passage of the visionary 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act (amended in 1969 and repealed and replaced in 1973 by the current Endangered Species Act). Unfortunately, though, events on San Bruno Mountain have quietly changed the course of wildlife and environmental protection in this country for the worse.
In the early 1980's, there were still plans to build on large swaths of the Mountain above Brisbane, South San Francisco, and Daly City. A second wave of concern and protest rose to save these areas. An amazing serendipity, one decade in the making, then occurred. Since the early 1970’s Dick Arnold from the University of California in Berkeley, along with a Larry Orzak, had been scientifically observing and researching the rare Mission Blue Butterfly found on the grassy southern slopes of the Mountain. In the early 1980’s they finally published their results. Their paper identified the Mission Blue as among America’s very first “rare and endangered species” to fit the criteria of the rare and Endangered Species Act. Builders suddenly found themselves faced with a formidable legal roadblock, and the bulldozers stopped dead in their tracks.
Trouble, though, began within the Save the Mountain community. By this time, some members of our group were serving on local town councils. Even some long-time political incumbents had become closer to us , respecting our "victories." Some of us thought America was finally changing for the better, beginning to bring honesty and justice to its treatment of wild lands and creatures.
But it soon would become clear how power can rift a even a grassroots group which has maintained unity during long and meaningful struggle. At first, perhaps, most of us thought that the Endangered Species Act would work to help us preserve the mountain. Gradually, though, more and more Mountain board members began to lean toward "compromise" of the Act’s essential provisions. They’d been told that the law’s current language was too rigid and restrictive and that without compromise the powerful private landowner’s lobby would prevail in Congress, and the entire Endangered Species Act might be repealed.
A number of meetings took place with senior government officials, legal groups, and even faraway property owners from San Diego and Los Angeles, as well as with builders and with Thomas Reid & Associates, a company hired by San Mateo County to perform “environmental oversight.”
Something decisive was happening with great speed, but most of us had no idea what it was. The HCP turned out to be a manipulation of critical protection criteria, cleverly gutting the Endangered Species Act by redefining the Act’s Section 10 (a). This section states that an agent can kill a butterfly , for example, or any creature, if the destruction occurs in the context of studying the species in an attempt to help it survive. The HCP transforms this provision to allow scientists ( hired by developers) and developers ( in the name of science) to destroy whatever lies in the path of their plans, including entire habitats, as long as some other habitat that approximates the original can be made available. Section 10(a), which had originally tolerated the loss of individual creatures if their loss helped the species as a whole, was replaced by a developer-friendly scheme with no track record that assumed a species can be transplanted to a different habitat like interchangeable parts of a machine. These changes were enacted by Congress in Washington D.C., but were to have immediate and grave implications on the Northeast ridge of San Bruno Mountain.
The HCP’s compromise was the first of its kind. Many of us saw it as an obvious end-run around the spirit of the Endangered Sprecies Act for the convenience and profit of developers. In the face of this new legal reality members of the Committee to Save San Bruno Mountain felt they had to take sides, and their divisions became unbearable. The Committee broke apart.
Bulldozers began running on critical land and the legal destruction of endangered species, now permitted through the "HCP " process, began not only on San Bruno mountain, but across the United States, its authorization now hidden in an arm of the noble environmental Endangered Species Act. During this period, local politicians, the Committee to Save San Bruno Mountain, and the press turned against us. I was accused of rabid protest, worse than Earth First! But long-time allies of the Mountain on the Peninsula and members of the university community re-turned the tide for us with letters, public statements, and published articles. San Bruno Mountain Watch grew while the old Committee to Save San Bruno Mountain fizzled out and disappeared.
Over the next twelve years, carefully documented sequential time photographs made it clear that, because of weather patterns, gorse will not move onto the Ridge, and the Saddle will not support the grassland which the butterflies need. The microclimate on the Northeast Ridge is often sunnier, creating hotter and drier grassland terrain suitable for butterfly host plants, while fog flows over the Saddle, making it cooler and wetter, thus more suitable for coastal scrub. Even if the non-native gorse were removed from the Saddle, and native plants returned, which in any case, was not done, this area would not become significant Mission Blue and Silverspot habitat. This fundamental discovery means that the HCP is now demonstrably unworkable, yet precious butterfly habitat on the Northeast Ridge is gone forever, displaced by houses. It is not surprising, but a bitter irony that across the valley on the Northeast Ridge, where rare and endangered habitat on the Mountain has been destroyed, streets within the new subdivision carved out of the mountain’s flanks now bear names like, "Mission Blue Drive" and "Silverspot Lane."
The San Bruno Mountain HCP became precedent across the nation for hundreds of other similarly flawed "habitat conservation plans," which allowed mining, logging, quarrying, and other development of sensitive habitats.
Fortunately, as a result of dedicated work by Mountain Watch and its allies the State Bond Act was passed in 1989, and Buckeye and Owl Canyons were added to the State and County Park system. There are 20 rare plant and animal species remaining on San Bruno Mountain, and the threat to their habitat continues.
Another fragile battle, resolved in 1999, was a many year "coyote dance" to protect the largest, unruined indigenous village site between Brisbane and South San Francisco, a sheltered mountain valley by the bay. Mountain Watch's legal suit (through our lawyer, Brian Gaffney) concerning endangered species, damaged wetlands, and other issues related to the Urebure/Siplichiquin shellmound halted all construction, including high-rises in the valley from Indian Ridge to the Sierra Point boundary. Also, along with the Trust for Public Land, Jack Myers, Inc., and Patrick Orozco of the Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council, we finally purchased this land, which was then deeded to the State and County Park of San Bruno Mountain in 2004.
Attempting to understand the shellmound and sacred site, we are also returning native plants, culling non-native growth, and, most importantly honoring it by leaving it alone with the hope that it will suffer no further alteration or disturbance.
Aggressive, delicate dreams move forward—with ongoing restoration work, reparation of creeks flowing from the Mountain to the Bay, expansion of wildlife corridors beyond the current park, our Conservancy's vision of routes connecting San Bruno Mountain to McLaren Park and Sweeney Ridge, protection of the Lake Merced dunes— the historical descent of San Bruno Mountain into the ocean, healing of the bay landfill and the watershed of San Bruno Mountain, the planting and return of rare species to the lower Brisbane Acres, and building a native plant nursery and greenhouse in 2009 to replenish the Mountain.
While some battles were lost and others won, a different kind of potency has always been in the background, a vision of San Bruno Mountain as a native place rather than issue or image. Perhaps, some thought, the concept of Park or Preserve can be turned inside out here on San Bruno Mountain—no longer an enclosure under siege, a senescent remnant under glass, but a seed ground; not a place to get away from it all, but a place to get into; not a place to look at, but a place to see from.
Perhaps we can put forward the vision of a new kind of dedicated land, beginning with: What kind of park might be made on the Mountain without the Park and Recreation Department that presently manages it and is subject to political manipulation? Beyond "nature interpretive centers," there do exist many real and untried models. Some see the need for a reinhabitory vision which might become a working reality.
All over the planet are sacred mountains, groves, and water courses of traditional cultures—Mt. Kailas in Tibet, Prescilly Top in England, Wu Tai Shan in China. These were recognitions of innate potency of Place, and so became places to enter into the learning of origin. Australian Aborigines held that particular places were of the Dream Time and a young man might make his Walkabout there as rite of passage, learning his ground. There were routes of pilgrimage, sacred ways and precincts where use and habit might fall away, learning to be found in earth's own feature. And there were the guides, shamans, hermits and tricksters, the Old Woman of the Forest, the Old Man of the Mountain, who knew their ground, might show you the edible roots, the place where a hawk drinks and bathes in the summer, or precisely the way to get lost. Modern science can look superficial and invasive beside ancient learning born of generations of attention to a single place.
Such guides in their native landscapes might point us to a vision of a preserve conceived and guided to nurture Presence and discovery of an "actual earth of value" (Charles Olson). It need be no Olympus or Fujiyama, no Sinai or Gethsemane. The closer and longer we have to look, the more clarity, and a backyard mountain like San Bruno Mountain offers itself easily to the need—the more so since already it bears the wounds of our inattention. Its very lowness on the horizon of our significance becomes the mystery and the learning.
One model for this vision has been a couple dwelling on the Mountain for the past 14 years. Besh and his wife Thelma made their home in the wild crevices of the Mountain, at the base of a three-hundred year old oak tree. Unknown to local officials, they lived lightly on the landscape, drawing fresh water from a nearby spring, going to town for groceries, and carefully tending their environment, not only to keep from harming it, but to fight invasive non-native plants in their area. For many years, they welcomed school classes and hiking groups, showing them the simplicity with which life can be lived in a natural environment, while quietly offering presence within their fragile landscape.
There are still those who turn their backs on the ever-expanding urban grid and its “comforts” which surrounds the mountain’s formidable wilderness. Characterized by some as "homeless" and "troubled", they have , in fact, been extraordinarily sensitive to the Mountain’s inner life, and found ways to live in harmony with it. Besh and Thelma are just two of the many who have quietly entered the poison oak forests of San Bruno Mountain over the years. An unwritten borderline of steep secret scrub oak hills deters most urban dwellers. Not even police venture there. Shimmering canyons are hardly seen even from Brisbane or Daly City. But there are hardy ones who have slipped into the hidden chaparral.
In 1969, I discovered a moldering collapsed cabin in the willows of upper Daly City, with a homemade table, chair and wooden bed. In 2008, after an interim of 80 long years, fire swept through Buckeye and Owl Canyons and exposed an even older rock cabin, concealed for perhaps 200 years. Occasionally, we stumble upon hidden settlements deep in the Mountain-- where people knew how to find water, were able to handle fire secretly, and to use the natural camouflage of air,wind, fog and rain, to carefully disguise the paths to their dwellings; to survive without a store nearby.
Among the hermits there have been hostile and troubled people, as well as friendly souls. One long- time hermit died on the Mountain. Each of them, in their way, have sought space and healing in the shelter of wild land, leaving behind the often unforgiving judgements and pressures of the world we have made. In this way their journeys honor the earth and their experiences are a source of learning for us.
Since parts of the Mountain became State and County Park after 1980, its hermits have experienced many ups and downs at the hands of local authorities. San Mateo County and the City of Brisbane were ruthless in their eviction of Besh and Thelma even though some rangers expressed gratitude for their careful management of the land.
When local officials chose to alter a tacit policy of "leaving them be", Besh and Thelma’s quiet, ingenious homestead was demolished and they were forced to move on. Yet those who witnessed the impact of their presence on literally thousands of school children continue to hope for a nature preserve which would welcome the presence of such hardy, knowledgeable and dedicated souls, who have chosen to live out the values of simplicity and ecological consciousness, and who are teachers of the timeless ways of being with the natural world.
In this way, San Bruno Mountain might become not just a place we need to save, but a place that may save us.