Radicalized by a creek

A story in today’s San Francisco Chronicle pasted a huge smile on my face. It’s about the Butters Canyon Conservancy in Oakland, California, which recently passed a significant milestone—sealing the deal on the last for-sale property along a green stretch of urban creek.

under bay trees hanging over a small road, a person walks their dog

Butters Canyon. Photo by Michael Macor / The Chronicle

The story juices me because Butters Canyon was my home for some years, and I founded this land trust in 2001. I never set out to work in land conservation. It’s just that I got radicalized by a little urban creek flowing far below my kitchen window.

My partner and I bought the hillside house during the rainy El Niño winter of 1997–98, and Peralta Creek was a roaring presence outside the house during the first months we lived there. For years I walked this stretch of Butters Drive with my dog, Sapphire, soaking in the peace of spreading bay trees and the seasonal trickle of water nestled in a crevice of tangled green.

But in 1998 when I moved in, the base of the canyon was a mess. Peering over the edge of the street, you could see a mattress or two, some tires lodged in the dirt, and more pieces of old machinery than you could count. So with the help of the city’s hauling service, the neighbors and I organized a creek cleanup. I’d never been part of one and had no idea if people were interested in stumbling up and down fifty feet of steep, poison oak–strewn canyon hillside to haul trash out of a creekbed.

But that foggy September morning, around fifty people showed up, and over the course of the day we wrested out stoves, bed springs, enough rusty furnishings to fill an apartment. The ones who stuck around for pizza and sunshine gathered for a group photo that afternoon. That’s me in the red shirt holding my small next-door neighbor:

Group standing beside a bay tree in bright sunlight with a creek cleanup sign

Photo by Craig

The following spring, when a parcel in the canyon came up for sale, the logical next step was a land trust. Not that I knew anything about land trusts or had ever worked in real estate. But there are books and people to ask for advice, and with their help I filed the papers and called a few people together as a board. We wrote up our strategic plan, started fund-raising . . . and a decade later the land trust completes this stage of its mission.

I moved out of the neighborhood long ago so have not been part of the workings of the land trust for most of its life. But I took this lesson with me: Never underestimate the power of a creek to change your thinking, and your life.



10 Responses to Radicalized by a creek

  1. Gail Storey says:March 5, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    This elucidates your blossoming as a creek lover–a beautiful, inspiring piece!

  2. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:March 5, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    That was truly an inspiring day, that first creek cleanup. When I saw the piles of trash accumulating up on the street and caught a whiff of what can only be called joy–neighbors who had never met before enjoying working together, enjoying cooperating, enjoying taking care of the place where they lived–I felt that I’d just done the most valuable thing I might ever do with my life. Thanks for enjoying the story, Gail.

  3. Jesse says:March 5, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    Who would have thunk it??? Definitely a labor of love. So satisfying to think that the last vacant parcel is protected. I’ve continued my efforts for the Tuolumne River, and now live in Modesto. When I started with Butters, there was so much wrong with the world, and I just wanted one thing to be right. It’s nice to think it has continued and hopefully the momentum will spread.
    Best to you,

  4. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:March 5, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Jesse, who would have thunk it indeed? And there you are working in river conservation. And with a family now too, I hear, including a baby. Congratulations! Thanks for stopping by, and all the best in your river work.

  5. Laurel Kallenbach says:March 9, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    This just goes to prove that all global change begins with people making an effort in their own back yards. How wonderful that you and your community have been able to save the creek!

  6. Kathy Kaiser says:March 10, 2010 at 10:04 am

    It’s so wonderful that 50 people shared your love of the creek and were willing to do the dirty work to clean it up. This is an inspiring story.

  7. Jerrie Hurd says:March 10, 2010 at 10:21 am

    Such a nice success!!!

  8. Andy Stanton says:March 10, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    Congratulations, Priscilla! What a wonderful thing you and your neighbors have done. It’s wonderful to think that these parcels of land are now protected. Yay!!!

  9. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:March 10, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Thanks to all of you for cheering us on! I’m telling a more complete story of the early days of the conservancy as one chapter in my book. I always felt that the creek was drawing together the very people who were needed to get the job of preservation done. There is magic in the land!