15 Years of Bay Nature: A Talk by Publisher David Loeb

February 25, 2016
At the annual luncheon for retired East Bay Regional Park District employees last month, Bay Nature publisher David Loeb shared his thoughts on the roots of his interest in the natural world — and what motivated him to start Bay Nature magazine 15 years ago. David shared the podium with Bay Nature cofounder, Malcolm Margolin, who will be honored at Bay Nature’s Local Awards Dinner on March 20, 2016.

Thanks for the opportunity to be here with you for the annual EBRPD retirees luncheon. I believe that I have the distinct if somewhat dubious honor of being the only person in the room who has NOT been an employee of the East Bay Regional Park District. And Bob, are you and I the only two guys in the room who are not yet retired? Malcolm, congratulations to you on your recent retirement from Heyday; I’m delighted that you lasted longer there than you did at the District. It is because of that, that I have had the honor to work closely with you on starting Bay Nature and getting it off the ground and into orbit.

Since I’ve never been an employee of the district, and haven’t yet retired, I assume my presence here is due to the fact that I’m the still-working publisher and cofounder of Bay Nature magazine, which has been a proud and grateful partner of the Park District since our launch in 2001. In fact, the very first issue of the magazine appeared 15 years ago this week, so being here with you all is a great way to start the celebration of our 15th anniversary.

When invited to speak to knowledgeable people like you, I face a dilemma. As an editor and a publisher, I’m cursed with a little knowledge about a lot of things, but not a lot of knowledge about any one thing. We take up a topic, learn enough about it to print an informative and readable article and then move on to the next story. So on almost any topic you could think of — anadramous fish, native riparian vegetation, the health of San Francisco Bay, lichens—I could easily help you find more informed speakers. The only thing I can claim some expertise in is putting together a magazine about the natural world of the Bay Area.

The first question then, is how I got myself into this thing. I like to trace the roots of my foolhardy decision to start a local nature magazine about the Bay Area back to an unlikely place, far far away from the hills of the East Bay. But in another way, perhaps not so far. Because just as Bob Doyle’s hero, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., had a key role in the genesis of the East Bay Regional Parks, so he did – in a more roundabout way – in the genesis of Bay Nature. That’s because, as a little kid growing up in an apartment building in Manhattan, my “backyard”, my Tilden and Wildcat and Chabot was a nearby park that had been famously designed by Mr. Olmsted … Central Park.

I started out playing in fenced playgrounds, where my mother could keep a close eye on me. But my friends and I soon graduated to the more natural and unstructured play areas provided by the many rock formations that appear throughout the park. It was on and around those rocks of different sizes and configurations that my friends and I concocted and played out our fantasy games of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, space explorers in rocket ships, etc, utilizing all the nooks and crannies of the rocks and the surrounding vegetation for hideouts, jails, moonscapes, and so on.

Of course, we had no idea we were playing on 450 million year old schist with veins of granite and couldn’t have cared less. But the point is that even in the midst of New York’s highly urbanized environment, my friends and I sought out the one accessible natural area nearby and utilized the landscape that had been shaped by the creative genius of Olmsted as our wildly unstructured play landscape. And that was really my introduction to the natural world, though I certainly wasn’t conscious of it at the time. And though I certainly enjoy nature in a much different way these days, I wonder if I would have had the same connection if I hadn’t had the good fortune to be allowed to play outside in an unstructured way from an early age, even in the midst of the Big City.

There were many other events, large and small, that led to my sending a typed letter, via US mail, proposing the idea of a local nature magazine for the Bay Area to Malcolm. That was in late January, 1997. Like all of us here, I had encountered [Malcolm’s book] Ohlone Way early on, and it had transformed the way I experienced the Bay Area. And then East Bay Out, which guided and informed my periodic rambles in the East Bay Regional Parks. So I sensed this was someone who might understand what I had in mind. And so I was overjoyed when, just a few days later, I received a typed letter back from Malcolm inviting me to come in and talk to him about the idea. Perhaps my joy would have been tempered somewhat if I had realized at the time that it would take us four years to develop the idea, consult with people in the field, create a business plan, raise money, produce a sample, assemble a team, raise more money, find an office, raise more money, and launch the thing.

It still surprises me how everything eventually fell into place. It wasn’t without a lot of pushing and pulling and starting and stopping, but Malcolm was the key to unlocking the door into a community of people who are passionate about Bay Area nature and understood the concept of the magazine right off the bat and offered their help. Two of those people were Jerry Kent and Beverly Lane, who laid the groundwork for the wonderful and mutually beneficial partnership with the park district that continues up to the present.

But here I’d like to step back from the history of the magazine, and ask a more difficult question, which is why do we need Bay Nature? With all of the problems in the world today and all of the competition for people’s time and attention, is it necessary to have a magazine that features local plants and animals and landscapes? Why is a local nature magazine worth doing and worth supporting? Of course, I am biased, but I do think about this, because I can assure you we don’t do Bay Nature for the money!

Frankly, we do it in part just for the joy of sharing our experiences in the natural world. I think we have a tendency to lose touch with those moments of epiphany in nature that led us to take a nature-oriented career path in the first place. Moments like standing on the crest of Bob Walker Ridge at Morgan Territory the day after Christmas and looking east to the snow covered crest of the Sierra, and having a golden eagle soar by directly overhead. It’s moment like these that remind me of what we have: surviving ecosystems with the tremendous biological and scenic diversity in the midst of one of the world’s most dynamic major metropolitan areas.

So, as I’ve said, part of what led me to start Bay Nature was simply the desire to share these kinds of free and easily-accessible experiences in local nature that have the potential to fill our senses and open our hearts, and inspire/encourage others to go seek them out as well. But there’s something deeper than that.

There’s also a piece about feeling connected to the place where you live, as both an end in itself and as an antidote to the fractured, disconnected, corporatized nature of life in our world. As I have worked on Bay Nature over the past decade and a half, I’ve become more and more convinced that we have the opportunity here in the Bay Area to create a sustainable relationship between human society and natural ecosystems. Is there a way we humans can live on the planet, live in the Bay Area, and share it with these critters and plants and rocks that were here long before we arrived? Or put another way, I don’t think there IS a way we can live on the planet WITHOUT sharing it with them.

When we notice the ruby crowned kinglets returning to our neighborhood oak trees in the fall, or witness the return of Coho salmon to the creeks of west Marin in early winter, or smell the blooming buck brush on Mount Diablo in early spring, or hear the song of the Swainson’s Thrush up the hill in Wildcat Canyon in early summer, then we’re tuning in to the seasonal cycles of our home. By doing that, by identifying and recognizing these native species and their cycles, and in helping to introduce them to others, we come to feel a little bit more at home in our home, and more like we belong here with them.

Of course, for good or ill, nowadays we no longer have to depend as our ancestors did, on receiving and understanding these seasonal signals from the natural world, and the resources they represent, to feed and clothe and house ourselves. But I don’t think that the severing of our physical dependence on these natural cues for our individual and collective survival has done away with our spiritual need for that connection, for a communion with our natural surroundings.

Because ultimately, we DO still depend on the natural world and its resources for survival, even if we are separated from that reality by many layers of plastic packaging. And we ignore that fact at our peril. As humans, we have the power to intellectually understand the cycles of the natural world in a way that other species don’t. And that means we also have the power to disrupt those cycles. But we don’t have the power to escape the consequences of disrupting them, at least not forever. Indeed, this severing of our connection to the natural world has had serious and far-reaching consequences, with climate change as Exhibit A.

So what’s the role of a local nature magazine in the face of our species’ seemingly inexorable march to the proverbial edge of the cliff?

Several years ago, we published an essay by author Greg Sarris, Tribal Chair of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, the descendants of the Coast Miwok and Pomo people who were the original inhabitants of the areas we now call Marin and Sonoma. In his essay about sacred places, Sarris describes how the traditional Coast Miwok viewed the landscape as a network of places that were imbued with stories of the generations that had come before. Right here might be the place where your mother gathered grass seeds, and over there the place that the healer would go to sing songs to cure the sick, and up there the place where the village would move to pick acorns in the fall, and so on.

Sarris asks us to imagine a map showing the lines between all these places, and he goes on, “Eventually there would be so many places and connecting lines that the map would finally look like a tightly woven, intricately designed Miwok basket. The patterns would circle around, endless, beautiful, so that the map would, in the end, designate the territory in its entirety… Each place, each person, you and me, the earth, water, and sky, inseparable, fully connected.” All of it sacred.

I don’t want to romanticize Miwok life, which was often pretty hard; but there is no denying that the Miwok, and the many other tribal peoples of this region, had a pretty good record of thriving on this land base as a people and keeping it healthy and productive over the course of 5,000 years or more. Something that we—with all our technology and enterprise—have not been able to replicate in the mere two and a half centuries since we arrived on the scene.

But Bay Nature is not about mourning what’s been lost. It’s important to recognize what was here before, but not be immobilized by our sense of loss. Because the story actually isn’t all bad news. We’ve got harbor porpoises swimming in San Francisco Bay again. We’ve got condors sighted at Henry Coe State Park for the first time in living memory. You’ve got least terns nesting along the Hayward Shoreline. And so much more.

As I understand it, the Miwok gave meaningful names to the features of their environment and imbued them with stories as a way to pass on the culture’s accumulated knowledge of the land and its resources to succeeding generations. Well, here in the Bay Area, we are again beginning to accumulate deep knowledge of the landscapes around us, and now have sufficient wisdom and experience to weave our own stories for our peers and for our children. That’s what we want to do in Bay Nature.

As I’ve worked at Bay Nature, I’ve been awed by the extent and depth of knowledge about the natural world here in the Bay Area, thanks in no small part to many of you here in this room – Alan Kaplan, Steve Edwards, Bob Doyle, Jerry Kent, Malcolm Margolin, and so on.

And I have been delighted to learn about the many grassroots, local citizen efforts to protect, learn about, and restore nearby pieces of the environment. We have largely moved from defense to offense, beyond just defending remaining outposts of the natural world, to learning how to restore huge swaths, like the South Bay salt ponds and the creek restoration movement that started right here in the Bay Area, and has become a force for change in both the landscape and in the communities that live around the creeks. Throw in all of the native plant groups and open space organizations and trail groups and environmental education projects, and you’ve got the makings of a dynamic and effective movement.

Bay Nature’s small role in all of this is to take these stories and amplify them, to spread them around, and to help inform, nurture and sustain this growing community of people who are committed to reversing the process of our alienation from the planet, and to building a critical mass of people who are committed to reconnecting with it.

That basket that Greg Sarris was talking about – that imagined map of our home landscape – has become frayed and torn over the years. But as we start to refill the landscape with our own stories, as we start to re-fashion a 21st century geography of our home – the basket can be repaired and restored, not exactly like it was before, but now with some designs of our own making, based on the work that you and many other Bay Area residents have been doing in our own watersheds and our own parks and open spaces.

Bay Nature is both fed by this movement, and feeds it in turn, by putting these experiences into words, assembling the words into a product that is attractive and accessible, and sharing that with others, which hopefully inspires them to get involved, or stay involved.

I have no doubt used up more than my allotted time. Thanks for your attention. Thanks for all you have done and continue to do to make sure there are unstructured natural places for young people to play and come into contact with the natural world, and to grow up as the next generation of actors and story tellers and stewards of our beautiful, crazy, mixed up planet.

Join Our Birthday Celebration!
Bay Nature celebrated its 15th anniversary — and the centennial year of the National Park Service — at its Local Hero Awards Dinner on March 20, 2016.

About the Author