Nightwalk, Paddle, and Ride: A Community Interview: Craig Anderson, LandPaths Executive Director by Willi Paul

LandPaths connects you to land by getting you outside to:

Bike, paddle, wheelchair, (use a) walker, ride, hike, farm, build trail, burn slash, (with your) school class, rebuild cabin, raise barn, install solar on cabin, lay irrigation lines, cut firewood, patrol trails, clean culverts, rebuild culverted channels, grow peppers and tomatillos, salvage old growth wood from barns, cull pigs & turkeys, break bread with new friends, find and revisit sit spots, bird watch, star gaze, relocate salmon from puddle to creek with hats, search for lost hikers, rock climb, plan trails, mend fences, chip Douglas fir, tell stories, camp out, play soccer in pasture, cook a meal in field with fresh-picked produce, plant-water-weed-water and weed native plants (repeat), smack rocks (w/rock hammer), build fairy houses at base of trees, fly kites, pick berries, walk up a creek, paddle through phosphorescence, find pictures in clouds, listen in silence, climb trees, hoot for owls, inventory natural resources, collect/eat edibles, search for frogs, fish, tidepool, swim, make wreaths/baskets, play music outside, roll down hills, listen to stories, find topographic diversity for answering the call, follow lady bugs and ants on knees, climb a tree, dig, drive tractor and shovel compost.

With your help, we will continue to add to this list and ‘feel the thrill’ of being outside.

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Interview with Craig by Willi

What are the key values that you are teaching kids through LandPaths?

”Kids” for LandPaths is anyone and of any age who is open to the notion that deepening – and in many cases just establishing – a relationship with the wild and working landscapes of Sonoma County is an act that can dramatically expand meaning in life, deepens a sense of community and ultimately helps the natural communities that define our shared, incomparable landscape. That said, we try to “teach” the beauty of this place – that the fog-blown headlands of the Sonoma Coast and bone dry oaks and madrones of the Mayacamas come August are equally, if not more so, satisfying to the soul than the waterfalls of Yosemite, the depths of Lake Tahoe or anywhere else in the world one might travel to.

The destination is here, the stories are here, the food is waiting to be grown in our own front yard gardens and the county’s trails need their stewardship to stay clear, the local parks need their volunteer hours and sweat to stay open, the local businesses their $ to stay thriving and the local watersheds and creatures their informed and active participation in caring for.

What values are common from the kids when they first enter a program?

To answer this question fully it would have to be posed to our Education Program Director and Assistant Director, Bree and Lansia, respectively. I would venture that all kids, while they may be over-stimulated with urban distractions and technology that would seemingly compete for their attention, that they’re down to the last one actually quite open and easy to reach and inspire with what LandPaths sells: a relationship with land and place. In other words, all kids are open to the outdoors – whether a working landscape or the wilds – because it’s arguably the most amazing thing that anyone has to offer to another person. Let’s face it, take them from the parking lot of a big box store one afternoon and let them wander the next morning up a creek beneath big-leafed maple and alder, with caddis fly abounding on every rock and shaded water trickling below dragonflies…there’s nothing those stores can possibly sell that competes with natures grandness!

A sense of wonder for how they’re connected to land, a sense of humor outside when allowed to express it and amazing creativity in capturing story and poem and watercolor in their journals – these are values that all children share in our education program, In Our Own Backyard. Last, unbridled curiosity – in the most articulate form – is something our kids share when they are allowed to discover the wild creek, explore the working farm or sit face to face with an 80-something rancher of Portuguese or Italian ancestry to learn about the ‘real culture connected to place that is alive and well.’

Nice. A balance between hands-on learning and time for reflection. How do you program this synergy?

I don’t know that any of us at LandPaths would pretend that it’s really all that hard. The open landscape does most of the work, we’re just the guides. And this ‘synergy’ you allude to is something that impacts both the school-aged kids and the “kids” of all ages that help us steward one of the only nonprofit-managed State Parks in California (Willow Creek), two of LandPaths own wildland preserves (outside Occidental and Healdsburg) and the first “Farm-based Park” (Bayer Farm in Roseland neighborhood of Santa Rosa). More specifically, we try not to over-plan our forays into the outdoors… but instead do as you note, to provide that ‘balance’ by simply giving every group some chance to touch the soil, ideally through the act of “sweat equity,” and moments of quiet as well as the opportunity to speak up to the larger group.

All people have something to share, whatever their level of expertise or non-experience. The admission from a new-be that “this is great, this is what I’ve been longing for” is just as powerful an inspired talk by an expert in ornithology. I suppose that providing space for people to relate to the local land in all its diverse forms and in a diversity of ways (hike, wheelchair, nightwalk, paddle, ride, in languages other than English, sleep beneath the stars) is in many ways an art form that we have been working on for 13 years…and it’s a balance created by years of practice and simply watching for what works.

Is LandPaths doing permaculture?

If permaculture is an attempt at fashioning the human world based on the natural one, I would venture that yes, LandPaths strives for this in everything it does. While our agricultural efforts thus far are humble (but having a significant impact in the Roseland community at Bayer Farm), I would say that our park management models, our schools program, even our new “hut-to-hut” initiative – that they’re all based on tried and true ways that people have interacted with land for thousands of years.

That is, we try to lift from those examples where nature is respected as instructor and not to be tinkered with before observing what’s working, what not, and we try to manage land using community members’ sweat and ideas – versus a more traditional model of policing for the lowest common denominator. Perhaps what we’re practicing is more “cultural permaculture?” It’s about observing what’s worked well, honoring land and respecting people’s ability and intentions…that they already “get it” before we have to fill them with ideas. Sure, there’s always some leading that needs to take place of the uninitiated and keeping frost-damaged fruit from spreading to the entire bushel, but we start with “the answer is probably right in front of us and already been practiced effectively and efficiently without having to reinvent it.”

How do you experience the spirits in The Grove?

By just walking and listening. The Grove of Old Trees, its formal name, is the only privately-owned nature preserve free and open to the public in Sonoma County. It’s an incredible place that has only been owned only thrice prior to LandPaths taking title in 2000, and two of those owners were logging families that logged much of the timber on the ridges within miles of the Grove. Therefore, “them is some powerful spirits in those giant, thousand year-old redwood trees!” It’s an equally powerful place to LandPaths because we have a group of neighbors that have stepped up in the past two years to steward the preserve with us in partnership.

We hope it’s a model for how a group of people, living around a landscape, can come together to take care of it so that we can keep adding new parks AND working farms and landscapes to the list of outdoor places protected forever. Imagine if every watershed or couple of miles along a road had a place like the grove where people not only steward that place, but come together over hard work and outdoor meals and indoor planning…that would be an incredible act of “community building.” Through this snowballing effect, perhaps the spirits in the Grove are inspiring us to experience more than could ever be found in its mere 35 acres?

One thing is sure: we don’t provide for an experience at the Grove by copious signs and heavy site improvements and request-for-donation-envelopes. It’s about the majesty and awe found in an old-growth redwood forest. What more do you need than that?

Is sustainability the same as stewardship?

Good question. Maybe it is. We’ll know in the long-term, but I don’t know that we can answer that with any sense of confidence right now. Stewardship to us is a long-termed commitment to a place, an observance of and listening to the land and everyone that’s a part of it in order to find that ‘beta’ on where to point the nose of our proverbial craft as we enter the rapid. As for that other loaded word, my friend Peter Forbes quotes his next door neighbor in Vermont, a maple syrup or “sugarbush” farmer, after hearing about Peter’s work in “sustainable communities” as saying “well, my marriage is just sustainable.” That doesn’t sound all that progressive, does it? Shouldn’t we be aiming for “thriving” or something akin to that?

Even though I studied ecology at UC Berkeley I can’t say I know for certain what “sustainability” is…and even if we did, who’s the one to judge if we achieved it? Perhaps it loops back to “permaculture” – as in doing the best job mimicking natural systems for both improving the human-created environment and continuing agricultural practice. My guess is that the more listening we do, the more we incorporate the observation of our kids when they get outdoors, the more we learn the place-names given to us by the Pomo, Kashia, Wappo, Miwok, the more stories we can get out of the old ranching families that settled here and the more we pattern ourselves off the first thing here ( n a t u r e ), the closer to sustainable we’ll be. One thing is for sure, we don’t have a lot of spare time in which to waste not listening on how to get it right.

How does relate to LandPaths?

In as many ways as there are people interested in being inspired about how to live lighter, live healthier, live better and more connected to their community and physical place. For one thing, Daily Acts and LandPaths work to value the knowledge that’s already here. Both organizations also try to impart that it goes well beyond just the rain water catchment system or the trail work day…it’s the bigger ripples that occur out there that are unseen to us as staff, board, volunteers. For us that’s the entire school that now has a recycling program because of the In Our Own Backyard students created it, or the front yard and abandoned lot gardens that have sprung up for blocks surrounding our Bayer Farm Park and Gardens. For Daily Acts and LandPaths both it’s about empowerment of people and relationship – and ultimately care for – the place we live. And this takes a lot of partnering with our sister agencies both public and private, both nonprofit and local businesses.

Please explain just who these socioeconomically & ethnically diverse Sonoma County students are! How do their needs differ?

They are students from urban schools that have native non-English speakers filling the majority of seats in the classroom, as well as European-American kids from middle class homes that have been to the ocean, have tasted a farmers-market bell pepper and have access to a shaded hiking or biking trail. We have kids in our programs from a minimum of 5 different cultural groups across Sonoma County and with a true spectrum of experience with the land. As we all know, the Latino population will continue to increase in Sonoma County over the coming years and their voice is important.

The Bayer Farm was borne in many ways to establish a relationship with a diverse (14 languages spoken in Roseland) – while largely Spanish-speaking community where we gather with people over three elements: farming, fun in the outdoors and healthy food.

Students’ needs differ in terms of exposure to the outdoors, in part because access to land historically, and for many reasons, hasn’t always been equal. For some, it’s realizing that nature IS grand and more magical than the finest documentary displayed on an HD screen, for others it’s a sense of belonging to “tribe” and “being of this place” when they are invited to play in a space that is so different than the built environment. Ultimately, all these kids “perform” by virtue of wanting to come back to their adopted place, by incorporating what they learn and experience in their field sessions directly back into their classroom work, and by being increasingly inquisitive as they anticipate the next of their four visits from fall to spring. The opportunity to visit the same outdoor place four times during the course of the school year, with journal in hand and each with their own “adopted tree” – isn’t that something that all of our kids deserve to experience?

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Craig Anderson Bio –

Craig Anderson has been LandPaths Executive Director since 1997. Working with Assistant Director Lee Hackeling he has framed, developed funding and helped implement LandPaths flagship programs. He has been a natural history interpreter in Yosemite National Park, worked for the California Nature Conservancy, and taught lower division college courses in general ecology, including study abroad programs in Jamaica, Puerto Rico and New Zealand. In addition, Craig spent 7 summers in the collegiate peaks range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains running a mountaineering program for high school students teaching rafting and whitewater kayaking skills and safety, nine summers as chief naturalist and mountaineering guide at Thacher School’s Golden Trout Camp in the Inyo National Forest out of Lone Pine. Craig holds an M.S. in Range Ecology from University of California, Berkeley, and a single subject teaching credential in life sciences from University of California, Santa Barbara.