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My Decade with Continuing Education

Jasper Ridge Continuing Education Class in the field

It is no surprise to me that I have spent this past decade with our Jasper Ridge Continuing Education program. The outdoors has been educating me since my younger days in Carmel, a small community surrounded by open land and sea. Whether it was spending days on end roaming the Carmel River looking for wildlife, hiking the Big Sur Trails, or snorkeling the kelp forests near Point Lobos, I was taught many of the ways of nature by nature itself. I had so many good teachers growing up in grammar and high school, but one stands taller than the others. And this was a diminutive lady who taught Biology at Carmel High School in the 1940’s and 50’s. Enid Larson was ahead of her time when she started an outdoor classroom on a neglected corner of the high school campus; an oak grassland and chaparral hillside that she named the “Natural Area” with a hard “A” on that last word. So unique was this at the time that she was featured in a well-read magazine of those years - the Readers Digest. All of us, learned much from her but one lesson stands out. On a field trip to nearby Point Lobos State Reserve, I picked up a walking stick from the beach. A half mile later Miss Larson asked me where I got the stick. I responded, “On that beach back there”. She said, “Gary, go back and put that stick exactly where you found it”. The lesson is learned… Leave nature alone…let it be!

After retiring from decades of chasing electrons around integrated circuits in the electronics business, it was my wife, Liz, who encouraged me to pursue another science-based interest to complement our common love of the outdoors. I was introduced to Cindy Wilber and soon joined the Jasper Ridge Docent Program. As I drove through the Jasper Ridge entrance gate those early years for our Thursday afternoon classes, I’d think about dear Miss Larson and what luck that I once again found a way to have a Natural Area in my life.

All docents agree on the wealth of information we all absorbed on those Thursday afternoon classes during the six months of rain or shine classes. But as the years went by, the need for refresher courses in natural history became evident. We docents did benefit from Tony Corelli’s yearly Wildflower Walk and Leo Laporte’s occasional Geology classes, but a program of regular refresher courses of natural history content was what we needed. When I decided to organize the idea of refresher classes I turned to Cindy Wilber. She was helpful as she schooled me in how Jasper Ridge operates and stressed that the program needed to be docent managed, making little or no demands on staff time. She reminded me that within the docent community, there was a plethora of skilled, knowledgeable, and talented members to lead the various topics in our natural history classes. For a program name, ah, that was more difficult. For lack of a catchy name Cindy and I settled on the simple, but serviceable, Continuing Education.

Figure 1. John Rawlings leading the trees and shrubs walk. Photo by Dan Quinn.

For the most part, the subject of the classes was centered on plants and animals of Jasper Ridge; Wildflowers, Shrubs and Trees, Lichens, Geology, History, but other topics ranged from a brain teasing Chemistry in Ecology class, an Astronomy Night Star Party when participants stayed up late on a June night to view the magnificent Nebulae toward the center of our Galaxy, and of, course, the wild and intimate story of the Sex Life of the Acorn Woodpecker. Occasionally we use the classroom when we get shuttered in by weather or need a slide show introduction, but mostly we walk the trails, hills, and meadows of Jasper Ridge. We learned trail etiquette as a central theme: learn, enjoy, see, listen, smell and touch but don’t take. Leave nature alone…let it be!

And who are some of our docents who have made for interesting times? The day we were practicing teaching strategies we remember Susan Walz using the California Bay as an “each one, teach one” exercise. Knowing that the Dusky Footed Wood Rat uses Bay leaves to discourage vermin in their nests, Susan turned to her fellow docents and helpfully asked, ”Do you have fleas”? Stu Koretz and Jack Owicki have stretch our brains from time to time with details about the lives of plants and animals. John Rawlings insisted that nobody cared about the Grasses of Jasper Ridge, yet each of his classes were full to the limit. Diane Renshaw has organized and led 11 events herself. On occasion fellow docents have led us in off-campus events: Tidepooling at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve with Bill Gomez, Baylands Restoration Projects with Jane Moss, and hiking at Rancho del Oso Reserve with Walt Hayes.

Leo Laporte
Figure 2. Leo LaPorte explaining Jasper Ridge geology. Photo by Dan Quinn.

In the 18 years since my first Docent Class I can say, thankfully, that Jasper Ridge has undergone few changes. That’s what we expect if we let nature be. Where we did not leave nature alone by building the dam more than 120 years ago, is where we see changes. Eighteen years ago while walking the bridge at the west end of the lake, my fellow docent class members saw past the rushes to open water and all the way to the dam. That view is now shrouded by thick growths of willows that have taken root on the sediment washed in from Corte Madera Creek. External forces and the decade or so of lower rainfall, has stressed some trees and shrubs. Automobile exhaust with its propensity to fertilize non-native grasses at the expense of wildflowers has likely diminished some of the wildflower displays. But most of the grasslands, the streamside riparian areas, and the oak woodlands look the same. Best of all, the people who direct and maintain Jasper Ridge, lead the tours, and visit as guests are unchanged. I cannot imagine another organization with such agreeable people. I’m not ready to stop learning and neither are the docents and Jasper Ridge community members that continue to attend our Continuing Education events.

And now for the statistics. Our Continuing Education programs started in 2011 when Philippe Cohen led off with a status on the proposed Searsville Lake and Dam project. This fall we held our 68th Continuing Education class. Of those 68 classes, 44 were led by our fellow docents, 15 by Stanford staff, students, and affiliates, 5 by the Jasper Ridge Staff and 4 by external resources. The content of all these classes through all these years and the words of our leaders have left us with a common rule of the land…Leave nature alone…let it be!

Rodolfo Dirzo
Figure 3. Rodolfo Dirzo teaching herbivory concepts using his long-term oak study at Jasper Ridge. Photo by Dan Quinn.

Cover picture also by Dan Quinn.


Gary NielsenGary Nielsen 
Jasper Ridge Docent, Class of 2004

(Photo by Dan Quinn)