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Home Soil

Local activists work to return California to its roots

By Gretchen Giles

When the car has coughed its last shudder still and the engine and the radio and the slam of the doors have ceased, the silence shimmers up from the ground. It is hugely, thickly, quiet at the Ya-Ka-Ama Native Plant Nursery. Nursery workers dig and transplant under a cloth-softened awning, the light purple of wild radish flowers and the outlandish yellow of mustard scatter the meadows, and on this big-sky Saturday in late winter we are the only other people walking the grounds.

Laid out on tables and on the tarped ground are plants of all description, ranging from grasses to potted trees to flowers and fruiters. All seems as at any other gardening center, except that at Ya-Ka-Ama, this is the same vegetation that the first people who walked this land would have seen as they built their communities.

Founded in 1972 and dubbed Ya-Ka-Ama ("Our Land") after Native Americans reclaimed this defunct CIA broadcast monitoring station in Forestville on the strength of the "1878 Treaty"--the same act allowing Native Americans the right to take over surplus government land that activists used to justify their occupation of Alcatraz--Ya-Ka-Ama is, among other things, a nursery devoted to the preservation of plants native to the Golden State.

Walk through the hallways of the old building centered squat among the gardens, where doors labeled as learning and computer rooms stand shuttered after-hours. During business hours, these rooms are classrooms for tribal members from Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Marin, and Napa counties who seek GED equivalency and computer skills. Staff offices are used for facilitating the adoption and fostering of children from these tribes by families of similar blood. But the nursery provides the sustenance of the place.

Caught by surprise as he heats up his lunch, nursery assistant manager Nathan Rich flips his hair over his shoulder. "California has the highest rate of decimation of native plants [of any state in the Union]," he says softly. "Our basic goal is to propagate native plants and provide them to regrowth and restoration projects," such as the Brush Creek and Santa Rosa Creek plans.

A city boy who grew up in Oakland, Rich came to Sonoma County to play ball for the JC. An injury bounced him out and he found himself drawn to the work at Ya-Ka-Ama. Showing the inward smile of someone who simply cannot believe his own good fortune, Rich says, "I would like to see young ones out here working with the plants. I'd like to see them connect back with the earth."

You don't have to look far to find the source of Rich's inspiration. The nursery manager at Ya-Ka-Ama for the past seven years, Sage La Pena dreamt when she was a child that she would spend her life working with the speechless souls of plants. A member of the Wintu tribe, La Pena--who is a master gardener--is completely self-taught. "I learned about California native plants by being with them, walking among them," she says, noting that the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve in Guerneville is a good example of a pristine native species spot.

Ya-Ka-Ama offers over 50 varieties of hardy, drought-resistant native grasses and such indigenous trees as buckeyes and oaks. "Most of these plants don't want to be watered," she offers. "They don't want to be pruned."

Conceding that "people are growing more conscious in general of their stewardship of the earth," La Pena nonetheless bemoans those who "still want their homes to have the look of an English garden." Citing our unrelieved summers and uncertain winters, she says, "That's just not going to happen here."

Begun in 1965 from a loose association of botanists who met regularly in Berkeley's Tilden Park, the California Native Plant Society now has chapters throughout the state. In Sonoma County, the 500-member branch is called the Milo Baker Chapter in honor of SRJC botanist Milo Baker. Composed of amateur and professional botanists, CNPS members advise on development projects and occupy themselves with the horrific job of cataloging the list of the native endangered plants that has recently swollen to a shameful 123 species.

CNPS member Betty Guggolz is in her active mid-70s and not about to slow down. Citing agriculture, overgrazing, the prevalence of "escaped exotics"--those plants brought from afar--recreation, and lumbering as the top predators of indigenous plants, Guggolz says simply, "Every time a vineyard goes in, there are no natives left."

Cautioning that "we don't want collecting in the wild," both Guggolz and La Pena agree that planting and tending native plants in your home garden will drain the bloat from your water bill and ease your gardening load. "Growing natives is a water saver," Guggolz asserts. "They do need TLC for the first year, but after that they're on their own.

"People need to know a bit about [the plant's] natural habitat," before they buy, she adds. "It takes a little thinking, but it's worth it."


The Ya-Ka-Ama Native Plant Nursery is at 6215 Eastside Road, Forestville. 887-1541. The California Native Plant Society meets monthly and holds twice-yearly sales, with the next slated for mid-April. Its offices are in the Environmental Center, 632 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 578-0595.

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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