Creative Ecology

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When I arrived at the at the Creative Ecology program at Cooley Landing, I was greeted by Bay Area textile artist Linda Gass and handed an artist sketchbook and field guide. I was about to engage in a range of science and art activities that would have me seeing near and far.

The activities were intended to make connections between art and science, pointing out that both artists and scientists ask questions, make observations, learn from their senses and record what they see.

A closer look

I started at the science station, where I got the chance to look at water samples that were taken directly from the Bay. A member of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo explained that in every drop of Bay water there are hundreds of microorganisms. When I looked at the water samples with a naked eye, all I could see were chunks of mud. Looking under the microscope, I was surprised to see amphipods, nematode worms and diatoms. It was so cool to see these mud creatures up close and to think that they live all over the Bay.

Next I went to the art station where I was handed a magnifying glass to look closely at the mud and rocks that neighbored the shoreline and sketch what I saw. A member of the Palo Alto Art Center told us to look for patterns and to consider lightness and darkness, using lines, dots and crosshatching to create a value scale in our sketches. Using my magnifying glass, I was able to get a better look at the mussels, crabs and pickleweed that lived in the mud at the Bay’s edge.

While we were sketching, we were told to identify what was “manmade” and what was “nature made”. Often that distinction was easy to make. For example I could see that the rocks along the shoreline were nature made, while the bricks intermingled between the rocks were manmade. There were other instances where the line between manmade and nature made was a bit fuzzy. For instance, barnacles covered large pieces of wire that lay over some of the rocks.

Art meets science

When we arrived at the third station, we were each given a viewfinder and were told to identify the horizon through our viewfinder. We were instructed to use our viewfinders to pick out a certain section of the landscape that we wanted to draw and begin sketching. Looking far, we strived to clearly outline the foreground, middle ground and background in our drawings.

I saw a fin peaking up above the water. I soon realized that this was a leopard shark and that there were tons of leopard sharks swimming around the Bay waters that surrounded us. I probably saw at least 6 leopard sharks that day, many of which came right to the edge of the water, giving us a view of all three of their fins.

As I looked out on the Bay and began sketching, I was struck by the intricate patterns that the ripples made in the water. I often found myself straying away from my drawing and observing the nearby leopard sharks instead. As I looked around at the landscape, I was able to see the Palo Alto Baylands to the South, one of the many sites along the Bay where we engage in restoration.

Cooley Landing

As I took in my surroundings, looking near and far, I tried to imagine what Cooley Landing used to look like before it was cleaned up and restored. The site was originally home to the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, who utilized the space for fishing. It was later transformed into a pier for ships to transport building materials to San Francisco. Between the 1930’s and 1960, Cooley Landing was used as a garbage dump where toxic trash was dumped directly into Bay.

In 2012, EPA and the Regional Water Quality Control Board partnered up to design and fund the site’s cleanup, filling in the Bay and sealing off soil contaminated with mercury, arsenic, PCB’s, lead, and other toxic chemicals.  Additional partners such as the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District contributed land and biological expertise to plant native vegetation to enhance the wildlife habitat for the nearby endangered Ridgeway’s rail and salt marsh harvest mouse.

The former garbage dump is now home to thriving native vegetation. Cooley Landing is now part of the Bay Trail, adding nine acres of public open space in East Palo Alto.

The Creative Ecology program brings people of all ages out to open space preserves like Cooley Landing and gets them interacting directly with the Bay. While out on the program, I watched kids become immersed in the art and science activities they were doing, using their imaginations to picture what the space may have looked like years ago and asking questions about the mud creatures that they saw. I watched longtime Bay residents enjoying the space for the first time, seeking more information about the site’s history and restoration.

Save The Bay’s own educational materials were used to answer questions and provide context. I was proud to tell program participants that I was a part of the Save The Bay team. As we looked at historical Bay maps, we identified parts of the Bay that had been converted to salt ponds, filled, or developed.  When Linda asked which parts of the Bay were still neighbored by wetlands, I responded “not enough”. She smiled and informed the group that I was a part of Save The Bay.

Marking Historic Shoreline

Linda showed us historical maps of Cooley Landing overlaid on top of Google maps. Looking at historic maps of the site from 1857 and comparing those to current maps, it was evident that a lot of the Bay had been filled and a significant portion of the marsh was gone. Linda explained that she was working on a land art installation project in order to illustrate how the landscape has changed overtime and what we have lost.

Linda invited us to help her with the project, explaining that it was a community-based effort. She told us that we would be using blue survey whiskers to mark the historic shoreline of Cooley Landing, explaining that the space in front of the blue whiskers represented historic Bay water and the space behind the blue whiskers represented historic wetlands. Linda said that with each program, the art installation grows in size, further documenting the historic shoreline.

We were each given a handful of blue whiskers and were instructed to place them however we wished, using the orange tape that was already in place as a guideline. As I began sticking the whiskers into the ground I started chatting with the couple next to me. They explained that they were avid readers of the Bay Monthly, Save The Bay’s monthly newsletter, and asked more about my work as an office volunteer. I was happy to share my experiences with them and hear that they were curious about the work we are doing.

After attending Linda’s field program, I got a better idea of how other groups and organizations are working with the San Francisco Bay and how art and science can be applied to inspire and educate Bay stewards of all ages. Read more about the art and activism Linda Gass here.