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    The Catwalk Tragedy


    An Opinion by David Cavagnaro
    published in the Tam Valley Progress newsletter, December 1973

    Devil's Kitchen, 12/3/2001, photo by Brenda Grantland
    "...I had a favorite canyon there, steep and wild with great arching bay trees. It was called Devil's Kitchen, the headwaters of Coyote Creek, the beginning of the watershed...."

    David Cavagnaro is a noted naturalist, organic gardener and photographer of wildlife and plants. He has many published books displaying his photographs, including the recent titles: "Seed to Seed" by Suzanne Ashworth, David Cavagnaro; "Heirloom Vegetables," by Sue Stickland; "Heritage Flowers," by Tovah Martin; and Burpee's "Complete Vegetable and Herb Gardener," by Karen Davis Cutler. His earlier works include "This Living Earth," and other classics which are now out of print but still available through Amazon.com and other sellers of collectible books. His influence on other nature photographers was also well documented on the internet, where he is often cited as the inspiration behind various natural light photography techniques.

    "Devil's Kitchen," December 3, 2001
    photo by Brenda Grantland


    I am going to tell you ...a story. It is a personal story about Tamalpais Valley and its smaller cousin, Tennessee Valley.

    These two valleys and the hills which surround them are watersheds. Once they were my home, and I cared very much for them. Whether or not you are interested in these small parts of southern Marin I hope you will listen to what I have to say, because you, because everyone in Marin, because everyone in the entire world lives within a watershed, and you may learn something of the responsibility which this circumstance entails.

    Though I was born in San Francisco, my life really began in Tam Valley. I was born the wrong person for the city. As a youngster, I was fascinated with the snails in our tiny back yard on the slopes of Twin Peaks, but I would get sick from nerves finding my way through the busy streets to school. When I was 6 my parents located a house on Shoreline Highway, and they decided to buy it. We moved there in the spring of 1949 and began right away to fix up the house and establish a garden. Across the highway was a beautiful grassy hill covered with oaks and flowers, and through the back yard ran Coyote Creek, a small trickle of water lined with trees and teeming with life.

    I took the bus to Park School in Mill Valley for the remainder of the first grade. My teacher was one of the best I have ever had; her name was Edna Maguire. After school and on weekends I had the whole new world to explore. I became interested in insects and began collecting them, and I explored the creek which ran beside our vegetable garden. It was a grand new life, a beginning.

    In those days Tam Valley was a sleepy little community, occupied mostly by old--time residents. I remember that one of our neighbors had an old photograph of the valley taken around the turn of the century. You could count the houses on one hand, but the hills were bare of trees. Even then I could see that the ravages of man had begun early, for all the trees had been stripped from the hillsides to heat the booming gold rush town of San Francisco. I thought how lucky I was to be living in the valley during a more gentle time when the trees were growing back again. Yes, It is true that there were many more houses than there had been half a century before, and a new tract called Kay Park had just been built toward the lower end of the valley, but these seemed like innocent changes because I was small and the hills were immense, wild, and endless. As I grew older, I came to know every nook and cranny.

    I loved the big marsh below Kay Park; I used to follow the creek there, then cut across into the great marshland at the bottom of Tennessee Valley. From there I would strike out into the fog--shrouded narrows of Tennessee Valley itself, cut across the cattle ranch toward the coast, and swing back along the headlands toward the upper end of Tam Valley. I had a favorite canyon there, steep and wild with great arching bay trees. It was called Devil's Kitchen, the headwaters of Coyote Creek, the beginning of the watershed.

    I was particularly interested in the creeks and marshes. Steelhead used to summer in a big pool next door to our house, and the rocky bottom was filled with mysterious hydras, water mites, and flatworms. The Tennessee Valley marsh was alive with the calls of redwing blackbirds and tree frogs, the huge orb webs of shamrock spiders and the head--spinning aroma of pennyroyal. Little ponds held the magic of dragonfly nymphs, frog eggs, and polliwog. My parents gave me a copy of ANIMALS WITHOUT BACKBONES for Christmas along with a small microscope, and I set up an aquarium on my basement work bench. My knowledge of insects, plants, and aquatic life grew. With friends or alone, I haunted the wild places, exploring, learning, playing, hiking, building forts. It was a wonderful place to be a child.

    Not long after we moved, the entire marsh at the valley's lower end was filled and another tract called Crest Marin was built upon it. The Tam Valley marsh was a salt marsh. No one apparently knew then that salt marshes are the richest habitats for life of any natural community anywhere on earth, and no one seemed to notice that salt marshes were the flood plains which absorbed the pressure of high tides and heavy winter runoff. The creek was channeled between earthen dikes which led the water toward Richardson Bay. One of those first winters it rained like hell, and in the middle of the night we heard furniture floating around in our basement.

    My father was a jeweler and he worked at home. He had his shop and all his valuable tools in the basement, and when we went down there in the darkness of the storm we found water and mud five feet deep with shop tools floating around everywhere in the midst of it. The next morning, before the water had completely subsided, I rode my bike to Kay Park, which lay a few feet lower than the new fill of Crest Marin, and I helped people who were out knee-deep in water, scraping mud from their homes.

    As the years went by, the valley began to change. The Mosquito Abatement District sprayed the creek more often, and I watched sadly as great masses of dead mayfly nymphs piled up like sand bars in the creek bottom. More houses were built at the upper end of the watershed. Traffic increased on Highway 1, and we decided not to get a cat or dog because of the danger of cars. Tamalpais Valley Elementary School was built on fill placed in the beautiful Tennessee Valley Marsh, and, as a fifth grader, I attended class there the first year it opened. And each year we waited with apprehension for the heavy December rains.

    Many times the creek flooded, transformed from a flower-- choked summer trickle to a rampaging, muddy torrent, and many times we scraped up the mud and dried damaged belongings.

    Though all of the Tam Valley marsh and half of the marsh in Tennessee Valley had been filled, I continued to visit what remained. Most of the Tam Valley hillsides I used to frequent had been built upon, so that by the time I was a student at Tam High my outdoor explorations were confined primarily to the still--wild regions along Tennessee Valley Road. Friends and I frequently studied and collected there for our biology assignments, and my family went for picnics by a favorite old oak at the crest of the road.

    While I was away at college, I saw little of the two valleys, but each time I returned I found that I had lost another part of my heritage. The bottom corner of the Tennessee Valley marsh was filled for houses, and the school filled most of what remained for an athletic field. The great entrance gate for Marincello was built opposite our favorite oak, and the soil from exposed road-cuts was washed by winter rains into the choked remnant of marsh at the bottom of the valley. When I returned after several years to Devil's Kitchen, it was filled with houses. The wild azaleas, giant horsetails, and fort--like bays were gone.

    The rest of the story is recent history, and most of you will remember it. The residents of Tam Valley -- those naive, innocent people like my parents who were dumb enough to buy a house along a creek on a sunny, spring day without asking any questions, those who bought homes in Kay Park and Crest Marin with no knowledge of floods or no economic ability to buy anywhere else, and those who built on the hillsides upstream with no understanding of run-off from exposed cuts, rooftops, and driveways -- all these people together had to float a bond issue for flood control. When I returned home from a trip one summer, our back yard -- where for years we had nurtured flowers and vegetables and fruit trees, and had relaxed beneath the shade of a mighty pine -- all of it was gone. Where the creek of my childhood explorations and adventures had been, there stood a great concrete channel lined with a chain link fence and "keep out" signs. All around the neighborhood homes had been sold, torn down, and replaced by huge apartments filled with commuters who had no idea at all what they and their children were missing and could never again have as theirs in Tam Valley.

    Finally, defeated, my parents moved away from Marin County, and so, for a time, did I. Now I am back again, and every time I have to drive Shoreline Highway, past the apartments, the tracts, the concrete ditch, and past my old home occupied by renter after temporary renter, where, all the garden plants we tended with loving care have been torn away, past all the children on their way to Tam Valley School or Tam High who have so little of what I had, and who probably don't even know why their lives are partially empty, I get a tough lump in the pit of my stomach which takes a long time to go away.

    What, you ask, does all this have to do with a catwalk? Well, that is another little story, which is such recent history you probably haven't even heard about it, but please bear with me while I tell you.

    There is a lady named Janet Walker, a Tam Valley School mother, who is also a member of the Volunteer Council of Audubon Canyon Ranch where my wife, Maggie, and I serve as Resident Biologists. During her training as a docent and her work with children at the Ranch, she became intrigued by the educational potential of our marshes, which we have made more usable for study by the construction of catwalks. She decided to arouse support for a catwalk and study area in the Tam Valley School marsh, and came to us for advice.

    Thank goodness there are visionaries left in our midst! I didn't have the heart to tell her what a magnificent marsh that used to be. I couldn't bring myself to express my anger that a school -- a SCHOOL, mind you -- had filled the marsh in, had destroyed what could have been, what should have been, the cornerstone for an entire educational experience, then and forever. I kept silent my anger that, even after the school was thus built upon its own best resources, no appreciable efforts were made to utilize what was left, nor to use as a place of outdoor study the magnificent rocky knoll and gnarled old oaks which stand just outside the high, chain link fence of the asphalt play area. An athletic field was built instead.

    I didn't tell her about the soapstone incident. Wouldn't the kids at the school be surprised to know that just back of that huge craggy rock, on the cut made for the building of the school, there is a great deposit of soapstone, and that when I was a student there dozens of us spent every free moment excavating the precious stones, sanding them and shaping them on the asphalt school yard and polishing them on the wooden sides of the sandboxes? They would probably not be surprised to learn, however, that instead of catching on to the merits of this splendid resource and developing a whole soapstone craft project in the school from which everyone could have benefitted, the teachers sent us to the Principal's office for messing up the school grounds.

    Nor did I remind Mrs. Walker that the silt from Marincello had nearly filled in what remains of the marsh, that great thickets of willows have invaded the resulting higher ground, taking water from the marsh until none is left for polliwog, newts, and dragonfly nymphs, that the new Marin View development just completed last year -- built on steep hills behind the school where no sensible county government would have allowed disturbance of the fragile soil -- caused so much sliding and siltation during last winter's heavy rains that the marsh filled even further.

    I said instead to Janet Walker that she was on to a great idea, and that we would ask the young man who built our catwalks to help with the design of hers if she would only raise the support and pick her spot. These things she did.

    It was a new and rather startling idea for the school, but the Principal agreed to the idea. Armed with $100 from the PTA and some hard-working husbands, Mrs. Walker and other interested parents succeeded in building a tiny 20 foot long catwalk into a corner of the marsh surrounded by impenetrable willows where no water will stand between late spring and the mid--winter rains.

    And then along came the Department of Public Works surveying to improve Tennessee Valley Road. This in itself is a subject with a lengthy history. Many plans for the development of Tennessee Valley have been raised and defeated. There was once talk of rerouting Highway 1 along this road and then over the headlands to Muir Beach, bypassing Tarn Valley entirely. Various Subdivision plans, and finally Marincello itself, were dismantled. Except for the school, the houses in the lower marsh, the Marincello roads, and the abominable Marin View, the valley has somehow escaped major development.

    But now the GGNRA has arrived. It is an inescapable reality, and just as inescapable may be the idea that Tennessee Valley is the most logical Recreation Area roadhead in this part of Marin. A roadhead would mean more people, and more people would mean more cars and bicycles. Increased traffic would demand a wider road, and the only place to put the extra width seems to be in what remains of the flood plain of the marsh.

    Whether a roadhead is behind the plan or not, the County seems to desire a wider Tennessee Valley Road, to "bring it up to standard." During preliminary investigations for the project, someone spotted the catwalk and determined that it was built without a permit. Fears were aroused that during high water the structure would float up and out, causing blockage to the flow of water downstream where the floodplain narrows again into a dredged channel.

    Novato Creek Naturalist Don Engler was called in as a consultant by the District to evaluate the situation, and together they requested that Mrs. Walker reconstruct the walk so that it could be removed from about mid--November through April. That would leave one and a half months at the end of the school year for the kids to use the structure when there is water and any appreciable biological activity in the marsh.

    That little walkway at the edge of a dying marsh means a great deal to Mrs. Walker and her fellow parents, and it could mean more to the kids of Tam Valley School than we will ever know. I stopped by for a look at the place at 6:30 one recent foggy morning. It was the first time I had been back to my fifth grade school in many years. The place looked small and choked. Houses surround the school on three sides, and enormous PG&E high--voltage towers stand at either end, the lines passing directly over the athletic field. Where my favorite pond at the edge of the marsh once stood, filled with the croaking of treefrogs and the hum of bees at the pennyroyal, now stand the entrance gates for Marin View. The catwalk seemed small and lonely, surrounded by the strangling willows and a piece of open marsh the size of a modest back yard.

    I had a vision of what the two valleys might have become. A controlled number of houses built back from the creeks and marshes but leaving the hills for the most part wild. A school built at the edge of its own priceless outdoor study area. A viable community small enough in size so that people could become acquainted, work together, and share in the exploration of the land. Children with space to run in and wild things to learn from.

    And then I thought about Barbara Schrock, write--in candidate for the Tam Valley Community Service District, who wants more recreation facilities. When I was a kid in the valley, we didn't need "facilities." We had the hills to hike in and the fields to play football in. Recreation was spontaneous, creative, inventive.

    I remembered again Coyote Creek made sterile, and Corte Madera Creek and Tamalpais Creek, and the creeks of Terra Linda, Lucas Valley, and Novato following suit. I thought of all the marshes long since filled, like the ones where Redwood High School and Mill Valley's new Middle School now stand, and I wondered what the students in these schools know about the heritage that could have been theirs.

    Not much, I guess. They study biology in text books while the great marshes rot under them, beneath six feet of "clean fill."

    I thought again about my Tam Valley childhood, and I realized that almost everything I know about the natural world I learned during those years. Most of what I studied in college text books I have forgotten, but childhood experiences have stayed with me. Those years cannot be repeated; every wild place of significance which I knew as a kid is gone, transformed, sanitized, "brought up to standard." I realized, standing in that desolate asphalt and weed covered school yard, that when I wrote LIVING WATER, a story about the Sierras and the mighty watershed of the Sacramento River, I was really writing a eulogy for the little watersheds of my childhood creeks, and that THIS LIVING EARTH, which traces the learning process my wife and I experienced in the San Geronimo Valley and West Marin, is just as much an epitaph for the house--covered Tam Valley grasslands.

    Tam Valley School is, as an educational setting, still one step ahead of a school in the heart of San Francisco, but just barely. I can tell Janet Walker to fight for her catwalk, and she can take what heart in that she may. I can tell the Department of Public Works to keep their hands off the catwalk because it won't have a single ounce of impact upon their flow of water, and I can hope that they will listen. But inside, I cry for what this land once was. In my mind, I see all those children with no place to go. Sure, they will have all of GGNRA, Audubon Canyon Ranch, Taylor Park, Point Reyes and Tomales Bay. They can visit those places, and they will have more than many people in the world have. But visiting a wild place is no substitute for living in the midst of it.

    It is time to make the Countywide Plan more than ink and paper. Make it real! We must stop uncontrolled growth. If there are no more houses to live in, sooner or later we will have fewer children because, I am sad to say, man tends to react out of necessity more often than he does upon the powers of reason. If no growth threatens present occupations, then we will have to retrain ourselves in new ones which better fit community needs.

    If we want to build, then let us rebuild. We could have our creeks again, and our marshes. The same bulldozers which filled them - could dig them out again. If we experienced no further growth, homes could be relocated and at least some of the integrity of our watersheds could be restored. It is possible to rebuild our communities so that every member, young and old alike, has a wild place close to home where the real roots of our species can be felt and experienced, and we would come to know each other and to work together better than we ever have before.

    Kids would not stand idle in front of the local drive-in popping pills because they would feel a part of the community purpose. They wouldn't have time to feel lost and alienated because there would be work to do, hard work and plenty of it rebuilding the place called home.

    It is possible, but not likely. We have come that far as a species only in our dream.




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