Falling anchovies, dancing butterflies

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Born and raised in San Francisco, I was educated at public schools including the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University, where I earned my Masters in Marine Science and began my teaching career. As a public high school teacher, I shared my love of nature with my students, extending their learning beyond the classroom into the San Francisco wilderness. Recently retired from teaching full-time, I am now a member of the advisory board of Nature in the City (NTC), a San Francisco non-profit organization supported by the Earth Island Institute, and a frequent leader of free public walks in nature sponsored by NTC.

Nature in the city has been on my radar for a long time – ever since I discovered the first NTC map, created in 2005, highlighting trails, natural areas and local species in San Francisco. This discovery coincided with my classroom teaching approach focusing on bioregions. The map aligned with projects outside of the classroom and inspired me to engage my students in activities that I found relevant, such as the Presidio’s habitat restoration program. I also met an NTC volunteer at the Green Hairstreak Corridor, one of NTC’s biodiversity stewardship projects, whom I invited to speak to my students. San Francisco is a small community, and these spontaneous tendrils of connection have kept me excited to teach, allowing me to teach from the heart, which has motivated my students in their learning.

A few years ago, however, I felt my purpose change. I saw myself in the young teachers, but recognized that I no longer had the kind of energy needed to continue teaching in the classroom. I had to listen to those feelings and concluded that I needed to use my talents and energy differently. So I asked myself, “What do I want to do now?

“I like never knowing what I’ll see when I leave home to explore one of San Francisco’s beautiful natural spaces.” Photo of Emil Fogarino by Art Bodner.

Ironically, as I explored new ventures to satisfy my interest in natural history, some organizations that were on my radar stopped volunteering in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, NTC resumed offering nature walks for small groups at the start of the pandemic. As soon as I left my position at George Washington High School in June 2020, I began developing local nature walks with other NTC staff and volunteers.

Every walk I lead is an exchange of energy and knowledge with others. I am not just a guide. I become a student and a teacher as I discover new places, study their natural history and develop new partnerships. Each walk has a different vocabulary or storyline and introduces some aspect of nature in the city, creating an awareness of San Francisco’s native plants, animals, and habitats. We explore wetlands being restored, from Heron’s Head on the SF Bay shoreline to Crissy Field in the Presidio. At Glen Canyon and Twin Peaks we can walk through 125 million year old layers of radiolarian chert uplifted from the ancient sea floor.

The take-home messages from my walks are universal: I want to encourage people to care about the habitats around them and to leave spaces for nature in our urban environment. At NTC, we also want to increase the number of our walks and dining sites and engage new partners and participants to ensure that our offerings truly represent San Francisco’s vast human and habitat diversity.

I like never knowing what I’ll see when I leave home to explore one of San Francisco’s beautiful natural spaces. On a recent unusually warm June day in Glen Canyon, I came across a beautiful Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly perched in the shade near Islais Creek, one of the few areas where this stream flows above ground. – or is “in daylight” – within the city limits. The butterfly was just sitting there posing for me and letting me photograph it and look at it up close. I said, “Thank you,” and the butterfly flew off, dancing from elderberry and willow tree to another as I watched. It just made my day.

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