by Ojai and Ventura VIEW
Ojai, CA: OVVIEW Jan 2011 • Issue 32: In the process of gathering information for this story, several members of the community contacted the writer and/or associates in an effort to stop publication. This Article: http://bit.ly/2mHqpmc
The axe has fallen on the 21 mature Canary Island Palms which once graced and shaded the west barranca of Libbey Park. Where were the protests? Where were the activists clinging to the doomed tree trunks?
Back in 1995, Conservationist Clarence R. Sterling with the help of Voice Editor Jeffrey W. San Marchi, had successfully stopped the charge of “designer label” environmental groups who sought to return this very high profile section of streambed to pre-Columbian times.
Jump forward to 2011.
Targeting trees that their own tree ordinance was designed to protect, the relatively new-to-Ojai Designer environmental group, the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, spearheaded by Tom Bostrom, was again combining forces with city hall to access government grant monies to destroy this beautiful grove of wild trees in a public park.
Canary Island Date Palms are prized for their magnificent appearance, often reaching 65 feet tall and up to 50 feet in diameter at the crown. This palm has become synonymous with Southern California architecture as the trees were originally introduced in the 1700s by the Spanish Missionaries who would carry the seeds in their pockets and plant them at Mission sites. Wayfarers could easily find the missions by spying the graceful heads of the skyline palms from a distance. Along with the Valencia Orange, and the Washington Fan Palm, the Canary Palm defines California coastal living to the rest of the world. As Sterling wrote, “It is the Hollywood postcard and the gaunt religious ascetic in one breath; – a tree equally at home on a sprinkled lawn or guarding a mountainous desert spring.” According to Sterling, the decimation of trees, which had thrived for so many years in the Libbey streambed, was not only an aesthetic abomination but a conservationist’s nightmare.
The Following Essay was written April 31, 1995 by Clarence R. Sterling, conservationist, steward of The Libbey Park landscaping, historian, former Director of The Ojai Art Center (ACT), co-founder of Bowlful of Blues, musician and naturalist. Clarence was born April 5, 1945 and passed away Jan. 7, 2005. His Memorial Services were held at Libbey Park.
In 1989 the City of Ojai Public Works Dept. spraypainted upwards to 20 some Canary Island date palms with an orange signal for removal. I literally ran to City Hall, where then new Public Works director Stan Moore explained to me that the trees gave the creekbed an unsavory appearance "like a jungle." When challenged as to why his personal taste should rule over everyone else's he switched his argument. The real problem, he now claimed, was that the trees interfered with flood control. Moore had lost a truck to a flood when employed by Thousand Oaks, and was still irate. He'd vowed against it ever happening again. I suggested his personal vendetta was misdirected, aand we parted in accord that a grace period of at least weeks would protect the trees. Michael Kaufer, Jeff San Marchi, and I all spoke informally with the City, and the upshot was that the Wild Palm Grove of Libbey Creekbed remains intact six years later, but so do the ugly dayglo streaks of destruction.
Now a seeming seachange in Ojai environmental politics has replaced the grove in immediate jeopardy. Several recently formed local "green groups" in a league with City Hall have generated funding and permission for DESTROYING SO MANY WILD TREES IN LIBBEY PARK AS TO RESTRUCTURE THE CREEKBED'S IDENTITY!
It's billed now as "stream restoration," and has been enthusiastically embraced by many respected advocates. The benefit this time is supposed to be, if I've gotten it right, the returnof the creekbed to a Precolumbian botanic community showcase utilizing youth labor in a training program. Good, but destroying the dominant species of an ecosystem is ecologicallly unwise, and when it comes to killing a grove of beautiful mature wild trees in a public park, we must question authorities in environmental clothing.
"O ISIS, PALM HOSTESS."
While maintaining my love for their members as individuals, and stressing my support for the abstract goals of these groups, I must continue opposing what I deem THE SENSELESS DESTRUCTION OF THE MATURE WILD GROVE of wild Canary Island date palms. My new adversaries of this opinion have stated their case well. My rebuttal is based on my own 24 years' experience with Libbey Parks activities and natural history.
1. This project is not "ecological." Ecology studies the natural dynamics relating a plant to its biotic community. This project vows to destroy these natural dynamics to favor a new biotic community supposed to be "more native," a sort of botanic Prop. 187. The thing about 187 is that whether you are pro or con, you know it's not enforceable. Nothing feels as unnatural as the pretense of a recreated past.
Nothing feels more natural than a wild riparian grove. That's what exists in Libbey Park Creekbed now. What it needs is not to be killed. The wild palms of the park need love and care. You know, the opposites of hate and neglect.
No support should be withdrawn from agencies and individuals advocating streamside restoration, but that should include preserving the mature palms present. These trees need to be properly maintained, and then they are very beautiful. Go look at the Canary Island date palm trimmed in 1976 by Milt Kelley, Ernie Aparicio, and myself. And it has gone largely untouched since. You'll spot it just south of the Post Office parking area off signal and toward the old restrooms. Notice how all the petiole bases have been skinned off the trunk like they should be, leaving a smooth inviting look of grace to the entire tree. The trunk can now be scaled rapidly, and if the dead fronds are cut every year or two, a one hour job at most, the tree will always look perfect. You can only trim palms this way, because they don't have bark and cambium layers. Palms are very special trees.
By the way, Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis) was introduced to southern California by the Spanish fathers during the latter half of the 1700's. The Canary Island dates were sooon distributed by birds and mammals and other natural means, as well as by landscapers. It has regenerated itself without human care in ecologically balanced wild groves for over one hundred years in California, and thereby meets the standards to be defined as "native" by the Audobon Society and others.
Along with the Washington fan palm and the Valencia orange, the Canary Island date is one of the three trees which most identify southern California to the rest of the world's imagination. It is the Hollywood postcard and the gaunt religious ascetic in one breath; -- a tree equally at home on a sprinkled lawn or guarding amountainous desert spring.
"O ISIS, PALM HOSTESS."
Since Canary Island date palms dominate the Libbey Creekbed and have so many years, they are the key to all that streambed's ecology.
“If we kill this traditional grove of mature wild trees, the extant oaks will be endangered. Their lower trunks are mostly without leaf because the oaks are used to the lower canopy of shade from the palms.... The primary species of oak in the palm grove is the coast live oak. This species does not grow normally in a creek bed. This is very important! We are removing a species native to our creek environment to favor a species not usually creek-compatible but with an older pedigree for this general locale. But the palms appear to be keeping the oaks alive! Live oaks cannot tolerate constant damp. Palm trees are giant water-sucking devices unique among trees for possessing a multitubular structure throughout their trunks. If the palms are destroyed, the field capacity of the soil will alter quickly. Not only will more water collect around the oaks’ roots, but without the windfall of natural nutrients from the palm and its many denizens, we must anticipate the fragile balance between capillary and hydrostatic water to change as well. Root rot is not the only potential threat to the oaks. In the past, when Libbey Creek oaks have broken out from the palm canopy, they have been growing too fast for their old system of support and toppled. In order to avoid the water, most oaks have rooted on steep banks, or on the unstable upper lip. The palms act to keep the oaks’ growth in proper bounds, as well as constantly wicking away harmful soil moisture, and feeding them with plant and animal detritus. The palms are the oaks’ guardians and friends.
This project is not “environmental.” Au contraire, until this project is modified to a commitment to preserve the wild palms of the park, it is just another instance of men savaging nature to attain an end of their own design. The palms are homes to a colony of wonderful Barn Owls who absolutely love them. Owls like the darkness the interlaced fronds provide for daysleepers, and keep the various native rodent populations in proper check. In turn, the waste products and recycling of decayed nesting materials feeds the grove, Below the upper canopy of palms, oaks, sycamores, and blue gums (one of whom, called The Phantom, is believed the Valley’s tallest tree) thrives a stunning understory featuring riparian native shrubs, mostly Blue Elderberry, California Walnut, Toyon, and a little Wild Cherry. None of these traditionally grow under oaks, partly because oaks secrete substances such as tannic acid in an effort to kill whatever tries to establish itself below the oaks’ dripline.
Previous attempts at youth services “renovating” the creek have resulted in these native shrubs being destroyed through ignorance and carelessness. The trend was to view them as more “jungle weeds,: I am told that the lush stands of periwinkle which so love “the cool feel of their toes in the stream” are already targeted for extermination along with the palm trees, and for the same reason. They are to be replaced by a more native ground cover, the blackberry. Wild blackberry is a very problematical choice for a park planting. Its rapid spread of woody thorn-infested runners soon weaves into a berried tiger-trap for children, an unsanitary hedge-hotel for the disparate, and the quintessential barrier to free movement.
Periwinkle is ideal for a friendly but natural and slightly mysterious ambience. Its soft stems and leaves are easily maintained by annual scything and as a form of myrtle, periwinkle is sacred to the Bona Dea. If both the palms and periwinkle are removed, the immense loss of shade will kill many of our gentle little Pacific Tree Frogs whose croaking has provided such a fond backdrop for the quieter passages of Stravinsky during our music festivals. Let our young idealistic workers develop their skills at environmental enhancement by learning to nurture life as it exists. Let us restore the Libbey Park streambed to what it might be like without man’s habits of filth and laziness, not to a mythic museum of a world in which we do not exist, and which requires the deaths of plants and animals which do.
3. In terms of philosophy and the arts, destroying a mature grove of wild palms in favor of anything flutters between pathetic and tragic. The palm is the most religiously respected tree in the world. It is one of the 18 trees associated with the ancient Celtic alphabet. Palm fronds play essential roles in the ceremonies, narrations, and symbols of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The palm evokes images of escape and recreation, and the palm is invoked as a guardian of sacred springs and pools of life-sustaining shade. It is palms that beckon one to the oasis and to Isis. And of all the palms, and there are over a thousand species, it is our own Canary Island date signled out for the name of the Greek and Semitic vision of rebirth from the ashes by Phoenix canariensis. This tree is a friend, not an enemy.
TO INFLUENCE THE AMOUNT OF NATURAL VEGETATION REMOVED FROM LIBBEY PARK, YOU MUST QUICKLY REGISTER YOUR CONCERN WITH THE FOLLOWING (and circulate this plea to others):
THE OJAI VALLEY LAND CONSERVANCY (805) 646-7930 -- C.R.E.W. (805) 646-5085 -- Ojai City Council c/o 646-5581 & Public Works Dept. 646-2560 -- Tom Bostrum Landscape (unlisted?) The current most guding lights advocating palm removal seem to be Ellen Hall and Lanny Kaufer, so try and reach them. It is to our respected captains that sirens direct their sweetest songs of destruction. So sing sweeter than the sirens.
Sincerely yours, C.R. Sterling (4/31/95):
With Clarence’s passing on January 7, 2005 and the death of Jeffrey W. San Marchi on December 23, 2007, the most eloquent and impassioned defenders of the Canary Island Palms were silenced. The Ojai Valley Green Coalition once again began to petition the City Council for the removal of the palms, now couching the activity as a “stream restoration” project. On December 30, 2009, [now Fired] Public Works Director Mike Culver signed the approval for the removal of 24 palm trees from the Libbey Park West Barranca. The Ojai Valley Green Coalition has secured over $53,000 in grant funds from the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project and the Department of Fish & Game to restore the creek in Libbey Park, according to Supervisor Steve Bennett. The project will require ongoing maintenance, with projected costs going much higher. At this point, there are still a few Canary Island Palms left which rim the perimeter of the Los Arbolas Condominiums.
These too have been tagged for destruction, but have received a stay of execution at the request of the Los Arbolas residents who do not want to lose the privacy the palms provide for their homes.
Richard Keit, owner of RTK Studios on Canada Street, maintains his private residence on the banks of the Libbey Creek and has long been in opposition of the removal of the palms. Citing the beautiful grotto-like environment as one of the reasons for his purchase of the property, he decries the palm removal. “Not that we own the view, but people get upset when you destroy the surroundings. The natural surroundings where we are will not recover for 25 years to what it was when we bought our home. This, for some theoretical notion of a bunch of people who have this purist concept, so that when they go home and put their heads on the pillow at night, they will be able to feel good about themselves that they have done this great deed for the environment.”
In the words of Clive Leeman, long time friend of Clarence Sterling, “It is a form of arrogant insanity.”
After the untimely passing of Clarence “Riverend” Sterling, 59, to the ravages of esophageal cancer, many of Sterling’s friends sought to secure eternal protection for the grove of trees that he cherished. Letters were written to the Ojai City Council members requesting that the palms be dedicated as the Clarence Sterling Memorial Grove. This was intended to ensure the palms future longevity from the ambitions of idealists and designer label environmentalists. The council never responded.
"[The People] are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty." - Thomas Jefferson
Editor’s Note: To Read Clarence’s complete 1995 Essay, Go To www.OjaiandVenturaVIEW.com/CEssay.html