Out West Blog

Notes, photos and updates from the Center's student researchers and summer interns working at organizations across the region.

A ‘Peace’ of Something Greater

Image: Historical mapping of the Walnut Creek watershed is the culmination of months of archival research, data compilation and synthesis, and georeferencing of historical maps. The above image shows an incomplete version of the mapping, still with many features to be added and problems to resolve.

By Tyler McIntosh
B.S. Earth Systems, 2016
Summer Intern at the San Francisco Estuary Institute

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

As this summer has spun by, so too have many projects at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI). From data collection trips in southern California to the California Climate Change Symposium in Sacramento, I’ve traveled and learned, learned as I’ve traveled, and changed as I’ve learned.

My time with SFEI is coming to a close, and as I look back I wonder where it all went. Time does indeed fly when you’re… learning about historical ecology? I suppose that there is an answer to where the time went: the majority of my contributions were to the Walnut Creek: Flood Control 2.0 project, a small piece of the dynamic puzzle of flood prevention in the Bay Area.

From my first days at SFEI through to my last, I’ve helped shepherd the Walnut Creek project through the winding pathways of historical ecology research. Data finding, collection, and compilation were followed by synthesis and digitization with a GIS. As the summer comes to a close, the Walnut Creek project progresses into the stages of analysis and reporting, which, sadly, I won’t have the time to contribute to. The project is slated to continue into 2017. However, I did assist in report writing, copyediting, and reference compilation for the Tijuana River Historical Ecology project, which is at a later stage of its life. The combination of these two projects (in addition to smaller, more tangential tasks) gave me a chance to learn about environmental science, myself, and my future path.

The future is always tied to our past, within ourselves as well as when examining landscapes. I landed in the United States thirty-six hours before walking into SFEI for the first time. I had just returned from three months of studying and traveling in Chile and Argentina. Prior to picking up and leaving on my adventures, I had made the decision to switch my major from Mechanical Engineering to Earth Systems. Although the decision had been made, my mind was filled with uncertainty throughout my wanderings in South America. Had I made a mistake?

Perhaps the most important thing that I have gotten out of this summer is a sense of peace: I have come to terms with the decision I made, and now feel excited and able to move forward. With SFEI’s help, I’ve gained an understanding of the lumbering machine that is the environmental sector and where I may fit into it. While I may not become a historical ecologist, my work this summer has formed the perfect springboard from which to vault into the upcoming year of study and brought my pre-existing interest in the environment to new levels. Although I hope to move in the direction of applying my quantitative engineering to the challenges of environmental science, communication remains in the back of my mind. In today’s world it is unacceptable for scientists to exist within the polished boundaries of the ivory tower—even if one is not directly involved in communication, it is essential to consider how one’s work will be communicated, and what its role is in the now critical world of policy and public environmentalism. I am, as the Fleet Foxes sing, “a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.”

When New Passions Sneak Up On Us

Image: The staff met in the board room to take a look at the debut of new artwork – two years in the making – for one of Heyday’s upcoming titles.

By Monica Masiello
B.A. English/American Studies ’14, M. A. Sociology ’15
Summer Intern at Heyday Publishing

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

I’m really lucky to have spent the summer helping to make books and authors known to communities who will grow and benefit immensely from them. My work took a lot of different forms, from pitching ideas for author lectures and signings to Bay Area bookstores (and even a couple of bars for one of Heyday’s fall titles, High Spirits), to writing and sending out newsletters and educational materials to promote books and encourage their use in university courses (here’s one of my pages promoting Under Spring, to sending out comp copies of books to booksellers so that they might add a Heyday title to their shelves for their communities.

A few of my favorite days included: running a book sales event at a San Mateo elementary school where I saw just how much Heyday’s books on Native California history and culture nourish the K-5 curriculum, sitting down for an hour-long conversation with an author about his new photography book (You can read our interview on the Heyday blog!), and talking to a woman at an author reading who, literally shaking with excitement, told me that even though she didn’t have much money, she just had to buy a ticket to hear Tom Killion read. She was overjoyed and overdressed, and I caught a telling glimpse of why and how book events are so important.

When I wrote my first email newsletter to be sent out to Heyday’s subscribers, I didn’t quite have my footing on how to talk about books in a way that made other people genuinely want to read them. My supervisor explained that the most compelling marketing content I would write would come from tapping into my own enthusiasm about a book and what made it exciting to me—with the real beast of it being how to fake that enthusiasm about the projects I was less interested in. But the more familiarized myself with the books I was marketing, the more I fell in love with the things that didn’t excite me earlier, and the less I found any disingenuousness necessary to assume. I was surprised at how quickly I felt my interests realign and refocus on some of the topics that I had been less well-versed in, and from the work I did reading and writing about these book and talking with their authors, I’m inclined to believe that part of marketing--and ideally, part any type of job--is learning how to understand and begin to love the unfamiliar projects that end up in front of you. In writing content with some angle of salesmanship to it--by putting yourself in the mindset of what it would be like to love subjects you don’t have much previous knowledge of or affinity for, you can’t walk away without loving them at least a little more than when you started.

At a board meeting at the beginning of the summer, held to discuss Heyday’s upcoming transition in leadership, I was struck by the space that was left in the meeting for beauty, despite the heaping pile of business on the table. In his opening remarks, Malcolm, Heyday’s founder, told a story about having complimented a basket weaver on her basketry, to which she replied that it isn’t people who make baskets beautiful, but instead, that “the baskets make us beautiful.” The past few months in Berkeley taught me that this is the case with our work--that it shapes us as we empathize with it. But I think hearing this story early on allowed me, for the rest of the summer, to conceptualize the work I’d go on to do less as a perpetual cycle of daily errands, and more as an endeavor to grow more complete and become more beautiful.

Ghost Repulsed by Ugly Formica Countertops

Image: Tried to photograph a power line, ended up with a nice shot of clouds instead.

By Katie Petway
Class of 2018
Summer Intern at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

Two rooms: one, a small, irregularly shaped bedroom with a historic fireplace and walls painted blood red; the other, a bright kitchen with linoleum flooring, 1960s appliances, and Formica. Which one would you expect to be a duelist’s death place? Which one is probably haunted? Well, Senator Broderick died in the kitchen. It wasn’t a kitchen then—walls used to divide the space into bedrooms. On the other hand, the dramatic little bedroom is part of a wing of the house that didn’t exist in 1859. The only space on the historic floorplan that matches descriptions of Broderick’s death is the kitchen wing. But while plenty of people insist that they’ve seen or heard Mr. Broderick’s ghost in the bedroom, nobody’s ever been creeped out by the kitchen. I can only guess that the distinguished ghost was so disgusted by the dingy Formica that he exercised his flair for the dramatic and evacuated to the red bedroom.

In all seriousness though, institutional lore is a dense, persistent fog that blurs out historical fact and makes everything seem dark and eerie. The myth about Broderick’s death place is a great example: at some point, when nobody really knew where Broderick had died, somebody just picked an interesting room, and it’s been common “knowledge” ever since.

I’ve spent the past 9 weeks analyzing through all sorts of documents, trying to sort fact from fiction. My goal was to articulate why Quarters 3 is important enough to preserve. I wanted to do it without the crutch of lore and ghost stories: those may be good for luring tourists to a historic site, but they are neither reliable enough nor detailed enough to dictate whether this segment of stone foundation or that hardwood floor should be preserved. I wanted to convince anyone who reads the Historic Structure Report (architects, middle managers, carpenters…) that the effort and attention to detail necessary to preserve Quarters 3 really is worthwhile. Here’s one section of the HSR draft; decide for yourself whether I succeeded.

As a side effect of all the research and typing, I’ve accidently become an expert in a subject so arcane that when I walk out of my office for the last time next week, I’ll never use that knowledge again in any context. To be honest, it doesn’t bother me too much—if my brain hadn’t been full of picky house facts this summer, it would have been full of sheet music and dead flies. I’ve learned some very practical things as well: that I’m far too fidgety to sit in a cubical for 8 hours per day, that the Federal bureaucracy grinds along at a comfortably monotonous pace despite frequent minor crises, and that San Francisco is more like the DC suburbs (home for me) than it is different. I expected my summer to be thrilling and adventuresome, but really, it’s bourn a striking resemblance to Mr. Broderick’s kitchen. That’s what I’m taking away from this summer: real life isn’t red and haunted.

To Preserve and Protect

Image: An entrance to the museum – a.k.a. "home" –  for 10 weeks.

By Isabella Robbins
Art History, 2017
Summer Intern at the Yosemite Museum

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

As an art history major, I am all too often asked, what are you going to do with that? To be honest, I probably ask myself that question more than anyone else. Upon declaring, all I really knew was I liked art, I liked museums and I could pass the classes. It seemed like there isn’t much to do with a degree in art history, but after working in the Yosemite Museum, I have come to realize that getting this degree is not useless. The people I have worked with this summer – art historians, curators, librarians, archivists, cultural demonstrators, and educators. – have helped me realize that there is a place for this art history major. To preserve and protect.

On the first day of work, we were told that the National Park Service exists to preserve and protect the natural and cultural wonders of this country. The Yosemite Museum and the people who work in it preserve and protect both the cultural and natural history of Yosemite every day. Whether it’s curating an exhibit, serving as a source for researchers or a bank of photographs to be placed in an NPS centennial pamphlet, the museum staff (many of whom have art history degrees) works hard to ensure people know the story of Yosemite - past, present and future – through art, artifacts, different natural specimens and so much more. The museum is a hub of tons and tons of information that people learn from and use that information for present and future projects and ideas.

To conclude, I’d like to share one of my favorite memories of the summer. It was a rare rainy afternoon and as it began to storm, water started to flood onto the sidewalk and near the entrances of the museum. The museum staff, as dedicated as we are, began to sweep away the water from the museum, literally protecting the collections inside and getting soaked to the bone while we were at it. As we did this, visitors to the park began to help. They may have just been being nice, but in my mind we were all on a mission to shelter the valuable resources within the building. After about half an hour we had successfully diverted the water. We were cold and wet, but to me, this was true dedication and following of the NPS mission. That moment made me incredibly honored to be a part of such an amazing program and to work with such an amazing staff that really care about their collections. At that moment, I knew that with my art history degree would not be worthless. And this summer, I now know I want to preserve and protect the natural wonders of the world by honoring and sharing the incredible art, artifacts, natural specimens and histories that come with it.

Living History

Image: Tyler McIntosh and Sean Baumgarten get excited during an archival research trip to the U.C. Berkeley Earth Sciences Library.

By Tyler McIntosh
B.S. Earth Systems, 2016
Summer Intern at the San Francisco Estuary Institute

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

The day comes to a close with the furious ‘click-click’ of the camera and desperate yet muted riffling of yellowed archive pages. It’s 5 o’clock at the California Historical Society and our team of archival researchers from the San Francisco Estuary Institute is being booted out the door.

The San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) is composed of three different programs: Clean Water, Environmental Informatics, and Resilient Landscapes. I am the intern for the Resilient Landscapes program, which works to create ecologically diverse landscapes that are resilient to climate change and human disturbance. Historical Ecology is perhaps the largest component of the program—the process of studying landscapes as they used to exist, intersect, and interact. The study of historical ecology, at least in the case of SFEI, involves the use of hundreds of first- and second-hand documents, compiled and cross-referenced in order to compose a vision of the historical landscape. Vision components include habitat, land use change, hydrology, geomorphology, and native species.

It is for one such study that I find myself suddenly standing outside the California Historical Society’s doors, blinking against the sunlight and San Francisco’s bubbling flow.

The society is but one of many treasure-troves of information that SFEI digs through for information on the numerous projects that the organization constantly juggles. An NGO known throughout the Bay Area for quality science at a landscape scale, SFEI works to define environmental problems, provide sound scientific research and analysis, and connect information with those in planning, management, and policy-making positions.

Just like SFEI itself, over the past few weeks I’ve juggled work on a number of different projects. From GIS data entry and copy editing reports to researching the Pacific pocket mouse (an endangered species historically found in the lower Tijuana Valley in San Diego County) and continued historical ecology database searches and archive visits, I’ve gotten a chance to experience many of SFEI’s modes of communication and research. It’s been fascinating to see the massive scale of research outside of a strictly academic context.

I’ve also greatly appreciated the opportunities I’ve been given to learn about NGO functioning, project coordination, and the work that different organizations are doing in the Bay Area; between brown-bag lunches from partner organizations, sitting in on meetings, and being involved in and around the office, it’s nearly impossible NOT to learn something new.

Although my heart, lungs, and legs yearn for the open air of the mountains where I grew up, I’ve taken it upon myself to explore the Bay Area as best I can with what free time I’ve been able to squeeze from my busy days. My few short weeks of living in Berkeley have already shown me parts of California that I hadn’t seen before: the mirror of the bay cradled between golden-grassed hillsides, Mt. Diablo’s skin-frying sunbeams and sweeping vistas, San Francisco’s delights, Berkeley’s many hidden nooks and crannies, and so much more.

I look forward to continuing my summer with SFEI, learning more about the company’s internal workings and analysis process, and getting a chance to work on a variety of projects; in particular, historical ecology research on the Walnut Creek watershed and Mission Bay in Southern California.

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