Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - June 3, 2011

Treasure waiting to be discovered: Alviso Adobe Community Park

Naturalist imparts to the young a sense of stewardship for the world

by Story and photos Jerri Pantages Long

You don't have to drive far to enjoy one of Pleasanton's newest attractions. Opened 32 months ago, Alviso Adobe Community Park is located at 3645 Old Foothill Road, less than a mile north of Bernal Avenue.

There are many reasons to make the short trip. First of all, these are some of the most scenic acres in our region, with panoramic views eastward over the valley. The 7-acre property is graced with magnificent oak trees that are likely more than three centuries old.

During those three centuries, and even before those acorns sprouted into saplings, this was a chosen spot for human habitation. As far back as 3240 B.C., people lived on the land. This is a historic site, with a timeline literally stamped into the curving paved walkway. Pleasanton naturalist Eric Nicholas helps everyone understand what the site has to offer.

"One of the best parts about my job is that I get to meet many visitors more than once," said Nicholas. "In my profession, in most cases, you run into students and public participants and you see them only once. Due to the programs we've developed here in Pleasanton, I have the opportunity to share my love of nature multiple times, which means it's more likely that my message will be well embedded our visitors."

Nicholas meets preschoolers visiting with their parents, then often sees the same youngsters in their third- or fourth-grade class visits. Some later attend vacation nature day sessions and return as counselors-in-training.

"All my programs are inter-connected and self-perpetuating," explained Nicholas, adding with a laugh, "I have a sneaking suspicion that the city of Pleasanton will be blooming out naturalists in the future."

Visitors can learn about the Ohlone Native Americans who gathered acorns for food, leaving behind the rock where they used stone implements to grind the nuts into meal. (Those who wish to "leave their mark" can try for themselves the art of chipping away stone to form a cup-shaped indentation for grinding acorns. Sunglasses are required for eye protection for this endeavor.)

Centuries later, the land was part of the 12,000-acre Rancho Santa Rita. Built in 1854, the Alviso Adobe -- now restored -- was the first permanent home in what has become Pleasanton.

The adobe was declared a state historic landmark in 1954. It had been in continuous use from when it was built until the Meadowlark Dairy closed its operations at this location in 1969 after 50 years. The dairy farming era is portrayed at the site with a reconstructed milking barn, now used for classes and crafts as well as exhibits. Among other things, children can learn that milk once was delivered in glass bottles.

In fact, there is a lot for people of all ages to learn while visiting this community park. The grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk, but the buildings and inside exhibits are open only Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is no admission fee.

A good introduction to the many aspects of this park is taking a free tour, offered the first Sunday (June 5) and last Saturday (June 25) of each month, 2-3 p.m. Families are welcome to bring picnics to the site.

Come for the scenery, soak up the history, then consider taking part in some of the programs being offered. These are detailed in the Summer 2011 edition of the Pleasanton Community Services Activities Guide, which was mailed to residents in April. It's still available at the public library or online: www.ci.pleasanton.ca.us/service/recreation/current-activities-guide. Registration can be done online or via mail.

Naturalist Eric Nicholas loves to share his enthusiasm for nature and history. He brings an unusual background to his position. Born in Livermore and raised in Union City, he became a trail guide for the Sierra Club at age 17, adding river rafting guide skills by age 19.

Nicholas traveled throughout the western Unites States, visiting a dozen Indian reservations over a period of three-and-a-half years to learn the skills of the older Native Americans. First he would visit a school on the reservation, to find out the names and locations of the tribal elders. Then he would visit each one, offering his labor in exchange for their teachings.

"I did the things they no longer could take care of, like chopping firewood or fixing roofs," said Nicholas. "They taught me about using native plants for food and medicine, tracking animals -- skills that were dying out."

Nicholas would then spend one to three months alone in the forest or desert, practicing what he had learned, refining his survival skills. At the end of that time, he would return to the school where he started, to demonstrate those skills to young students, lead field trips, and connect the teachers with the elders he had met.

Now Nicholas shares what he learned with classes visiting Alviso Adobe from local schools, as well as with the general public. Nicholas estimates that about 90 classes have visited this school year. In addition, he has gone out to classrooms and other sites to conduct another 130 programs.

Besides offering one-time classes (which usually cost $3-$6 for residents, plus another $2 for non-residents), Nicholas offers vacation day camps. There are Winter Ramblers, Spring Striders, and, during the summer, from June 20 to July 22, one-week sessions of Ridge Runners Nature Day Camp for those who will enter grades 1-5 next school year.

Those entering grades 6-9 can sign up to become counselors-in-training. Day camp alumni and counselors-in-training also have a special week of their own camp. Four- and five-day day camp sessions are offered, for a fee of $150 or $188, respectively, for residents and non-residents. If they include an overnight camp-out, the five-day session fee is $248. Some camperships may be available for those needing financial assistance.

Nicholas has two part-time assistant naturalists and a part-time office helper. Beyond that, the program relies on volunteers.

"The great thing about volunteering with the environmental education division of the city is that we're starting at the ground floor, so there is the opportunity to offer insights to help shape the program," said Nicholas. "People trickle in, we find out what their interests are, and we help them develop their contributions as volunteers."

In particular, Nicholas is seeking those who may have skills in what he terms "rural crafts," so that these can be demonstrated to visitors, who could have a hands-on experience in trying the crafts. Those interested in volunteering in any capacity should contact him at 931-3479 or enicholas@ci.pleasanton.ca.us.

"My goal as a naturalist is to find that sense of wonder in our youth and to provide an opportunity to retain it," said Nicholas. "There are so many things calling and distracting them -- it is imperative to impart to (young people) a sense of love and stewardship in caring for the natural world when we have finished our work here."

Many people had a role in shaping this very special community park. A citizens' task force worked with city staff and architects to develop the concept of portraying three distinct eras of the history of the land. One of the task force members was Dave Hartman, then a teacher at Lydiksen Elementary School. His words are inscribed on the adobe wall that frames the entry to the park:

"We are temporal custodians of the valley and its resources, with a responsibility to value and build upon the legacy of those before us who lived in concert with the environment, balancing human progress with the understanding that we are but one part of the web of life in the valley."

Discover for yourself this treasure in our hometown, and bring home a new perspective on how our lives today link to the past and affect the future.

Summer classes at the adobe (check city schedule for time and cost)

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