Earth Stewards look beyond the streetBy Geoffrey Coffey
The downtrodden and the threatened come together weekly on the grounds of the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno for an exercise of remarkable symbiosis.
The Earth Stewards, a pilot program founded by Catherine Sneed, employs at-risk adults ages 18 to 24 to grow threatened native plants on prison grounds for use by the Public Utilities Commission; they also go out in crews to pull weeds and plant their stock in traffic medians, around reservoirs and on other PUC properties, which include 900 acres in San Francisco alone.
Sneed's charges come from a variety of backgrounds, but they share a trajectory of "at-risk behavior," often driven by poverty, stopped just short of the abyss.
Sneed meets me at the barbed-wire gate and leads me back to her garden project beside the cell block: two greenhouses, a pink barn and a small growing ground filled with young plants aglow in the morning sun. On this Friday, her crew is made up mostly of high schoolers wearing hoodies and baggy jeans, happily tending their seedlings.
She takes me into the greenhouse, where rows of coffeeberry and seaside daisy soak up the sunlight, and a group of Earth Stewards sits joking and laughing loudly. "Hello!" calls Sneed, and instantly the room falls silent. She is a bundle of tough love, Mother Teresa crossed with a drill sergeant, and her olive beret reinforces the impression of military command. With all the gravity of that office she announces the assignment: "We're going to show Geoffrey the mountain lion poop. We need to go there in numbers."
This county jail sits at the foot of Sweeney Ridge, a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area abundant with spring wildflowers and other native plants. It also contains manifold animal life, including bobcat, fox, coyote, deer, hawk, owl and at least one mountain lion.
And so, protected by the power of numbers, Sneed and I and the 20 Stewards embark on a field trip to see the untamed wilderness in the concrete jungle's backyard. Many in our group have little or no experience with landscapes beyond the pavement. We climb an old fire road through snarls of blue gum eucalyptus, pampas grass and French broom at the compound's edge, then ascend into a mixed forest with native shrubs including elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). I show these to the group; their interest is tepid.
"And watch out for poison oak," Sneed adds. Her words have power. The Earth Stewards pull their collars closer to their throats and look uncertainly over their shoulders. I want to allay their fears.
"Here," I say, pointing out a delicate shoot of Toxicodendron diversilobum twining among the branches of a just-leafing-out Holodiscus. The Earth Stewards jostle for position to take a closer look. I explain the subtle differences in appearance between poison oak and California blackberry, which we find in the understory. (Both have leaves in clusters of three, but the blackberry stem has thorns and the poison oak does not.) "Can you eat the blackberries?" they ask.
Yes, I reply, but they're not very tasty, unlike the huckleberry, growing just there beside the path, which gives the most delicious berries of all our local shrubs.
I can see a change in their expressions: Native plants are more interesting than they realized.
We continue up the path, and soon a cry is raised: The great scat has been located. We gather around to scrutinize the droppings and debate their origin. They look too small to have come from a mountain lion; we decide it must have been a coyote. But even so, a thrill at this intersection with the wild resonates deeply within our group, and I can feel a sense of excitement building among the Earth Stewards.
The trail forks, and we follow it uphill into a soft chaparral of coastal scrub. Among abundant coffeeberry, lizard tail and California sagebrush, we find the low silver lupine (Lupinus albifrons var. collinus), that exceptionally delicate perennial with the feathery foliage and blossoms of robust blue.
"You should propagate this plant at your nursery," I tell the Earth Stewards. "It's the caterpillar food plant for the mission blue butterfly." This news causes a minor stir. True, I explain, the mission blue has not been spied on Sweeney Ridge for decades, and it is considered extirpated here, but a remnant population lurks nearby on San Bruno Mountain and another on Twin Peaks in the city. This butterfly is found nowhere else, and without the silver lupine, there would be no mission blue.
The Earth Stewards murmur in agreement -- or solidarity.
Sneed's larger Garden Project, out of which the stewardship program grew, arose from Sheriff Michael Hennessy's long practice of using horticulture and organic gardening as a means of prisoner rehabilitation.
Because of staffing issues brought on by the construction of a new jail building, inmates currently do not work in the nursery. But past offenders, who have completed parole and probation, work in the jailhouse nursery to learn a trade and build self-confidence for life in society. They also act as mentors to the Earth Stewards, which reaches out to help young adults before they ever land in prison. It grants them a chance to earn wages and gain job skills while keeping out of trouble.
"It's essentially a crime prevention program," says Hennessy, who met Sneed in the late 1970s when he was her prison law professor. "Catherine inspires and educates at the same time. She has the power to transform people who otherwise have lost faith in the system."
The stewards' affiliation with the PUC is mutually beneficial. "We're a water-first agency," Susan Leal, its general manager, "and native plants are water wise. This program helps our ratepayers by reducing costs. It beautifies our neighborhoods, and it trains these young folks to lead happy and productive lives."
Sneed received her law degree and started working at the county jail in 1979 as a legal-services counselor. She has also overcome great hurdles, such as a mortal scare with cancer 25 years ago. "I think I got sick from working here at the prison," she says, "from the despair of this place at that time, the insanity of seeing all these lives thrown away."
After reading "The Grapes of Wrath" in her hospital bed, she had an epiphany: If we can connect to the land, there's hope.
She returned to the prison and began a program of working with the inmates outdoors. For the first year she couldn't even walk, so the prisoners carried her everywhere.
"The deputies told me, 'The prisoners will run away, they'll hack you to bits out there,' but they didn't. They came out every day happy for the fresh air and ready to work. I had never seen them enthusiastic and happy and cooperative." Within a couple of years of starting the Garden Project, Sneed went into remission. She has never looked back.
Out in the wild with the Earth Stewards, we reach a bend in the path midway up the slope with a sweeping vista of Crystal Springs reservoir, and we pause to admire the view.
Sneed describes the changes she has seen in the Earth Stewards. "When they first came to me, they were just wild. Discounted by society, not valued at all. Very much like native plants! It's really parallel, because now people are starting to value them. They do what they're supposed to do when you care for them. And that's the point of all this."
I am struck by a deep sense of spiritual quid pro quo. Here in the shadow of the cell block -- growth.
Geoffrey Coffey is the director of the Madrono landscape design studio (www.madrono.org).
Copyright ©2006 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 05/17/2006.