By Murray Schneider
After 28 years working as a horticulturist for San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department, Gloria Koch simply couldn’t walk away from work she loved.
So the 20-year Diamond Street resident, after retiring six months ago, began volunteering with Friends of Glen Canyon Park.
“A gardener’s job is body joy,” she said one recent Wednesday morning while removing invasive mustard high above Glen Canyon’s floor. “They aren’t many jobs where you can earn a salary and exercise at the same time.”
Koch was born in Havana, Cuba and has lived in San Francisco since 1977. She looks like she stepped from the pages of an original Banana Republic advertisement, not the current ones that depict models who favor Don Draper and Holly Golightly but the original ads, the ones that ballyhooed gear better suited for the grasslands of the Serengeti than the sidewalks of Madison and Fifth Avenues.
For her weekly work parties, supervised by Rec and Park’s Natural Areas Program, Koch dons a broad brim sun hat, banded with a jaunty purple bandana. The neckerchief complements a vest with zippered pockets and crisp khakis, cuffed just above ancient mud-caked work boots.
The boots held her in good stead through her years working at City parks such as Crocker-Amazon, Dolores Park, Union and Portsmouth Square, Coit Tower, Upper Noe and Julius Kahn playgrounds, Civic Center and eventually as a manager in John McLaren-sculpted Golden Gate Park.
“It was always exciting to go to work each morning,” she said. “The field work was demanding but always meaningful and working with machines was industrial strength.”
All this may be true for the well-traveled Koch, who early on worked as an Amazon River tour guide in Colombia and who swam in South American waters with electric eels and even piranhas, and even now thinks it was all exciting.
But she recognizes that there are primal benefits working in the outdoors.
“Gardening is meditative and puts you in the present moment, which is particularly important in the modern world” she said, with both the touch of a philosopher and a poet. “Glen Canyon allows you to sense and gives you the gift of hearing an owl’s hoot, a coyote’s howl and a song bird’s whistle.”
After a long career in civil service Koch has even more time to hone her senses. She volunteers each Wednesday in her neighborhood’s 70-acre backyard for the Natural Areas Program, which is pledged to habitat restoration and citizen stewardship.
“Glen Canyon is our park and it refreshes our minds,” she said. “We want to be surprised when we come here, experiencing the natural world out of the box and on uneven ground.”
She put aside the mattock she’d been using to unearth a scrum of inimical mustard.
“We’re so lucky as a community we can take a trail and experience not only woodland, but meadows, shrubs, rock formations and a creek,” she said. “I love getting around our charming urban village and also getting away to the breezes and beauty of our canyon.”
Commonly seen walking its paths, Koch enthused about the recently completed Saddle Trail Project. It was funded by a $157,000 NAP administration written grant.
“The box and stringer steps are designed gracefully,” she said about 100 plus steps that lead hikers through two chert rock outcroppings above the Willow Loop Trail. “They’re a work of art.”
“If you build it, they will come,” she said of the recently completed switchbacks that curl between the serrated rocks. The new path ensures that hikers will not stray off trail and trample the habitat-friendly vegetation.
Glen Canyon is unique, featuring greenery such as eucalyptus and redwood trees that share space with coastal oaks, columbine and monkey flower as well as California buckeye and Arroyo willow that shade Douglas iris and coyote brush.
“There’s nothing like spotting a coyote or hearing a woodpecker,” she said. “It gives your brain a rest. You can’t learn everything from a book. Experiencing the natural world directly is so satisfying.”
“And the canyon grassland,” she continued. “It’s significant because it produces so much oxygen and is so rare in the city.”
Grassland is important habitat for raptors such as the Great-Horned Owl that recently returned to the front of the canyon. Above a Red-tailed hawk circled Koch, scouting for its mid-day meal.
Koch returned to extricating a thistle’s taproot. The noonday sun reflected off her wide-brimmed hat.
“Butterflies, like people, are more active in mid-day,” she observed. “They’re more visible over grasslands especially when the sun shines and whenever sun hits flowers the nectar flows.”
A natural area such as Glen Canyon needs management, even more so because man disturbed it in the 1930s by bulldozing a snaking swath of road called O’Shaughnessy Boulevard through it. In the 1960s mounds of excavated soil were dumped here during the development of Diamond Heights. The resulting giant earthen breastwork, now home to carpets of colonizing radish and suitably dubbed Radish Hill by the Friends of Glen Canyon, gives ample testimony to the embarrassing paucity of environmental sensitivity only a generation ago.
But what about man’s best friend, which doesn’t need to hunt and hide in the natural area habitat? A long time gardener, Koch minces few words.
“Dogs should be on a leash,” she said. “I’ve been bitten by a dog, but never by a coyote.”
“Besides,” she continued, “we wouldn’t want the pooches surprised by the coyote, would we?”
She is an unabashed booster for the Natural Areas Program. “The NAP preserves and protects the best we have,” she said. “Its work is so subtle and it leaves few fingerprints and its canyon track record speaks for itself.”
An example is found behind the eucalyptus that offers sanctuary to the nesting mother owl. There a Natural Areas Program project stands on both sides of Islais Creek. With the assistance of Glen Park volunteers and a grant from Levi Strauss, NAP reintroduced an oasis of California native plants such as coffee berry that replaced spent syringes and jagged beer bottles.
“This nature habitat enhancement is a marvelous change,” Koch said, as a house finch perched on a pink flowering currant limb. “It’s such an improvement.”
Koch is convinced native shrubby offers aesthetic benefits as well as environmentally friendly ones. “We can use California native plants ornamentally,” she said. “They are attractive, but also sustainable, low maintenance and their diversity only enhances the canyon’s ecosystem.”
Koch is just as upbeat about the environmentally friendly work now making inroads in front of the canyon, where a $5.8 million 2008 Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond is footing the bill for relocating tennis courts up the Elk Street hill and carving out a parent-friendly approach for children walking to Glenridge Co-op nursery school and Silver Tree summer camp.
“I’ve never seen a better categorization of waste materials, sorted and processed in such neat piles,” she said, referring to the construction project-in-progress. “San Francisco leads the nation in recycling and this project appears to be a shining example of government-contractor competence.”
An inveterate hiker, used to scaling mountains in Chile, Spain and our own American backcountry, Koch just returned from a six-week trek in Patagonia. “I was on a vision quest,” she said, a smile creasing her sun-tanned face.
She’ll find peaks in Glen Canyon and recreational trails that aren’t nearly as steep as the ones she challenged in South America last month.
For Gloria Koch volunteering in Glen Canyon is about living a coherent life. The money-strapped Natural Areas Program’s eight gardeners need additional volunteers to push back against weeds that threaten to smother ecosystems such as the ones found atop Mt. Davidson, Bernal Hill and Corona Heights.
In the front of the canyon, the sated mother owl’s ears poked from a cluster of eucalyptus leaves high in the tree, a sight Koch would have unlikely seen in manicured Golden Gate Park.
“Owls follow diversity,” she said, looking toward the tree that has become a wild life laboratory for so many wide-eyed neighborhood children. That same natural area that sustains Koch, as well.
“I’m so grateful to this city for welcoming an immigrant such as me,” she said, “and the merit system that allowed a Hispanic and a woman to work in our parks for the common good.”
If anyone would like to volunteers with the Natural Areas Program, they can contact Joe Grey, the NAP volunteer coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jean Conner, Friends of Glen Canyon Park, at 415-584-8576.