2:03 pm: Stress release—and all other motivating factors—are waning. One hour into the afternoon session, the crew members are slowing considerably; some are leaning on their weed wrenches, some are sitting on the grass; some are declaring their need for naptime. “I’m having an existential crisis! What am I doing here?” Cecilia says, perhaps in jest, perhaps voicing a common sentiment.
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Philosophical soul-searching is hardly surprising coming from Cecilia, a true renaissance woman. A talented Latin jazz pianist and accomplished stop-motion animator currently studying film at USC, Cecilia—it turns out—is not named for the old Simon & Garfunkel number but the patron saint of music and the arts.
In her final summer before college, she sought an experience with natural sciences and the outdoors—balancing her background in the arts. Her friend—RYC alum and seasonal National Park Service ranger Antonio Cruz—recommended the program.
Cecilia says that her work in the field has been tremendously satisfying and inspirational. One day, when working with the earth at Lands End, she saw her fingerprints on the ground and immediately thought of the same fingerprints she had made on her “Claymation”-style characters. She realized her efforts can tangibly shape her environment—just as they do her art.
“Working on restoration is really fun because I can actually see the product of my impact—and as an artist you always want to make an impact,” she explains.
2:33 pm: Sensing the flagging spirits, Megan tries to spur the crew on for a final push. “OK, pull three more!” she says.
Dylan and G.G.—a junior at Lowell—launch a determined attack on a recalcitrant French broom while discussing who they favor in the NBA Finals.
In addition to basketball (and Dwyane Wade in particular), G.G. takes a keen interest in environmental science. After getting a taste of restoration work through a Nature in the City project, she applied to RYC.
“The best part is being able to give back to the area I grew up in—and preserve the natural beauty of California,” G.G. says, helping Dylan pull up their last invasive plant for the day.
2:40 pm: It’s time to pack up. Price asks the crew members to consolidate their piles of uprooted French broom, to minimize their footprint on the native habitat. The students comply, slowly, and wearily lug their weed wrenches for one more climb.
“I just want some water—even that would be a party,” someone says.
This reporter picks up one of the cumbersome tools, and as the students make their way down a steep slope toward the waiting vans, he gains an even more profound respect for the determination of these young people.
2:56 pm: Back at the vans, Price describes the order of operations: tools in the back of the van, Tyvek suits off, gloves off, Tecnu on (a soap that cleans the skin of oils from poison oak).
“Just another day in the life of a RYC worker,” says Hovhanes. “You always wind up washing your whole body in Tecnu.”
The crew members take turns lathering on the Tecnu and rinsing off with water poured from giant water coolers. Then they gather for the next activity: the “Bush Shake Game.”
After listening to Price’s instructions, the crew splits into three groups. One group steps off the trail and finds a coyote bush. Andre and G.G. place a small plastic tarp below the bush, Taylor stands by with a clipboard, and Dylan begins to vigorously shake the native plant. Insects tumble out of the bush. “There’s a huge black spider!” G.G. shrieks.
They record the “diversity and abundance” of organisms that fall out of the coyote bush, and then do the same by shaking a nonnative French broom. In the final count, nine specimens (representing six different species) fall from the native plant, while only a solitary aphid tumbles from the nonnative one. “This represents how nonnative species host fewer species,” Andre notes.
The “game” is actually a real-world look into the work of field ecologists. “These are exactly the types of experiments that professionals do—repeated over and over again,” says Megan, as she explains monitoring protocols.
Dylan, who has been active in outdoors activities through the Boy Scouts since joining in 1st grade, says he appreciates these immersive learning opportunities.
“I like this more than being in a classroom where you’re just copying notes,” he says. “Here, it’s hands-on and you get to feel the experiences of people who actually work outdoors.”
3:27 pm: G.G., Dylan, Edie, and Abby pile into Price’s van. As the vehicle trundles forward, the crew members recount the bumps and bruises of the day. Conversation turns to bugs that have been known to crawl into people’s ears. It was an “interesting” topic—for some.
“I think your definition of ‘interesting’ is very different than mine!” Abby demurs.
3:35 pm: After one more head-count to ensure all are aboard the vans, the RYC vans roll out the gate and return to the paved streets of Sausalito. The ride back into San Francisco rolls to a soundtrack of Led Zepplin, the Beatles, Jimmy Eat World, Kanye West, Akon (but only briefly, due to objections from the crowd), and Busta Rhymes.
3:54 pm: Back to Fort Mason, and back in front of the Park Stewardship building in the Quad. Price briefs the day captains—Hovhanes and Dylan—on the list of chores to be completed. In short order, James and Abby are washing tools in front of the building with rags dipped in Tecnu-spiked water, Colton and Kevin are rinsing cups in the kitchen, G.G. and Edie are cleaning the vans, Taylor is sweeping the floors, Andre is breaking down boxes, Zach is moving things into the basement, and Hovhanes is organizing gear.
4:11 pm: Price, Megan, and Kara are waiting in the conference room, where the day began. Price deputizes Hovhanes to round up the others, who are washing up in the bathrooms and wolfing down leftover bagels.
After the crew re-assemble, Megan launches into a critique of the day. “We’re only working two to three hours—so we really need to pump it out during that time,” she says. “Although we did a wonderful job today… 45 minutes into the second round work, it got slow.”
Voicing the concerns shared by her colleagues, Megan says they observed some negative comments and body language and warned the students on how those sentiments can poison morale. But then, in the upbeat spirit of RYC, she also brings up the teamwork and positive reinforcement she saw in the field.
“The downward spiral can also be reversed by just one person,” she says, “And that energy can then spiral upwards!”
Indeed, by cultivating landscapes in nature, these young people—through these challenging experiences—are also cultivating their own best natures. In their review of this day, the Park Stewardship staff members also tell the youth about the importance of being prepared for the work day, tempering language inappropriate language, and maintaining professionalism in the face of adversity. “You definitely have to have pride in your work,” Kara says.
As the crew members are leaving for the day, they are taking the criticism to heart—while taking pride in their productivity, their camaraderie, and their hard work.
“That’s half the fun,” says Colton.
“It’s all the fun,” says Andre.
“It’s all the fun till you get really tired,” says James.
The Restoration Youth Crew would re-convene the next morning, at the same time and place, for another day.
Story by Michael Hsu, photography by Mason Cummings