• author
    • Debra DeAngelo

    • March 13, 2015 in Columnists

    Let’s not take all the nature out of our nature park

    An amazing thing happened one recent sunny morning while walking at the Putah Creek Nature Park: I saw an otter.

    A mother-freakin’ OTTER.

    In Putah Creek!

    In Winters!

    It was that proverbial “could not believe my eyes” moment. My eyes squealed, “That’s an otter!” My brain replied, “No way, no how — it’s a cat or a squirrel, or maybe you’ve finally just gone plumb bonkers, my dear.”

    The eyes had it. There was a real live otter, sitting on a clump of brush, grooming himself in the sunshine. I froze in my tracks because I was sure the moment he saw me, he’d skedaddle.

    I slowly approached the fence (because a feature of our “improved public access” nature park is a chest-high iron fence that allows you to look at nature but not touch it), and said, “Good morning!” Rather than darting off, he looked right back at me with his big sweet black eyes and returned the greeting. We had a lovely conversation. If the spirits of the Patwin were looking on, I’m sure I was dubbed “Chatters With Otters.”


    This photo, taken in December 2014, is near “that spot” where you can still see the wild things.

    I lingered there for awhile, but it was time to move on. I was hoping the otter would still be there on my return loop, but it wasn’t. But I’m hoping to see it again — more people are spotting otter in the creek, and beaver, herons and turtles too. If you want a glimpse of some wild things, here’s where you go: There’s a place along the paved path where it dips down, next to a cut-out with some stumps for seats. It’s the lone little pocket along the so-called “nature park” where there is actual nature — brush, bushes and trees, bunch grasses and wildflowers, all planted by Gaia herself and not teams of humans.

    This is the last spot where they haven’t taken all the “wild” out of wildlife, hacking away the things that grew there on their own and replacing them with what they think should grow there. Now, please do not misunderstand: This is not a criticism of all the volunteers who so diligently work on replanting the creekside with native vegetation, and spend hours tending it. Thank Goddess for them! They’re trying to heal the wound. My issue is with those who made the wound in the first place.


    This is how “that spot” once looked, before it was “improved.”

    You see, once upon a time, before there was a “nature park” with paved roads, metal fences and perfectly placed plantings, many of us already knew about the wild stretch of Putah Creek right next to town. We’d worn our own walking paths through the brush and buckeye. There were butterflies and birds, and blankets of bright purple lupine this time of year. You could literally step through the veil of civilization and suddenly be in a wild place. Pure magic.

    But then, the city decided to capitalize on this natural asset, and the Putah Creek Nature Park project began, with the goal of encouraging more people to come and enjoy the creekside. To that extent, it was a success. All sorts of people enjoy the walking path — families, couples, even people in wheelchairs — all finally discovering what’s right in our own back yard. As far as parks go, it’s a lovely park. Beautiful in every way. But for those of us who loved the wild place it was, it’s heartbreaking.

    For the longest time after the “nature park” trail opened, I couldn’t bring myself to walk along the creek at all. It was too upsetting. Where some saw progress, I saw destruction. Little by little, I finally started venturing back there, because even scarred with pavement, it’s still the best place in town to go walking. I’ve finally swallowed my sadness and accepted that the wild place we once had is gone and now we have, well — this. A park. A very nice park, yes. But no man-made park can equal one made by nature’s own hand. A wild place has a heartbeat. A man-made place does not. And that’s that.

    But, maybe there’s still a positive outcome. The more people who visit the park, the more people who will hopefully develop an appreciation for nature and our local riparian habitat, and there’s no better opportunity along that path then “that spot” — that one wild place, right alongside the path, where you can see the water close-up, and if you’re very, very quiet, you might be visited by a wild thing.

    So cool, right?

    Here’s what’s not so cool. Apparently there’s a plan to bulldoze that spot down and divert the creek farther from the path. Apparently this is part of “the plan.” Not only will this make the creek accessible only to those able-bodied enough to hike down there, the animals and birds that visit that spot will be frightened off. Apparently the official response to that is “So what.”

    Here’s what: The “nature park” has been manicured enough. Could you please just leave one little piece of actual nature alone? There’s no need to move the creek in that spot. There’s no danger of erosion or threat to human safety or life. It won’t detract from the “nature park” to leave one little splash of real live nature intact. We already paved paradise and put up a walking path. Leave well enough alone.

    otter library and artist

    Renowned artist Gerald Heffernon, who lives in Winters, painted this book-lovin’ otter on a wooden door as a gift to the Winters Friends of the Library for their Little Libraries.

    In a dishearteningly symbolic incident, one of our Little Libraries was vandalized last week. The cute little book house, where anyone can take or leave books, sits along the nature park path and the glass door kept getting vandalized. A Winters Friends of the Library member asked renowned local artist Gerald Heffernon to do a painting of our otter on a wooden door. And he did! If you know Heffernon’s work, you know that this was quite a valuable gift. The Friends figured that A) a wooden door wouldn’t be as much fun to smash as glass and B) the vandals wouldn’t want to destroy beautiful artwork featuring our beloved otter.

    The Friends were wrong.

    The new door was installed on Wednesday and smashed by Saturday.

    The vandals didn’t care about art or beauty, or the hand that painstakingly created it, or the community that could have enjoyed it. They destroyed it simply because they could.

    “So what.”


    “So what.”




      • Debbie Hemenway

      • March 13, 2015 at 4:10 pm
      • Reply

      I have been walking the creek walk ever since it opened and have seen otters and beaver and Canada geese and blue herons and several kinds of ducks. it’s fabulous.

      And as you have noted, when the current construction project is finished – the one with the boys with their big earth-moving toys down where you saw the otter – the creek will be rerouted around the other side of that area and the gazillion-dollar ‘creek walk’ will no longer allow us to see a big section of the creek.

      One hardly knows what to say. At least not civilly.

      • The frustrating part is there seems to be no one to say it TO. These plans aren’t discussed in detail at the city council. It appears there is one person making all the decisions, and he’s been give carte blanche to do whatever he likes. The city’s Putah Creek Committee is chaired by the same person who is contracted to do the work, so it’s not hard to draw the lines there… contracting more work means more income for the committee chair.

    • I loved this, but the ending was hard to take. A glass of merlot ought to fix that, however. Loved the writing.

      • Yes, the destruction of an original Heffernon painting is like one last insult. Glad you liked the column, though. 🙂

      • Mitch Korcyl

      • March 17, 2015 at 10:32 pm
      • Reply

      Here is my perspective…the current path of the creek is not actual natural or wild. The original creek bed was filled in long ago. It actually would be flowing north through Blue Oak Park and then back to the end of Creekside Way. Look at some aerial photos of the area from the 40s and 50’s. Some are in City Hall. You can see the old creek bed. The creek never flowed the same after 1954.
      Otters have been in the creek for years, Beavers too. I walked back there before the realignment and park construction. Hell the otters came in and ate up all the carp that were back there. Do I agree with the “progress”. Don’t know. As seen it has opened up the creek a lot. If pressed I would say I do not agree with the last realignment section.

      • The reason the flow changed after the 1950s was the construction of Monticello Dam. Prior to the construction of the dam, much of the currently developed land in Winters would regularly flood.
        And yes the wild things have been there all along, but it was difficult to see them in some parts due to the thick growth of blackberry bushes. I will say – the park project has cleared most of that away, and made portions of the creek more visible. That’s probably why so many more of us are seeing wildlife now.
        So, yes there was a benefit to developing the park, I suppose, although were it up to me, I would not have put an asphalt path in and, in particular, would not have removed all the eucalyptus trees. Although they weren’t wild, they used to be teeming with bird life. Now it’s all gone.
        But this last little part… seems they could leave one little vestigial section to remind us of what was once there.

          • Debbie Hemenway

          • March 18, 2015 at 8:38 am

          I would have preferred something other than asphalt also, especially in hot weather, but, as with so many decisions, the original plan for decomposed granite was scrapped due to cost.

          Actually, there still are a lot of eucalyptus, including the crest right above the fenced section that we all love. I have no idea if they will survivie the next round of ‘improvements.’

    • Debbie – I heard from a committee member that it’s all but a done deal. The work will begin within a week or so, as a grant has already been accepted to destroy this last piece of natural habitat. I was told the person doing the work complained at the Putah Creek Committee meeting that after this grant he’d be “out of work.”
      So, this confirms what I suspected all along: A major motivation for all these improvements was the employment of the so-called “streamkeeper.”

        • Debbie Hemenway

        • March 19, 2015 at 8:42 am
        • Reply

        I was at the meeting and I wouldn’t say he complained – he *did* remark that he could not guarantee that he would have a job here after the grant was finished, but that was in the context of what he could or could not say would happen to the project after 2016. I haven’t paid enough attention along the way to know how to judge his competence and motivation.

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