Tag Archives: Kate Sessions

The Tree Lady

illustration by Jill McElmurry from the children’s book by H. Joseph Hopkins

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We spent a month in San Diego. Shopping center after shopping center, parking lots, garages, and malls. What can everyone be purchasing, we wondered, as they sped about day and night in their shiny new cars? Where are they all going and what are they are so busy buying? Objects to furnish their homes, clothes to beautify their bodies, hair and nail salons, and gyms.

Meanwhile this piece of the planet has been plowed over, hardscaped with asphalt and concrete. I could hear it cry “RAPE!” What is needed is a new feminization of San Diego. A planner with a vision. Another Kate Sessions to turn things around and get the city back on the right path.

Barren and brown, that’s how Kate Sessions saw San Diego in 1884 when she first arrived from Northern California. The image of dirt and sagebrush must have burned into her consciousness. Her contract was to teach, but she left teaching after a short time to open a botanical nursery. Soon Sessions had nurseries in Coronado, Pacific Beach, and Mission Hills. Recognizing her passion, the city leased to Sessions 30 acres of a scrub-filled mesa known as City Park where cattle grazed and garbage was dumped. The park became her growing fields. And the park became Balboa Park, one of the premier urban parks in the country today.

If all this sounds like a fable, it isn’t.

Unprecedented for a woman at the time, Kate had graduated UC Berkley in 1881 with a degree in Natural Science. With that she became a botanist, horticulturist, landscape architect, and in the process, an activist. She published articles in newspapers, magazines, and journals, was appointed supervisor of agriculture and landscaper for the city schools, and supervised school gardens. “Her whole life and her whole interest was in horticulture,” noted her biographer, Elizabeth MacPhail.

“Sessions cut an extraordinary figure before women’s suffrage in California,” wrote Geoff Wade in the California Sun newsletter. “She kept her hair in a knot atop her head, and wore men’s shoes—perpetually muddy—and a twill shirt with a large inside pocket that bulged with pruning shears, a knife, and other tools.”

Growing from seeds collected around the world, Sessions planted thousands of cypress, pine, oak, peppertrees, jacaranda, and eucalyptus trees, where San Diegans didn’t think trees could grow. Blessed with a mild climate, plants thrived on the boulevards, in canyons, and public spaces.

And then, it’s almost as if San Diego became too desirable a place to live and everyone moved there. 

It’s no wonder we kept dodging into Balboa Park during our visit.

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Bird Park, San Diego

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

I remember my uncle’s visit in Southern California. We were living in Laguna Beach at the time, and, recently widowed, he was traveling to New Zealand from New England. We were a half-way resting place and ever so happy to have him.

My uncle looked upon it all incredulously. From Connecticut to California it must have been like landing on the moon. Main Beach is to Laguna Beach what “The Town Green” is to New England. In Laguna, a well-tended lifeguard tower stood in lieu of a white gazebo. And sand and surf where there was usually a lawn. Main Beach bustled with people, tan, fit, and half-clad.

I was seeing all this through my uncle’s eyes.

“Everyone’s in motion, aren’t they?” I asked. He could only nod.

Today our daughter lives across from Bird Park in San Diego. Bird Park is a part of Balboa Park, the famed legacy of Kate Sessions. Balboa Park may be to San Diego what Central Park is to New York City.

There is something so timeless about this scene from our daughter’s front door: a child and a swing, families picnicking. Strollers, bikes, rollerblades, scooters. Stretching routines and soccer practice.

Constructed in the shape of an enormous bird, Pershing Drive is the “branch” on which the “bird” stands. Employing native plantings to attract local birds, Bird Park is the brainchild of San Diego artists Robin Brailsford and Wick Alexander.

I raised my children not far from here in this climate when they were very young. Out every day, all day, is how I remember our time together. We were card-carrying members, regulars at The Wild Animal Park, now Safari Park. Strolling The Kilimanjaro Trail, lunching at picnic tables, napping in a double stroller while still moving.

A short jog off The Kilimanjaro Trial, we liked to cut through an Australian Rain Forest exhibit for the girls were fond of wallaby’s and kookaburras—as amused by the names as much as the animals. For me it was the vegetation, a green respite from the dry brown heat of the African-based trail. In the shelter of the rain forest I pointed out bronze signs in braille to two little girls who were learning to read English at the time. Their fingers running over and over the raised dots in each sign.

Sometimes you are all of one place. The climate became us. The park, wildlife, and horticulture, became us. I could see my daughters in khaki uniforms one day working summer jobs there. But then we moved. How did we ever move to the desert when San Diego was desert enough? I ask myself this now.

I live on an island now, and I have become it. I hear from friends that the bulbs are pushing up, and I must return.

Life moves in mysterious ways. Sometimes in circles, sometimes in avian shapes. But never in a straight line.

 

Perching birds of San Diego, in no particular order: Black-chinned sparrow, California towhee, Common yellowthroat, Horned lark, Western wood-peewee, Vermilion flycatcher, Western bluebird, Barn swallow, Blue grosbeak, Yellow warbler, Savannah sparrow, Loggerhead shrike, Northern rough-winged swallow, Red-breasted nuthatch, Rufous-crowned sparrow, Gray vireo, Marsh wren, Fox sparrow, California thrasher, Lark sparrow, Black phoebe, Tree swallow, Dusky flycatcher, Sage sparrow, LeConte’s thrasher, Lawrence’s goldfinch, California gnatcatcher, Tricolored blackbird, Say’s Phoebe, Wrentit, Bell’s vireo, Yellow-breasted chat, Red-winged blackbird, Lucy’s warbler, Chipping sparrow, Western tanager, Spotted towhee, Dark-eyed junco, Hooded oriole, Song sparrow, Brown-headed cowbird, Rock wren, Olive-sided flycatcher, Yellow-rumped warbler, Black-tailed gnatcatcher, Bushtit, Verdin, American robin, Lesser goldfinch, Green-tailed towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western kingbird, Violet-green swallow, Cassin’s kingbird, Black-throated sparrow, Phainopepha, Cactus wren, Purple finch, Scrub jay, Bullock’s oriole, Grasshopper sparrow,  Scott’s oriole, American goldfinch, Purple martin, Pacific-slope flycatcher, Lazuli bunting, Western meadowlark, Ash-throated flycatcher, Great-tailed crackle, Blue-grey gnatcatcher, Orange-crowned warbler, Brewer’s blackbird, Willow flycatcher, White-breasted nuthatch, Hutton’s vireo, Canyon wren, Crissal thrasher, Steller’s jay, Plain titmouse, Northern mockingbird, Bewick’s wren, Warbling vireo, Pygmy nuthatch, Bendire’s thrasher, Warbling vireo, Pygmy nuthatch, Bendire’s thrasher, American crow, Brown creeper, Mountain chickadee, and Common raven

 

 

 

 

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Filed under The Town Green