I was thankful she reminded us.
We were standing in Eldridge, among the stately, vacant buildings on the campus of the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), getting ready to take a hike as part of Sonoma Mountain Preservation’s/Meet the Mountain event series. I was setting the stage, sharing bits of what I know about Eldridge’s past and the process currently underway to shape its future.
In so many words, I explained the premise of the campus hike, and the reason I’d volunteered to lead it. Sonoma Mountain anchors the landscapes and viewscapes of much of Sonoma County, and the Eldridge campus is hitched to the mountain’s hem. What happens in Eldridge ripples around the mountain’s skirts, into its hollows, down its ridgelines, and over its summit. With a specific planning process underway that will include what officials have dubbed “robust community engagement,” I explained my belief that the people who make up “community” need to know what the place has been, and what the place is now, before they can work on what the place will be in the future.
The walk was a chance to learn about Eldridge’s history and explore the possibilities, I said. Then I added a caveat: What happens on the campus is not entirely in our hands. The state of California will have the final word on Eldridge’s final “disposition.”
That was when she chimed in.
“We are the state of California,” the walker reminded us.
Yes, we are.
We are empowered; we can reimagine Eldridge.
Warmed by a bright, late winter sun, we set off to do just that. The campus was in fine form. Bird song drifted on the warm breezes. The cobweb arms of oaks were not yet leafed out, and brilliant green grasses and early blooms carpeted the slopes and lawns. The long, dark ridgeline of the mountain rose behind. The old buildings caught the light and the eye, sparking memory and creativity, whispering possibilities.
As we walked and talked, the hikers revealed their personal connections to the place, which ran as deep and tangled as the thickets bounding Sonoma Mountain’s creeks. Some of them worked at SDC. As we admired legacy trees and specimen trees, one walker noted that some of the plantings were curated by her fellow workers – fruit trees and daffodils, which she called “employee-generated landscaping.” Some of them grew up with SDC. Down by the creek another walker peered upstream, looking for the fish ladder and the pool behind where he’d gone fishing years before. Standing at the carousel, a daughter turned to her mother with mock disdain, wondering why she’d never been brought here for a ride. We mothers laughed. That hadn’t really been an option, so we argued we’d done well by taking our kids out to the junior farm back in the day. The daughter agreed.
And some of the walkers have worked to preserve Eldridge’s wildlands for decades. Orienting ourselves to the vastness of the property from the edge of the historic cemetery, a hiker pointed upslope toward the old orchard, now part of Jack London State Historic Park. Fruit from that orchard once fed the people who lived in Eldridge. As the developmental center began its long decommissioning, the grassroots, including Sonoma Mountain Preservation, advocated for the orchard’s preservation and ultimately won its annexation, along with hundreds of additional acres, to the state park. Now, more of Eldridge’s open spaces are set to be preserved as parkland.
As we wandered from place to place on the campus, we talked about the wildland-urban interface, about vocational training and educational opportunities, about housing and homelessness, about sustainability and resiliency, about the dark side of the institution’s history, and about its legacy of care. We talked about process and ownership and governance, the concept of a trust. We talked about how confusing it is to know what’s presently possible in Eldridge – where you can walk, where you can drive, what’s open and what’s closed. We talked about how we all need to stay engaged in what will be a long process. Seeing the place firsthand is a big part of engagement. It’s tough to reimagine Eldridge when you don’t know what’s there.
And we also were quiet as we walked, receptive to the peace Eldridge confers. Slow down, the place said. Check out the daisy, listen to the hawk… or the helicopter, or the traffic. Toss a pebble into the creek; hear the splash, watch the ripples. Feel the sunshine on your back.
Nothing’s a done deal yet, so we, the state of California, must be engaged, vigilant, and educated. We must hold Eldridge as it is and remember what it was, and then, with that knowledge, embrace its future.
Glen Ellen writer Tracy Salcedo will lead another hike as part of Sonoma Mountain Preservation’s Meet the Mountain event series on Sunday, April 12, from 10 a.m. to noon. To sign up, and to view other events, visit sonomamountain.org.