A fluttering yellow ribbon with the message “Drip Irrigation” caught my eye in the Los Altos Heritage Orchard. In December, a volunteer tied this wish to the apricot tree that we planted in memory of Phil Doetsch, our former orchardist who taught me so much. Now, that wish is coming true as we install a new drip irrigation system, and my heart sings as so many join me in the inspiring initiative to restore the orchard by the 75th anniversary in 2027 of the incorporation of the City of Los Altos.
Volunteering for the Los Altos History Museum sparked a sense of purpose in me when I retired in 2015 and returned to my hometown to help my dad through the last chapter of his life. I hardly recognized where I grew up. So much had changed during the 45 years that I had been gone. However, the Civic Center apricot trees evoked cherished childhood memories of discovering nature among apricots. Coming of age in the Los Altos community instilled values that guided my career path. The Civil Rights Movement and environmental awareness shaped our conversations at Gunn High School. My parents encouraged me to explore the world, so Swarthmore College was a good fit with an interdisciplinary program in biology, psychology, and anthropology. Internships led to a senior project with Konrad Lorenz in Austria. I still remember the moment when I gazed at a goose sitting on my outstretched leg and decided I wanted to become a scientist. I encourage students to embrace internship experiences. The sense of reciprocity and giving back to the community is so rewarding throughout life.
In 2019, I timidly raised my hand during a brainstorm session in a rainstorm when we huddled under the eaves overlooking the Heritage Orchard at the library’s back door. City planner Sean Gallegos listened to ideas for orchard signage presented by the Museum’s Executive Director, Dr. Elisabeth Ward. Larry Lang asked who would lead a committee to bring together the voices of experts, stakeholders, and educators. Thus, the Museum’s Orchard Commons Committee emerged. The vision of the “commons” evokes the orchard as shared urban green space that brings together the diverse interests in our community. Four loose themes arise in conversations about future activities when the orchard is restored : Eating Local, Heart’s Delight, Resilient Natives and Heirloom Beauty.
Exploring the tensions between local communities and land protection advocates energized my academic career as director of the Biodiversity Stewardship Lab at Texas A&M University. Doctoral and postdoctoral studies at agricultural universities in Minnesota and Florida prepared me for research and teaching. Transferable skills gained during those three decades boosts my confidence that we can find a path forward in restoring the Heritage Orchard, guided by our experienced new orchardist, Terence Welch.
Curiosity, discovery, and sharing knowledge pervades our volunteer orchard activities. Mentoring our Green Teens in their inquiry projects invigorates my optimism in the problem solvers of the future. I often ponder what J. Gilbert Smith would think of this new twist on our pledge to care for the working orchard in perpetuity. We shoulder a tall responsibility in blending the old and the new.
Contributed by Jane Packard, chair of the Orchard Commons Committee