The long and winding road to the Fairfield Osborn Preserve seems a most appropriate approach to the 400-acre preserve spilling along the north-west slope of Sonoma Mountain. The fifteen minute drive starts flat, running through pastureland and fields, then quickly rises, past old farms and ranches, pastures on either side sprinkled with horses, cows and llamas. Each new curve on the climb reveals a different angle to the spectacular view of the valley floor spread out below, edged by rolling slopes and ridges and the round rumps of coastal hills. Quotidian and mundane tasks that narrow our vision fall away, deadlines fade as the wide vision, the big view dominates. The road winds through the last few miles of oak woodlands; we arrive at the gate of the Preserve already in a different frame of mind, prepped to breathe the oxygen-enriched air of a natural, not a manufactured, world.
The Fairfield Osborn Preserve was created from a gift of land from the Roth family in honor of Emily Roth’s father, Fairfield Osborn, and dedicated to both nature education and scientific research. Originally owned by The Nature Conservancy (still an easement neighbor), it has been owned and managed by the School of Science and Technology of Sonoma State University since 1994. To protect the land and the integrity of its research sites, the Preserve (fondly known as FOP) has limited public access. However, there are guided hikes and workshops offered on many Saturdays for anyone interested. A calendar of upcoming events and hikes can be found on the FOP FaceBook page
Additionally, the Sonoma State Preserve Program has developed an extensive and well-respected outdoor education program for elementary school children. Through guided hikes and information, the program introduces them to the flora and fauna of our environment, the wonder of the natural world and research and the scientific process itself.
Throughout my own guided tour, I spot odd things in odd places: white buckets, data loggers, wire-fence exclosures (to keep the critters out), little flags of different colors marking trees and bushes, trees and bushes with labels and monitoring devices—all evidence of the research going on here. FOP encompasses various forested and riparian terrains: oak and mixed evergreen forests, grasslands and chaparral, a perennial stream, a marsh, a small lake, a vernal pool, which provides a wide canvas for environmental and ecological research. The projects, some funded by the National Science Foundation and others by more local entities, revolve around issues such as Sudden Oak Death, the effect of grazing on native habitats and the relationship between insect pests and their natural bug enemies.
As I leave, the road winds and curls, leading me downslope; the valley sits below, muted under a misty haze. In the far distance is a slim line of blue: the ocean. This brief introduction has only whetted my appetitite; I'll return for more hiking excursions on the Preserve. I'm even considering becoming a docent so I can lead tours of my own - and visit that much more often.
( reposting for logistical reasons, from early fall, 2010)