Just the fact that it is springtime in Sonoma County is reason enough to write about Milo Baker, who lived — quite literally — in a bed of violets at the mouth of Kenwood’s Adobe Canyon.
He is counted as one of the people leaving a unique mark on our corner of the world for his diligence in the pursuit of native plants, the staggering number of species he collected and his lifelong enthusiasm for what nature has given this area.
What compels me to visit Milo Baker on this particular spring day is the wildflower walk I joined early this month with a covey of old and new docents at the Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen, an area burned over — with most buildings destroyed — in the fires of October.
A dozen or so of us clustered there on the trail, with fields of flowers all around us because nature does, truly, heal itself, and the blooms are spectacular in the wake of disaster. We listened as out our guide, Bouverie’s biologist Jeanne Wirka, told us everything we wanted to know about each blooming plant, large and small.
It wasn’t just the lupine and the buttercups, but smaller flowers, sometimes tiny flowers. And we stood in the middle of the trail, peering down at the plants at our feet while Jeanne talked about the small cousin of the sunflower indigenous to this area and, in fact, an endangered species.
Therein, I thought to myself, having been a dutiful student of English literature, hangs a tale.
And such a tale it is. The flower underfoot calls little attention to itself, not waving in the breeze or perfuming the air. But, because of a harrowing period in the late 1980s and early ’90s it was headline news.
Sonoma sunshine, which is its common name, threatened to drastically curtail growth at the edges of Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Windsor, stopping construction plans for several subdivisions, at least two schools and a vineyard development.
When two prominent developers were arrested and threatened with fines far beyond their prospective profits for taking a plow to specific portions of their proposed housing tracts, we knew it was very serious.
The plow’s target was that same tiny flower by the botanical name “Blennosperma bakeri” honoring the man who classified it.
“Milo Baker,” we said at the time, casting our eyes heavenward, “what you have wrought?”
In 1988, Press Democrat readers learned a new term: “vernal pools.” This is geologists’ description — for the laymen — for a spot of seasonal wetland, a low area in clay soil with an underlayer of hardpan that holds water from winter rains through spring. Some said these are the remnants of an inland sea.
The construction industry’s protests were raised to the heavens and the newspapers spent acres of printed page explaining to the New World what a vernal pool is, while old farmers suggested to all who would listen that “it is where the tractor left its tracks in the mud.”
Even Milo Baker, the very old ones pointed out, had called them “hog wallows.”
But the laissez-faire days when open fields were for houses were ending. Botanists and gardeners, environmentalists and politicians, with a liberal dose of the new anti-growth movement, saved Sonoma sunshine and two other endangered wildflowers named Baker’s Sebastopol meadowfoam and Burke’s goldfields, which were added to government lists.