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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.

By the early ’90s, compromises were reached, including new provisions allowing developer credits for creating preserves to save the endangered plants.

So ended another contentious era in Sonoma County construction, the memory of which may cause older builders to grimace, while hikers and horticulturists beam like a field of buttercups.

I met Mr. Baker only once and never exchanged more than a pleasant hello. I was freshman at Santa Rosa Junior College and he was an 86-year-old retired botany instructor who came almost daily to campus to care for his herbarium. It was, I would learn years later, a remarkable collection of some 30,000 plants gathered on more than a half-century of walks through the open land from San Francisco Bay to the Oregon border.

Later, in pursuit of those who had shaped the area’s history, I talked with the late Vanette Bunyan, who had been his student and sometime biographer. He had succeeded in making her a lifelong amateur botanist who was among the founders of the local chapter of the National Native Plant Society named for Baker.

From Vanette I learned that he had earned a teacher’s credential from San Jose Normal School in the 1880s and taken a job in the tiny town of Bieber in the far northeastern corner of the state.

Young enough for such an adventure, he walked from Redding to his new job 100 miles away. On that walk he found and identified his first “new” plants, several dozen that were unknown to botanists, including one, the Modoc cypress, or “Cupressus bakeri,” which was to be the first of several honored with his name. That Latin “bakeri” was just getting started.

By the time he had earned his degree in chemistry and botany at UC Berkeley in the 1890s, and taught for several years at Lowell High School in San Francisco, he was ready to “retire” at age 28.

He and his wife Jennie moved to Santa Rosa and convinced his parents to come as well. They bought 60 acres on Sonoma Creek just off the Santa Rosa-Sonoma Road in Kenwood and in 1906 invited the younger Bakers, who were renting on McDonald Avenue in Santa Rosa, to move in.

At the spot he called “Maplewood,” Milo began a collection of his very favorite flower, the violet, propagating more than 100 species from seeds sent to him from botanical correspondents all over the world.

Milo farmed the land on Adobe Canyon Road inherited from his parents, tended his flowers and continued his long walks through wilderness areas. He called this time his “Rip Van Winkle” sleep, although he did earn a master’s degree from Stanford and served as a member of the Santa Rosa Board of Education when the Kenwood area was annexed to the high school district.

When Dean Floyd Bailey went looking for someone to head the new biological science department and teach botany at SRJC in 1922, he wrote to his “parent college,” UC Berkeley, to ask for names of possible contacts.

The answer came back: “The best possible man is already there.”

So the self-styled “Rip Van Winkle,” woke up, resigned his trustee job (the JC was still governed by the high school district) and went back to teaching.

He began his North Coast Herbarium, and gathered admiring students for his collecting trips, driving his old Model A at breakneck speeds over nonexistent North Coast roads in search of elusive species.

The late Harold Moore, superintendent of the new junior college campus’ parklike grounds, was a Baker student who later became a caretaking Kenwood neighbor. He recalled those field trips, as quoted in the Kenwood Press:

“You haven’t lived until you drive Coast Highway 1 with an 80-plus-year-old man at the wheel whose car has but two usable parts: an accelerator, and fortunately, good brakes.

“I vowed never to ride with him again unless I drove.

“God must love botanists,” said Moore, to have let him survive all those rides.

Baker died in 1961. He was 93 and not ready to give up the search. Up until his last days, he was actively seeking an assistant to go with him to Alaska to collect violets on Mount McKinley, since renamed Denali.

To say he will be remembered is a botanical understatement. Students can find him in the scientific lists of both Cal and Stanford. The science building at SRJC is Baker Hall.

He compiled five important botanical lists between 1921 and 1958, and named 2,717 different plants between here and the Oregon border. His North Coast Herbarium of California at Sonoma State is registered in that name in the “Index Herbariorum,” a list of virtually all significant plant collections in the world.

But, as Vanette Bunyan shared with me from an essay she wrote on her teacher nearly 40 years ago:

“He did it not for fame or fortune but, as it is with most pure scientists, by his own testimony, for the sheer pleasure of finding what seed plants grew in this vast and varied region.”

The summation of Baker’s story comes from PD colleague Meg McConahey who wrote his profile for a 1999 tribute to 50 people chosen as those who had “shaped” Sonoma County’s 20th century.

She wrote about Baker’s “irresistible drive to understand the intricate life under his feet.” She quoted him saying that “the names may change from time to time but the plants remain unchanged and unmindful of attempts to classify them.”

As Meg suggested, Milo Baker could not have foreseen that one day his “hometown” wildflowers would threaten development. But he knew they should be saved from whatever threatened. And it is his painstaking documentation that has done the job.

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