Paradise Lost

The bulldozers didn’t slow for the turn at the creek. There were two, long ones on big wheels, and the drivers raced them like jalopies around what would become a residential cul-de-sac. Their mufflers blasted like woolly mammoths doing battle, exhaust pipes pumping smoke 35 feet up as if they had an inalienable right to foul the air. The smoke drifted black as coal through the trees near the creek.

The November air was crisp, a few dark clouds punctuating the blue high over the ridge. I used to jog that land, in the hills west of Gilroy, and I always looked forward to fall—the chill in the air, the rich colors, a heightened sense of things. The trails and old ranch roads crossed through meadows and went high in the canyons. I knew where I’d see wildlife and waterfalls, recognize trees, make connections I didn’t really understand. Then the land was approved for development, and the bulldozers arrived like a conquering army.

Now they were here, at the last untouched places. By the creek, the land’s skin was scraped away; the exposed reds, tans, and grays gaped from holes, waited in piles. Day after day while the machines did their work, the cars rushed past on Santa Teresa Boulevard. To the drivers, the grass and trees and canyon were nothing, images on an old photograph in the basement.

Soon, two-story boxes would occupy the slope with lights, curbs, roof lines. For a while I felt like the only person who knew something good was being killed. Then I met Chris Thomas, who lived at the foot of a big canyon that rose up behind his old barn, and discovered I wasn’t the only one clinging to the land.

When Chris first took me behind the barn to see what the developer was doing, he still hoped something would stop them. Shapell Industries had systematically moved down the range from Hecker Pass, inserting houses into every canyon and draw. Now they had approval for 13 houses on the meadows below the two last canyons

Those canyons behind Chris’ place always stopped me when I came around the curve—the blanket of oaks, bays, and redwoods were backlit by the sun, an illuminated backdrop for the ranch buildings and the small pear orchard.

Chris and I met at a Gilroy city council meeting. He was 17 then. He walked up to the podium to speak to a packed chamber, trying to persuade the city to spare Babbs Creek, the little brook that came out of the twin canyons behind his place, where his family had lived for 70 years. Shapell Industries now owned most of it, all except Chris’ place and Celia McCormack’s meadow across the road. The council had been as polite as church people when they said no.

I’d often see old Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, Chris’ grandparents, out working the pears. The old man wore coveralls and moved slowly and deliberately between the trees, pruning, an old dog following him. There was a wood manger by the creek and a few sheep that nibbled the fruit. Chris’ grandmother would stand on the little porch watching it all. The farmhouse was small and white with weathered tiles and a stone chimney

This day, Chris had a wrenched look that did not match his smile. We stood behind the barn and ranch house, and I got my first look at the meadows below the two canyons. The meadows were scraped clean, festooned with grading lathes, yellow flags fluttering on the breeze. Chris pointed out a tree house on the grass hill where he and his friends slept on summer nights and the line of green where a water pipe ran across the meadow from a spring high in the canyon wall. He talked about the deer and hunting and about bringing cows out of the canyons for a rancher over in Castro Valley.

Where we stood, plastic orange netting was pulled across the width of the property, maybe eighty yards. Chris pointed and said, “They just cut those trees.” I saw two live oaks prone on the meadow. The leaves still had a shiny green gloss. He looked at me with a flicker of hope. “Do you know Celia?”

I knew her. Celia McCormack owned the land across the road. Babbs Creek cut through her large meadow. A teacher at the local high school, she had mounted the effort to save the creek.

“Celia told them she’d trade her land for these meadows,” he said. He added quietly, “to save them.” He fingered the plastic netting, his shoulders tense. “There’s fox and mountain lion in there,” he said with that sad grin. “Coyotes.” You could see the crookedness of the creeks behind him by the lines of tall spiky bay trees that lined them. “Do you think we can do something to save it?”

I had no good answer to this. It seemed well past the time for changing what was begun. Whatever had been on the land, the meadow voles and squirrels, the animals above them in the food chain, the insects below them, were gone, or soon would be. The coyotes might come down still, but only to cross a road. Even the rolls of the meadows were as good as gone.

I dropped by Chris’ a few days later. We walked to the orange netting. Just across, two men were at work, and I saw that the creek was now stripped of the willows and buckbrush and a young oak. There was a new trench beside the stripped creek bed and a pile of vegetation on the south meadow. The downed oaks’ leaves had turned dull.

The creek bed lay passively like someone anesthetized and shaved, ready for surgery. One of the men stood across the creek bed taking a reading through a surveying scope. The other guy was in the trench with a tape measure. Chris said his girlfriend was passing around a new petition to save Babbs Creek. Had I seen it? He said Shapell had taken down an old fence and moved the property line. The generator and work truck now had possession of that piece. The man with his eye to the scope was less than thirty feet from us. A generator buzzed from the back of a white truck.

“He said he was really sorry,” Chris said. “He said he was only doing his job.” Chris watched me. “Do you think he tells that to everyone?”

“Maybe he is really sorry,” was all I could say.

Chris asked if I knew about groups that buy land to preserve it. I could not say the obvious, that he should get hard to the idea, that the land and all that it means was gone.

I didn’t know what to say. I only stood and looked out, saw how the land rolled. It seemed to be going somewhere, like a swell in the ocean. I saw a coyote trotting past, saw it sniff the air, facing the holes in the creek bank where the mice and squirrels nested.

The work Shapell was doing behind the Thomas place was the close of an 850-house project along the base of the hills that funnel into Hecker Pass. Billboards along Santa Teresa Boulevard advertised history, a golf course, all emblazoned with a 15-foot-high picture of an eagle soaring over the ridges. The guards at the entrance let people in who belonged, and no one else.

I would stand every few days with Chris, his friend Salvador, Chris’ aunt, mother, and girlfriend, whoever came to witness at the orange netting. We’d watch the subcontractors, who told us again that they were sorry. Chris’ mother and aunt talked about how they’d believed that Shapell would not build here, that the campaign to save Babbs Creek had been successful. I found out later from Celia McCormack that Shapell had only agreed to cut back the number of houses.t

Once all of us stood together in the shade of the small oak near the little creek. The trench beside the stretch of creek bed was ready for cement. The forms were braced, the rebar tied. A second trench was half excavated on the opposite side. More brush and trees were piled on the southern flank. The generator was going full throttle; we had to speak loudly.

“It’s a sad day,” Chris’ Aunt Patti said. A big NO TRESPASSING sign in foot-high letters faced the Thomas place. “We used to have parties here,” she said, “Easter egg hunts.” Her eyes glistened. Chris prowled the orange netting like a dog who wants out.

When Julia, Chris’ girlfriend, arrived, one of the workmen came over with a big grin for the women. He explained that the footings they would pour would buttress a culvert. None of us was sure what a culvert was. They would pour the concrete for the giant footings on Friday, he said.

The worker in the opposite trench began jack-hammering, not concrete, but earth. He was struggling mightily.

Julia wrapped her arms against herself and stood still, her shoulders braced as she looked across the rolls in the land. “It was so beautiful.” There were only 50 or 60 yards of land where the houses would be, then the hills rose quickly behind it. She said, “It was full of wildflowers.” She stiffened. “It was worse when they cut the trees down.”

When everyone wandered to the house, I stayed to watch the worker with the jackhammer. He was long-haired, his bushy gray hair tied at the back of his neck. He was in the trench across the creek bed, trying to loosen a chunk of earth up on the back of the wall. He forced the hammer into the earth with his legs back and his hands at his chest, heaving forward while the hammer jolted his shoulders.

The orange webbing across the back of the two properties was wrapped tightly around the trunk of the small oak that leaned over the trench. Two large boughs had been sheared off and the interior wood showed red. Still, it shaded much of the streambed and the trench. I can’t say why, but the little tree was love incarnate to me then, smiling on us all. Then I saw it everywhere, the land, the man, the light, the rest of the trees. Why had I never noticed it before?

I kept going back, talking with other people: Celia McCormack said the work going on behind the Thomases was polluting her pond and that she and her family were thinking of selling. I talked with the city planners. They had bought into the Shapell project years earlier; developments like this guaranteed their jobs.

The last time I saw Chris, work on Babbs Creek was about done. A big bridge, prefab, was bolted to the concrete footings. It stood about 20 feet high and 30 feet long, dominating the creek and meadow. You could imagine the cars going over it. The little oak by the orange netting brushed against the concrete. Wedged under a low half-oval on the underside of the bridge, silent and still, was the small section of creek bed that remained. A couple of new workers were squirting goop in the cracks in the concrete. Empty goop buckets were tossed on the south meadow.

Chris and I stood at the orange netting. The Thomas family was still in court with Shapell. His attorney was urging them to sign some agreement. Chris didn’t want to but his parents needed the money for attorney fees. He said his attorney mentioned working in the same office with an attorney for Shapell. I ended up apologizing for an outburst, but Chris waved it off.

A couple of new guys were working over near the north meadow. Large backhoes with glass-enclosed cabs sat near trucks with boom arms rising at angles from their beds.

I crossed the side yard of yellow grass. A large cube of iron lay on the edge of the meadow near the trucks. One worker stood inside, a welder’s shield propped on his forehead. When he saw me, he stopped what he was doing and came over. The second worker made a beeline to the orange netting too. They had friendly faces, with good big smiles.

“How are you doing today?” the young one asked. “You ready to welcome the neighbors?”

When I told them I was just visiting, the old one said, “I bet they been here a good long time,” nodding at the ranch house. I told them what Chris had told me, that his grandfather and great-grandfather had ranched the hills and canyons, that the great-grandfather had sold fruit in wood crates labeled Glen View Peaches, that he had a dance band back before World War II. The two guys were eager for more. Their coveralls were bright orange like the netting. They told me they were putting in the storm drains and the sewer and water lines.

“We think it’s a shame what’s going on here,” the older one said. He shook his head and explained, “This is all that’s driving the economy right now.”

The young one said Shapell was making a killing. I told him they were putting in 12 or 13 houses. The young one said, “Cramming all that in here? And for a million each? Hell, what am I saying? It’ll be a lot more than a million!”

The old one nodded to the barn. “We’re more that kind of people than this kind,” he said with a glance over his shoulder. “If it was me, I’d keep that old house forever. We feel bad for what’s happening here.” They wished me a good day and went back to work.

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