Weekly Walker: A Walk through Environmental Art

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe.” —John Muir

Byxbee Park, Palo Alto   Photo: Tom Davids
Byxbee Park, Palo Alto Photo: Tom Davids

[Editor's note: San Carlos hiking enthusiast Tom Davids suggests weekly walks. This week's adventure is to Byxbee Park in Palo Alto.]

Byxbee Park, Palo Alto

Directions: Take Highway 101 to Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto; go east to the road’s end, and turn right one block. Turn left at Recycle Center to parking lot.

Trail Map:  Google Palo Alto, Byxbee Park.

Grade: Easy.

Distance: One mile, more or less.

Time: Your choice. Nearby trails to the Baylands Nature Interpretative Center and around the preserve may hold your interest for many hours.

Special Conditions: Dogs on leash allowed in the Baylands Nature Preserve. In the summer, vegetation is dry and golden. In the spring, all is green. Trails are hard-packed and usable in the rainy season. Trail conditions are good for strollers. Managed by the City of Palo Alto.

John Byxbee had a vision. Someday the baylands east of Palo Alto would be accessible to the public as a vast park: a place to experience the marsh—its animal and plant life, its mudflats and flood tide, its driving rain, sparkling sun, and brisk northwest wind.

Byxbee died in 1947. Forty-four years later his vision took another step toward reality. On Sunday, Sept. 29, 1991, Phase I of Byxbee Park was dedicated and opened for public use. John Fletcher Byxbee, Palo Alto city engineer, would have been justifiably proud.

Located directly south of the Baylands Nature Interpretative Center and adjacent to the Shoreline Park area of Mountain View, Byxbee Park is a sight you can’t miss. There are hedgerows and weirs, hillocks, alluvial fans, a pole field and a wind wave piece. This is not your typical tree-studded grassy park or impenetrable salt marsh interlaced with sloughs, but man’s response to a challenge—how to restore garbage dump to nature and at the same time, produce a work of art.

Or how to deal with the environmental issues (preserve the marshland, protect wildlife, restore and expand the diverse plant life and encourage recreational use by the public) while dealing with the real world of trashfill (sealing the garbage, stabilizing the slope, dealing with percolating water and leachates and disposing of methane gases). In the end, the community and its design team succeeded in blending the natural and man-made by creating a work of art which will arouse your interest and cause you to “contemplate the contrast between man’s control and nature’s self-regulation.”

Like most art, it must be seen to be believed. But borrowing from the Byxbee Park pamphlet published by the City of Palo Alto, we will wet your appetite and encourage you to drive to the end of Embarcadero Road to see it for yourself.

First your eye will be drawn to the Chevrons—concrete road barriers of the type used for freeway construction, which are directly underneath the flight path to the adjacent municipal airport, pointing the way for man-made birds heading home. You are cautioned not to fly kites in this area.

A little farther on, a trail winds up the hill, past Alluvial Fans—low concrete retaining walls designed to control erosion—and through a berm that we interpret to be a Hedgerow, designed to “give scale to the land forms beyond and provide a vertical landscape element to the site.” Adjacent is a Pole Field, the tops of which form a single plane from the engineered flood control basin in the east to the former yacht harbor in the west—“the contrast between man’s control and nature’s self-regulation.”

At the top of this former dumpsite are Hillocks, inspired by the Ohlone people who inhabited this area two to four thousand years ago. These mounds, about four feet high, are shaped like teardrops and all point in the same southeasterly direction, on course to Moffett Field. I don’t know why they are positioned this way, but my guess is that they reflect the usual strong winds that blow from the northwest. That’s the beauty of modern environmental art—there is room for imagination. 

The Keyhole is a mechanical apparatus that burns off methane gas from the decaying material beneath the surface. The Wind Wave Piece shows “how the wave motion of the prevailing northwest wind echoes the movement of the water.” Note that the trail system is covered by crushed oyster shells. This material will move as the landfill compacts and settles, a practical solution to man-made earth in motion. And the Viewing Platforms near water level are triangular shapes pointing to waves that travel north to south down the slough.

Take time to visit Byxbee Park, “. . .a place where one can reflect upon the interweaving of nature with the imagination and creativity of people and thereby, appreciate more profoundly the wonder and value of both.”

If you are looking for a longer walk, take the levee trail by crossing Matadero Creek and continue toward the Shoreline Park area in Mountain View. The parking area at Terminal and San Antonio Road in Mountain View is about a five-mile round trip from Byxbee Park.

By the Way. . .

The park brochure released in the early 1990s describes Byxbee Park. “Byxbee Park reflects…approach to art-making: earthworks, site-specific sculpture, conceptual art and art which involves the viewer. More particularly, it is a fine example of environmental art as described in the following quotations from Art News.

All over the world, artists are focusing on environmental problems. The earth is their canvas, and their philosophy is, ‘It’s dirty. Let’s clean it up.’

Artists are planting trees, redesigning landfills, protecting the killing of whales…filtering pollutants from the water. Artists could not have imagined a few decades ago that they’d now be gathering garbage in Japan and creating wildlife habituates in England.”


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