On a cold, windy, dusty day nearly 30 years ago, a group of California State University, Stanislaus professors planted 300 acorns in a vacant campus field.
It was to be the first phase of the Trans-California Pathway, a living arboretum and classroom first dreamed up in the 1970s by former CSU Stanislaus botany professor Wayne Pierce. But funding dried up and, since 1988, that grove of trees served as the only trace of a walkway which would have taken students on a journey through California’s native plants.
But on Thursday, the pathway nearly three decades in the making finally opened to the public, reflecting a campus’ never-yielding dedication to creating the pathway, and a wife’s ceaseless work to see her husband’s dream become reality.
“I’ve come to expect something magical when I’m here, and certainly today qualifies,” said Donna Pierce.
It was Donna Pierce who took up the project’s mantle again in 2009, following the August 2008 passing of her husband, Wayne Pierce.
The pathway was Wayne Pierce’s plan, through and through. He spent years drawing blueprints of a gentle, manmade, on-campus river echoing a path from the alpine summits to the Valley floor, with plants native to each region. He once recorded a home video entitled, “My Dream Arboretum, by Dr. Wayne Pierce,” where he described what would become the Trans-California Pathway.
For years after those first acorns were planted, professors would run hoses to the field from the Science 1 building, and carry buckets of water to nourish the growing Valley Oaks in what looked to be a vacant field.
Now, a water feature flows down a babbling, rock-strewn brook. People sit on benches alongside, while ducks float in the water. And more than 800 freshly-planted –and irrigated – trees and bushes slowly grow to reflect their native regions.
“It’s more beautiful than I thought we could manage,” Donna Pierce said. “It’s just a serene place.”
It took more than hard work and Donna Pierce’s determination to make the Trans-California Pathway a reality. It took the help of 218 donors, including the CSU Stanislaus Class of 2012, which made giving to the pathway their class gift.
“They just believed that we could transfer these few acres into something truly beautiful,” Donna Pierce said.
The approximately $250,000 project was funded entirely through donations, and with a little luck. By being in the right place at the right time, Donna Pierce was able to secure $36,000 worth of free dirt from the Turlock Unified School District.
Given the scope of the project, it only makes sense development took so long, Interim CSU Stanislaus President Joseph Sheley said. But the end result made the time well spent.
“It’s a gorgeous campus made more so. It’s a friendly campus made more so,” Sheley said. “… It’s an important feature, not just a pretty feature.”
Sheley described the many benefits the development would bring, ranging from a pretty picnic spot for visitors to a teaching opportunity for local high school and CSU students alike.
According to Tommi Lou Carousella, who worked with Wayne Pierce, the need for such an on-campus teaching resource was undeniable.
Though the campus has telescopes to teach astronomy and skeletons to teach anatomy, for example, there were no natural spaces to teach ecology. Instead, the campus relied on field trips to state parks to see native plants and animals.
But field trips take time and cost money, and there’s less and less money available for such things.
“If you can’t take the students to nature, can you bring nature to students?” Carousella asked.
The pathways project answers that question with a resounding yes, Carousella said, creating a modest version of the types of communities seen in nature. It’s an opportunity to study in person what would otherwise be a classroom abstract.
From the Valley Oaks at the pathway’s base – the same ones planted by Pierce years ago – to the chaparral of the foothills and the Douglas fir, gooseberries, and huckleberry oaks of the near-alpine. The pathway is home to more than 800 plants, not including the Valley Oaks.
Planners hope birds, insects, and reptiles make their homes among the native species.
The pathway looks to educate, inform, and engage visitors with informational placards. That aspect particularly resonated with Donna Pierce, reminding her of Wayne’s decades old vision.
“He wanted our school children to be able to come to this campus and learn,” Donna Pierce said.
As Donna Pierce prepared to cut the ribbon officially marking the pathway as open, she noted that each attendee had received their own acorn to plant, just as Wayne Pierce did so many years ago. Guests could not only walk the physical pathway, but they could follow in Wayne Pierce’s footsteps, planting a tree of their very own.
“Now, we are ready to walk the path,” Donna Pierce said, just before cutting the ribbon.