Windy Hill above Palo Alto, overlooking Silicon Valley, is living up to its name -- the frigid wind whips in a constant roar. Teeth chatter.
On the Saturday morning of Mother's Day weekend, May 12, 20 hikers layer on clothing. Soon the wind is forgotten, or at least tolerated, as the hikers take to the paths winding through the grassy hills.
Shadows change quickly amid the wildflowers and grasses as patches of clouds rush by overhead.
A hairpin turn reveals a breathtaking view of the valley. The San Andreas Fault, running along the base of the Skyline Ridge, has left its marks, invisible to those who don't know what to look for. Here, the fault grinds up rocks and makes low spots where the water travels in creeks, geologist Leo Laporte tells the group.
At the crest of the hill the hikers sit in a field, listening with "deer ears." They sit motionless, eyes closed, taking in the sharp rustle of dry grass, the snapping of a twig.
They search with all their senses: listening, smelling, tasting the air, feeling the wind on their faces.
The faint smell of ocean mingles with the minty scent of white-flowered yarrow and the smell of wind-whipped dust.
The hikers arise from their sensory meditation, gliding fox-like along the ribbon of path they had climbed. They watch, amazed, as a crow glides sideways, wings outstretched, riding the wind.
The world has opened up into an array of sensations. As hikers make their way down to the parking lot, star-like blooms of blue-eyed grass burst like purple sequins against the new spring grass.
The 20 hikers are on a year-long journey called "Exploring a Sense of Place." Each month they combine science, a hike and sensory-awareness exercises to explore one aspect of the Skyline Ridge and the intricately woven canyons and creekbeds of the San Francisquito Creek watershed.
They will explore from the tiny high-canyon rivulets to where San Francisquito empties into the San Francisco Bay.
Though some may have been to Windy Hill many times, after exploring with A Sense of Place they see it in other, extraordinary ways, participants said.
The program is sponsored by Conexions, a nonprofit coalition of environmental groups based in Palo Alto, a spinoff of the Palo Alto-based Foundation for Global Community.
Conexions is conducting an assortment of guided outings, with lecturers from universities and presentations by other experts in the environment and the science that underlies the surface scenery of the region's hills and canyons.
Participants come primarily from the Midpeninsula for the $375 program.
This is the fourth year of the program for Jana Tuschman, who now attends as a volunteer and a member of the planning team.
Tuschman said she was drawn to the program because of a sense of loss of a different place: the Pacific Northwest, where she was raised.
"I was losing my connection to the Northwest. It's a beautiful place," she said. The program has replaced much of that loss.
"I love feeling connected to these parts of the watershed, and the people are real treasures. It's a varied program. It's not only didactic, but you have the possibility of having your own quiet experience.
"I often come back to these places or bring family to experience it in a different way."
Karen Harwell, Conexions' executive director, said their muses are ecological philosophers Wendell Berry, Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme.
Harwell also quoted French writer Simone Weil: "Rootedness in place is the most important and least recognized need of the human soul."
People become imprinted by events of their daily lives: school, work, family, mortgage payments, Harwell said. "Exploring a Sense of Place" seeks to expand people's awareness of their surroundings to include the natural ecosystem -- a part too often forgotten, she added.
"We learn not only what are the functions of plants and animals but how are they relevant to me. I have a hope that once we learn about this place, we might begin to design our presence here in a more mutually beneficial way," she said.
Harwell grew up in Colorado and spent summers exploring streams and collecting mica.
"I was sad when we wound down the road to Denver. I always looked for the meaning of life. I thought it was in churches, but my spiritual awakening was in biology," she said.
She read extensively about "deep ecology" -- a branch of ecological philosophy -- but she wanted something that was experiential.
"I love reading, but you can only hang out in theory for so long," she said.
Each monthly program begins with a Monday-evening talk on a particular topic: "Weather, Watershed and Geology" (the Windy Hill topic), for example, or "The Oak Savannah." Geologists, biologists and other professionals give the lectures and take the group on a hike the Saturday following each lecture. Explorations include the riparian environment of San Francisquito Creek, telescope viewing and a sunset hike at Russian Ridge with a NASA scientist, a class on food in the watershed with a lunch provided by cafe owner and chef Jesse Cool, wildlife tracking and how the Ohlone people lived, and hands-on participation in a native-plant restoration project, Program Director Tom Cronin said.
The Windy Hill exploration looked at the geology of the region, with retired geologist Leo Laporte.
"We are standing on the Salinian Block," a segment that broke off the southern Sierras and was carried north and west by earthquakes, he said. Each year, tectonic plates creep 1 1/3 inches north. After the 1906 earthquake, those slabs of rock moved 12 to 15 feet, he added.
From their perch at the top of the hill overlooking the valley, Laporte pointed out a tan area where Stanford's Jasper Ridge is located.
"Forty percent of the diversity of plants and animals (in the watershed) are found in the 2 square miles of Jasper Ridge," he said.
He located a notch along the shoreline of San Francisco Bay -- the mouth of San Francisquito Creek.
Harwell's son, Drew, led the afternoon session of awareness-deepening exercises, including how to use "deer ears" and "owl eyes." Participants each chose a wildflower to study for five minutes, then attempted to draw as much as they could remember of the plant's characteristics.
"When we talk about using deer ears, you really do feel you can hear more," Joan Marx, who returned to volunteer, said during a session at Foothills Park.
"I was suspicious of the sensory-awareness aspect in the beginning, but you develop this awareness where you begin to think of yourself in terms of the land. You develop an emphasis on your circle of disturbance when you walk. You become aware of your surroundings.
"You become much more aware there are things going on around you before this human group goes by."
On June 9 few people were using the picnic area of Foothills Park, participant Betsy Shelton observed. She marveled at the dearth of people using the 1,400-acre park. She was married in the Orchard Glen 20 years ago, when the picnic tables were always full of families.
Many families now spend their leisure time attending Little League and soccer games, Marx said.
The June exploration focused on the oak savannah. Monday's enrichment evening was taught by Stanford conservation biologist Alan Launer. On Saturday, Franklin Olmsted, a retired USGS geologist and volunteer docent at the park, and Charlie Sloan from Friends of Foothills Park took the group up the steep trail of Wildhorse Valley. Olmsted stopped to examine a plant that looked like Queen Anne's Lace, with delicate, lacy, white flowers.
"You don't want to eat that plant or you'll die a horrible death," he said. The plant is actually poison hemlock, which was used for capital punishment by the ancient Greeks, the plant that killed Socrates, he added. Clusters of creamy-white flowers hung from buckeye trees. Their large seeds were used as fish poison by Native Americans.
The group entered a shady grove of California bay laurel trees. Their elephantine trunks and fragrant leaves seemed a magical forest. Hummingbirds zoomed overhead, and a hawk cried out, hidden among the branches.
"The California bay is so important to the riparian (moist or wetland) ecology," Olmsted said.
Delicate white blooms of pitcher sage fringed the edge of the forest canopy. The area averages 27 inches of rainfall a year, but it is not enough to support a year-round stream, he added. When bay trees are present, it is a sign of underground water.
"Imagine this topography and what's underneath it. This merges almost imperceptibly into the chaparral community (a drier, area dominated by shrubs)," he said.
Up on the Sunrise trail, he pointed to two ferns, one with tiny attractive oval leaves. This is the coffee fern, one of only two kinds in the park, and it can grow in full sun. Mugwort and artemisia, two related plants, grow in different environments. One grows in full sun, the other in shade.
"They have a pact to stay out of each other's territory," he quipped.
Protected from the blazing sun, the wildflowers still put on a good show, despite having received only 25 percent normal rainfall this year.
Sticky monkey flower is festooned with light-orange blooms.
"The Ohlone stuck the leaves on as a Band Aid," Cronin said.
The group stopped at the top of a grassy knoll, ringed by mountains.
"This is where we get the big picture," Olmsted said. "You can see where the vegetation changes and why it changes where it does."
Further on, Olmsted pointed out the smooth-barked madrone tree, an important component of the oak-woodland community.
"It is known as the refrigerator tree" because its bark is always cool, he said. Its circulatory system is close to the surface.
The hikers descended to Boronda Creek, back down into the valley where they began. Olmsted pointed out that the gently sloping creek the group saw at the beginning of the hike has become a 12-foot-deep gully.
He asked the group what forces were at play to create this difference. The creek bed had been diverted in two places and straightened to make way for utilities, he said. Now when winter rains wash down the creek, instead of being slowed by natural curves the waters shoot rapidly down the creek bed, causing erosion.
The straightening also disrupted the underground water table beneath the adjacent valley, killing off the native plant community, he added. Gone, too, are the wildlife supported by those plants. Turf grass moved in.
But even here life finds ways to adapt. In the moist soil along the road, water collected from the irrigated lawn. Tiny blues, rare butterflies that were once abundant, extracted water from the mud. When the azure insects folded their wings, their silvery undersides nearly camouflaged them on the ground. Some of the hikers protected them, forming a wall around the insects with their feet, so that those among them who were listening to Olmsted discuss a plant wouldn't crush them under their boots.