Visitors to Palo Alto's Byxbee Park may notice something new up the hill to the right of the park entrance. For curious human visitors, the more-than-40-foot-long wooden installation is a piece of public art. But people are not the most important creatures its creators hope the piece will attract. For many of the species that call the Baylands home, artists Daniel McCormick and Mary O'Brien have designed the work, Foraging Islands, to be a place of food and shelter that will eventually become one with the surrounding habitat.
"There's no wrong way to do this," O'Brien said as she helped volunteers put the finishing touches on the piece on Saturday, Sept. 22. "Eventually," she said, "it will rot from the inside out." Not what most artists might state as a goal for their work, but in this case, a healthy aim.
"The work really goes back to nature," McCormick said.
O'Brien and McCormick, known collectively as Watershed Sculpture and based in the Marin County town of Fairfax, specialize in these types of temporary environmental art installations. They built Foraging Islands with the help of 65 local volunteers (adults and children), who worked a collective 189 hours over the course of several September weekends, beginning at the start of the month and ending at the autumn equinox.
"It's just another house, for other kinds of creatures," mused one volunteer, as she inspected her woodwork with satisfaction. "She's an architect; this suits her," her companion explained. Public Art Commissioner Hsinya Shen was there volunteering at the final shift, as was Public Art Program Coordinator Nadya Chuprina.
The artists and their volunteer crews wove together countless branches and sticks harvested from the trimmings of Palo Alto trees, from the redwoods in Foothills Park to the liquid ambers, eucalyptuses and many others that line the city's streets, thanks largely to the collection efforts of the parks and urban forestry staff.
The piece resembles something like a wicker snake, an elongated bird's nest or a squashed thicket. It's built on a heavy wood perimeter, held down with a few wooden stakes, with layer upon layer of sticks nestled together on top. A few thicker pieces were screwed in to place by McCormick's drill; others are held down with wires, the poking-out pieces of wood trimmed down to create a more streamlined, smooth shape. A few strategic bird perches remain sticking up, and mulch may be added.
It takes inspiration, O'Brien said, from downed trees, which in their decomposition often become beneficial to a host of species. Though the wood is mostly dead and dry right now, in the weeks since the project began, spiders, insects and songbirds have already been spotted exploring the space. As time goes on, especially after some rainfall, the moisture will increase and it will become an even richer source of foraging material for predators as it changes.
"I can't wait to come back in a few months and see who moves in," Chuprina said.
The artists have built similar sculptures in other habitats, such as on riverbeds, to help stop erosion and aid flood control (hence the Watershed name), but each project is unique, based on the mix of found wood used in construction and the environment in which it is set. In 2012, Watershed Sculpture, with help from the community, created Thicket, an installation in Los Altos made with live willow branches to take root and help stabilize Adobe Creek's bank.
"We wanted to create something here, in this very manufactured environment," O'Brien said of the dry, grassy, somewhat-desolate Byxbee Park site, which, since it's built on landfill, comes with particular restrictions and challenges.
O'Brien and McCormick were approved as Baylands artists-in-residence by the Palo Alto Public Art Commission in May. The project is part of the city's Baylands Comprehensive Conservation Plan, which calls for environmentally focused, community-engaging temporary public art in the Baylands, with a budget of $10,000. "Our Public Art Master Plan called out the need to create a more detailed plan for this transitional corridor from the 101 to the beautiful Baylands environment, and recognizes that the approach to public art in this area is unique," Public Art Program Director Elise DeMarzo told the Weekly.
Foraging Islands is seemingly in line with the program's recent goal of offering temporary installations with an interactive aspect. Interactive, certainly, for the groups who helped construct it, but even more so, perhaps, for the nonhuman members of the community who may live in or feed from it for, potentially, years to come.
One species especially important to the local habitat is the charismatic burrowing owl, which has been in decline due to development and habitat loss and has been the focus of conservation efforts. It's hoped that Foraging Islands, with its space for tasty insects, reptiles and rodents, may help support the resident owl population. It's an adorable but elusive creature, and in all the previous mornings and afternoons of installing Foraging Islands, none had yet been spotted.
At the end of the project's final volunteer shift, though, as everyone prepared to pack up tools, gloves and debris and let nature take its course, gasps of excitement suddenly rang out from the workers. A burrowing owl popped up from a nearby rocky gulch, bobbing its head up and down and looking curiously at the humans and their wooden work.
"Wow. There it is," O'Brien marveled. "That's what we're doing this for."
What: Foraging Islands
Where: Byxbee Park, 2375 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto.