When we listen to our elders, even when their later years include confusion, we can be led to a truth greater than words. In this case it’s an elder who lived a life speaking out for the underdog, taking up the cause of so many issues, especially forest protection. Olive Mayer bravely spoke the harsh truth of so much heartbreak from beloved forests being destroyed. She also persevered to protect those forests no matter how much of it was already lost.
When I last talked to Olive Mayer on the phone, it was fall of 2008 and she was so happy to hear I had just finished a grad shool public administration program with a focus on international forest governance.
“Good for you,” she said again and again in her husky, burly, yet still sweet-sounding womanly voice.
Ollie was a women who graduated with an engineering degree before World War II. When she applied for engineering jobs and couldn't get hired because she was a women, she set up her own machine shop.
She also loved to hike, to see the land. So did her husband. A long hike in the wild Rocky mountain area of Estes Park was their first date.
Of all the forests Ollie loved, I think it was the ancient redwood forest of Pescadero creek on the San Francisco peninsula that meant the most to her. Tears would fill her eyes when she talked of how much the logging of that forest destroyed her. She was adamant that she’d never forget beautiful spring days and the sweet smells of an ocean of rhododendron blooms under a primeval canopy of redwood trees.
And now in this time of grieving her loss, we can celebrate Olive’s saving of so much. She is a women worthy of so many accolades—In that joy, it’s easy to forget that her heart was deeply and forever wounded when loggers cut down the ancient forest landscape of Pescadero creek.
So when people praise Olive Mayer for persevering and driving the creation of Pescadero County Park, for creating and protecting so many other parks, helping so many other people, we should attempt to fathom the tears of what was truly lost to her, what can only be restored to its former grandeur by the passage of centuries.
On April 10th of this year, California Representative Anna Eschoo took the floor of the United States House of Representatives to honor Olive:
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to honor the extraordinary life
of an extraordinary woman. Ollie Mayer died at the age of 94, in
Woodside, California, after a lifetime of firsts, mosts, and bests. She
was a force of nature, a force for nature, and a force for all things
good and just. She was ahead of her time in everything she did, and the
list of challenges she dared to face is long and daunting. Our beloved
San Francisco Peninsula has been the beneficiary of so much of her
brilliance and activism, and our world is a better place because she
Olive Hendricks was born on the East Coast and studied engineering at
Swarthmore College. She and her husband, Dr. Henry Mayer, met while
hiking the Rocky Mountains. They moved to Woodside, California, where
Ollie started a machine shop, then a science education company, and
then began devoting all her energies to environmental causes in the
early 1970s. She was an activist for free speech during the McCarthy
era and provided support for victims of blacklisting. She was an
organizer of cultural exchanges between U.S. and Soviet women in the
early 1960s. She was an early opponent of the Vietnam war and an early
civil rights activist. She fearlessly took on unpopular causes, often
alone. What an extraordinary example she set for generations to come.
I was friends with Ollie in the early 1990s. I traveled by bus, then train, from Santa Cruz to Redwood City and she would pick me up at the station and take me out to lunch and listen to the latest of what I'd learned in my studies to save Butano’s last ancient trees.
I’d tell her all my visions and dreams for forest restoration and litigation and she understood them all. They made perfect sense to her. No one else I knew seemed to even understand half my ideas, but she understood and encouraged them all.
Olive had a huge office with photos and files of all the SF Bay Area environmental protection efforts around her. For years it was my dream to help turn her office into a library that could guide future protectors of the environment. But she said she didn’t need anyone’s help organizing it. For her, it was where she fought crime. It was her evidence room that had a sense of order known only to her.
My favorite parts of her office were the parts where she kept information about her efforts to protect Butano. Back then, we didn’t have the Internet and I was a fledgling forest defender working on litigation. So when she let me look through her papers, slides, and negatives, I was in heaven. Sometimes when I was out of money, she hired me to pull weeds in her yard for $10 an hour.
Olive was a wizard. You couldn’t figure out how old she really was. Sometimes she looked 50, other times 60, but never her true age, which was always at least a decade or more than how she appeared. She also had an impressive waddle to her walk. It reminded me of a professional wrestler, a weight lifter, a burly fighter who, even if she lost, was still standing.
Sometimes on long hikes in the Butano forest, I'd be tired and sweat-covered and perched on a steep slope, far from roads. That was when I felt like I was walking like her. It made me feel strong. I knew how much Ollie missed hiking in these wild places that needed to be saved too. But, camera in hand, I was out there trying to bring the place back not just to her, but to so many others. And so often I was so exhausted, so heartbroken, by the richest, most fragrant scent of fresh-cut ancient redwood stumps.
My hikes were in places of blinding bright sun, where earlier there had been centuries of shade. And in my heartache, I found comfort in thoughts of how 60 years earlier, Ollie fought not just for these last tree scraps, she fought for the full 5000 acres of ancient forest that had stood here in the late 40’s.
And all these years later, with nary an ancient tree still standing, Olive still hadn’t given up on protecting Butano forest. And if she didn’t give up, how could I?
A newspaper journalist in Redwood City in the late 1880’s once spoke of the Butano forest as the most spectacular place ever seen by the eyes of man. He even started a campaign to protect them, but died at an early age.
Then, at the turn of the century, the first protected redwood forest was supposed to be Butano, but the forest was too remote for loggers to reach, so nearby Big Basin State Park, which was about to be logged, was saved first. It wasn’t until after World War II that bulldozer technology made Butano forest vulnerable to logging.
That was when Olive and others raised half the money to buy Butano forest. The California legislature agreed to pass a bill that would apply matching funds. But at the last minute, some pork-barrel amendments were attached to the legislation and the bill died.
The next day, Santa Cruz Lumber Company moved their brand-new, state-of-the-art, World War II-era bulldozers down the steep slopes of Butano and built the first road straight into the heart of the grove of the giants. All 5000 acres was lost by the 1960s. All that remained amid the denuded, road-covered slopes and major landslides, were 4 to 11 smaller-sized ancient trees (200+ years old) per acre.
And today, so many years later, we’re realizing that our oldest, biggest, tallest trees do so much more than we ever imagined. The oldest, largest trees of the forest often have more leaf surface area, turning more carbon into oxygen than what whole hillsides of little tree-farmed forests can produce.
The tragic loss of our earth’s lungs, our planet’s trees, is a real tragedy. If Olive Meyer was here today, we’d be in the presence of a women whose heart hurt deeply over how much of the planet is already lost. But if she were here, she would still not be willing to give up.
Olive Mayer often pointed out that before they destroyed Butano and Pescadaro forests, the San Francisco Peninsula would get 40 to 60 inches of rain from the Pacific Ocean every year. And after they continued to selectively destroy those forests every year, she’d often ask me:
“How much rainfall did we got this year?”
Then before I had a chance to answer she’d say, “20, maybe 30 inches a year?”
And more important than anything that can be said about Olive Mayer is the need to inspire the next generation with the legends of her victories, with power in her walk and her determination! We need to learn about how those victories happened and we need to repeat them.
We also need to keep in mind that there’s something about Olive’s commitment that was downright cantankerous. As if she was the commander of an army determined at all costs to be victorious. Last, the sorrow Olive Meyer felt for the forests she lost was not forgotten. Those who come after her have learned from her what it means to persevere despite the hurt.
The pain that most environmentalists bear for the places they fought for and lost can create all kinds of mental and emotional health issues, so if you’re friends with someone who cares deeply about the environment, please love them more! They need hugs and support.
A Confession: The genuine hurt Olive expressed when we talked on the phone made it hard for me to stay in touch with her in her last years. We were so good at speaking the truth of what was happening to the forest that when we talked on the phone we’d end up making each other cry. In honoring her memory in this writing, I no longer feel her hurt in a way I want to avoid. Instead, I feel her even temper, her optimistic cheer, her love of nature’s beauty, and her dogged-determination to protect the forest.