Our Lady of the Creeks
by Lisa Owens-Viani
Carole Schemmerling arrives at the Urban Creeks Council office breathless and disheveled after a morning spent baby-sitting her ten-month old granddaughter, mediating a neighborhood tree dispute, and rescuing some trampled ferns on Blackberry Creek. She frowns at the pile of telephone messages awaiting her from friends of creeks groups, teachers, students of all ages and local politicians -- all seeking advice. But Schemmerling can’t say no when it comes to creeks.
Schemmerling has served as Bay Area coordinator of the Urban Creeks Council for the past three years and as council president for twelve years before that. She was also a member of Berkeley’s Parks Commission for over a decade. When Schemmerling first suggested to the Parks Commission that they dig up long-buried creeks and bring them back above ground “They just stared at me blankly,” she says. But she and other creek advocates, including landscape architect Doug Wolfe, persevered and in 1985 they helped resurface an underground stretch of Strawberry Creek in the Berkeley flatlands and convert an adjacent former blighted railroad right-of-way into a charming neighborhood park named after the creek.
How does one become obsessed with creeks? “I grew up in the slums of Philadelphia,” explains Schemmerling. “But my grandfather would take us to this beautiful clear stream, Wissahicken Creek, a tributary of the Schuykill River. The creek was an oasis to me, a haven,” she says. Later, Schemmerling saw Appalachian streams bright orange with runoff from steel mills, and when her family moved to Cleveland near the Cuayahoga River (“you know, the one that caught on fire”), she realized not everyone shared her values about creeks.
When she moved to the Bay Area, Schemmerling became fascinated by the snippets of streams that still flowed openly throughout the East Bay. “I wanted to get them out of those pipes, Schemmerling went on to champion the opening up of a stretch of Codornieces Creek. And later when the park at Thousand Oaks School needed renovation, she convinced the city to dig up the section of Blackberry Creek below.
During the “down time” between creek uncoverings, Schemmerling was busy behind the scenes. “She had this impatience to do something,” says Ecocity creator Richard Register. “she thought that if we couldn’t uncover creeks, we could at least call attention to them.” Schemmerling’s suggestion of painting blue creek “stripes” across streets beneath which creeks were buried evolved into the salamanders, snakes and other “creek critters” Register designed as stencils for Berkeley storm drains.
Which Berkeley creeks does Schemmerling hope to uncover next? The ultimate “urban” creeks: a branch of Derby Creek that flows beneath People’s Park, and the section of Strawberry Creek that flows beneath People’s park, and the section of Strawberry Creek that flows between the UC campus and downtown Berkeley.
If anyone can unearth these two creek stretches, it will be Carole Schemmerling, says Ann Riley of the Waterways Restoration Institute -- Schemmerling’s long-time friend. “Carole has this knack for pulling in different kinds of people, neighborhoods, and community groups and organizing them around creeks to better their neighborhoods,” says Riley. When tempers in El Cerrito flared last summer over a creek restoration that city had undertaken, the diplomatic Schemmerling allayed the fears of angry residents by showing them slides of other restoration projects and talking to them about what the creek would eventually look like.
Beneath Schemmerling’s easy-going exterior lies the passion of a true conservationist. “There are places I’ll never see, places I’ll never go to,” says Schemmerling. “But I want to know that they’re there.” Meanwhile, she focuses on doing what she can, here and now. “I have no illusion we can return things to the way they once were,” she explains. “But to me anything that begins to resemble the way things were naturally is so much more interesting.” Recently, a fellow creek-restorationist told Schemmerling he’d seen a 16-inch steelhead in the lower reaches of Codornices Creek. Although fish haven’t migrated all the way up Codornices for years, just knowing they’re testing the waters is enough for Schemmerling for now. “That please me no end,” she sighs.