Getting in touch with nature in Alum Rock Park

I first learned about the Youth Science Institute (YSI) in 1990 when I became its Director of Operations. As I drove into Alum Rock Park for the first time (I had never been there even though I had lived in Santa Clara County since 1964) I realized it was a place of unique beauty. The seven hundred acres nestled in the foothills on the western slope of the Mount Hamilton Range was home to the small stone building that housed YSI. As its founders said, it was a small building for a large dream.

In the fast-paced world we live in, there’s a certain comfort knowing that some things never change. We share with all who have gone before us a concern for our children and the opportunities we long for them to have. Back in 1953 our parents and grandparents and others with great vision gave substance to this yearning. They looked at the abundant richness of the landscape around them. They noted the increasing insulation their children had from this wealth as the city grew up around them. And they determined to find a way to bring their children back to the land to learn the lessons it had to teach.

Thus YSI was founded using Alum Rock Park with its perennial stream, varied wildlife, diverse vegetation and unique geological formations as the setting for a project that has now stood the test of almost five decades.

I’ve come to know that small stone building in Alum Rock Park very well and to marvel at the wonderful people who make it come alive each day. That small building continues to attract hordes of school children and families who visit YSI each year. The tile and concrete floor of what was once a concession stand in the more than century-old park remains. The building, once used to dispense popcorn and cotton candy, is now home to hawks, owls, toads, and newts, animals found in the Mount Hamilton range. The animals, many non-releasable because of injuries, give young people a close-up look at creatures from the natural world. It is also home to teachers young and old who share their knowledge of and enthusiasm for the world with all who wish to learn.

We live in a charmed world with access to things only once imagined. But we have lost a little in the process. There is little chance to feel a feather, watch an anthill, count a tree’s rings, or skip a rock across a pond these days. But YSI provides these experiences. Its exhibit space includes the whole outdoors.  Its rhythms follow the seasons; its lessons are as varied as the wind. It is the antidote to the stresses of  life we all experience. YSI belongs to everyone.

Until last year’s storm damage is fixed the Park is open to walk-in traffic only, but it is well worth the walk. Like fifty years ago, there are many lessons for all of us to learn. And there is a nice silence and solitude without traffic that allows room for gratitude to those who earlier provided a way for us to learn those lessons.

The Youth Science Institute at Alum Rock Park is open daily throughout the summer from Noon to 4:30 p.m.