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The Trusted Ethnographic Source for UCSB and Isla Vista

Monday, March 16, 2020 - ANTH JH Winter 2020

The Ethics of Enjoying Isla Vista

Welcome to Isla Vista

Photograph by Alan Mak, Sept. 3, 2005

The tree on the sign is the `Isla Vista Tree,' which stood at the edge of Sea Lookout Park at on El Colegio. The tree fell off the edge of the bluff, and now there is only a plaque to commemorate it. The log of this tree recurs in a number of the community building efforts for Isla Vista.

By Joshua Richardson

March 16, 2020

The natural world around us exists as one of UCSB’s and Isla Vista’s biggest features. From the lawns, bushes, and trees on UCSB’s campus to its parks like Anisq’Oyo’ and the Sueño Orchard; even areas of environmental conservation like the North Campus and Camino Corto Open Spaces, each of these places are home to different types of plants, animals, and have different purposes for their existence. 

At the beginning of my time here at UCSB, I found myself wondering what my place in the environment is. I love going for walks and exploring the world around me. I even started using the Ethnobotany Projects’ plant database and map to help me find edible plants and medicinal herbs to make going outdoors even more fun. But, even with all my time spent exploring, I found myself wondering more about the needs and purposes behind the creations and maintenance of each place I went to. How is it that our use of these parks and open spaces, even possibly just being in them, is affecting them? How could they, in turn, be affecting us? To answer these questions, I reached out to a few of their caretakers to better understand our role in the environment and the things that I, and others, can do to help them continue to thrive.

Sueno Orchard in Isla Vista, California

Photograph by Joshua Richardson

The Sueno Orchard

The parks in Isla Vista are arguably the most visual and prominent green, open spaces around us. They exist on almost every block and are not very difficult to find. With such easy access to them, people use them for a wide range of recreational activities like picnics, yoga, or even taking a nice stroll on a sunny afternoon. To learn more about them, and what work goes into taking care of them, I spoke with Joe from the Isla Vista Parks and Recreation Department at the Sueño Orchard. 

Sueno Orchard Sign

By Isla Vista Parks and Recreation Department

Isla Vista Peace Course

During our conversation, it became clear to me Joe is very passionate about the landscape around him and for helping it thrive. When I asked him if there were any negative ways that people engage with the parks, Joe’s expression darkened. He told me that there are people who come to the parks, with the intention of helping the caretakers like himself, who ‘tend’ to the plants by pruning them. He pointed out a macadamia tree at the Orchard, that had actually been damaged overnight by a Good Samaritan who took it upon themselves to trim away some of the leaves and branches of the tree, exposing its bark to the sunlight. While it looked like a normal, average tree to someone inexperienced in gardening like myself, Joe told me that the tree was not meant to be this way. Macadamia trees, he said, like to have their bark shaded and protected from the sunlight, but that shade was taken from it when they took its branches. He cares for each individual plant as much as he does for the park as a whole, each of them making up the park itself and what it has to offer to the community. He hopes that people will come and make use of the Orchard, its fruits and disc course, and other parks in Isla Vista freely and openly, keeping in mind that there are limits to how much fruit one should take.

Sueno Orchard

Photograph by Joshua Richardson

The Sueno Orchard

UCSB North Campus Open Space

Photograph by Joshua Richardson

The North Campus Open Space

Other open places in the environment, like the North Campus Open Space (NCOS) have different types of nature and exists for different reasons. While it is open to the public like the parks of Isla Vista, its purpose is entirely different as a place of environmental conservation. The NCOS is home to an array of different plants and animals, some of which are being reintroduced to the area to restore it to its former state, from before it was converted into a golf course. Filled with signs that inform guests about climate change, environmental conservation efforts being made, and trail routes, the NCOS gives guests beautiful views and allows them to learn more about the environment and biodiversity of the Devereux Lagoon. To learn more about the NCOS, I spoke with Wayne Chapman from the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity & Ecological Restoration (CCBER) about the efforts that he and CCBER are making to conserve and protect the plants and animals that call the NCOS home. 

UCSB North Campus Open Space

Photograph by Joshua Richardson

Wayne, similar to Joe, told me that he likes seeing people out in the NCOS, jogging on the trails and that they do it often. One of his biggest concerns, though, was people’s tendencies to bring their pets along with them, taking them off of their leash when they do. With its population of wildlife growing anew, the open space is still a sensitive habitat where some animals may not feel entirely comfortable there yet. One such animal is the burrowing owl who, Wayne says, has taken up a temporary residence in the area. While Wayne and other caretakers from CCBER would love to see the owl re-establish the NCOS as its breeding ground, Wayne worries that dogs and stray cats may ruin the chances of that happening. “Taking your dog off of its leash,” he said, “makes the animal think that there is a large predator roaming around. What kind of animal would want to build a home and have its young in a place it feels unsafe?”

Statistics from CCBER’s website show that 13% of NCOS visitors surveyed visit with their dogs, but one of the primary concerns recognized by all survey respondents was dogs being off-leash (33%). It poses a real threat to the conservation efforts when dogs dig holes, chase after animals, or bark loudly in sensitive habitat areas. The NCOS has different needs as a space, asking that we be mindful and respectful of the plants and animals that take residence there and that we use it as a place of reflection and learning. Whereas the parks in Isla Vista can be a place of active recreation, allowing for us to run, have picnics, let our dogs be a bit freer in their exploration, and even play disc golf, the NCOS is a place of passive recreation. We venture into the NCOS, but it is not a place to set up a picnic or allow our dogs to roam freely. As my interview with Wayne and research on the CCBER website show, it is a place to observe and learn, but not to disturb.

UCSB Lawn between the Lagoon and the University Center

Photograph by Joshua Richardson

The UCSB Lawn, University Center

Fidel’s first warning to anyone who uses the lawns or forages to fruit is simple: recycled water. As a result of California’s drought in 2014, the Goleta Sanitation District (as well as other cities throughout the state) have applied and been permitted to treat and create recycled water for distribution to places like UCSB. The State Water Board, the government organization that creates the guidelines for recycled water use, defines recycled water as “… water which, as a result of treatment of waste, is suitable for a direct beneficial use or a controlled use that… is therefore considered a valuable resource.” Fidel made it clear to me that it is important to be careful and wary of this water; to look out for any pipes, drains, or sprinklers that are purple because they contain recycled water which, if consumed, could make me sick. Section 2.3 of the Goleta Water Guidelines for the installation and implementation of recycled water pipelines requires that all piping be covered or made in the color purple to distinguish them from other water pipes and sprinklers. Their guidelines also require that recycled water not be allowed to runoff from where it is dispersed, be over sprayed, and that it should not be left to pool in the soil for over 60 minutes. Fidel confirmed this to me, telling me that any recycled water systems run on an automatic timer that usually only allows recycled water to be sprayed at night. Any place on university grounds that uses recycled water for irrigation should contain either pipes and drains that are marked in purple, signs that warn caution due to the use of recycled water, or both. By keeping an eye out for the color purple and any recycled water signs, you can greatly reduce the risk of consuming plants that have been irrigated with recycled water.

Photographs by Joshua Richardson

Caution: Evidence of Recycled Water

Another topic I asked Fidel about was UCSB’s use of pesticides and other chemicals on the grounds that could possibly contaminate some of the fruits available for foraging. He told me that, to his knowledge, the grounds are not sprayed often with pesticides and that, if someone wanted to harvest weed plants like sour grass or dandelions, to try to look for large numbers of them that grow together with other plants, like the patch of sour grass and ice plant near the Thunderdome.

Patch of Sourgrass at UCSB

Photograph by Joshua Richardson

Sourgrass Patch Kids

If it’s only one or two nestled into other flowers or plants, there is a good chance that it has been treated with chemicals to kill the weed. Therefore, Fidel recommends being wary of where the plant is, how much of it there is, and what types of other plants and flowers surround it. Fidel, himself, likes to be adventurous and tries to indulge in some of the plants and fruits he cares for, using these guidelines.

If there’s one thing to be said from what I’ve gathered during my interviews, it is first that being outside in Isla Vista is an amazing experience. As the home to edible plants, beautiful parks, and environmental conservation areas like the North Campus Open Space, it is loved and treasured by many people, especially those who take care of it. While I absolutely encourage venturing out and engaging with the nature of Isla Vista, I believe that we should also recognize that different spaces require different methods of engagement and of recreation.

Engaging in the natural resources at UCSB, unlike the parks, requires a more mindful touch. We have to be wary of recycled water, observant of the plants in close proximity to the ones we are interested in, and cautious with how and what we eat. Sure, we can practice both active and passive recreation on campus, but we have to be mindful of how we do it to ensure we aren’t accidentally foraging plants that could have been watered with recycled water. The North Campus Open Space, however, is a place of visitation, of learning, and of passive recreation. Mindfulness in a space like this is being conscious of the efforts being made to preserve the plants and animals and aware of what trails you take. 


Each place has different needs for how we engage with it, whether that be passively or actively, and it’s up to us to think more about what they are and what they could be. We each have a part that we in our environment and we can affect it, simply by bringing dogs out for walks without their leashes in the NCOS or misusing plants, as much as it can affect us, like by accidentally consuming recycled water. Being mindful of the plants, the spaces, and of ourselves, will help keep us from harming the plants themselves, taking too much from them at one time, and help us and the environment around us thrive and flourish together.

By Isla Vista Parks and Recreation Department

Isla Vista Peace Course

While we were there, Joe told me that one of his main goals for the parks is to see people use them. Seeing people do yoga at the parks on the bluffs, having picnics with their friends, and just being out and enjoying them brings him joy. He takes care of the Orchard and the parks so that people will be more inclined to go out into them and be a part of the world around them. Isla Vista’s Peace Course that starts at the Sueño Orchard, he told me, is actually the home to a disc golf world record for most holes made in 24 hours, made by a student named Mike Sale back in 2013. 

The NCOS and the parks of Isla Vista are two different types of recreational spaces, but there exists a third, more variable space in between the two, UCSB’s campus. UCSB is home to a large collection of edible and medicinal plants and fruits. It’s one of the most unique features of our university campus, the availability of fruits to forage and eat. In addition to these, there are also a lot of open lawns where students can sit and read a book, study, or hang out with their friends. With great resources and open spaces, it would seem like UCSB would allow us to be almost care-free in our use of the landscape. However, in an interview I had with Fidel, one of UCSB’s groundskeepers, I learned that this may not always be the case.

About the Author:

Joshua Richardson

Thank you so much for taking the time to read through this article. My name is Joshua Richardson. I am a third year Anthropology student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Although my time at UCSB has been short as a transfer student, I am so glad to have had the opportunity to create this work and share it with everyone. I hope that you learned as much from reading this article as I did researching and writing it.

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