Writing His Own Story
A modern John Muir hits his stride with Bay Nature, equal parts science journal and travelogue.
A visit to Point Reyes inspired David Loeb to develop his love of Western nature.
Margaretta K. Mitchell
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As a child growing up in New York City, David Loeb would go with his parents to the lower New York state woods for hiking or birding. But as much as he enjoyed the outdoors, he never felt like he was truly away from civilization. Even during walks in the deep woods, he would stumble on evidence of human encroachment, like stone retaining walls or crumbling farmsteads.
"The New York woods that I explored as a child were forests that had grown up on lands originally cleared for farms," Loeb said. "So you would see old stone walls and ruins."
It was only after he arrived in the Bay Area in 1973, to visit a former college roommate who had previously moved to the Bay Area, that he first experienced the larger vistas and untouched landscapes of Western nature and felt the stirring that would ultimately lead him to found Bay Nature, the Berkeley-based magazine that covers the science and beauty of the Bay Area's natural landscape.
He still remembers the fateful visit to Point Reyes that first sparked his passion for Western nature.
"It was a January winter day, cool at night but nice during the day, and absolutely clear with no fog," said Loeb, 64, now a Berkeley resident. "We had the whole place to ourselves. Out West, there're still enough unspoiled spaces that you can really understand how landscapes evolve without the dominant hand of humans. There's still enough stretches of wilderness that you can feel you're a visitor, not a shaper.
"That's one of the reasons I wanted to understand the processes better that look so beautiful to the eye, from wild flowers to native owls," he continued.
Loeb realized that an entire world of natural beauty existed right here, in the East Bay itself, hidden in plain sight—the flocking cormorants and grebes that accompanied the shifting tides at Cavallo Point or the wildflowers blooming on Mount Diablo—and all you needed to do was to look for it.
Loeb founded Bay Nature in 1997, partly to show locals the nature in their own backyard and partly to let Loeb satisfy his own curiosity about local nature. From how to tell a lichen from a fungus to identifying the dialects of regional white-crowed sparrows, its aim has always been to educate: To tell readers about the glorious outdoor world right at their doorstep and to encourage them to seek it out for themselves. The magazine's dual role as science reporter and local travelogue has kept it thriving even in an age when so many other publications have struggled.
Loeb is a soft-spoken man with a deliberate way of choosing his words; when he speaks, it's as if his words are coming from far away. But his quiet demeanor belies an incredible passion for the outdoors and a precise memory for science. Les Rowntree, a retired San Jose State University professor who has worked with Loeb on Bay Nature as a science consultant for more than 10 years, was astounded to see how Loeb picked up new facts on every nature walk, remembering the name of every insect found in the grass, every bird seen wheeling overhead.
"I've been on hikes with him," Rowntree said. "The rest of us will all forget 50 percent, but David will remember 100 percent. And he knows how to think about it, not just file it away."
At the same time, Loeb is not just a wild man of the woods. His first love is the great outdoors, but he's equally at home behind a desk when he has to be, and his memory for science trivia extends to names and faces, two vital skills for running a successful magazine.
"He's energetic, keeps late hours, he keeps it going," Rowntree said. "He's gracious, a good guy. He's a leader and he's inspirational."
BAY NATURE wasn't an immediate epiphany for Loeb. He moved to the Bay Area in the 1970s to study film at San Francisco State University and lived in San Francisco for the first 15 years, moving to the East Bay in 1989. Loeb was sidetracked with other endeavors: He worked for People's Food System and the People's Bakery in the Mission District, excited for the opportunity to grow food outside of the corporate cycle. In the 1990s, Loeb worked for the Guatemala News and Information Bureau, an organization dedicated to spreading information about Guatemalan human rights issues. And while Loeb felt that his work was meaningful, he didn't feel a personal connection.
"Ultimately, it was about someone else's story," Loeb said. "It wasn't a story about the place that I had lived for nearly a decade."
Around then, Loeb took some time to explore in depth the natural places around the bay. He volunteered with Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now Point Blue Conservation Science); he would spend an hour doing bird counts before going on all-day hikes, marveling at birds playing in the surf and flying overhead and remembering how, back East, the skies emptied as birds flew south during the winter. He visited China Camp State Park on a crisp January morning to gape at the variety of trees. Alone in nature, feeling like the only person in the whole world, he finally felt at home in the Bay Area.
It was at Henry Coe State Park near Morgan Hill that he remembered the feeling he'd first felt at Point Reyes in the '70s. It was a cool May morning when Loeb set out to explore the park.
"I must have walked eight miles without seeing a soul. Of course, it was during the week. It was a revelation and it made me wonder: Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this place?"