For years, I have run on the bike path along the south side of Russell Boulevard, the main artery connecting Davis to Winters.
The stretch is glorious - at least the first few miles in Davis proper, featuring towering black walnut trees (planted in 1876) that envelop the path in shade. But outside the city limits, runners, cyclists and hikers find themselves bereft of trees and shade, utterly exposed to the fallow fields and, in summer, the harsh sun.
Running on that stretch - which, by the way, is part of the course for next month's Tour of California bike race - I often said to myself, "Hey, they should plant some trees along here, too." Not that I ever did anything about it. Heaven forbid I would get involved.
Then one morning last fall, I was cruising along the Russell trail and saw a line of saplings spaced several feet apart, encircled with fresh mulch. It brightened my day. A few weeks ago, I saw more new plantings.
Somebody had cared enough to get involved.
Turns out, it wasn't Yolo County or any of the area's well-organized arbor groups. It was one woman, Winters resident Janet Mercurio, who saw a need and dug deep (both in the dirt and her pocketbook) to plant about 150 trees along the Russell Boulevard stretch - with more to come.
It may be decades before that part of the bike path is bathed in shade. But on this Earth Day, Mercurio's small but meaningful gesture shows how people can help the environment the other 364 days of the year.
Her motivation was simple aesthetics. She, too, had noticed the denuded stretch and thought it a shame that no one had thought to plant trees.
"I live on Russell, close to Winters," Mercurio said. "I would drive in all the time - my son went to school in Davis - and I kept thinking, 'I wish they had more trees along here. It would be so great.' I'm a tree lover."
That was eight years ago. Mercurio contacted Yolo County authorities and the advocacy group Tree Davis to find out if the three could team up to make her idea a reality. The county gave the go-ahead but apparently had no funds to offer. Tree Davis had its plate full of other projects within Davis' city limits. So the idea lay dormant.
After Mercurio, now 60, retired a few years ago from the Sacramento County conservator's office, she renewed her plan. This time, she had the freedom to carry it out herself. She enlisted the help of a master arborist, Dave Muffly of Palo Alto, rounded up as many as 25 volunteer workers through e-mail blasts and got to work.
Ask her the name of her organization, and Mercurio hesitates, then laughs. "Well, you know, we really don't have a name," she said. "It was just my idea. When I started e-mailing Tree Davis and other people for help, I guess I just started calling it the Russell Boulevard Tree Planting."
Hers has hardly been a slipshod endeavor, though. She and Muffly agonized over just what types of trees to plant, how their spacing would affect their growth possibilities and aesthetic quality. The acorns Muffly gathered from mature trees were augmented by seedlings provided by the L.A. Moran Reforestation Center in Davis. Equipment for planting was donated, too, as was the water from Three Palms Nursery in Winters.
Mercurio paid for much of the material, but she was crafty enough to find people willing to help, gratis. The bulky water tank sitting in Mercurio's front yard came from a tree group in nearby Woodland. "The man's wife wanted it out of their front yard," she said, "so now it's in mine."
Muffly says he was impressed with Mercurio's passion. "This really is Janet's baby," he said.
After all, some people get excited over the iPad, the latest electronic gizmo. Mercurio marvels over saplings. "Have you ever seen the animated film 'The Man Who Planted Trees?' " she asked. "It's about a little old man, a hermit, who goes out and collects seeds and acorns, and sorts them and plants them, and years later, all the trees are growing. That inspired me.
"But Dave's made all the difference. I don't know what I'm doing. But we chose a lot of oak because Dave's an oak nut. Heck, I love oaks, too. And the county loves oaks because they are native. Then Dave says, 'How about sycamores?' Then, at the last minute, he says, 'Let's throw in some buckeyes.' "
In time, the saplings figure to take root and grow. Muffly's not sure exactly how long it will take for the new growth to mature and flood the bike path with shade. He guesses "a couple of decades."
Mercurio and I are willing to wait.