Battling the Fennel Forest in Glen Park

Alex Humphrey deals with the challenge of cutting mature fennel with his weed whacker.

Story and photos by Bonnee Waldstein

The green space that straddles St. John’s Elementary School at Bosworth Street between Chilton and Burnside Streets is known mostly to dog walkers and the rare, brave idle stroller; and possibly those nerdy souls who read the Glen Park Community Plan, which envisions it as a piece of a Greenway that will lead from the Village to Glen Canyon Park.

Ambling this path over a period of time, one becomes aware of gradually being enveloped in a towering forest of fennel, while the path through it becomes ever more narrow.

On this October morning, the sound of some machine, and the sight of a man and two youths caught the reporter’s attention.

Leaving it to the naturalists of Glen Park to explain the curious profusion of fennel in our neighborhood: it’s a known fact that it’s here, and it’s plentiful.

While it may provide foraging opportunities for the experimental cook, and a pleasant odor to the environment, there is a down side.

One person who took an interest in this particular patch is Alex Humphrey.  Humphrey, 42, is in his last semester as a Fire Science student at City College of San Francisco.  He’s on the fire fighters’ list in San Francisco and hoping to be selected to further pursue his career in firefighting in San Francisco. One of his courses, on wild land fire, required him to complete a project on that topic.

Humphrey lives in the East Bay with his son, Edward, who attends St. Johns.  Last year, he heard about two disturbing incidents that took place in the “fennel forest.”

CCSF fire science student Rex Miculob and Alex's son, Edward, cut the stalks with machetes.

The first was a lady walking her two dogs.  Out of the density of fennel, a man jumped out onto the path and stood and stared at her, then turned and looked at the windows of the neighboring houses.  The lady decided quickly not to have any confrontation and snatched her dogs and ran the other way.

The second incident was the sighting of hypodermic needles and human feces, indicating an encampment along the fence bordering the playground/parking lot of the school.  This poses an obvious danger to the safety of the children at St. Johns.

Sister Shirley Ann Garibaldi and neighbors have called the City — the land is the responsibility of the Department of Public Works — and have been told “the job is on the list.”  So far, no action.

Humphrey decided to do something.  He got the approval of his teacher to study and clear the area to fulfill his project for his Wild Lands course.  He had a compelling rationale. The fennel, being thin vegetation, can ignite quickly and potentially spread to nearby trees and adjacent structures.  In addition, after a tree fell along that green space last year, two other trees have since been tagged for further action by DPW.

After his first clearing last year, Humphrey has made a personal commitment to clear the fennel forest every year for the next five years.  If the neighbors in the area got involved as well, it could become a great community activity and benefit.

There he was, on Saturday morning, October 1, along with another City College fire science student, Rex Miculob, 20, and Humphrey’s son, Edward, nine.  Humphrey put his weed whacker to perhaps its ultimate challenge, while Rex and Edward wielded their machetes in an effort to clear the overwhelming growth of the mature fennel stalks.

Humphrey is passionate about this mission.  He would no doubt do it even if class credit were not involved.  Although he doesn’t live in Glen Park, his son attends school here, and he has done some work for Glen Park resident the Reverend Cecil Williams.  Humphrey has formed a strong attachment to Glen Park and feels the pull of community service.

He is also inspired by the instructors at the CCSF fire science program, several of whom are fire chiefs in neighboring cities, among them Chief John J. Grimaldi of South San Francisco and Chief Jim Skinner of Redwood City. “Everything that I am, I owe to them,” and the other great instructors, says Humphrey.

Rex Miculob, Humphrey’s classmate, is in on the project because “Alex told me about it and said it would be good for a project and good for the community and a good grade.”

Edward, Humphrey’s son, though only nine years old, is also aware of the implications of the project they’ve undertaken.  “We can help the school and the children — and get into college and get a good job!”  That’s really being proactive.

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