Child of Nature, M. Eloise Battle, Works to Preserve Tecolote Canyon
Women’s History Month: 2014 Honoree
Friday, February 28, 2014
Most people seem to have a phobia about rats, and that's just what the boys in M. Eloise Battle's school were counting on the day they tossed a large, dead one right into her bicycle basket. Battle, who was in the seventh grade at the time, didn’t notice at first, but when she did see the specimen in her basket, she exclaimed with glee, "Oh boy! I can practice mounting this!"
Not the reaction the boys expected, particularly from a girl, but little did they realize that Battle’s love of the natural world transcends any such fears. Hers is a passion that, in more recent years, motivated her to preserve the ecosystem of Tecolote Canyon, and it is because of this that she is being honored by KPBS and Union Bank as a 2014 Women's History Month Local Hero.
Battle's defining moment—the first time her zealous interest in nature manifested itself—came in the fourth grade, long before the rat incident.
“I’d always been curious of the things around me,” Battle explains. “We lived on eight acres of virgin oak forest in New York State’s mid-Hudson Valley. One day, when I was walking home from school, I found a bright yellow beetle and somehow managed to get it home. We looked through my father’s books but couldn’t identify it. So Dad took me to the Van Rensselaer’s, our neighbors who lived up the street. He was a taxidermist and his wife wrote nature articles. My find was identified as a Goldsmith Beetle.”
From that instant, she began to spend time with the Rensselaers, who had no children of their own, and soon learned how to make a mounting board for butterflies, and the process of taxidermy. Today, remembering how the boys tried to frighten her with the rat--which turned out to be one of the first creatures she preserved--she can’t help but chuckle.
“I ended up having that rat among my belongings for many years,” she adds.
After high school, Battle enrolled at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee, majoring in biology. During her senior year she met Stanley Battle, a Texan. They married and relocated to San Diego for a few years, while he served in the Navy.
“When Stan was discharged,” Battle remembers, “He wanted to move back to Texas. I didn't like living in Texas with dust storms and tornadoes. Then he got a chance to interview at General Dynamics. They offered Stan a job and we literally flipped a coin. When I got off the train at the Santa Fe Depot and walked outside, I looked around and felt that this San Diego is the place. I was very happy to move back.”
Since 1958, Battle has lived on the rim of Tecolote Canyon at two addresses, the last location for over fifty years. It has been integral to her family life.
“My sons played in the canyon. We walked the canyon, caught lizards, snakes and polliwogs,” she observes. “We marveled at the emergence of the Anise Swallowtail butterflies from their chrysalid confinement…Later my grandsons joined me in the explorations.”
8,520 Sign Plea To Save Open Space
A 1969 story on the petition to save open space.
In 1968 Battle enrolled in a class at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
“I took a course on native plants, which helped me understand the habitat and ecology. It was taught by a botanist, a wonderful lady named Helen Witham. She would walk the canyon with me and one day we were chatting and she said, ‘You know there's a campaign on to preserve Tecolote Canyon. Wouldn't you like to get involved?’”
Plans were in the works to create a four-lane arterial highway that would cut through the canyon to where Genesee Avenue ends now. Had this been an earlier era, the highway may have been built and the canyon torn apart without a hitch. But two important items had recently come into play: government was beginning to see the value in allowing resident input into planning decisions, and citizens were seizing the opportunity to have a voice.
“In the mid-sixties, HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) was formed. They said they would not fund any projects that didn't have any community input, so the Clairemont Mesa and Linda Vista Planning Committees were formed with the goals of creating community plans and preserving the canyon. But City Council said they had no ordinance to preserve open space as dedicated parkland. Still, these committees kept at it, and had a petition going. In 1969, they got the ordinance to preserve open space. Then I came along and, in 1971, we formed a group, Citizens to Save Open Space (SOS).”
Battle, who served as president of SOS, wants to be clear that she didn’t preserve the canyon on her own. It took a village.
“It was a collection of like-minded people and those people that preceded me were essential. If they hadn't succeeded, we'd have a four-lane highway and condos today, and we wouldn't have this park. I'm sort of the one that stuck around and have been the face of Tecolote Canyon, but I would not have succeeded by myself.”
Battle and her fellow activists marched on the San Diego City Hall, and their demonstrations made the news.
Battle explains, “We gave canyon-side luncheons for elected officials, collected lengthy petitions, became thoroughly familiar with the land use laws and became rather effective lobbyists…Our tireless efforts were rewarded April 1, 1978 with the ceremony for the dedication of Tecolote Canyon Natural Park.”
It would be another five years before the City Council would unanimously adopt the master plan for the park developed by the Tecolote Canyon Citizens Advisory Committee. Battle, who was appointed by Mayor Pete Wilson to chair the committee, is proud of their plan, for as she puts it, it was “written without professional or city staff assistance.”
Soon after the construction of the Tecolote Nature Center and installation of the Native Plant Garden in 1994, Battle worked with another Local Hero, Kumeyaay tribal elder Jane Dumas, to develop “Baskets and Botany,” an annual education event for youth, which celebrates the environment and the Kumeyaay connection to Tecolote Canyon. This partnership has added a historical context to park activities by connecting it to the Kumeyaay traditions and people who once made their home there.
For Battle, protecting Tecolote Canyon is vital to the San Diego landscape.
“Our county has more endangered and threatened species than any other county in the continental United States,” she explains. “Consider that 95 percent of the coastal sage scrub and chaparral plant has been destroyed by development. When we destroy native habitats and make them uninhabitable for the flora and fauna that have evolved here over the millennia, something priceless is forever removed and our quality of life is greatly diminished. This is what makes Tecolote Canyon and other open space parks beyond price, and places to be treasured.”
In 1975, a national publication, “The Environmental Monthly,” awarded the City of San Diego the Quality of Life award for the preservation of Tecolote Canyon. The citation read as follows:
“We join in praising both the forward-thinking San Diego City Council and those passionate and patient citizens who made their dreams come true.”
Battle, who has lived at the canyon’s edge so long, is one of those whose patience paid off. As she wakes every morning to see the birds at her feeders and the view across the canyon, she can take satisfaction in knowing she’s realized her dream.