“People will protect what they love.” French ocean explorer, scientist, filmmaker and conservationist Jacques Yves Cousteau relied on that declaration of faith to protect the world’s oceans. He knew that people had to know the ocean, to see it, to spend time with it – and deep-sea diving is prohibitive. So he brought his camera with him on dives, and through it showed everyone the wondrous and thriving world that lived beneath the waves. And people – across geographic, political and social-economic backgrounds, even across time – fell in love with the ocean.

A small group of people have joined forces in the hope that locals will also come to know and love the live oak forest and chaparral shrubland of Fort Ord – and in doing so, protect it from developments like Monterey Downs. They’re using an art show to set that process in motion.

One of the organizers of the exhibit of paintings and photographs, slated to open at Monterey County Weekly’s Press Club in Seaside on Saturday, is Paola Berthoin. She’s worked for 25 years on using art and creative work to start movements for the environment that result in action.

From 1989 to 1998 she worked to preserve Hatton Canyon to keep it from becoming a freeway, she says. More recently, she compiled poems, art, photographs and essays in a book called Passion for Place: Community Reflection on the Carmel River Watershed, spinning out of it myriad events that roused public awareness on the matter of the Carmel River. That might have helped bring down the river’s San Clemente Dam.

She came to love the Fort Ord’s oak forest because she began painting there and taking it all in – the sky, the trees, the wind, the creatures. She was introduced to the land on bike rides she went on with Chris Mack and Karen Gelff, a Carmel couple who got involved in protecting Fort Ord wilderness starting with the battle over Whispering Oaks, which would have razed woodlands to make room for a bus depot.

“Right now there’s not even a sign on Highway 1 saying there’s not a National Monument out there,” Mack says. “People don’t know Fort Ord exists as an area to go to. It could be the Garland Park of Seaside.”

So the art is meant to show people that the Fort Ord oak forest is a beautiful and accessible place, a living ecosystem with trails and vistas and all the attendant rewards of nature. Mack wants to keep accessibility high so that people will adopt the place in their hearts.

And that’s in alignment with the values of photographer Elizabeth Murray, also on the team that’s staging the art show. She wants to preserve the land as open space and recreation, but recognizes that interests – from water to the environment to horse-racing – are contentious, and that opinions and perceptions are jumbled.

“A lot of people don’t even believe [Monterey Downs] is going to happen, others think it’s a done deal and who cares,” she says. “A lot of the Peninsula doesn’t even know there’s beauty that exists there. They think Monterey Downs will be [built over] ugly, blighted buildings on Fort Ord.”

She says their opponents have millions of dollars at their disposal to sway that perception, but that they have something more powerful: “We can show truth and beauty,” she says. And the show is called just that – Truth & Beauty.

She also wants the open space for Seaside residents because the need is greater and the access to it is stricter, especially for families who don’t have much money or own a car. Murray’s done environmental art education in the Amazon rainforest and in Africa, and her first job out of college was with the National Parks Service public land project that turned over Fort Mason, Fort Baker, Fort Cronkhite and Crissy Fields to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Murray took photos of the Fort Ord forest and shrublands. When she visited her friends Bill Weigle and Kay Cline (founder of Sustainable Seaside), she met a little neighbor girl named Alexzandrea and thought she would make a perfect subject in further photos. They all went hiking out there and took gorgeous photos in the sweeping landscape. The joy and freedom on the faces and in the bodies of Alexzandrea and her family, captured in photos, show us the effect that landscape can have on the human spirit.

Like the quiet contained in a forest, where even airplanes grow faint as if their volume has been turned down to make room for the sound of wind and birds, the crunch of dirt underfoot and the rustling of leaves. Or the aromas of grasses, trail dust and leaves that doesn’t sedate but awakens. Or the peace that settles in when you can walk away from the crazy rules of civilization and into the freedom of the forest.

They all believe that’s worth protecting. They hope great numbers of people – especially people in Seaside – will adopt the forest, come to love one so close to their home, and that they will band together with others who love the forest to protect it. They hope it can begin with art.

TRUTH & BEAUTY 5-8pm Saturday at The Press Club, 1123 Fremont Blvd., Seaside. Free to attend. 375-6005, 899-7934.

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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