There’s a lot of landscape that we barely notice, the medians and property edges that fade into our peripheral vision. Bruce Cowan pays close attention to those forgotten places, and he travels with a watering can and a bucket to collect weeds.
One recent afternoon, Cowan is pulling up inch-long English ivy seedlings along Congress Avenue off David Avenue in Pacific Grove, where scrub jays flit about native toyons and sages. Before he started regularly tending this patch of land, it was covered in waist-high weeds. This scene has been eight years in the making, and now resembles real park space: a trail cuts through the pine needles, and a jogger passes by.
“After I got rid of the weeds, people started coming along here,” Cowan says. “It’s more beautiful than it was.”
He moved to P.G. in 1968 for a job as a horticulturalist at Asilomar Conference Grounds, and about 20 years later, started volunteering to landscape municipal spaces, like the P.G. cemetery and Museum of Natural History.
“He’s made a tremendous impact on our lanscaping out front and our gardens,” museum spokesman Patrick Whitehurst says. “We’ve relied on him.”
Last year, the city honored Cowan with its volunteer-of-the-year award.
For years, he was a regular at Rip Van Winkle Park, but after he fell and broke an ankle there last year – he was looking downard, scanning for weeds when he walked into a tree branch – the 77-year-old is trying to stick to flatter ground. He’s mostly working on the area along Congress Avenue, which has effectively been transformed into a public park thanks to his ongoing efforts.
New transplants are protected by branches to keep deer away, and his weeding philosophy – “be more persistent than the weeds” – is in full effect as he leans down to pull tiny plants.
“I’ve been doing this so long, I don’t want to give it up,” he says. “I like the way it looks. I like to keep it that way.”