How Green is my City?

The future of Berkeley according to Richard Register

Richard Register holds a latte in front of his face and stares at it as if preparing a toast to the sky. He is sitting in the luscious vine-covered patio outside of downtown Berkeley’s Jupiter pub on a Thursday afternoon waiting for his cheese pizza. Register can often be found here; he lives right across the street in the Gaia Building, which opened in August amid much controversy.

A lifelong environmentalist (and frequent subject of controversy himself), Register convinced the building’s developer Patrick Kennedy to incorporate several green features into its design. But what Register considers the most environmentally friendly aspect of the building is not its rooftop garden or its ventilation system, but a concept that might more likely come out of the mouth of a real estate agent: location, location, location. That, and its size: the 91-unit building, which houses roughly 200 people, is a crosswalk away from the downtown Berkeley BART station. That’s 200 people who don’t live in single-family homes spread out over numerous city blocks, and hence 200 people who don’t drive all that much. In fact, only nineteen cars are parked in the building’s garage.

“Solar technology is good because we get more light and warmth inside, but it saves a small amount of energy compared to what a mixed-use building located by transit saves by people not driving,” Register explains, adding that just adding solar energy is “like putting a smog device on your car and driving farther.”

Register believes the Gaia Building is a big step in the right direction. Urban sprawl contributes to pollution and species extinction more than anything else does, he says, so build up, not out. That is the central tenet of the “ecocity,” a concept he came up with to change the way we build cities and to achieve ecological balance.

Opponents of the Gaia Building, like the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CNA) and some members of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, argue that the structure is too tall, an affront to good taste — and illegal. They claim that Kennedy waylaid established public process to sneak in extra floors (if mezzanines and lofts are counted). For months before its completion, critics speculated freely in newsletters or the letters pages of the Berkeley Daily Planet about the impending doom the building would bring. Predicting that residents would be perpetually snarled in traffic while traversing streets on which the sun never shines because of the gargantuan shadow cast by the building’s 106-foot bulk, opponents complained about the “Manhattanization” of Berkeley.

So far none of that has turned out to be the case. In fact, on this lunch hour as Register waits for his pizza, he and other diners bask in an uninterrupted blanket of sunlight. He holds the latte glass up to eye level to demonstrate how, if the steam rising from the glass is hot enough, and the light from the sky bright enough, and the cup held at just the right angle, you can see a rainbow shimmering through the steam.

He notes this latest discovery on a list he calls his “alternative r?sum?,” an ever-evolving document that chronicles the many inventions, discoveries, and concepts that have sprung from his mind since 1955. When he forwards a copy of this list to a reporter, he includes a handy key: “P” equals projects, like the “Vegetable Car” garden he planted within the body of a Pontiac GTO in 1979 or the 1983 “Berkeley Fruit and Nut Brigade”; “T” stands for terms he has coined like “squeakywheelocracy” and “megamonobuildings”; “B” indicates books he’s written such as Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future, published in 1987, and his latest book published this month, Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance With Nature. Register’s alternative r?sum? does fairly describe his life; reading it, one might conclude that he is a genius ahead of his time — or perhaps a pixilated nut.

At age 58, Register is a most nonthreatening-looking human being. His gray hair seems to have recently plopped upon his head; thought lines traverse his forehead. He is a man who has settled comfortably into his lanky frame. He is modest, exceedingly polite, mild-mannered, and gentle, but he is also passionate and persistent. He has been talking virtually nonstop about ecocities for most of his adult life.

When Register first arrived in Berkeley in 1974 with his talk of the virtues of density, many dismissed him. Now he has struck a chord (or a nerve) in a great many people. Over the years, he has managed to promulgate his ideas throughout the world and has given talks on every continent except Antarctica.

Locally, in addition to several creek restoration projects, his influence has been tangible in the debate over Berkeley’s proposed General Plan, a document of over 600 policies which is undergoing final revisions and, when finished, will guide the city’s development, transportation, and environmental strategies for the next twenty years. Register tried to tack four “ecocity amendments” onto the plan, and though they were twice defeated (first by the planning commission, then by the City Council) the council agreed to convene a task force to explore the possibility of an environmentally friendly project downtown that sounds very much like the one Register proposed. (Ironically, it was not the progressives on the council who embraced Register’s out-of-the-box proposals, but the moderates.)

“What’s funny about Richard is that the attacks against him become more vociferous and more personal and nasty as he gets more successful,” says Patrick Kennedy. “And it’s like Schopenhauer’s observation about truth: first it’s ridiculed, then it’s attacked, and then it’s accepted as obvious. He used to be dismissed as just a freak, but now his vision or part of it is coming to fruition — the Gaia Building is a good example. I suppose ten years from now he will be remembered as a visionary and people will wonder what all the fuss was about.”

Richard Register was 21 and trying to hitchhike his way back to California when he met the man who would change his thinking. The young sculptor and antiwar activist had started a group called No War Toys and was visiting his old high school in Arizona to solicit donations from the parents of the graduating class of 1965. After collecting $400, he asked around for a ride heading west. A mother of a classmate offered him one. Along the way she said, “You want to meet a famous architect?” “Sure,” replied Register, whose own father and grandfather were architects.

They stopped somewhere in a place called Paradise Valley. The man who greeted them was as lean and graceful as the greyhounds he ran with across the Arizona desert landscape every morning. His name was Paolo Soleri.

A native Italian, Soleri came to the United States to study under Frank Lloyd Wright. Now settled in Arizona with his wife and two daughters, he consumed himself in researching urban planning. Soleri had devised a concept he called “arcology,” a fusion of architecture and ecology that advocated creating efficient cities designed to minimize pollution and the use of energy, land, and materials. Register’s ride was helping Soleri find land where he might build a prototype experimental city for 7,000 people within one structure he called “Arcosanti.”

Soleri talked to Register about the importance of building cities in three dimensions, not the flat two dimensions of American suburbs. “At first I thought it was quirky,” Register remembers. “And then I took the literature back to Venice, California, where I had a studio. I was amazed by the clear thinking: You can’t have a living organism that’s shaped like a piece of paper, and you shouldn’t have a city that’s shaped like a piece of paper because it’s not efficient.”

Five years later, in 1970, Register helped Soleri raise the first structure, a shed for construction supplies, on the site of what was to become Arcosanti. The project has been under construction ever since. Located at Cordes Junction, halfway between Phoenix and Flagstaff, it has become a tourist destination as well as a mecca for design students. Sixty-eight people reside there. In 1976, for almost a year, one of its residents was Richard Register.

Born in El Paso, Register spent most of his youth in Santa Fe, of which he speaks with nostalgia for the artistic atmosphere, pedestrian-friendly layout, and crystal-clear skies. But if New Mexico was inspiring, it was also dreadful. He recalls one family in particular, friends of his parents, who worked at the weapons lab in nearby Los Alamos and who maintained a bomb shelter beneath their house capped with a 600-pound steel door. Register spent his teenage years morosely pondering the end of the world. “I took fairly seriously that we could have a nuclear war,” he says.

His father often took Register to work, and he grew up doing carpentry on construction sites, a skill that would later provide much of his income well into his adult life. His mother, whom he describes as a fundamentalist Christian and right-winger, loved the arts and encouraged Register in drawing and sculpture. However, she remains less enthusiastic about her son’s liberal politics and environmentalism. (“She thinks liberals are worse than communists,” he says.)

At the age of sixteen, Register was sent to a boarding school in Arizona, and he now says that its mandatory anthropology classes and annual month-long trip to Mexico gave him a deep appreciation for other cultures. After stints at Occidental College and the University of New Mexico, Register moved west to pursue his art career (contemporary art just didn’t sell well in Santa Fe), moving into the cheap Venice studio.

The young artist soon became interested in not only how the sculptures looked, but also how they felt to the touch. “I began to realize that no art form existed for the sense of touch,” he says. He began experimenting with different materials, then with machines like fans and vibrators. He cast sculptures from the floor of rivers by sprinkling layers of plaster in places where the water was low to capture the natural wavy shapes carved by moving water. He dubbed his art a new form of “Tactile Art” and wrote essays on the topic for magazines. When Register moved to Berkeley in the mid-’70s, he created two projects for San Francisco’s Exploratorium. One, the “Tactile Tree,” featured all sorts of surprising contraptions dangling from its branches. (It was destroyed in 1992 when the museum lacked space to store it.) The other, a collaboration with August Coppola, was the so-called “Tactile Gallery,” a hands-on, crawl-around-in fun house for the senses.

One evening in 1979, Register was walking down his street from a friend’s house towards his own when he was confused by the sight of what seemed like lights dancing in midair. Drawing closer, he realized the lights were flashbulbs. A gaggle of tourists had gathered outside his Cedar Street house to snap pictures of the 1969 robin’s egg blue Pontiac GTO with a garden growing out of it (thanks no doubt to Rough Guide’s inclusion of the odd planter in its American travel guide). For the holidays, Register had added something special to the vegetables; he ran an extension cord from the house to light a Christmas tree in the car.

With symbolic resonance, Register had officially dedicated his car several months before as a memorial to H.H. Bliss, the first person killed by an automobile (back in 1899). The car gained Register — as well as his fledgling nonprofit, Urban Ecology — some publicity (including a story in these pages). Urban Ecology, he declared, was at war against cars. (These days, Register owns a truck, but keeps it parked in a West Berkeley neighborhood and rarely uses it.)

Urban Ecology also pushed for an ordinance making attached greenhouses legal, then built three of them. Members planted fruit trees and advocated for more comprehensive bus lines. Register was also one of the key people who managed to convert the first few blocks of Milvia Street north of University Avenue from a regular street into a weaving “slow street” studded with various traffic calming devices, a project that took almost ten years.

It was around the time that Register started planting lettuce, turnips, and tomatoes in his GTO that he coined the term “ecocity.” Though inspired by Soleri’s emphasis on density and building up (which according to Register uses one-tenth of the land and consumes one-twentieth of the energy of a usual city), Register’s ideas had departed from Soleri’s start-from-scratch single-structure metropolises. Instead, Register concentrated on reshaping existing cities over generations. If modern cities and their suburbs are built for cars, not people, forcing everyone to travel long distances and depend on cars, cities should be convinced to use their zoning authority to gradually locate everything — housing, jobs, commerce — in a smaller radius so that people will be able to walk or bike to their destinations, or use convenient mass transit, eliminating most of the need for cars.

In many ways, Register thinks along the same lines as other “smart growth” proponents like the so-called “New Urbanists,” who promote infill development and creating walkable communities geared toward pedestrians. Characteristically, however, Register criticizes them for not being pure enough. “I question why they shouldn’t be called the New Suburbanists. They tend to cap at four- or five-story height limits. And they are nervous about getting rid of their cars,” he sniffs.

Register’s vision calls for compacting cities over time in order to bring nature back. In his 1987 book, Ecocity Berkeley (which had a press run of 6,000) Register introduces his own zoning guide, which would gradually relocate the bulk of the city’s population into high-density centers of various sizes located in eleven places in the city, including the downtown, West Berkeley, Solano Avenue, and the Elmwood neighborhoods. Each center is ringed with concentric circles; the further the ring is from the middle of a center, the less development would be permitted. By simultaneously building more densely in the core of the centers while eliminating development between the centers, humans would use less land, allowing nature to return.

Register includes a series of maps to show how Berkeley would change under his 125-year plan. They show the centers growing larger while the buildings and streets between them vanish. Starting now, he suggests, Berkeley could establish more “slow streets” or close off some streets altogether. Fifteen to fifty years from now, most of the city’s creeks (currently confined to culverts underground) would be opened. Pedestrian bridges would link large buildings (topped by solar greenhouses, rooftop gardens, and electric wind-powered generators). In the last map, the freeway has been placed underground, with a ventilation system, so as to not ruin the view. Most people, Register imagines, will have little use for freeways anyway since they will ride trains or planes and rent cars only occasionally. The population will feel much more profoundly connected to the natural landscape surrounding them and will, among other things, be cured of their addiction to TV.

“Many people bicycle the network of tiny paved car-free roads which can take them thousands of miles through the country in a couple of weeks at almost no cost — and cyclists can reach out their hands and touch the passing trees, lay their bikes in the grass and listen to the slightest breeze,” he writes. “Try that on a freeway!”

Register did not hesitate to show his zoning maps to just about every official in town, and he found an ally in then-City Manager Jim Keene. Keene, who is now city manager of Tucson, Arizona, shared Register’s vision for denser, taller buildings. Some people may dismiss rooftop gardens and bridges between buildings as foolishness, Keene says, but he believes it is quite possible. “I think Richard is an advocate for thinking outside the box, and that’s where the innovative and good ideas come from.”

“Oh my, yes,” said Mayor Shirley Dean, when asked if Register has talked to her about his ideas. “I think he’s talked to everybody about them. I think the ideas are very interesting. They’re probably more advanced than most Berkleyans want to embrace. But I do believe that now — and this is just in concept — that Berkeley should have looked at some of these, at least for the core of downtown.”

While Dean does not support building densely in other neighborhoods that Register has identified as centers, such as the Elmwood, the idea of opening up creeks and allowing slightly taller buildings downtown does make sense to her. Whether or not it’s feasible is another matter, she quickly adds, and her cautious attitude is shared by other city officials.

Gene Poschman, who has served on the planning commission for five years, laughs heartily when speaking of Register. “As we say in planning, the devil is in the details,” he says, pointing out that Register’s plan for Berkeley includes putting a high-density development on the waterfront, a suggestion he finds mystifying. Everyone in Berkeley supports daylighting creeks, says Poschman, who is himself a Sierra Club member, but “I laugh because of the notion of moving people out of their houses, albeit on a voluntary basis. He gets upset when people point out his map imagines zoning out 95 percent of Berkeley.”

“The question of allowing development to take place is still an unusual stance for an environmental group to take,” admits Rachel Peterson, who has been the executive director of Urban Ecology since 1996. Most environmental groups were founded on the notion of preserving land. Still, most established environmental groups have nothing but praise for Register, and his Ecocity amendments to the General Plan were endorsed by the Berkeley Ecology Center, Save San Francisco Bay Association, and the Bay chapter of the Sierra Club. Register has also found a receptive audience worldwide. In 1990, nearly 800 people from twelve countries descended on Berkeley for the First International Ecocity Conference. He is now working with organizers in China, site of the fifth such conference.

Still, even Register’s supporters often find their imaginations stretched by the sweep of his vision. Buy enough land to daylight a whole creek? Grow trees on buildings? “I’m not quite the true believer he is,” Patrick Kennedy said, “because we have to pay the bills. The idea of installing a mature oak tree on top of a structure is a million-dollar proposition, and unfortunately that checks our impulses to embrace all his ideas.”

With a cup of coffee in his hand, Richard Register walks in a bit late to a meeting of men in polo shirts. Everyone in the small office at the top of the Gaia Building — Patrick Kennedy, two of his project managers Chris Hudson and Evan McDonald, and two visitors — wears casual, yet down-to-business knit shirts and slacks except Register, who is clad in the same blue-green sweater and black jeans he wears day after day.

The visitors, from a Seattle company called Western Green Fiber, are pitching a new environmentally sensitive building material to Kennedy. They claim that their cellulose insulation, made from recycled brown paper, is superior to fiberglass because it doesn’t contain any toxic materials like formaldehyde, can be easily sprayed on, inhibits mold growth, uses less energy to produce, and generates no waste. In fact, construction waste can be immediately recycled on site to make cellulose.

Kennedy, who asked Register to sit in on the meeting, has a talent for chewing gum and firing off questions at the same time. How long would it take to complete a room the size of this office? Where else has it been used and for how long? “We hate using a new product and having weird problems after three years,” he says.

As the men talk about subsidies and potential savings for consumers, Register listens quietly and hardly utters a word. Kennedy ends the meeting in half an hour with approval. “We’re on board. We like it. No more sell,” he says.

Much curiosity swirls around the nature of Kennedy and Register’s relationship. Kennedy says he first met Register roughly ten years ago. “At the time I was new to development in Berkeley and I didn’t know what to make of him, whether he was a visionary or nut,” he says. After reading his ideas and realizing that Register was calling for exactly the kinds of development that he was building, Kennedy called Register and asked him to speak at a city meeting on behalf of an infill development on Shattuck Avenue for which he was seeking approval.

Because Register has supported many, if not all, of the developer’s projects, some suspect Kennedy of paying him to add green coloration to his enterprises. “Richard has only one idea that’s very important and that’s to free developers from parking requirements. That’s why he exists and why he gets money from Kennedy and other developers,” says Dave Blake, who sits on the Zoning Adjustments Board. “He’s sort of a nut, but well-meaning.”

Kennedy, who describes his relationship with Register as a professional working one (“He hasn’t had dinner at my house and vice versa”), denies paying Register, though he says he cosponsored one of Register’s seminars and gave him $3,000 to help him complete his latest book. Kennedy also bought one of his drawings for $800. He was not paid for his contributions to the Gaia Building.

Nor were all his suggestions adopted. He had, for instance, suggested that the eastern wall of the building sit lower than the western wall to allow sunlight into the courtyard and keep the building warm. In the end, however, the building was rotated, leaving the courtyard, home to a giant chessboard set with pieces as tall as one’s knee, in shadows. Still, Register takes credit for the garden and trellises that top the building now his new home. Though vegetation is still sparse, the trellises will eventually support a lush green canopy from beneath which residents will be able to enjoy a smashing view. That too is good, Register believes. Simply being high off the ground, affording people a view of the landscape around them, connects them to nature, he says. “I never saw a sunset on the bay until I moved here.”

Register runs his latest organization, Ecocity Builders, from his home in a seventh -story loft in the building. He severed his ties with Urban Ecology in 1992 after determining that the group had strayed from his vision; rather than wrestle with power politics, he explains, he just decided to leave. “A lot of people who got involved just wanted to take part and have power and didn’t have a clear understanding.” The flashpoint came when the board refused to pay Register’s plane fare to the Czech Republic when he was invited to speak to the president there. Register regards the invitation as the highest consideration his ideas had ever been given — and the slight by Urban Ecology is one he has not forgotten. (Peterson declined to talk about Register’s split with the group.)

His autonomy came at a loss. While Urban Ecology now receives over half a million dollars in contributions and grants, Ecocity Builders’ most recent filing with the Internal Revenue Service shows that it received just under $30,000. (Who gave the money is not open to public inspection, but records show that more than half of that money, $17,500 came from just two individuals.) As president, Register earned $12,400 in fiscal year 2000. He has no health insurance. And though he is often invited to speak at conferences (for which he sometimes, but not always, charges a fee), no foundation has as yet supplied Ecocity Builders with a grant. “I think a lot of people who fund things are afraid to take risks,” he says.

If Register is being paid by developers, his lifestyle doesn’t reflect it. His modest apartment, one of nineteen Gaia Building units set aside for low-income people, is Spartan in its furnishings, yet crammed with stuff. His filing system consists of crates lined up side by side on a table. His bed is a mat that folds up during the day to a third of its size. His own drawings of an ecocity Berkeley hang under large banners with the names of different creeks. (In 1988 Register, with the blessing of the city, created logos — each with a different animal — for each culverted Berkeley creek, and stenciled the names and logos on storm drains, an idea that has been widely imitated by other cities.) A small flag hangs off the spiral staircase that leads to the loft. At first glance it looks like a normal American flag, but on closer inspection, one notices little cars lined up where stars should be and dotted lines running down the red stripes. He designed the “Cars and Stripes Forever” flag during the Gulf War.

Register stores his vision for downtown Berkeley, a project he calls “the Heart of the City,” in a large cardboard box. He opens the box one day and takes out a three-dimensional foam-board model representing several downtown blocks. He lifts a section of the model out and replaces it with a miniature representation of a creek flowing past greenhouse-topped buildings. Register’s immediate dream is to daylight the part of Strawberry Creek that runs through the downtown area (it flows beneath Center Street) and surround it with a pedestrian plaza. This would require altering some land that the university owns as well as removing the Bank of America building on the corner of Center and Shattuck.

Register has so far managed to talk to all of the parties that would need to approve his plan and is trying to get them to sit down together. He spends much of his time in meetings, proselytizing to community groups and city officials.

In this, Register gets a great deal of help from Kirsten Miller, a one-time reporter for the Berkeley Voice who found herself agreeing with Register after being assigned to cover one of his conferences. “At first I was a little pissed off that the editor expected me to read a whole book [Ecocity Berkeley] before writing a little article. But I was really amazed at the ideas,” she says. “It’s a concept that is really difficult for most people to even start to think through and so while most people say they’re for the environment or want to save whales and trees and steelhead trout, they don’t look at the larger picture and come to the conclusion that the way we build has this huge impact on how all the rest of us live and how all the living systems function.”

Most recently, Register and Miller tried to gain support for the ecocity amendments to Berkeley’s draft General Plan. The first potential amendment called for a general commitment to ecological design, the second for the development of dense population centers in various parts of the city, the third was an endorsement of Register’s “Heart of the City” downtown plan. As sweeping as these proposals were, it was the fourth amendment that sparked the fiercest debate and most passionate opposition: it proposed that the General Plan enshrine something called “transfer development rights (TDR), a means by which developers obtain variances from existing zoning laws in exchange for certain mitigating actions. They might, for instance, be allowed to add an extra floor of height on buildings with ecological design features in exchange for creating open space elsewhere — or perhaps even liberating a creek.

It is a testament to Register’s influence that a vocal and organized opposition is now fighting his ideas every step of the way. Martha Nicoloff, a former planning commissioner and author of the city’s Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, is rallying for a height limit ordinance as well as an ordinance that would prohibit the city from ever granting transfer development rights. She has enthusiastic support from architectural preservationists and the Council of Neighborhood Associations who argue that Berkeley is already the third most densely populated city in Northern California and certainly in no need of more tall buildings. Pat Devaney has edited the CNA’s newsletter for 25 years (the October issue dismissed the Gaia Building as “vulgar”). “The idea of restoring wetlands is silly on its face,” he says. “I mean [these proposals] are hard to argue with because they are well meaning and kind of whimsical but that’s just not going any place.”

Howie Muir, of CNA and a fledgling political coalition called the Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations, says Register’s push for taller buildings will lead to another kind of sprawl: vertical sprawl. “He’s asking for an ecological demonstration project. Well he’s already got it. That’s the Gaia Building.” Like most of Register’s opponents, Muir vociferously opposes transfer development rights. “It’s like papal indulgence,” he says. “In medieval times they were slammed for selling indulgences in advance of committing sins. You could buy out your time in purgatory. It’s a little like that.”

Although none of the nine planning commission members supported Register’s Ecocity amendments, Register was able to bring them to the attention of the City Council. He and Miller got more than a hundred organizations and businesses to sign onto the amendments. They also got a measure of support from the mayor, who believes TDRs could work well in areas like downtown (but not anywhere else). Dean crafted a carefully worded proposal to allow TDRs downtown with the rights transferring within a block, but that, along with the ecocity amendments were debated and defeated at a December 18 council meeting. The moderates — Dean, Mirian Hawley, Betty Olds, and Polly Armstrong — supported most of Register’s ideas while the majority progressives struck out any language that applied to density or TDRs. (“The most curious thing about Berkeley,” Kennedy likes to observe, “is that it calls itself a great progressive city, yet is violently against change.”)

In the end, though, the draft General Plan now includes wording that seems to largely reflect Register’s ecocity ideas. It calls for an ecological demonstration project downtown, opening creeks where feasible, the development of car-free housing, public plazas, and notes a preference for higher (though unspecified) densities downtown. “I think the people against density, what they really want and won’t say, is to kick people out,” Register says in answer to his critics. “A lot of the NIMBYs are xenophobic and afraid of people coming in from the outside. They’d like to go back to the 1800s when 15,000 people lived in Berkley. But that would mean kicking 85,000 people out.”

If much of the hue and cry over development theories seems hopelessly abstract, Richard Register would like to point to a handful of successes. One of them now flows freely and quietly between 8th and 9th streets near the Pyramid Brewery. In 1994, Register, the Urban Creeks Council, and hundreds of volunteers started a years-long effort to liberate a culverted section of Codornices Creek near University Village. During World War II, a railroad track occupied the area; it then sat as a concrete lot overrun with fennel until the city and Carole Schemmerling of Urban Creeks Council negotiated with the landowner to daylight the creek. With grant money from the state Department of Water Resources and 375 volunteers, the Urban Creeks Council dug out concrete and sowed native plants. Now the plants have grown into trees, fish dart in the creek, and birds of all sorts, even egrets, visit.

Most of the volunteers aren’t around anymore, but Register remains. Every Sunday morning, he spends several hours tending to the creek, often by himself. On a recent Sunday morning, he arrives with Nancy Lieblich, to whom his newest book is dedicated. As Lieblich gardens, Ray Bruman stops by to add buckets of coffee grounds to the compost pile. Gophers have been tearing the roots of the fruit trees, and Register has heard they don’t like garlic, so he brought some to plant.

A hummingbird lands nearby, which delighted him no end. Register can probably remember every bird that has ever landed near him. He often starts a conversation by recounting how such-and-such a bird visited his windowsill that morning.

“Creeks are kind of his church,” says Janet Byron, who started Friends of Strawberry Creek a year ago. She notes that the first person to join was Register. “I call him the idea man. But he also gets things done,” she says. “He’s been so active for so long in so many different things, he’s got everything all figured out.”

Everyone who knows Richard Register, friends and enemies alike, can agree on one thing: his unwavering and sometimes lonely resolve to his vision never lets up. “Richard has been staunch and stalwart. He repeats his message and he doesn’t get angry and he’s never rude. He’s a gentleman,” says Schemmerling, who has known him for more than twenty years. “Richard — it’s hard to get rid of him,” says Pat Devaney. “You never hear the last of him.”

As Register breaks down garlic cloves, Lieblich ambles by to announce her departure. As she gets into her little Toyota Corolla and drives off, Register kneels down with his back to the sky, digging holes in the ground with a twig. Cloves drop into the earth, encircling the tree trunks as he continues to dig — and talk about the vision.

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