When I grow up, I want to be like the Graver-Dowds.
This remarkable San Ramon family gets my Living the Green Life Award for being one of the coolest, most environmentally conscious families in town.
Allow me to introduce Douglas Graver, Dr. Elisa Dowd, Cam, 20, and Margie, 14.
When you approach the Graver-Dowd home, you will notice that their front yard is full of native plants. Walk along a gravel side path and through the wood gate to the back yard, and you will find an oasis of organic vegetables, herbs and fruit trees. If you look up above the back patio, you will see solar panels on the roof. A rollable composter rests near the back fence, and there’s an electric mower parked by the gate.
In addition to recycling all their junk mail and other paper items, the Graver-Dowds compost all their food scraps and yard waste – then mix it back into their garden beds.
The whole family walks or bikes to school and work year-round. Their animals — a greyhound named Zula, two cats (Mulan and Varmint), the occasional handful of chickens and a colony of honey bees — are all rescued or adopted.
They eat grass-fed meat, humanely raised, most of which they buy from local 4-H families.
Since installing photovoltaic panels on their roof in 2005, the family’s PG&E meter runs backward more often than forward, saving them about $500 each year.
Doug and Elisa started living green back in their college days, when they lived in the domes at UC Davis. Made of polyurethane and fiberglass, and constructed and maintained by students, each dome houses two students. The grounds include a large chicken coop and an organic garden, also student-maintained.
“It was an amazing place to live, sort of like a small town,” Elisa says. “I don't think we will ever live anywhere else quite like it.”
Doug also credits his studies of environmental toxicology at the university with moving him "toward living a less ecologically destructive life.”
When they bought their San Ramon house in 1995, the back yard was essentially a dirt wasteland — a drawback for some people. But for the Graver-Dowds, it was a clean slate upon which they could build an organic garden. The first thing they did was to spread red clover seeds across the barren expanse to help put nitrogen back into the soil.
Today, there are beds of potatoes, asparagus, carrots, beets, onions and garlic. Herbs grow all around the garden: Rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano.
Their numerous fruit trees include plum, persimmon, white nectarine, apricot, pomegranate, Asian and Bartlett pear, olive, three varieties of orange and a pineapple-guava bush with edible flowers.
Less than two years ago, the family planted California natives in their front yard: Coral bells, yerba buena, bunch grasses, Redbud and two varieties of coffeeberry.
They dug swales to increase water infiltration. The plants only require irrigation in the summer for the first two years; once they are well-established, they will not need to be watered.
It’s not the first time the Graver-Dowds have planted natives. In 2004, they helped create Granada Native Gardens in Livermore, transforming what was once a vacant trash-strewn lot into a native plant garden. They planted cottonwoods and oaks, and helped construct picnic tables and benches out of urbanite — a recycled, reclaimed building material made of concrete from demolished roads, buildings and sidewalks.
The gardens now feature more than 50 species of plants separated into chaparral, woodland, grassland and riparian plant communities.
In addition to enriching the Earth, this family is committed to reducing its carbon footprint. More often than not, they get around via pedal power or on foot.
Elisa bicycles nearly every day to Tassajara Veterinary Clinic, her practice in the Blackhawk area of east Danville — nine mile round-trip.
“It’s 20 minutes or longer to get there, but I’m getting 45 minutes of exercise,” she says. “Plus, it saves a lot on car wear and tear.”
(Not to mention the fact that she's reducing the number of cars on the road, the use of fossil fuel and air pollution.)
Doug rides his motorcycle or carpools to BART, and brings along his folding bike, which he then rides to his lab tech job at EBMUD (East Bay Municipal Utility District) in Oakland.
A few years ago, he and a couple of co-workers started a bicycling movement within the company, and formed a team that participates in Bike to Work Week (May 16 to 20). They call themselves the East Bay Mudders and track their cycling miles to and from work, competing with other Bay Area businesses during the month of May.
As part of the settlement for the San Ramon Civic Center, Doug convinced the city and the developer to include an Iron Horse Trail bicycle overcrossing on Bollinger Canyon Road.
Doug and Elisa’s children have walked or biked to school since kindergarten. For vacations, the whole family has bicycled across Ireland, England and Cornwall.
Not only have Cam and Margie learned from an early age how to get around town by bike or on foot, grow their own food, reuse and recycle, and care for a variety of animals, they also have been 4-H members.
The nation’s largest youth development organization, with more than 6 million youth and adults working together for positive change, 4-H enables young people to become leaders through hands-on learning, research-based programs and adult mentorship — in order to give back to their communities.
Elisa has been a 4-H leader in veterinary science for 20 years.
“I like the fact that the kids learn by doing, and that the younger ones learn leadership by watching the older ones run meetings and set up events,” Elisa says. “I like that you can turn any subject that interests you into a project for 4-H credit. Because of that, kids learn to live their adult lives that way; they learn to look at challenges as opportunities.”
When she was in 4-H in high school, Elisa found a dead barn owl by the side of the road. She brought it home and taught herself how to do taxidermy on it, then gave it to a local environmental school.
“When I started as a 4-H leader for Tassajara (local chapter serving San Ramon, Danville, and Alamo), I led a taxidermy project," Elisa says. "We mounted animals and birds and gave them to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum.”
Doug started as a 4-H leader for Erosion Control and Water Conservation 12 years ago, and has been a bee project leader for the past nine years.
“I like how educational 4-H is,” he says. “It helps create independence.”
He likes to use outside support for his group, which he gets from the Mt. Diablo Beekeepers Association.
“Beekeeping is a little more individual than other projects,” he says. “It’s good for the kids to be able to listen to other speakers from time to time.”
So what’s next for the Graver-Dowds?
“We’d like to replace our driveway with something more permeable, like interlocking paving stones,” says Doug.
Elisa mentions she’d like to take out their old indoor carpeting and install sustainably harvested bamboo flooring.
Eventually, they’d like to purchase a plug-in hybrid electrical vehicle (PHEV).
Ultimately, Doug says: “I want to be part of making the world a better place.”
Graver-Dowd family, you already are.