The beauty and rich history of the Petaluma River is what David Yearsley fell in love with when he first moved to town in the mid-1990s. That love for the Petaluma River was something he dedicated his life to sharing with others.
David Yearsley grew up in Wisconsin, but spent some of his formative years in the Delaware River estuary near Odessa where his grandfather owned a farm with 200 to 300 acres of marsh. After serving four years in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War working on fuel pipelines and storage facilities, David moved to San Francisco in 1968 to attend college.
After moving to Petaluma in the mid-1990’s friend David Keller suggested to David that the Petaluma River needed a river keeper. He introduced David to the San Francisco Baykeeper, who appreciated his passion for the watershed and helped him set up the Petaluma Riverkeeper program in 1998. He served as Riverkeeper until 2005.
In conjunction with his Riverkeeper work, he was founding chairman of the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance from 2001 to 2003; which successfully promoted constructed wetlands as part of Petaluma’s new wastewater treatment and recycling facility.
In 2004 to 2005, he led Friends of Tolay’s successful grassroots campaign for the acquisition of Tolay Lake Regional Park, preserving a pristine 1,800-acre valley adjacent to the Petaluma River. He also served on the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce River Committee.
In 2006, David Yearsley founded the Friends of the Petaluma River to promote appreciation and stewardship and of the River and its tidal wetlands.
“He had this deep belief that everyone could connect to nature whatever their age or background or politics,” said wife Elizabeth Howland. “We can do that in a fun way and that’s why ‘celebrate’ is part of the Friends of the Petaluma River mantra. It’s about inspiring people to protect and conserve our natural resources. That’s the way he wanted to do it.”
In 2009, he launched an effort to convert an old livery stable that had been moved from First and D streets to McNear Peninsula to become the Petaluma River Heritage Center. He helped organize several events there, including a River Heritage Fair, Tom Sawyer Days and the Rivertown Revival.
In a 2009 interview with the Argus-Courier, he said he envisioned the center as a place for “visiting small boaters and motorized craft (to) have space for overnight camping and be able to have youth events here.” He added, “One of our primary goals is to create a place where children and people of all ages, can have free, unstructured time to explore nature.”
David Yearsley was captain for the Friends of the Petaluma River’s Eco-Cruises, a program that started in 2010 and gave interested local residents the opportunity to enjoy a narrated cruise on the river aboard a 27-foot triple pontoon barge. “He brought constant love and attention to our river and our community for many transformative years,” said local photographer Scott Hess, a friend who had taken many photos of David and the Petaluma River over the years.
Over the last several years, he fought a major expansion of the Redwood Landfill, north of Novato, surrounded on one side by San Antonio Creek and the other side by the Petaluma River. He called it an environmental disaster waiting to happen, saying it could collapse and leak pollution into San Antonio Creek, in turn contaminating the Petaluma River and San Francisco Bay.
When not on the river, David worked as a cabinet maker and furniture designer, and a general contractor. He did remodels of Victorians. Part of his early work was historical buildings in San Francisco and Marin. In 1983, he started his own business, DMY Woodcraft. Howland added that he had a good sense of humor, loved music, singing and dancing. In fact, the couple met at a cajun dance. “David was one of the truest people I’ve ever known,” said Howland. “He was true to himself, true to those he loved and true to his vision for the greater good for serving the community. He was a wonderful father and grandfather.”
I’m struck by the quality of the people David gathered around him in that circle of friends: talented, thoughtful, peaceful people who you just like to be around. And by the larger community he built around his love for the river and the Petaluma Marsh and his vision of how they should be better understood, used, valued and embraced as unique public trust assets.
Last, David was spiritual. I never discussed religion with him and I have no idea what particular faith or type of spiritualism he held, but there was something so calm and grounded in him that I know he must have spent a good deal of time reflecting, praying, or otherwise connecting with higher sources. I count myself blessed to have had several long boat rides on the marsh with him; lots of big blue sky conversations about water and rivers; and a few unforgettable group music sessions at the River Heritage Center where David on his dobro contributed the soulful classic “Deep Elem Blues.” I will truly miss David and am so glad to be part of his circle of friends.
~ Jared Huffman
David Yearsley was a wonderful friend, storyteller, musician, river guardian, craftsman, and community builder. He brought a deep spiritual and natural awareness to our landscape and our regional culture. David was an outdoorsman, a hunter, and a man of practical action- all infused with an artist’s sensibility. His deep wisdom allowed him to speak softly while reaching down below the surface into our fundamental connections with life on earth and with each other. His profound ecological vision helped him, and helped us, to re-connect the pieces of our fast paced lives and to settle into a rich appreciation of the Present we have all been given, right here on the muddy banks of the Petaluma River- “the greatest slough on Earth”.
~ Scott Hess, Photographer