Changing My Perspective: Save Mount Diablo and the Study of Oral History

Andrew Deakin is a sophomore at UC Berkeley majoring in political science. He enjoys backpacking, reading, and tending to his vegetable garden. He was an Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program intern with the Oral History Center in spring 2022, during which time he worked on a podcast for the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project.

Andrew
Andrew Deakin, OHC URAP intern

Last fall, combing through undergraduate research positions, a post caught my eye. The Oral History Center was looking for undergraduates to work on a podcast documenting the history of the conservation organization Save Mount Diablo. Finally! I was astounded that a research opportunity could indulge so many of my interests: journalism, history, podcasts, public policy, and, of course, my love for the outdoors. After reading the project description, I knew I would apply. Funnily enough, it wasn’t until I had my interview for the position that I learned exactly what oral history is. Since working on this project, I’ve developed an appreciation for a discipline that, frankly, I didn’t even know existed until recently. I found oral history to be an exciting, unadulterated way to engage with the past. Instead of reading from a dry, unappealing textbook, I learned to experience history through the recorded lives of individual people. Although one person’s perspective doesn’t always offer a complete historical picture, it’s invigorating to witness lived history through the personal experience, and sometimes life story, of another person.

         One interview in the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project that I made a deep personal connection with was with long-time supporter of Save Mount Diablo, John Kiefer. Like most of the interviews I reviewed, John’s began with his childhood. John was born in 1934 in Menlo Park. He was raised in a rural environment. For John, Menlo Park was “Pure, pure country. Try to grasp a vision of not very many homes, and most of the homes that were there were built in the late 1800s. There were some newer ones that had been built in the thirties and forties and fifties—that was new.” Maybe I have a romantic view of a rural childhood, but I couldn’t help but envy this aspect of John’s upbringing. I grew up in suburban Orange County, California. Try to grasp a vision of many identical homes, most built in the last 30 years, that are spread evenly like butter over what once must have been pristine Southern California chaparral.

Later in John’s interview, he put my experience into words. John said, “The average person, unique and marvelous, [isn’t] connected to nature.” John calls this modern experience of feeling disconnected with nature “Nature Deficit Disorder,” which he thinks “is a serious problem among our youth.” I’m thankful that as I grew up, I was a member of my local Boy Scout troop where I garnered my love for the outdoors. We often went camping in Caspers Regional Park, and I had the chance to spend time camping and backpacking in the Anza-Borrego Desert, Zion National Park in Utah, and Catalina Island. These experiences were especially transformative for me, and I fostered some of my strongest friendships while in the outdoors. John’s interview gave me a historical perspective to realize that the way I and many people of my generation are raised is novel, and perhaps not healthy either. John does amazing work combatting this issue, and I found his tenacity to get youth involved in the outdoors inspiring.

After a stint in the military, John decided he wanted to travel. For John, his decision was simple. He remarks, “I had a yearning to travel, and so I had gone to school with a few good friends from Central and South America, and I said, ‘Well, that’s the place for me.’” John’s retelling of his early adulthood was informative of my own experience. I, too, yearned to travel and, much like John, set my eyes on a foreign country somewhat arbitrarily and decided I would spend this summer there. I’ve been taking French courses and enrolled in the French Department’s summer abroad program in Paris. It was heartwarming to hear John recollect so aptly what the archetype of young adulthood is. John reminisces, “So what was that period of my life about? Well, it was, in fact, like the fable…where one leaves home with a bag of clothes…in search of the holy grail, which simply means…to start to experience who you are beyond your family.” John’s retelling of his young adulthood relieved some doubts I had about treating this period of my life so whimsically. John’s interview taught me it’s okay to take risks and to find myself while I’m still young. John’s existentialist philosophy really stuck with me, and I thank him and the process of oral history for leaving me with that. In the end, John applied his love of nature to his work with Save Mount Diablo. I hope that, given John’s experience, I will be able to apply my own love of the outdoors in my future work.

I’m honored to have partaken in the production of the Save Mount Diablo podcast for its fiftieth anniversary. It’s a historical practice I never considered, and I’m left with new tools to better understand history going forward. It was refreshing to do work on a tangible product, something that has real value and will be consumed by a wider audience. Learning about the lives of all the wonderful people who work for Save Mount Diablo gave me both a historical framework to understand the land conservation in the East Bay and the personal wisdom from these peoples’ life stories. This project informed me about the process of podcast production and storytelling, something I thought I might enjoy, but never had the chance to pursue. Although John’s interview impacted me the most, we did not use much of his material for the podcast. Deciding which quotes neatly weaved into the narrative we were telling taught me how to tell a compelling story and when to cut content when necessary. Now, as the semester is ending, I understand the processes, some difficult and some exhilarating, but all satisfying, to produce this kind of media. It has given me the experience to determine where I might go from here and if I have a future working in the media. I thank the Oral History Center and my URAP mentors, Shanna Farrell and Amanda Tewes, for this fulfilling and incredible opportunity, and I hope this research opportunity continues for future undergraduates to discover the joys of oral history.

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