Kant says, Hardly anyone apart from the botanist knows what sort of a thing a flower is.
I agree with Kant, and add, Hardly anyone apart from a forester knows what sort of thing a tree is.
In order to write a book about the Presidio and what it means to live and walk in a forest designed and revised by people to afford an oasis packed with biological diversity, leveraged views, spectacular trails, I settled on the idea of working in an entirely different part of the city. A place where no trees dare to live. These places are easy to spot. Look for the sidewalk free of intricate shadows, where the sound of cars radiates and rattles through your brain. Look for the places where there are no birds, save pigeons and gulls.
Why go? Because living in the Presidio for six years has caused me to lose some of my view of the place, as though a sci-fi filmish mist has descended on the hills and while I squint and get glimpses, I can no longer make out the granular details. So much construction, so many trees torn down, the place has lost most of its peculiar, gothic charm. But gothic charm isn’t something that lasts forever, is it? What was once a place dominated by the historic forest, empty dunes, and dilapidated buildings, each whispering a specific story of people vanished, their little plans wrecked and torn asunder, and how time and life, as it were, goes on now, as it always has, is a place of remediation craters, shiny campsites, and cafes where children in matching tee-shirts sing Ten Little Monkeys. Porous, this severed earth, a vapor rises in the way it does on a subway platform. We turn up our collars, eyes closed, heads bent as we march along Crissy Field where the construction of a big, new road means piles drivers and the hum and whine of machinery drown out the egret, heron, pelican. It brings to mind lifting a band aid from a rash, the skin bleeds. Call it all a body, this Presidio. Call it a Body and not a Place.
To wish the Presidio to be something other than what it was six years ago, abandoned hospital decorated with graffiti in a rather artful and bleak statement, quail running wild around my back garden, the single fat skunk who came by the glass door each night at 11 pm, the family of red foxes cavorting amidst melon sunlight in tall weedy grounds of Fort Scott at day’s end. To wish it otherwise is a fantasy, a dream within a dream within a dream.
The skunk no longer trundles along — perhaps a late-night snack for the great-horned owls that patrol these dunes at night, foxes now keep a low profile, and the quail have vanished, the victims of domestic cats.
And yet I remain, with my human hands and little notebooks, to tell the story of our brief lives together here in what many these days call, Nature in the City. I don’t quite know what that means, nature in the city. As though there are concentric circles of existence or that the city is some sort of terrarium. Or is it nature that is the terrarium, in which case, it would be a terrarium within a terrarium within a terrarium, and on and on. What the Presidio ruins made me ponder was how we perch our little fires and edifices on these moving tectonic plates and how we lose ourselves in the hallways and rooms and colors of our own design. The fantasy in the fantasy in the fantasy.
Periodically we yearn for something we have not made and cannot wholly control. So we seek the woods. Some go rather far afield, places like Alaska and Montana and the Great Smoky Mountains. Some even die there, trying to camp in dried-out river beds or at the tree line in the bitter cold. Avalanches and flash floods take them out. But most don’t go to the margins of the true wild. Most of us lose ourselves in designed natural places, where trails and huts and signs and interpretive posters lead and guide us into the dream of a dream of a dream.
At any rate all of this is brilliantly clear to me when I sit in an old warehouse, amidst architects and bike designers. After I walked two miles in a thick fog this morning with my friend the artist Lynn Marie Kirby, I took a bus and a municipal light-rail train to the old canning factory where we artists and designers are holed up these days.
Yet as I set out this morning to patrol the northern, fog-soaked borders, nine people in white suits with huge hoods came marching towards me — on the path to my front door. The casual observer could construe this to mean toxicity spewed into the atmosphere from the recent Japanese power plant meltdown had been found in my home. One could imagine these white-robed people came to fetch samples of the things sampled when we fear contamination by radioactivity.
One could further speculate there is van waiting, a windowless van, waiting to take a person away from the dunes deemed Native Habitat by some government agency. This same group has deemed that Native Habitat can be tied to a clock set to some point in the year 1776. It is not hard to to picture a clock with enormous lighted, red hands, sitting in a basement in Washington, DC, tended by a man wearing a white lab coat. But we must put this clock out of our minds most days. Native Habitat in these dunes goes hand in hand with Native Americans. The year 1776 was the year Europeans came in force to this, or so I am told, and then began the slow, laborious redesign of all they saw. The Native Americans were among the first to vanish. For this act alone, I feel a blue-lavender grief, a pain that irradiates outward, a pain that takes the form of a whitish glass moth that does not look of this world, wings the pale green of glacial ice in one-eighth light, lined with a rough fringe of icicles. The clock for Native Habitat Restoration is set to the days before the Europeans arrived and the people in the white suits know about this clock and they have a list of all the interlopers, the new arrivals that squeeze out the fragile native plants.
Waving hello to the white suits, I see they are all college students and when I make a hilarious, dated comment about their post-nuclear apocalypse garments, one of them smiles in the manner one smiles at someone who makes dated, asinine comments, and says, it’s for the poison oak, dude.
Fantasy within a fantasy within a fantasy.
I ask the last one in line, because now I know they are recruits in the all-volunteer Park Stewardship Legion, a woman with vintage glasses that look like those worn by my grandmother and have an equally ugly effect: Do you think Europeans were called Europeans in 1776?
She turns her glinting, rhinestone-embellished cat’s eyes at me looks at me and sort of cocks her head. The rest of her squad have stomped off to my side yard, where invaders await a fast death — ripped by hand from the ground they need to survive. I can already hear the crackle of roots cracked out of their home soil. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Why?”