I pause as I write this. As a child I attended a brick, one-storey school with yellow and black fall-out shelter signs prominently displayed; we skipped by these signs en route to Mrs. Whetzel’s class where we learned about a brand-new, world-wide celebration that was going to change everything: Earth Day. I now find myself writing about a forest and its environs tucked into the northernmost side of San Francisco, the place where many believe an international Earth Day was first seriously floated at a 1969 United Nations Meeting, and a city that embraced with gusto the first Earth Day on April 22, 1972. San Francisco is named for Saint Francis of Assisi, a man who championed ideas of parity among species, among other things. His reward for being an open-minded and fierce radical? The authorities made him the patron saint of nature. So. What remains of Earth Day in this new century? We no longer see people flying Ron Cobb’s Ecology Flag, with its bright green, horizontally bisected circle representing the overlaying of the letters “E” for “Earth” and “O” for Organism — a mash-up that winds up looking exactly like the Greek letter theta. The last time I saw one of those it existed as a tattered, faded bumper sticker on an old Volvo wagon in the parking lot of Rainbow Grocery.
In order to write about the 1,491 acres called Presidio I need to be in the shabby industrial corner of San Francisco called Dogpatch. I haven’t researched how this part of town got its name and I don’t want to start. Because research about place is a sticky subject — no sooner do you decide you fancy a little information about a name like Dogpatch, but you find yourself no longer working on your book about the Presidio. Instead, you find yourself clicking on the tiny icon of an orange fox swirling around a blue Earth. (Earth Day flag for the 21st century?) Then you find that Dogpatch, Arkansas, is the first hit, but that the second hit is, yes, Dogpatch, San Francisco. Then you click on the link: Why not, you’ve come this far. Why turn back? It is heartening to know I write in a place where the words, worker, populist, quaint, quirky are used to describe it. In an 1862 photograph by Eadward Muybridge, it is impossible to recognize Dogpatch. The docks had not been built out and the bay had not been filled in. I see in the photo there is no self-storage unit complex lining a main boulevard nor food truck called Mama Cass selling Vietnamese sliders as there are today.
It is a neighborhood of mixed industrial and residential use, a neighborhood that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, a place of a mere nine blocks, a place where Bethlehem Steel was once one of the big employers. It is also a place where they have community ambassadors. These ambassadors ride the Muni lightrail and stand on the corners. They cheerily say hello and hand out brochures. If you stop and talk to them, they will tell you about how they want to make people feel safe, because there have been a few beatings on the Muni lightrail. They seem eager to tell you about these assaults, as though hearing who got it and who gave it out and how we’re not going to take it anymore. But knowing the dangers of riding Muni makes the act of coming here to write less of a slog and more of an adventure. Each day, the writer takes on a dangerous world in order to report on life in the forest.
From my studio window I can see a huge mountain of the California state rock, serpentine. To look out, I have to lean over a colleague who is designing bike parts and sending out plans to factories in Taiwan. I also have to shove aside Leonard, who is some sort of fabricator for the architects who reside across the studio. All I know about Leonard is that he is there all the time and he is always building things that look like mid-century lamps. His bosses are two architects who make large installations bound for museums — installations reflecting speculative thinking about how the built world will change in tandem with changing nature systems. When I cannot write, I sit there and stare at their models. One is a seven-foot rectangular solid skyscraper with a mid section held open by stilts. The ground of this open floor undulates like white lava.Tucked into the white waves are tiny acid-green translucent plastic people. Some are buried up to their armpits in the waves. I ask why they are like this and Leonard says: They are in a hot tub. He says this without laughing and it makes me look again. But I think Leonard is having me on. So I nod and move on.
Back at my desk, I am tucked into a wall of white modules aglow with pale blue lights. The lights move in response to a wave algorithm, human motion in their proximity. Imagine a wall of nodding, wholly abstracted Georgia O’Keefe origami cow skulls, white paper heads, nodding at me as I type this. This wonderful thing, these nodding heads, is a prototype of a wall proposed for a museum. I find it to be both clever and staring at it is a terrific way to waste time but not feel like one is wasting any time at all. The same feeling unique to art galleries and museums around the world, the sense that somehow or other the work of largely male, dead people, somehow enriches our experience of being human right now. The sad news today is that this wonder had been entered in a competition at an actual museum, to be a permanent fixture, and we’ve just learned it has been rejected. Quelle drag, as they say. I think I am both sad for the architects but happy for me. Maybe we can keep the nodding heads. All to ourselves.
The studio is in an old tin-can factory and this is my second tenancy. There was a time when these rooms were filled with kerosene lamps and smoke clung to the walls — at least in my imagination. These days, it is a place where architects and model makers and interactive toy designers and letterpress printmakers and chocolate makers gather and expertly and earnestly make their mark. This mark-making piece of the old cannery is not lost on those of us who on a daily basis question the writer’s life and wonder if it is not too late to make a career change. During the first stint, a few years ago, I shared it with a man who built biomimetic walls and lamps, a man who designed snappy, hip lunch kits for Japanese companies to counter plastic bag waste and the bike-parts designer — all of whom are white, have ginger or blond hair, unusual eyeglasses, and remarkably similar features. It took me about three months to say hello to one of them with complete certainty I knew which one I was talking to. When one of them told a joke, they all laughed in a rather similar way. They were were both affable and tough. I thought of them as a unit and in my head called them the Triplets. The Triplets were full of information, largely about the design thinking behind objects I had never really thought about — teapots, thermal mugs, car bumpers, bicycle lights, camp chairs. The Triplets were Scanners and Decoders, panning the world for ideas they adapted into their work. The Real World for them was filled with gorgeous design ready to be adapted for dazzling and ridiculous human endeavor. And the Triplets were highly productive. One of them made a lamp over several months using biomimetic techniques. He sold it for ten thousand dollars. When he told the other triplets and me about how much that lamp sold for, they all laughed their common laugh. I sat there for the rest of the afternoon wondering if I could make a lamp, too. It didn’t look that tough to do, in all honesty. It just looked tedious, suggesting one needed a great deal of patience in order to get it done.
All this having something to show for yourself made my head spin. But the gift the Triplets gave me was a reference point for my own work. I thought about how over the years I had evolved into a shy person who needed and wanted to write down a world of truths. It was as though my voice was located in my hands and feet. Feet to carry me on my sauntering across the continents, hands to write it all down. It was as though my whole body had been designed as a Recording Device, a Scanner, a Digital Eye.
One day as the sisal-haired Triplets (they had all taken to wearing sarsaparilla-colored, plaid shirts) laughed and glided like ships among their latest projects — the walls alive with pinned up, fresh sketches of what they were making, one had a big installation go up at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — I sat at my desk pretending to write. But I was actually secretly reading a story in The New York Times about a singer who had made quite a stir in Europe with her haunting, thrilling voice. I got up and walked into the studio kitchen (I was dressed in my usual grey — as though anticipating a squall, or mimicking the endless grey of a San Francisco winter), and boiled water for tea.
The story explained how, after a horrific car accident (she was hit by a Jeep Cherokee) she had a long, casted recovery. During this time, she learned to play guitar and write songs. During this time, as the story went, she emerged with an awareness of the fragility of life and a greatly heightened sense of what matters. I held a hot teacup (poorly designed, I noted with my freshly honed ability to judge objects) and gazed outside, across the serpentine rock, a creepy bluish protrusion against a pale grey sky, the slowly decaying, empty industrial buildings adding to the dystopic mood. I could imagine how it had been here, before the bay was filled in and the hills flattened, in the days when mollusks were roasted over clay stone embers, fresh squid drying on a line, people hammering wood into dwellings, dreaming of a road and street lights, and I almost laughed at their idiocy, with their tin-lined drawers filled with flour and their heads filled with memories of voyages on wooden ships to get here, trips past rocky end points of land seen from the other side, seen from the perspective of waves and prayers for staying on course and an absence of splintered hulls. The serpentine rock, waxy and content, had been dynamited accidentally by the city at one point, as the story went. They quickly realized their mistake: Serpentine is asbestos and blowing it up creates a fine dust that is toxic to people and many other living things. So the serpentine sat there, untouched and unslayable; I considered to all the other things that were touchable and slayable— ice, people, air, blue sky, penguins.
As I folded away the newspaper with the article on the singer, one paragraph again caught my eye. The singer’s producer said most of the singers he worked with had survived illnesses or other challenges as children or young adults and were also extraordinarily shy. Most of the time he said, they express a feeling of being equally two people — outgoing and outward-looking as they were on stage and private, and entirely to themselves when not. Most places, I considered, express a feeling of containing a multitude. In Dogpatch and in the long, cast shadows of abandoned ship works foretold, in the cinders ground deep into the soil, in the puddles sloshed through by the tall, striking woman dressed in black skirt and black rubber boots, in how mud cakes the tires of trucks grunting up the hill, through the puddle, in how the water in the puddle can no longer be savored, in how it is something to be gotten through, not to drink or slip into for a respite. There is nothing in the woods to reflect our image — until we reach the creek or pond, as the woodsman always does in a Disney movie, where he lays down his quiver and cups a hand (well-designed for this, I might add) pulling water to his mouth. We all relate to this gesture, thirst slaked, even if we are not woodsmen ourselves. Then in the still water, we see the woodsman as he sees himself, and this is always a revelation — for him and for us.
According to Kant, color is an irrelevancy, is adventitious, beauty rooted wholly in form, smell also irrelevant, apparently. How to walk into the Presidio and see. How to walk.
How to walk
H o w
T o w
A l k
A code, something sent in lines of dots and dashes.
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In how to elide my desire.
If I were not writing a book about the Presidio in Dogpatch, San Francisco, in a former canning factory now a weirdly concentrated idea incubator, I would live along the shores of Lake Superior and write and work on experiments in electricity. I would study Edison carefully and try to recreate his work. I would not do the experiment, however, where a living elephant is electrocuted with sixty thousands volts of juice. (The rationale then was that she was wild and would not obey and thus she was condemned.) There on the shore of Lake Superior I would place a penny on my tongue and a silver coin underneath it. Then I could taste the electricity and record the flavor. On the shores of the lake, lightning hits sand and leaves fulgurite behind, rods of glass, jagged and capturing the look and feel of lightning. I would write about how these are called amorphous rocks, from the Greek meaning shapeless. I would like for amorphous to be something other than shapeless, because the act of turning sand into a jagged rock in a flash of lightning is so much more and it is certainly a shape. It is not shape the rock lacks it is language we lack for describing it.
The sublime is a failure of the mind, Kant said, to understand what seems formless and boundless.
And so we walk.
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