Monday, July 27, 2020

Backyard Berries

It has been over four months since I started sheltering in place. To date, over 151,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States. Worldwide there are over 16.5 million confirmed cases and more than 654,000 individuals have perished. Now, at the end of July, the blackberry bramble has become my role model. 

There is a small yard behind my apartment building, but none of us tenants are legally allowed to use it. Most of the time no one goes down there at all. Left to the wiles and tenacity of nature, this little patch of sandy earth has been claimed by the blackberry bushes. And by claimed, I mean completely overgrown. Pokey, plucky, and persevering, in midsummer they are laden with delicious, dark fruit that is just waiting to be picked by anyone willing to flaunt the fine details of their lease agreement and endure a few scratches and minor impalements.

Berries are, no question, my favorite food. I love berries so much that I suspect, if reincarnation is really a thing, I may have been a bear in some previous life. Unable to resist free berries, and with dreams of tarts and scones dancing in my head, each day for the last few weeks I have been sneaking down to the backyard for 30 minutes or so of prime urban foraging. With maroon-stained hands I fill quart containers with ripe berries and, if the fog clears, absorb a little Vitamin D. When I can't get out for a proper walk or bike ride, these micro-outings are flotation devices in the vast sea of pandemic life.

Every few years the landlord hires a couple of workers to slash down and dig up the bramble, reducing the yard to seemingly-barren sand. Once, they forgot about the yard for many years in a row and a small miracle happened. A two-story-tall acacia tree grew back there. Who knows how it ended up taking root in this neglected plot? Perhaps it migrated across the street from Golden Gate Park via a windblown or randomly-dropped-by-a-bird seed. Maybe it flew in from further afield. Regardless, from virtually nothing this exquisite tree sprouted, and grew and grew until its branches embraced all the open space in the yard. Inches away from my studio window, its filigreed leaves waved to me each day.

An acacia tree I came across the other day while biking in the Presidio

Then one morning I got up early and went to aikido class, as was my habit at the time. Returning home a little after 8 AM, I heard a shrieking, screaming chainsaw and ran to my window. Workers had already cut down half the acacia tree. Minutes later it had been reduced to a pile of brush. Devastated, I sat on the floor and wept. I already missed my tree friend, and I couldn't stop seeing its fate as symbolic of the broken, exploitative relationship most of humankind has with the natural world. Later, I went down to the yard and picked up part of an old seedpod the tree had left behind. Although it longer contained any physical seeds, it was something to remember the tree by, to remember to do better.

I still have it.

In the years since, the acacia has not (yet) grown back, but the blackberries endure. They are unstoppable, a force to be reckoned with.

Like the graffiti I happen upon while biking lesser-travelled tracts of the Presidio (which gets whited-out periodically but always returns, re-imagined, bearing new colors, patterns, and messages), the blackberries simply refuse to give up, to stay wiped out.

June 3, 2020 - A message on my birthday: "Free Yourself. Eyes Wide. Seek Because."

July 22, 2020 - the next iteration begins to emerge

After living in this flat for 25+ years I’ve seen the bramble battle its way back from “eradication” every time. A year or two after each backyard cleanup, the free berries run rampant again, and tart, maroon goodies are back on the menu. 

So on dark days, when it feels like greed, corruption, and hatred are in the process of wiping out all that I hold dear, the blackberries give me hope. No matter what crazy, dystopian nightmares COVID-19 and messed-up human politics throw at me (lack of a coordinated national pandemic plan, idiots refusing to wear masks, unidentified federal agents teargassing moms and vets - there are so many scary examples to choose from!), my new mantra is to "be the blackberries." Some days this means just hanging in there, surviving and bearing witness to these crazy times. On better days I believe I might have something to contribute, that it's possible to help improve things for humanity and Earth as a whole. 

But on the best days the world still feels ripe with possibilities, like another acacia tree might grow in the backyard and, someday, I will sit underneath it naked-faced and side-by-side with friends and family, laughing and eating blackberry cobbler.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Ancient Oaks

It's now been 11.5 weeks since I started sheltering in place. As of midnight last night, San Francisco is requiring everyone to wear a mask when outside their home unless they can stay 30 feet or more away from people who are not in their household. Here, more businesses have been allowed to reopen for curbside pickup and I can tell people are moving around more, because the traffic noise has increased noticeably. 

More and more, the nation and California wobble back and forth on a tightrope, trying to strike an acceptable balance between loss of human life and maintaining civil society. This morning a murder of crows cawed outside my window as I read the news. Mass protests over the killing of George Floyd and the U.S.'s withdrawal from the World Health Organization - today in America it feels like we are falling, failing. It's tough to envision humans (Americans especially) working together and caring for each other enough to stop COVID-19, let alone address all the other major environmental and societal problems we face, problems we have brought upon ourselves. 

Today I've had enough of small-minded, small-hearted, stupid, greedy people. Instead, I'm looking to the oaks for inspiration. 

I live across the street from the northeast corner of Golden Gate Park and since the beginning of the pandemic I've become more and more smitten with the coast live oaks that grow there. At first, I simply admired Quercus agrifolia's fantastic, distinctive forms.

Cartwheeling calligraphies 

Muscular trunks - some elephantine, 

others octopodal.

curly tresses! 

Together the oaks form arches, gateways, and tree tunnels. As long as I ignore the sounds coming from outside the park, when I wander through these ornate architectures it's easy to imagine being in a much wilder locale. 

It's incredible this ancient forest is HERE, just steps away from busy Fulton and Stanyan Streets. It's also incredible that, even though I've lived in this neighborhood for over 20 years, I never noticed the old growth oaks before the pandemic. I was too busy packing my bags for adventures in far-away lands.

The lovely Phil Arnold Trail, which opened in 2019, meanders through the oak grove. 

On sunny days, dappled light confetti dances on the path!

There are other old oaks near the Lily Pond. This one, which (in my head) is named the Heart Tree, is full of mystery. Why is there a space in its center? Is it three trees that grew together or one tree branching out? It's so big, how old is it? 

Walking around to the other side, the oak's open heart becomes a window through which one sees...more trees, other trees, the interwoven fabric of the forest. If only we humans could grasp this interconnectedness of all things!

One day, while dodging joggers, and as an excuse to linger in the park a few minutes longer, I stopped and actually read the signs about these oak woodlands. This inspired further research (job well done, sign makers) and, wow, these trees have quite a fascinating history. 

The coast live oak is the only indigenous tree in San Francisco County that grew here before European colonization. Acorns from coast live oaks were an important food for Native Americans in the area. This particular grove predates Golden Gate Park and is hundreds of years old (Quercus agrifolia can live to be over 1000!). Though most of the rest of the park was originally sand dunes, here outcrops and ridges of chert created a protected environment in which oak trees thrived. When work on the park began in 1871 approximately 50 acres of wooded oak were left as "wilderness." In the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake the oaks were cut down and used as firewood by people living in encampments. However, the stumps re-sprouted, and some of the trees in the woodlands today are those sprouts all grown up. 

It has become clear that here in the United States the old "normal" is not coming back. Although some countries are on their way to becoming virus-free, Americans are likely to be living with COVID-19 for a long time, probably years. As thinkers and writers much more eloquent than I have pointed out, now is the time to consider what we want our lives and our societies to become when we sprout from the stumps of our old world. 

On those rare days when I have the luxury of free mental bandwidth, I try to contemplate this. What needs to go and what is worth keeping? Is it possible for humans to prosper and grow in ways that aren't cancerous? I think it is, but how do we get there from here? How do we become healthy again?

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Through Looking Glasses

Tomorrow will mark the end of my 8th week of sheltering-in-place, lockdown, safer-at-home, social distancing - whatever you prefer to call it. We've gone from "masks are bad for the general public" to mandatory masks here in San Francisco. Testing has increased locally and anyone living or working in San Francisco can now get tested for COVID-19. Overall the situation seems not too bad here and our death rate is low. Yesterday the city had the highest number of confirmed cases recorded on a single day thus far, but it's hard to know what that means, given increased testing plus the fact that the tests themselves are not even close to 100% reliable. It is clear, however, that there are significant racial and income disparities in who has tested positive in San Francisco, with Hispanics and Latinos making up a disproportionately large percentage of our cases.

As of today, the United States has 1.2 million COVID-19 cases and close to 73,000 deaths, an insufficient testing capacity, no clear overall strategy for dealing with the pandemic, and wing-nuts refusing to wear masks and bringing guns to anti-shutdown demonstrations. And yet, unfathomably, many states have already begun to re-open. Meanwhile, New Zealand has "effectively eliminated" the virus, and things are looking good in a few other places, like Hong Kong and Australia. If only the U.S. had leadership that was sane and actually cared about it's citizens! I have never been so ashamed of my country. It is scary to live here now.

In California, Governor Newsom wants to start gradually re-opening businesses on Friday (bookstores, music stores, toy stores, florists, sporting goods retailers, etc. for pickup only, plus retail supply chain manufacturing and logistics). A couple of sparsely-populated northern counties have already partially re-opened. Two days ago the SF Bay Area started allowing a few businesses to open including landscaping, construction, and golf. I am sad, disappointed, and a bit angry that the Presidio Golf Course is now closed to us common folk. I miss it already. That big, open green expanse was more valuable to families with children and apartment-dwellers with no yards, than is it to a few golf aficionados. Green space for the people!

OK, enough status-report, on to today's featured happiness-nurturing highlights...

Walking the neighborhood in a mask on a cloudy day can be a bit gloomy, so it's good to be reminded that we are "cool" and "grate." Thanks for that little artists! Now I am dreaming big that someday we will get through this alive and relatively sane.

I ran into Penguin's second cousin parked on my block. He's kinda shy and likes to keep things more casual, but still loves hats.

The Window Bears, oh, the Window Bears...They are supposed to be fun for kids I guess, but I have very mixed feelings about them. Sometimes the bears make me smile, but other times they seem trapped - so trapped! - and I have an overwhelming desire to smash all those windows and set them free. This guy looks dismayed and melancholy. I want to give him a hug.

High in their turret the Rapunzel Bears are more jolly. Maybe it's the bright colors, or that they seem to be in the process of building a cheerleading pyramid. Go team San Francisco!

The Wisteria Bears have some kind of Narnia portal thing going on. They are simultaneously safe indoors AND hanging out in the sky. Nice. Can I borrow your magic wardrobe? PLEASE.

In this house, bears, pigs, and seals(?) of all persuasions sing karaoke love songs together. Wonderfully inter-species! I dig it. Very West-Coast.

One day on my way home from an excursion I encountered Sad Defeated Bear slumped on the sidewalk around the corner from my apartment. He was in a spot where I have seen homeless people slumped/camped in the past. I wanted to hug him too (so much!), but these days we can't touch anything outside that other people might have handled. Argh!

On a happier note, about a month later I saw this window bear, and I've decided he must be (no longer) Sad Defeated Bear - rescued, adopted, and now properly housed, just like our homeless people should be! I need some stories with happy endings right now, so I am writing my own. If our government refuses to lead us to good outcomes we are going to have to make them ourselves.

Speaking of happy endings, I've been savoring being able to watch the sun set through my studio window. In the before-times (I can't believe I am saying this, and not as a joke. Now we are all living in a dystopian/apolcalypse-in-progress world. It's still hard to accept that we are not leaving the movie theater any time soon, possibly for years to come.), yes, in the before-times I was rarely home for sunset viewings. I was out and about teaching piano in people's homes, sounding checking for a gig, or on some far-flung wilderness adventure. Now I have sunset windows instead, a consolation prize I guess.

My window-with-a-view faces northwest, and for most of the year no direct sunlight beams through it. Very recently the sun began setting far enough north that my studio and I receive a few minutes of direct light just before the sun journeys below the horizon. A confirmation of my continued survival, evoking fantasies of fast-forwarding to the end (of the pandemic), dusk has become a bright spot in my day. 





Sunday, April 12, 2020

Green Space

My studio window looks out across my neighbors' backyards. There is a plum tree, a redwood tree, a lemon tree, and several scrubby trees I don't know the names of. Further afield, an arc of forest rises from the Presidio. If I stand on a chair, so I can peak above the plum branches, a small corner of the Pacific Ocean and the Point Bonita Lighthouse in Marin Headlands become visible. On very clear days, still standing on my chair, I can see all the way out to Point Reyes. The lease on my apartment does not include use of my building's backyard (it's just overgrown with weeds - what a waste!), so this view is all I have for private green space. On days when I don't leave the house, my window is a sanctuary, a life jacket. 

Over the past few weeks simply going out for a walk has become increasingly stressful. I've largely given up on Golden Gate Park unless it's a weekday at a very weird, unpopular time. Too many people! What strange practices I find myself cultivating: trying to augur when other people will not be in a place, calculating speed and trajectories to maximize "- humans". Though most folks seem to be making a sincere effort to social-distance responsibly, there's always some oblivious jogger or cyclist who comes out of nowhere and nearly runs you over, or small children or off-leash dogs whose movements can't be anticipated. In the face of uncertainty and real (but sneaky) danger, I just want some control. I want the choices that are left to me to be predictable so I can manage my risks. I don't like viewing the world this way, and it's exhausting to stay on high-alert every time I leave my house, but that's where I'm at.

And that's why when I wandered up to the Presidio Golf Course the other day I suddenly felt so light. Here was an open expanse of GREEN, GREEN, GREEN with almost no one in it! At first I thought I must be mistaken, that there was no way we were allowed to wander freely here. Then I noticed a few people inside, and found a sign saying the course was closed to golfing, but available for other appropriately-spaced, non-destructive uses. Open Space Jackpot!

This was, in fact, my very first time walking through the Presidio Golf Course, even though I've lived in San Francisco since 1992. I have never understood golf as a sport (it just doesn't seem that athletic!), and so often golf courses waste water and land that I would rather see used in other ways (or not "used" at all). Furthermore, most golfers are not my kind of people. I like my land, and my friends, less manicured and more unruly. In the past I never had any reason to go to the golf course. Indeed, it was a place I actively avoided. 

Now, however, starved as I was for green space, I suddenly experienced the golf course as something else entirely: liberty. As long as I stayed off the paved paths it was easy to remain far, far away from other humans. I often had an entire fairway to myself, and no one but me seemed inclined to wander through the long, course grass of the roughs, which I liked precisely for their roughness, their (relative) wildness. It's funny how so often we limit ourselves to established paths, even when we don't have to. 

Friday morning I finished reading Richard Powers' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory - an incredible book about trees, relationships between humans and the natural world, and so much more. After spending a lot of intense time with trees in the book, I felt like I should go visit some in person.  So I went back to the Presidio to listen to/watch them dance in the day's strong winds. 

I ended up in the middle of a stand of eucalypts, fully aware that this was not the smartest place to hang out on a windy day (eucalyptus trees tend to drop branches frequently, and I've heard them referred to as widow-makers). Leaves wooshed, swirling above my head, and the swaying tree trunks creaked and moaned. Morbidly, I considered that I would rather be killed by a falling tree branch than suffocated by COVID-19-induced pneumonia. But really, I'm not ready to die at all. There's too much that I still want to do, and I'm curious to see what comes next. 

One of my favorite passages in The Overstory is an instruction/revelation:
"Never capitulate, but divide, multiply, transform, conjoin, do, and endure as you have all the long day of life.  
There are seeds that need fire. Seeds that need freezing. Seeds that need to be swallowed, etched in digestive acid, expelled as waste. Seeds that must be smashed open before they'll germinate." (Powers, 2018, p. 500)
I am hopeful that out of all this pandemic-fomented chaos and loss will come growth, that humans will choose to redefine our values and reorganize our systems, that we can become something better.