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.

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