In front of the ornate, Victorian-era Conservatory of Flowers at the eastern end of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Tim is poking the end of a long, black hose into a hole in the grass. He’s after a lone gopher, given away by two tell-tale mounds of earth in this green expanse of carefully manicured lawn. If he can catch the first intruders, before they start to multiply, he can save himself many hours of work. Luckily, this time the invasion is occurring in a flat area, for it’s much more difficult to flush out tunnels on a hillside. After a minute, he removes the hose from the hole, and pokes it down in the middle of another small pile of dirt about three feet away. Within seconds, a small animal pops up out of the first hole, and instantly Tim grabs it with a set of long pinchers he has ready in his other hand, calling upon reflexes honed by years of practice. He drops the squirming, dripping ball of fur neatly into a waiting bucket. Later he will release it in the wilder western reaches of the park, where burrowing rodents have freer rein. At least that’s what he tells passers-by, if they inquire. The truth is, gardening is a ruthless business, especially in a large, public garden like this, and Tim has neither the time nor the inclination to romanticize it.
Meanwhile, at the WPA-era Angler’s Lodge, a group of would-be fly fishermen stand evenly spaced on the levees surrounding a series of large rectangular casting pools, their arms moving up and down like automatons, sending their fishing lines snaking rhythmically through the air. Concentric ripples in the water break up the reflections of the giant, jagged Monterey Cypresses surrounding the ponds. Volunteer instructors move from one beginner to the next, guiding arm movements and imparting words of encouragement. They are members of the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club, who apparently live to fish and willingly share their prize-winning technique, free of charge, to anyone who shows up at the Angler’s Lodge on the second Saturday of each month. Dan, the lead instructor this morning, has won numerous trophies at national casting tournaments, many held right here in Golden Gate Park. More than fifty people have turned out on this damp, chilly morning. Men outnumber women about two to one; ages range from eighteen to eighty. At the end of the morning, elated after three hours of zen-like absorption, participants return their rods to the tall, thin, pine-paneled lockers that line the tackle room of the Angler’s Lodge, and gather on the stone terrace overlooking the pools, for barbequed hot dogs, chili and fishing stories.
Nearby, but out of sight of the would-be fly fishermen, Randy is stuffing his sleeping bag into a sack. Having spent a damp night in a thicket of blackberries, reminded of his precarious situation every time he rolled over and encountered their viscous thorns, he prepares to move on. Staying more than a single night in one place risks detection by park patrols that keep campers like him under surveillance. But the park is full of dense, neglected thickets of invasive plant species, like these Himalayan Blackberries, unmanageable by the meager crew of gardeners responsible for these 1,017+ acres. Randy can draw a pretty accurate map of these out-of-the-way, overgrown parts of the park; he knows the territory well, as he often prefers to spend his nights alone in Nature, rather than in a doorway or a crowded shelter elsewhere in the city.
Great parks like Golden Gate Park offer Nature in the midst of major cities throughout the United States, and around the world, from Paris to New York, Mexico City to Auckland. These well-loved green spaces, most dating to the nineteenth century, are so ubiquitous that citizens of modern societies largely take them for granted and expect that they will always be there, unchanging and durable, offering beauty and tranquility as an antidote to hectic urban life. Yet, most people know little about the history of these places, who bears responsibility for them, what it takes to maintain them today. Although beautiful and beloved, these great public gardens are not as sacrosanct as we may think; they are actually subject to relentless social, political, economic and environmental pressures. Proposals for changes, additions and subtractions regularly come before the government agencies and public boards that oversee them. Each decision affects a park’s future. Conflicting interest groups vie for access. Maintenance budgets go up and down. Around the world large public parks, created in the late nineteenth century, have been reaching a certain age and many are entering a period of crisis. Trees are reaching the end of their normal life spans. Infrastructure needs up-dating. Weeds run rampant. Homelessness is an issue.
FROM THE THICKET will tell the story of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This park is one of the most impressive examples in the world of historic urban green space, located in a well-known and widely admired city and, yet, unlike Central Park in New York, little has been written about it. The blog will reveal the mysteries of this incredible place and touch on its colorful natural and cultural history, day-to-day operation, and what its future might look like. Like its sister public gardens throughout the country and around the world, Golden Gate Park is not the tranquil oasis it appears. It’s a locus of political and social controversy, a juggling act, a Rube Goldberg contraption. Contrary to what most people think, it’s not at all “natural,” but rather an elaborate and ingenious illusion that has required constant vigilance to maintain ever since it was created. An overworked staff strives to keep it from falling apart. Its serene public image belies the drama behind the scenes. This blog will be of interest to lovers of Golden Gate Park in particular, but also to anyone who is interested in green spaces in cities, how we create and maintain such places, and what is potentially at stake for these venerable public gardens.
Stay tuned for regular updates FROM THE THICKET!