The Presidio Brat

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Rambles with Native and Green

The "Rambles" column selects a Presidio neighborhood and takes you on an offbeat tour. This installation features the Public Health Service District.
Sometimes green just isn't that green. I think this as I wander through the Public Health Service District, which is trying to rebrand itself as the "Landmark." It's is the Presidio’s first totally “green” neighborhood, with 154 swank new apartments and a level of energy efficiency that wins LEED awards. Granted, this is a massive turn-around from what used to be the perfect horror-flick set piece: an imposing, derelict asylum with broken windows, graffiti, haunted corridors and even a mass grave in the back.
IMG_1697Yet the area around the old hospital is notable for its de-greening: old-growth trees were removed in an effort to establish a historic sand dune habitat. The restoration of the Lobos Creek watershed is a return to "native" species and has created a natural landscape whose color varies with the seasons and rain. The only truly green section of the landscape is the Landmark's grassy front lawn. It bursts with leafy color, but ironically its need for incessant watering, combined with California's current drought, makes it the absolute opposite of "green."
When Green Goes Native
grassThe army, it must be said, had its own love of green. It cherished grass, which it planted in squares, trimmed into straight lines, kept neat like a soldier’s head. But it also covered the Presidio with brambles, ivies, and Himalayan blackberries. Army planners were partial to ice plant and other aggressive ground covers that swept over hillsides like ankle battalions, destroying everything in their way. And they were especially fond of eucalyptus and Monterey cypress – big beautiful trees that provided what every good terrain should have: camouflage.
IMG_1711Champions of native wilderness are trying to undo the army's careful crafting of this land. They say that their native habitat - even the sand dunes - will sustain more plants and wildlife than all the greenery that was planted by the army. Native habitat does what nature should do - it takes care of itself. It doesn't require huge amounts of water and fertilizer. It grows, healthy and happy, and encourages more life, drawing animals and somehow benefiting humans. And precisely here is where the two ideas conflate: being "native" often means being "green." Both concepts, somehow, promise to save the planet and humanity.
There's just one problem: our definition of native is leaving something out.
Love Me, Love My Toxins
Before the Trust could enact their romantic vision of an abundant native landscape in this neighborhood, they had to deal with the unfortunate legacy of the Public Health Service – a dreadful piece of terrain called Landfill 8, a miasma of toxic waste and human remains located just behind the district’s apartment complex.
merchant marine plaqueIn the 1850s, San Francisco was home to a vast underclass of merchant mariners – men from all over the world who came here in search of fortune. These loners lived short, brutal lives, and found refuge – and mostly death – at the Public Health Service Hospital. Those who died without families - over six hundred of them -- were buried in graves behind the hospital.
toxic-300x240In the 1950s, the graves were allegedly moved and the site was covered with construction debris, but in 1989, the National Park Service discovered what every army brat knew through gossip: that the graves were still there, the bodies torn asunder and rotting in toxic debris, all those nameless loners mixed up with one another, their restless spirits haunting the hillside. Instead of excavating the whole mess, and giving those men their proper burials, the Trust decided to put a cap on it -- 25,000 cubic yards of sand – a neat dune beret with a hundred little flags marking the plant sites of native grasses and flowers. They also lavished it with a single insignia – a memorial plaque to the dead.
DSC04148In a 2010 San Francisco Chronicle article, one Trust employee described the site as a “layer cake of history.” And truly the Trust has transformed the surface of the landfill into a living, breathing ecosystem that thrives with tiny, rare dune flowers, a network of wild strawberries and pockets of the famed yerba buena, an aromatic, mint-like plant that was once so abundant that the colonial Spaniards named the city after it.
But beneath this thriving space, tamped down and sealed, lies the forgotten history of the place. This is a deeper and more honest definition of "native."
An Older Presidio Definition of Native
phsd historic photoFor over a hundred years, the Public Health Service District was where the government issued free health care to those in need. This included the elderly, the retired, navy boys from Fort Ord, and a vast array of native peoples from the Pacific Rim – including Eskimos and Hawaiians.
Umiak Seal Skin Boat and Chukchi Sea
In 1981 the hospital was closed, but in the early 80s it was still a research institute and one of its former cardiologists, Dr. Robert Sullivan, still lived on Wyman Avenue. He used to tell stories of his travels to Polynesia, Micronesia and Alaska, where he would visit native tribes on free health care missions. The Eskimos, he said, would hunt whale on kayaks all through the summer and can the whale meat for use in winter. On occasion they would find beached whales and can those too – but by winter, the meat and blubber could be rampant with botulism toxins. The infection rate there was the highest in the world.
inuit art2Sullivan spent the summer months visiting native tribes in the north, his main equipment a stethoscope and an old-fashioned understanding of disease. He’d arrange for the high-needs patients to travel from Anchorage to San Francisco, and he’d meet the non-emergency patients at the airport. Many of them were amazed, he said, by the Presidio and its lush green “tundra." They expressed their thanks with gifts -- rare, hand-made, tribal items which so impressed the doctors that they put them on display all around the post’s facilities. Inuit artwork, kayak oars, even a totem pole that graced the front of the Letterman hospital. No one knows what has become of those treasures today.
This other definition of “native” is not so charming. It means grappling with colonial fallout, suffering diseases of poverty, struggling to retain cultural traditions and fighting the government for control of resources that have been tainted by development. This, you might say, is the human side of “native,” and it comes with a history that seems to be overlooked on the Presidio today.
Pretty Little Landscapes
IMG_1706Nowadays, the word “native” lives comfortably on the romantic end of the spectrum. When Presidians say “native,” they mean pristine wilderness, whatever was here before the Europeans arrived. They do not mean native people. In fact, humanity has little part in that wilderness. Stay on the trail. Do not touch the plants.
But is it right to unhinge the word "native" from the Ohlone, an entire population that used to live here, or from the idea of people at all? How can plants be native, and people not? Why aren't we fighting to restore the land to the people who first lived here?
IMG_1398In her remarkable book, Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson argues that traditional ecological practices were entirely different from our romantic notions. People were an essential part of nature. Native Californians managed the land, interacted with it deeply and daily, helping it to remain healthy and balanced so that they could continue to depend on it for their survival.
Obviously, this kind of symbiosis does not exist on the Presidio anymore. Most people interact with nature as spectators: seeing it, photographing it, smelling it and walking through it. Unless you volunteer for habitat restoration, being here includes almost none of the actual management of the land that the Ohlone engaged in: collecting, planting, burning, pruning, harvesting.
IMG_0341The Presidio’s mission is to draw people in from the city and engage them with nature, but that does not happen in any “native” sense. Visitor behavior is monitored on all levels. You cannot sleep in the open, unless you're in a campground. You cannot build a fire. You cannot harvest rushes and grass for making baskets, let alone building a house. Signs warn you to stay off the Landmark's grass and the Lobos creek habitat. Regarding food, a rare few venture forth in true native style – individuals and secret societies of wild food harvesters who know where and when to find the tastiest treats. They gather the acorns from the oak trees on Lobos Creek, the delicious miner’s lettuce and blooming radish that crop up in every corner, the tart, juicy blackberries that sprout in their ever-more-marginalized corners. But these enthusiasts have to sneak beneath the radar and hope not to get caught. A few of the Trust’s Natural Resources employees have said that they don’t dare eat anything growing wild here, thanks to the toxins that may still be lurking in the soil.
IMG_0047Sadly, the human relationship with this nature remains less the engaged “native” of the stewardship ideal and more the bluntly realistic “native” of the army days: we have no control of resources, and anyway those are disappointingly tainted. The restoration of habitat is turning the natural world of the Presidio into a postcard image, an Instagram moment, something appreciated from a distance. The Presidio is, essentially, being gentrified -- for plants.
Restore The Human
I suppose you could argue that, in their own modern way, the Presidio Trust is managing this land in order to ensure their own survival. I think it's fantastic that they're finding ways to conserve energy. It's admirable that they're trying to manage the land. But wouldn't it be better if some of those restrictions on access were lifted? If we could interact with the land in a "native" sense ourselves, and honor the Ohlone as well as the flora? Wouldn't it be utterly revolutionary if we stuck to our supposed value of going native and actually gave this land back to its original inhabitants? Instead of spraying woodsy deodorizers to mimic nature inside the Landmark's reception hall, why not clean up its toxic backyard and let people off the path? You've got to start somewhere if you want to get past the romantic fuzz. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


blue acmonA note for nature-lovers: check out iNaturalist. This link will take you to a fantastic website where you can share your photos and observations of any wildlife or plants you find on the Presidio. You can also browse through hundreds of other people's observations - and perhaps identify that strange flower you've been wondering about, or that weird bush that's taking over your backyard. 
It also seems that one of the site's contributors, "js_young" is Jonathan Young, the Presidio's first-ever wildlife ecologist. He's a recent hire, and it's his job to get a better sense of the many animals who inhabit our park - and maybe help figure out if we've gone over our four coyote maximum. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Coyote Tale

Coyote, The Trickster, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New MexicoI have always felt that coyotes are a magical addition to the park. They are somehow proof that real nature is being nurtured here, and whenever I see one, I get a little thrill thinking that I’m living side-by-side with wildlife.
But of course wildlife is WILD -- and can be dangerous. It’s too early to identify a trend, but this recent report of coyote behavior makes me think we need to be much more careful around these animals.
coyote_on_golf_courseThis month, a couple was walking their dog near the golf course and they decided to wander onto the course. It was daylight. They were on the 7th hole when two coyotes came rushing out of the woods, charging their dog. The woman scooped the dog into her arms just in time – the coyotes were a mere three arms-length away. Their fangs were bared and one was hissing loudly.
coyote fangsYou’ve probably heard the advice to “make yourself larger” and “make a lot of noise” in an attempt to scare animals away, and the couple did that -- but the coyotes did not retreat. Instead, they began to circle the couple. The Trust pamphlet on coyotes says that these animals avoid human contact but that they will go after dogs. And perhaps they wanted the dog, who was still in her owner’s arms. But they went after the humans, following them for several long, frightening minutes, circling and moving closer despite the couple’s yelling. Even after the couple made their “escape,” the coyotes stood there watching them. It goes without saying that the couple was very shaken up.
This incident was reported to the Trust, and one of their responses was to send out their pamphlet to residents again. While it contains good advice,at least one piece of information should be taken with caution:
“Typically they are timid animals with a natural fear of humans.”
coyote pupsThe pamphlet also states that coyotes may be more “active” from January to May, which is their pupping season. I presume this is because feeding young pups puts more demands on their hunting skills. So while coyotes may generally be afraid of humans, some are not, and those “some” happen to live on the Presidio. Maybe we’re finally learning what the Ohlone already knew: that humans will always have complicated relationships with these trickster dogs.
So please be careful, especially when walking your pet.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Rambles with Jerry Newman

jerry photo
I was a bit surprised when my accountant, Jerry Newman, emailed at Christmastime to invite me and my husband on a personally-guided walk through the Presidio. I’d only been in his Geary Street office a few times, where I’d admired the photographs on his walls – brilliantly colored southwestern vistas, bleak and grungy portals into forgotten San Francisco, and a small but captivating view of Crissy Field.
“I took that with an iPhone 3,” he said modestly.
Jerry knew I was writing a novel set on the Presidio. He’s been walking these trails for decades. Hoping he’d share some history with me, I went along.
He led us on a two-hour ramble along the Crissy Field shoreline to the Letterman Center and back to the main post. Along the way I discovered that his knowledge of the place is just as informed by a supernatural photographer’s eye as by his army days here, and by the rich and marvelous and inexplicable love of place that can mature in the course of forty years.
Copyright Jerry Newman
His first stint here as an army lieutenant and programmer was in 1968, after the Summer of Love. One of the rare men who’d actually volunteered for a tour in Vietnam, he’d been influenced by novels to take control of his life. (“Never read Ayn Rand before a big decision,” he warns.) But the complex routines of the quartermaster corps -- where he was responsible for shipping barbed wire, bulldozers, food and clothing, all the materielle of wartime, to half a million soldiers around the world – soon gave way to a more subtle, singular determination to capture landscapes on film.
His father, an artist who’d spent his life studying the Europeans masters, managed to raise four kids only by becoming an artisan -- painting backdrops for Disney and doing gold leaf lettering for jewelry store windows. He was disgusted by his son’s choices. “What a rotten subject,” he said of Jerry’s first photos of the Presidio’s National Cemetery. Death was not a subject for high art.
But Jerry persisted. In 1970, he began his career in earnest, opening a small studio and dark room in Berkeley, where he taught himself to see things by studying other people’s work. A few years later he shut it down. He’d been living on three dollars a day and sleeping in the store’s back room. To save his sinking passion for photography, he realized, he would have to unhook it from financial concerns.
Copyright Jerry Newman
Since then, his work has become deeply personal, and driven by the kind of discipline that typically doesn’t last for four decades. “I used to go out every Saturday and shoot four rolls of photographs,” he says. “That’s 48 photos. Four rolls, no matter what. If you think about it, that’s two to three thousand pictures a year. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. At least 50,000 photographs. And I’ve come up with 500 that I think are publishable.”
His website reveals a passion for portraiture, but it’s an expansive love of western landscapes, and the Presidio in particular, that he comes back to again and again. The tiny, beloved photo in his office shows his favorite spot in the world: the copse of trees on Crissy Field beach, where benches face the water and the majestic bridge. It’s a place of contemplation, “where you’re as far away from everything as you can possibly be and not get wet.” When I press him to explain what he really loves about the place, he taps into the darker, greater impulse of the Golden Gate. Very quietly, he confesses, “It’s where I want to die.”
Taking Down Joan Baez
Copyright Jerry Newman
Native landscapes exist in our imagination as being somehow more organic, purer and healthier – maybe even more sacred -- than the landscapes that were constructed deliberately by the US Army. Jerry, my husband and I continue our walking tours, and over the next year, I begin to appreciate how these dueling ideals are shaping the modern Presidio.
Recently, coming down the Lyon Street stairs while following the Presidio’s eastern wall, my husband remarked: “This whole place is a little bit magical.”
“A little bit?” Jerry replied. “You haven’t done enough acid here.”
Along the neatness of the wall, the forest’s tangled undergrowth has obliterated a foot trail, making it impossible to walk beside the wall itself. Even the army’s neatly-planted eucalyptus soldiers now stretch and sway with arrhythmia. Joggers busy the stairs, swarming around us like birds darting for breadcrumbs.
DSC04078Getting closer to the Lombard gate, we begin discussing ways that people shape and control things, and Jerry brings us to 1969. That year, the Sixth US Army commander proposed setting an ambush for a group of protestors who were planning a peace march through the Presidio. The general decided he would let the head of the parade onto the post. Then they’d put up a blockade, locking out the bulk of the protestors. This would allow them to capture, beat up and incarcerate the lead protestor, Joan Baez. Surprisingly, it was the Presidio’s Provost Marshall who nixed the plan, reminding the general that beating the hell out of Joan Baez would be an abridgment of her civil rights. The protest went ahead.
How does a soldier in his neat uniform coexist within the psychedelic synchromysticism of San Francisco? We Presidio residents are the inheritors of this delicious conflict, only today we ask: how can the chaotic, free-roaming sprawl of nature coexist within structures that value linear restraint? Isn’t cutting down the eucalyptus a bit like planning to take down Joan Baez? We get rid of what we don’t like. We are still controlling every corner of our world.
Homo luminous
There’s a controlling, deliberate side to photography as well – the side that waits for days or weeks for the right moment, the right angle, the perfect light. The side that takes 40 years to produce a couple hundred good shots. Yet while he works, Jerry loses track of himself, entering a blissful, jhana state of no-mind. You reach a point, he says, where you don’t even need a camera. “I just need my eyes. Then I click – and shut off my mind.”
fogpresidio072705 008bwresized
Copyright Jerry Newman
He thought of the Presidio for many years as simply “a place you go to when you want to go to a place.” It was only in 2005 while driving along Kobbe one foggy afternoon, that he was inexplicably struck by the beauty of a stand of trees. For two months he took photographs there, returning to the site with an ever greater sense of intimacy, before arriving there one day to discover that all the trees had been torn down by a Trust eager to plant a native forest there.
So much of western landscape photography is designed to show us a romantic world of innate stillness and beauty, unbroken by toxic waste dumps, prisons, mining facilities, and gaudy, tourist-trashed scenes -- the battlefields of development. But landscape photography has a powerful mythos, one that has shaped our park system. Carleton Watkins’ photographs convinced Congress to create the first national park, Yosemite. Like those who practice habitat restoration, a photographer is busy shaping his world, busy creating a dream of what we haven’t lost, but may lose any day.
presidiotpforestBEST 057
Copyright Jerry Newman
“The Presidio,” says Jerry, “was always a dusty place full of marching people. Now it’s becoming a monument to the aesthetic of San Francisco.”
Jerry’s photos capture some of the mythos of the Presidio. Many of them are available for purchase on his website. Inspired by Jerry and by people like him who love this place, every once in a while I’ll take a historic and photographic walk through one of the Presidio’s many landscapes, where we’ll peek into overlooked bits of the history, habitat and happenings of the place.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Historic Christmas Dinner - Presidio Style

arguello and rezanov
Concepcion and Rezanov as depicted on the Presidio chapel (Interfaith Center)
Few know the tragic story of Baron Nikolai Rezanov, a Russian statesman who came to the Spanish Presidio in 1806. Hoping to set up a trade treaty with New Spain, he was welcomed to the Presidio by Don Luis Arguello, not the commandante after whom our lovely street is named, but his son.
Don Luis hosted Rezanov at the Arguello home - in what is now the defunct Officer's Club - which may explain why Rezanov fell madly in love with Arguello's daughter, Concepcion.
Николай Петрович Резанов
Tell me that's a hat
Born on the Presidio, military brat extraordinaire, Concepcion was 15 when she met Rezanov. Thank god her father was out of town - she and Rezanov spent all their time exploring the Presidio and planning a future together. Unfortunately, this was 1806, which meant that they couldn't get married -- he was Russian Orthodox, she was Catholic. In order to make such a cross-bred affair legit, Rezanov had to go back to Russia to ask the tsar's permission. While traveling home to do this, he fell off his horse and died. In Siberia. In winter. Concepcion didn't find out for another two years, at which point she swore off men forever and joined a nunnery. Which may explain how she went from this:
To this:
old concepcion
Another explanation could be her family's amazing cooking. In the heyday of their love, Concepcion and Rezanov would have shared the bounty of a lush California. The Arguello household could serve up the most festive boda in town, and an early California banquet of that caliber would have had to include an Aves Relleñas - a stuffed fowl drenched with red chile sauce.
I first discovered this recipe in the Presidio of San Francisco Cookbook, published in 1976 by the Presidio Officer's Wives Club. Their version of the recipe was taken from Early California Hospitality (1938) by Ana Packman. So if you feel like indulging in a bit of historic Presidio cookery, here is an updated recipe.
Aves Relleñas -- Adobadas y Asadas
(Stuffed Fowl Roasted and Drenched with Red Chile Sauce)
1 large brined turkey or goose or suckling pig
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
For the relleño (stuffing):
2 lbs. shoulder beef (neck) and giblets
1 quart boiling water
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 Tbsp. fat
4 green onions
1 ripe onion
1 Tbsp. vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. toasted breadcrumbs
2 eggs
1/2 cup pitted ripe black olives
1/4 cup raisins
Wash turkey. Rub salt and pepper inside and out. Cook beef and giblets in one quart boiling water. When giblet meat is tender, cool and chop into small pieces. Set broth aside.
Heat fat in skillet and fry minced onions until wilted. Add the chopped meat, vinegar,  black olives and raisins. Season with salt, pepper and sugar. Add in toasted breadcrumbs. Pour in one cup of the meat broth, a little at a time - this should be crumbly and not watery. Remove from heat and let cool. Stir in the eggs. Add salt to taste. Stuff dressing into fowl and bake the bird at 325 degrees.
For adobo (basting sauce):
6 dry red chiles
2 cloves garlic
1/4 tsp. crushed oregano
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. vinegar
1 cup boiling water
2 Tbsp. toasted breadcrumbs
Wipe chiles clean and remove seed veins and seeds. Cut into pieces and steam them over one cup boiling water for about half an hour. Rub chiles through sieve - or spin briefly in a food processor - adding in vinegar, salt, pepper, mashed garlic and oregano. Add the remainder of the meat stock. The result should be a rich, red puree.
When the skin of the bird is browned, begin basting with the the chile puree every 15 minutes until the bird is done.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Presidio Old and New

Before we moved here in the early 80s, my father wanted to see what kind of post we were being assigned to, so he drove up from Fort Irwin to do some recon. On that trip, he took a bunch of photos.  I thought it might be interesting to compare the Presidio from 1981 to the Presidio today:

Crissy Field 

Wow, right? The old army office buildings and the parking lot are gone, in favor of a grassy field. It's also a lot sunnier (on average, I think). Today, the beach looks and feels like a real beach. Interestingly, the trees are sparser in the modern shot....

The Coast Guard Station:

Again, the parking lot and office buildings are gone, but those palm trees are still there!

The Officer's Club:

Like a soldier, this building shaved its mustaches and beard for the modern look. Most of the trees are no longer growing in front. One tree still remains, but the area beneath it is sort of a no-man's-land of dirt and excavation. The old photo shows a greener scene, with grass on the side of the building. (Today, it's a sidewalk.) They've also taken down the street light and added a crosswalk.

It's also interesting what the Officer's Club looked like in the early 20th Century:

Washington Blvd:

Unlike a lot of the other photos, this one shows MORE trees in the modern shot - so much that you can hardly see the buildings anymore. And those shrubs by the roadside weren't there either. The buildings are no longer white, which makes them blend even more.

The Golf Course from Washington Blvd:

We couldn't quite get the same angle on this one.... However, it's remarkable how much greener and denser it was back in the 80s. The trees and shrubs have thinned out - some of them are just gone - and the fence is no longer overgrown with ivy.

General's Home on Funston

So many of the trees surrounding this house have been taken down (replaced by a parking restriction sign - how appropriate). The once-grassy yard is now some kind of ground cover. While I like that the home shows itself better now, I think the trees gave it homey-er feel.

Infantry Terrace

The first thing I notice here is how the modern windows are offset in a darker color, which makes them stand out more. And again, grass is gone in favor of a ground-cover of some kind. The trees and shrubs around the house have been scaled back or taken down. And I don't see a fire hydrant on the street anymore. :-)

And finally, Letterman

Just look at the old Letterman! (shiver of horror) Thank God for Lucasfilm. This landscape has changed so much that I had trouble figuring out where the old photo was taken. I'm still not sure. So in taking the new one, we just went looking for a palm tree.... I think these two speak for themselves.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Finding Balance: Indian history on the Presidio

At a recent Trust-sponsored discussion, someone pointed out that our language about the history of the Bay Area can be completely offensive to Indians. The speaker was talking about literature at the Anza Trail, but after considering his comments, I stumbled on a local example:

It is true that the Spaniards founded the original Presidio on that site, but it certainly overlooks the 5,000 years before that when Indians lived here, "founding" this place. You can't very well live somewhere for 5,000 years and not consider it "settled," can you?

And this wouldn't be true either:

I guess "building" excludes any tule huts or sweat lodges erected by the Ohlone. They would certainly qualify as the oldest ones in town. Like the original Commandante's Quarters, they are no longer standing. They have been built over by new structures. They were pretty minimalist to begin with. When you live so lightly on the land, you leave only the faintest traces of evidence behind. Good for reducing your carbon footprint, not so good for cultural preservation.

The Presidio as a distinct entity may have been created by Europeans, but Indians lived here, and it is well within the bounds of honesty and fairness - I would even argue, necessity - to focus on Ohlone culture anytime we discuss the general history of the place.