The Presidio Brat

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


If you've driven down Lincoln Blvd. toward Baker Beach in the past few weeks, you will have noticed the massive tree removal going on. I admit that I was disturbed to see the destruction -- it had a bit of the "Rip them all down!" feel to it. It's horrible to see trees being killed. It's almost as bad as putting your dog down. Only with trees, you get the horrible wood-chopping, grinding, crackling and crashing sounds. It's like they're screaming. The landscape afterwards feels bare naked.

What used to look like this

Now looks like this:

However, at a National Park Service open house in Pacifica this week, representatives talked excitedly about the changes. They explained that most of the trees - cypress and pine - were diseased, and that the NPS has decided to restore this cliffside landscape, known as "serpentine bluffs", by removing the big trees that were choking out hundreds of other species that naturally grow there. So no, this is not Isengard's wheels of industry taking down the habitat, this is an attempt to restore a habitat.

Wait a minute, THIS sparse, rocky, coastal landscape has HUNDREDS of species? Why yes. The Council of Elrond was a little surprised to find a few native plants still growing there - albeit stunted. They will be planting native trees in some places, and in others, they're just going to let the seed beds do their natural thing. Kind of like a secret Santa. With elves.

When I asked the NPS folks if they had taken down the trees to create a better view for their new Coastal Trail, they said no. Tree removal was merely part of the Vegetation Management Plan to remove invasive species and restore the natives in certain areas. I can't help feeling, though, that it is mightily convenient that their new overlook trail will now actually have a stunning view that was previously blocked by trees.

My friend Carol used to call this stretch of road Hitchcock Alley. Its winding, cliff-hanging turns were scary with the trees, but now that they're gone, it's vertiginous. (What's funny is that we actually found a Hitchcock Street at the top of the hill there. Some old army planner had a sense of humor?)

If you're interested in volunteering to help restore this area, click here. It's a pretty challenging place to work. (In fact, one NPS rep called it "Getting Buff at the Bluffs".)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Reminder: AIFI is back with more!

If you're into Indie films, then don't miss the American Indian Film Institute's annual film festival , which is starting this week. They've got a fantastic line-up, and if last year is anything to go by, this year's films will be just as diverse and informative and plain old entertaining. They have a whole week of movies, and some of them look especially interesting:

Yellow Rock, a gritty Western set in 1880s California about a group of six cowboys who struggle with the elements, their greed and the curse of the "Black Paw Territory."

Yellow Rock Trailer from Nick Vallelonga on Vimeo.

On the Ice, which featured at Sundance and won awards in Berlin. After a terrible accident, two boys struggle to keep a dark secret that tests the limits of their friendship in this suspenseful thriller.

Holy Man: the USA vs. Douglas White. This 88-year-old Sioux medicine man spent 17 years in prison for a crime some say that he didn't commit. The documentary uncovers new evidence that brings the case back to Federal Court.

I love going to the shows because they often have multiple short films before a feature, and some of the shorter one are the real stars of the week. Shows are at the Landmark Embarcadero Center and the Palace of Fine Arts, and tickets are very reasonably priced. Hope to see some of you there!

Avatar, germs and 1491

My lover and I came down with a ridiculous bronchitis last month. It wiped us out for weeks. He stopped training for his triathalon and I took a leave of absence, which as a writer means telling everyone that you’re “thinking.” (All I can say is that if I were my boss, I’d fire me.) We were kind of puzzled. No one else got sick. It was much worse than the seasonal flu. My love is from Denmark, so we started to suspect that he’d brought something from the home country.

This week he went back to Denmark. He called me this morning to report that “half the population of Denmark” has this strange bronchitis, so now it seems probable that he brought it with him. There’s a certain satisfaction in figuring out where something comes from, even as it’s killing you. I can’t say I’ve ever blamed anyone for spreading germs when they have no idea that they’re doing it, but sheesh, man, why is it always Europeans wiping out the New World?

Which reminds me of the book. In an earlier post, which I now find embarrassing, and pure knee-jerk reactionism on my part, I reported that 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus looked like it was going to be more revisionist history in the SFUSD/politically-correct style, but it turns out I was totally wrong. The book is an incredibly thoughtful look at what the New World was like before Europeans arrived, and how a lot of our best and worst ideas about our own history are surprisingly wrong.

I don’t mean “all you self-righteous PC people are going to get screwed” or “all you bigots are going to get your come-uppance.” Mann doesn’t have a political agenda, which is part of what’s so refreshing about it.

Mann points out that today, we tend to think of Indians as having “inherent simplicity and innocence” and that we think this largely because of their supposed “lack of impact on the environment.” In other words, because they were nature-loving blue giants whose world was threatened by greedy corporate interests. But in fact, he shows how the Indians massively changed their environments all up and down the Americas. Their world was “a stunningly diverse place” filled with millions of people and thousands of different languages and cultures, plenty of whom were engaged in projects to engineer their environments on scales we don’t imagine today. Most of those civilizations vanished after Columbus. The European perception that the land was “empty of mankind and its works” was the largely the result of successive waves of disease wiping out whole communities -- as well as subjugation.

If Avatar were being historically accurate, then 90 percent of the Na’vi would die off within the first generation of RDA Corp’s arrival. They’d find massive cities on Pandora bigger than those on Earth. And Sully would contract a bad case of syphilis for sleeping with Neytiri.

Anyway, drawing on all kinds of new scholarship and science, 1491 gives a surprising look at the Western Hemisphere before Columbus arrived, which is pretty much “the biggest blank in history.” And Mann does this with such humor and intelligence and panache that it’s the least painful non-fiction I’ve ever read. I absolutely couldn’t put it down. I am now embarking on his next book, yes, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. And so far it’s EVEN BETTER. Wooooo!

Speaking of Avatar. Even though it’s a “retelling” of American history that seems to be criticizing the amorality of the white man’s behavior, there’s something sneakily superior in it. I mean, the blue giants are getting the shaft just like the Indians did. Even in the future. Even on another PLANET. Sorry, white people are just evil until the end of time, and yes, natives, you’re always going to be magical beings with a mysterious connection to the environment. Anyway, James Cameron, take a look at Charles Mann.

NB: Everyone knows that illness always comes from “somewhere else.” According to Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities, another fascinating book, small pox “was called the ‘French disease’ in England, and the ‘Italian disease’ in France. The Dutch called it the ‘Spanish disease’ and the Russians called it the ‘Polish disease.’ The Turks called it the ‘Christian disease’…. [this is] indicative of the fact that the disease was often spread by foreign sailors.” Or indicative of large-scale xenophobia...