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.
Yet 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
The 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.
Champions 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.
In 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.
In 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.
In 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
For 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.
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.
Sullivan 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
Nowadays, 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?
In 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.
The 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.
Sadly, 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.