A Tiny Park With a Big Story

Author photo

You can easily walk by it and never notice. But if you look up into the six eucalyptus trees planted more than a century ago by namesake Mary Ellen Pleasant, you might want to look down at the plaque that marks San Francisco’s smallest park. Worth a walk-by if you’re ever in the city.

Mary Ellen Pleasant Park (at 1501–1699 Octavia Street) comprises, in total, six giant eucalyptus trees and a concrete plaque adjacent to the sidewalk — all of which measures less than an acre. Nevertheless, the small green space still offers the best of park qualities: quiet shade, vistas (if you look up,) and a unique piece of San Francisco history. The park is a small stretch along Octavia Street between Bush and Sutter.

Its namesake, though, has an outsized story.

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Ms. Pleasant’s mansion no longer graces the property, but her spirit remains. It’s a spirit of freedom and entrepreneurship, enduring questions — her story is a mixture of legend and fact — and the remarkable effect of one woman on her time.

Born in Georgia in 1814 — most likely into slavery — Mary Ellen Pleasant had her way to Boston and/or Rhode Island before her adulthood. Over several decades there she married an abolitionist and several subsequent others.

She worked tirelessly with the underground railroad. And by the time the hazards of that activity prompted her to come to San Francisco, sometime around 1850, Pleasant was an accomplished cook and housekeeper, and those were for many years either official or unofficial employments. But her first husband had left her a substantial sum of money and she was, meanwhile, investing shrewdly and increasing her wealth through businesses — laundries, restaurants, brothels, boarding houses — and reinvestments.

Pleasant established black schools, fought for rights for blacks as well as Chinese, brought the underground railroad westward, became a behind-the-scenes political powerhouse and a friend of John Brown, established the 1,000-acre Beltrane Ranch in Sonoma County, co-founded (possibly) the Bank of California and earned the title of California’s first Self-Made Black Woman Millionaire. She left the mansion (replaced later by what is now the Healing Arts Building) for a six-room apartment on Webster Street which would be her home until she died in 1904.

A large legacy for a tiny piece of San Francisco.

Life Without Nukes? Lovely Idea

Photo by JEFF VRBA on Unsplash

A safe and secure future? Imagine.

At “Chain Reaction,” the recent annual fundraiser/celebration of Ploughshares Fund, supporters were doing just that. Ploughshares President Dr. Emma Belcher and Board Chair Terry Gamble Boyer were on hand, along with a variety of global experts ranging from Massachusetts Sen Ed Markey to former Ambassador Fiona Hill, all talking about lowering the threat level.

With hostility among nuclear-armed states currently close to the boiling point, assurance of a safe and secure future for everyone may seem a far-off goal. The five major “Nuclear Weapon” countries – U.S., Russia, U.K., France and China – have enough such weapons among them to blow the planet to smithereens at least a dozen times, with plenty remaining. Plenty of bombs, that is, not planets.

But Ploughshares is working diligently to keep that from happening. If Ploughshares reaches its goal – assurance of a safe and secure future for us all – the nuclear threat will disappear. That might be an impossibility, but you’ve got to love Ploughshares for trying. HARD.

Yours truly with Emma Belcher (l) & Terry Gamble Boyer

More than 40 years ago, sculptor, human rights activist, mother & wife  Sally Lilienthal  gathered a few friends in her San Francisco living room to talk about what could be done to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons here and abroad. This was the year (1981) when Ronald Reagan unveiled a “strategic modernization program” which called for – among other things nuclear – thousands of new warheads, an increase in bomber forces including development of stealth bombers, a new land-based strategic missile (the MX), and new intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe. In addition, he proposed deploying more than 3,000 air-launched cruise missiles on bombers.

Thanks in large part to Ploughshares partners, along with other calmer heads, stockpiles of nuclear weapons have been declining fairly steadily since those hyper-fearful days. According to Wikipedia, the U.S. stockpile, for instance, has gone from 23,368 in 1980 to a projected 3,620 this year, and Russia – the most highly armed – from 30,062 in 1980 to a projected 5,350 this year. When you consider we started all this with two bombs in 1945, and by 1950 it was U.S,= 299; Russia=5, it’s easy – and more than a little scary – to see that statistic zoom up to the 60,000+ peak of weapons held by multiple countries in 1985.

Any of us could still blow all of us to bits in short order. Maybe diplomacy makes more sense. Ploughshares supporters hope so.

Are We Listening to Mother Nature?

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There’s looking back — — and then there’s looking wayyyy back.

Interesting factoid picked up in Pompeii, which this reporter was lucky to stroll with an archaeologist friend recently: Mt. Vesuvius’ giant eruption really shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Those early Romans, ever eager to escape the wrath of the gods, regularly predicted the future, were aware of the past (not infrequent earth tremors), and attuned to the present (a column of smoke “like an umbrella pine,” according to Pliny the younger.) But like countless others going about the business of life on that fateful day in 79 AD, uncle Pliny the Elder was caught unaware.

Before visiting Pompeii we spent another fascinating day in nearby Herculaneum. More is known of Pompeii, a much larger city that was discovered in the 16th century, than of Herculaneum, excavations of which began in 1738. Pompeii was buried under debris and volcanic ash but everyone knew there’d been a city there; Herculaneum succumbed to a landslide of lava while nobody noticed. Pliny the Elder and his friends (we know, thanks to writings left by his nephew) died of intense heat before the tsunami. None of these seem like great ways to leave the known world.

The above is offered partly as a confessional regret about how much history I never really learned, but also as a gentle reference to my own currently beloved City of San Francisco. Which happens to be built atop three seismic faults.

Photo by Romain Briaux on Unsplash

The eruption that sent burning ash, landslides of lava and, from the sea around, a tsunami didn’t just come out of the planetary blue. Zeus, or the gods and goddesses of old, or whoever you perceive as in charge of the universe, sent indications of events to come. Somewhat like little prayer flags embossed with messages like, “Hey folks! Bigger stuff ahead!” But the decision-makers of Herculaneum (for instance) just picked up the giant boulders whose weight had created sturdy walls for a time, and rebuilt sturdier walls with mortar. An early engineering genius move – but the lava didn’t notice.

In California we are clearing brush around homes and converting (slowly) to drought- and fire-resistant plants. Building codes are increasingly aimed at earthquake resistance. Higher seawalls and engineering measures incomprehensible to right-brained writers are daily being strengthened to protect civilization’s development from rising seas. So surely Whoever’s in charge of the planet should not think we’re a bunch of non-god-fearing sluggards. But still.

It’s hard not to imagine the day, some centuries hence, when future creatures inhabiting planet earth are digging around what we think of as San Francisco, and wondering what in the world kind of life existed in 21st century AD.

Which motivates me to go clean out the kitchen cabinets.

To Be a NATO Fan or Not To Be

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Many of us (pro-NATO) are cheering Finland and Sweden’s applications for membership. Some of us can’t really follow the anti-NATO grumblings from far left or far right. Some of us say Turkey will veto any more Scandinavians anyway. Many of us are glad that people smarter than most of us will eventually sort it out. Still, what’s not to love about NATO?

Growing up the youngest of four girls, my sisters and I had a variation on the Three Musketeers theme: “Four for one and all for all.” The idea was that, despite our sometimes ferocious differences, benefits often emerged from a united front, and peace usually prevailed. Worked in pre-NATO days.

Which leads this observer to hope for a little more NATO-style all-for-one. Especially if global peace might prevail.

On Being Kind to the Bees

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“I would recommend more intake of pure honey, nature’s pure food that we get from the bees.” This comment came from a faithful reader, after I wrote about tea with honey for throat issues. Faithful Reader Alvin Huie went on to mention the fact that honey has “the most nutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, etc” of many of the foods we consume.

A few minutes later I picked up my mail. It included an appeal from the good people at EarthJustice, pleading eloquently for help in saving the bees. I took this as an omen that bees of the world need a blog.

You have to love the people at EarthJustice, an environmental nonprofit with the pretty wonderful motto: Because the Earth Needs a Good Lawyer. Indeed. Bees too, apparently. It’s possible to find all sorts of opinions and data sets, depending on who (such as, agricultural products industries v environmental nonprofits) is furnishing the information. The banning of some bee-killing pesticides in the past may have somewhat slowed the scary decline in world bee populations, but I’ll go with this report from Earthday.org. Its March 2022 Fact Sheet says, among other things, that “there are 20,000 distinct bee species around the world, with 4,000 of them in the United States alone. From 2006-2015, approximately 25% fewer species were found. Under the best scenario, thousands of bee species have already become too rare.”

For an inside look into the world of bees I turned to Alvin – who happens to be an old friend and new(ish) neighbor. Now entering his 90s, Alvin is retired from an IT career and from active beekeeping (after 25+ years.) But he has kept track of all things bee-related since first getting hooked in 1994. “It’s a low-key hobby,” he says. And a lot of good fun. He attended week-long world bee conventions in S. Korea, Argentina, Ukraine and elsewhere. He reads bees books, introduces others to beekeeping and belongs to several apian organizations. There is a LOT to know and share about bees. To help with which there is Apimondia, an international federation of beekeepers’ organizations and related others that’s been around since 1895.  

Bees themselves however, bless their little apian hearts, don’t exactly enjoy lives of leisure and self-indulgence. According to their friend Alvin, the average worker bee lives about six weeks max. The drone, whose primary purpose is to mate with the queen – or help with temperature control by flapping his (larger) wings along with all the others – might live for around 30 days. But if he’s successful in beating out a few thousand fellow drones – they don’t fight about it! They just try to get closest to her – and mating with the queen, he immediately dies. What can I say? Queenie herself might live for a year or two, but during the springtime (her busiest season) she’s laying about 1500 eggs per day. All of this may be why you never hear people saying “it’s a bee’s life.”

Still. All those apian friends of ours – in the remaining 20,000 species – are critical to our survival. While we humans are hardly noticing, they are pollinating, without which activity we would lack most of the fruits, vegetables and other good things we live on. Or promoting biodiversity, or making honey or creating all that great wax we use. All of which requires, well, being as busy as bees for their entire lives.

You may want to thank a bee today.

Guerilla Warfare in the Park

Author photo: Mama Mallard choosing to avoid face-off between Papa & mean Coot

Seeking a break from domestic and international warfare, this reporter visited Mountain Lake Park, definitely one of San Francisco’s loveliest. (And my all-time favorite.)

Though Mallard ducklings have been spotted on other local lakes, none were in evidence on Mountain Lake. Possibly because there was a red tail hawk swooping around in the nearby treetops, scoping out targets for his repeated dive-bomb attacks. (The hawk moved too fast for an amateur iPhone photographer.)

Mama and Papa Mallard, meanwhile, were playing it cool. Had they camouflaged the babes somewhere ashore? They were being confronted by a local coot, member of the meanest guerilla band on the lake. Mama & Papa Mallard undoubtedly know that mean coots take particular pleasure in pecking small ducklings who dare to enter coot-controlled waters. Today featured only a preliminary skirmish among adults.

Nature seeks peace.

Voice of America (Not)

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I got tired of listening to my raspy voice. If I’m tired of listening to my raspy voice, I thought, what about the poor people listening who are not me? Have you ever just wanted to crawl under the chair to get away from a raspy-voiced friend? We won’t get into the whiny voice or the squeaky voice or the 100-decibel voice right now; they are somebody else’s problem.

“Think of it as sexy, mom,” my daughter said. This from a kid who never even heard Lauren Bacall (Google her) seducing Humphrey Bogart (likewise.) I do not, however, sound like Lauren Bacall. More like a slug calling for help because she’s stuck on a piece of sandpaper. I think I would not get far with a phone porn career.

So I turned to my old friends at Kaiser. There was thumping and testing and X-raying and an excess, in my opinion, of references to my Smoker’s Lungs. Smoker’s Lungs, 58 years after I quit smoking? Well, sorry people, once a smoker, forever a wearer of that scarlet SL tattooed onto your chest. Pulmonologists know.

Thereafter, I visited with the pleasant young ENT guy, who gave me a crash course in Vocal Chords 101 before slipping a camera down for a video of my vocal chords in action. There are repulsive videos and repulsive videos, but I promise you there is nothing more repulsive than a video of your vocal chords from the inside. While we were reviewing the demo Vimeo – I guess repulsive videos are just another day at the office for ENT people – there was further review of the essential message of Vocal Chords 101: your vocal chords are nothing but a couple of muscles. Mine are, shall we say, no longer young.

“The word you are trying to avoid using,” I remarked to Doctor ENT, “is ‘flabby.’”

“I wasn’t going to say that,” he said. But I could see into his soul.

“You can’t reverse the aging process,” he said, somewhat un-gallantly; “but you can make things better!” Whereupon he set me up with a stern-voiced vocal therapist. She was utterly no-nonsense. “Do these exercises” – think warming up for the church choir – “for 20 minutes, three times a day.” An hour a day? When I can’t find 5 minutes to check the #%+&* Instagram feed? And anyway, the church choir definitely does not want me back.

I’m going to think of it as sexy.

When Dreams (& Books) Come True

Photo: iStock

“I can’t write STORIES!” I remember saying. “Real writers write stories!” This was about 30 years ago, early in my marriage to The Great Encourager.

“Sure you can,” he said. “You’ve got stories that deserve being written.”

I had written news, features and columns for newspapers and magazines. Political speeches, annual reports, a few easily forgettable books on commission because I needed the money. Almost anything nonfiction you can name – but stories??

Thus began a dream.

With a lot of encouragement I took a fiction workshop with then little known author/encourager Anne Lamott. And soon entered the University of San Francisco’s graduate school. The Great Encourager did all the cooking, looked after home and hearth, paid the bills, fielded calls and invitations while juggling his own commitments and took other women to concerts and gallery openings. Two years later I picked up an MFA in Short Fiction. Writing stories!

Some of the resulting Marshallville Stories won recognition and/or were published in print or online magazines. Some are better than others. But then they languished in a dusty drawer for years while I went back to nonfiction. Books. Activism. Nonprofits, talks, marches, letter to editors. You know, Life.

I think this is often the fate of dreams: Life happens, things get tucked away. And slowly, almost imperceptibly dreams begin to languish in dusty drawers. Obstacles pile themselves on top of the drawers.

One day a friend kicked at my #1 obstacle. “Here’s someone,” he said, “who could drag those stories out of their long-abandoned Word programs. Call her.” I did; he was right. Over the next year or so I edited them into a self-published book – a fascinating first for me, accomplished with a LOT of help from people who know how to do such stuff.

The Marshallville Stories collection has now been birthed. I hope you will pick up a copy and enjoy it.

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