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.
“You can neither lie to a neighbourhood park, nor reason with it,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of American Cities. Jacobs knew a thing or two about parks – and cities. These days we are learning things of our own about parks and cities, a mish-mash of the good, the bad and the ugly. Cities are where many of our hearts lie, but they aren’t so good for containing viruses. But parks? Parks are the totally good. You can’t lie to your neighborhood park because it knows the truth: I’m a space you need. That may not be exactly what Jacobs meant, but close enough.
The Trust for Public Land (a great national nonprofit I hope you’ll consider supporting) maintains that “Everyone deserves a park.” It’s hard to argue with that. TPL believes that even everyone in cities – rich or poor – should be within a 10-minute walk of a park. Hard to argue with that, either. On the poor end, in rich San Francisco, are most of the 40,000 residents of the Tenderloin neighborhood who live within a 10-minute walk of Sergeant Macauley Park. (More about Sgt. Macauley and his eponymous park later.)
On the rich, poor and everything in between end are the happy hordes of walkers, runners, bird-watchers, tiny soccer-players-in-training, birthday partyers, picnickers and playground rompers at Mountain Lake Park. And it is the thing I miss the most, quarantined here in the geezer house: Mountain Lake Park. A little gem of a San Francisco city park, it features (among other things) a Par Course fitness trail that for decades has doubled as my personal outdoor gym, serenity space and yoga substitute. I might as well admit that I failed yoga. Although I stuck it out through the entire course at Temple Emanu-El across the street from my house a few years back, within the first ten minutes of every session, while everyone else was Zen’d out, I just wanted to be outside in the sunshine on the Par Course at Mountain Lake Park. The park itself borders on Mountain Lake, a spring-fed lake from which the Spaniards, and Native American tribes before them, happily drank. But in the 20th century thoughtless pet owners dumped their turtles and goldfish into the lake, and the gunk and runoff from an adjoining stretch of Highway 101 finished off the job of turning it into a virtual cesspool by the 1990s. Because Mountain Lake is part of the Presidio though, now a national park itself, your tax dollars helped restore it to a haven for natural grasses, native fish and wildlife, and varieties of birds and waterfowl. Mountain Lake Park is approximately what I envision as paradise.
Parks are, as evidenced by the above, a lot of things to all people. Sergeant Macauley Park, a tiny, one-fifth urban acre in San Francisco’s low-end-of-the-socioeconomic-spectrum Tenderloin neighborhood, first opened in 1983, intended as an oasis for the thousands of kids within its 10-minute-walk radius. It was named for a popular young San Francisco police officer who was shot and killed the year before while making a routine traffic stop. Despite its optimistic opening, Macauley Park’s young users were quickly displaced by others who found it ideal for arranging sexual encounters, dealing drugs and taking care of public bathroom needs. Most of us, certainly Jane Jacobs, would agree these are not ways to reason with a children’s park. Beleaguered Macauley Park was closed in 1995 during a major project to evict its underground residents, a colony of rats who had moved in, multiplied and disbursed throughout the ’hood like a coronavirus. It reopened in 2000 with an optimistic ceremony I well recall, and it struggles, through ups and downs, to continue offering neighborhood kids an open space in which to play.
Macauley and Mountain Lake are just two parks in just one city, which is blessed with dozens of others in between, of every size and imaginable variety. But maybe they represent our hope for the future: spaces with no entry fee, no barriers according to race, gender, politics or fitness level.
Here’s one piece of extravagantly good news: when we emerge from the confines of Covid19, America’s parks will be right where we left them.
(This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a fine site for exchange of information & ideas I’ve been posting on. You might want to check it out.)
Every now and then you can go home again… at least, home to a better planet. Here’s another story (OK, we admit to too many stories about the ducks…) from Mountain Lake in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park.
Recently a few Mountain Lake Park regulars began to notice a strange and mysterious phenomenon: whirlpools in the lake! Mineral springs? Fresh water from the bowels of the earth bubbling up into this water-starved state? A submerged hot tub? As the King of Siam would have said, “It’s a puzzlement.”
Enter Jason Lisenby, Biological Science Technician with the Presidio Trust and a particular friend of Mountain Lake Park. It was Lisenby who intervened when this writer wanted to mount a campaign to find a mate for lonely Musco the Duck. “Wait, wait,” he said. “You will wind up with a lake full of – non-native – Muscovy ducks and nothing else.” Musco apparently got bored with being behind the giant dark fence while the non-native fish were being removed anyway, and has relocated to other waters. Where we hope he has found a family more appropriate if less devoted than the human admirers he had at Mountain Lake.
The whirls and bubbles, Lisenby explains, “are from a newly installed aeration and water-mixing system” recently turned on. “We are using a compressor to pump air through hoses to twelve locations around the bottom of the lake. The added oxygen and movement will help keep algae blooms at bay while we get the lake’s aquatic plant communities restarted.
“Limiting algae will keep the water more clear, and clear water is good for our newly reestablishing aquatic plants. In the long run, the aquatic plants will do the work the aeration system is currently doing, but this is a solution until then.”
Who knew? Biological science knew. Already the lake is so clear it’s possible to see eight feet down (don’t try this yourself; the lake is not for swimming and diving), and this is a body of water so polluted by highway runoff, abandoned pets and assorted human detritus that only a few years ago you couldn’t see your hand six inches below the surface. You wouldn’t have wanted to get too near the water anyway.
All this, a little good news amidst the abundant smoldering global bad news, right here in the Presidio National Park. Your tax dollars, and biological science, at work.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost, and I think he was onto a larger truth. Of course, Frost – in his “Mending Wall” – was talking about rocks and neighbors, and the poem leaves us with ambivalence about the goodness of fences.
Fences and walls may, at times, make good neighbors – but the big ones tend to be symbols of enmity (think Berlin, Israel, Arizona…) and we just want them down.
A few months ago a high, dark fence went up around lovely Mountain Lake, in the San Francisco park that is one of my favorite spots on the planet. It’s a city park, but the lake (fortunately for us all) is part of the Presidio National Park and has been undergoing an extraordinary restoration for the past few years. It may not yet be back to the purity that made its water just fine for Spanish settlers (and probably the Ohlone and Coast Miwok indigenous people before them) to drink, but years of accumulated glunk, trash and sludge have been hauled away and the lake’s return to life has been a rare joy to watch.
The problem? Although the waters began to clear and native greenery emerged, a proliferation of non-native fish were quashing any hope of bringing back the fish who once belonged. We’re not talking just a couple of ordinary intruders. It was possible to stand on the beach near the murky water’s edge and watch goldfish the size of ahi tuna swimming casually back and forth. With native fish and turtles long displaced by casually dumped household pets, the lake was overrun with carp, bullfrogs – somebody reported a sturgeon – and who knows what else. This writer remembers the brief residence of an alligator, who famously evaded a gator hunter imported from Florida but was eventually removed to the local zoo.
Presidio Trust personnel tried snagging, netting and every known removal method before conceding that the only solution would be to poison the lake. They chose plant-based Rotenone, which kills everything with gills (and happily not much without) and disappears within three days. Thus the fence went up – presumably it was still not a good idea for gill-free people to be wandering near the water. Almost the moment the solution was poured into the four-acre lake, the alien fish died. They were scooped up by the thousands to be studied by ecologists (who reluctantly went along with the project) to determine their origin and soon composted as a final act of goodness. But the fence, for assorted reasons, did not come down.
And over the long weeks that followed it was as if the park itself was inhabited by an alien being. Children still played on the adjacent swings and slides, dog walkers still tossed tennis balls, this writer still exercised on the bars of the fitness trail – but the now-sparkling lake was hidden behind its foreboding shield. Even when the gulls could be heard returning beyond the black screen, and actually seen if you peered through the mesh, the park felt bifurcated and somehow forlorn. Thanksgiving came and went, Christmas was less merry, the New Year not yet happy.
A few days ago, the fence came down. Mountain Lake, the shimmering heart of Mountain Lake Park reappeared, putting on a show of new life. A few familiar ducks may never have left; now they have been joined by coots and grebes and a spiffy ruddy duck who is apparently courting two slightly less flashy lady ruddy ducks. Western pond turtles, chorus frogs and native fish will begin to return in the spring.
The metaphors are abundant: fences come down, sunlight spreads from reflected waters, varied creatures happily coexist, romance blooms.
Alas, Musco the Mountain Lake Muscovy duck seems destined to a life of bachelorhood. (Or spinsterhood, as the case may be.) And all things considered, it could be worse. As Muscovies are known to be particularly tasty (a fact I did not feel called upon to point out earlier in The Musco Saga) one likely explanation for his appearance on Mountain Lake is that he was pardoned from someone’s Thanksgiving dinner.
Jason Lisenby, Biological Science Technician of the Presidio Trust, would never be called anti-duck, but he is decidedly anti-non-native species. And for all his charm, Musco is an interloper. Lisenby gently explained that my burgeoning campaign to find him a mate is, therefore, a seriously bad idea.
(Some fascinating information about Musco’s extended family is offered by reader Doug, in the Comments section of the earlier post about my feathered friend, but for purposes of brevity here I am sticking with the local authorities.)
The unfortunate facts are that given a chance – and the potential, with an agreeable Musco Mom — to launch a tribe of baby Muscovites, Musco could soon upset the ecological balance of flora and fauna. For besides being tasty, Muscovies are both prolific and sizable, and could send the more delicate others packing. In some of the linked articles Lisenby forwarded to this writer, there are phrases like “invasive species,” “degradation of water quality” and “disease carriers.” Horrors. Friendly little Musco would do such a thing as degrade the water quality and carry disease? With an expanded family on his non-native lake, it is, unfortunately, possible.
I tried to explain all this to Musco recently (as noted that day on my Facebook page,) and he seemed unimpressed. One desultory peck on the finger, a placid, beady-eyed stare, and after a while he ambled back into the water and paddled away. To what Lisenby proposes is a life of dandy bachelorhood.
Plenty of sunshine. Not a care in the world. Increasingly sparkling waters. Leafy growth for offshore napping. Duck food (Not people food! Don’t feed the wild creatures!) everywhere, free. Admiring children on the beach. And one nutty lady who shows up to sit on the rock and discuss the problems of the universe. Which are of absolutely no concern to a solitary Muscovy duck on Mountain Lake
I know this from the way he rolls his beady eye away from me, not that long after he has ambled over for a visit, briefly offering a ruffle of his topnotch feathers. Musco faithfully ambles over, despite the fact that I have repeatedly explained to him people food is not good for waterfowl, and we do not feed the ducks at Mountain Lake. Nevertheless, if he’s in the area when I come sit on the rocks, Musco ambles over, and we commune blissfully with nature, in a sort of duck-to-human relaxation therapy session.
But duck does not live by bread alone. Duck should not, in fact and in the natural state of things, live alone. And Musco is all alone. I am on a one-woman campaign to find him a Muscovy mate.
Just to clear things up: Musco may not be his proper name. He may even be a she, what do I know? All I know is this: among the coots and Mallards and miscellaneous waterfowl that have returned to Mountain Lake since the Presidio Trust (thank you, taxpayers!) undertook the monumental job of rescuing it from centuries of neglect and abuse, there is only one Muscovy duck. A lovely, friendly, peace-loving duck, but all alone.
Could we please find him (or her, as the case may be) a mate?
I first met Musco a few months ago on one of my regular visits to Mountain Lake Park, a lakeside San Francisco park with a Parcourse fitness trail which functions as my personal outdoor gymnasium. Wondering who this strange new creature might be, I posted his photo on my Facebook page with a comment that I had spotted a turducky on the lake.
Not so, immediately replied my far-flung Facebook friend (that’s another story) in Sarawak, Borneo. “It’s a Muscovy. In Sarawak we call it a Serati.” Turns out, a lot of people call it an ugly duckling, and worse. Florida has more of them than they want in some spots, elsewhere cross-breeding has created strange water-fellows.
Musco, however, seems quite beautiful to me, and here he is all alone. He swims on the periphery of the coots, ducks and assorted seabirds. He is, happily, not the least interested in the pigeons on the beach. What’s to be done?
An eminent visiting biologist friend pooh-poohed Musco’s singularity. Muscovy’s are all around California in ponds large and small, he said. If this is the case – and who’s going to dispute a distinguished Professor Emeritus? – then surely there is a mate for Musco. Surely some nearby pond owner would like to make such a match and surely the Presidio Trust wouldn’t mind?
The incredible, beautifully restored Mountain Lake might even be home to a family of little Muscovites.
A world without parks would be, well, like a life without sunshine. Wherever you live on this crowded planet, I hope you have a favorite, nearby park.
My earliest favorite was Nashville’s Percy Warner Park, where Sunday afternoon picnics were highlights of this Depression kid’s childhood. Today The Warner Parks include several thousand acres of trails, athletic fields, overlooks and golf courses – the largest municipally administered parks in Tennessee – but to my four-year-old mind an afternoon at “persywannerpark” was a time of bliss.
So to see the four-year-olds who regularly romp around San Francisco’s little urban jewel, Mountain Lake Park, is nostalgic joy. Mountain Lake is part of the Presidio National Park, which you and I, citizens all, have owned since the Sixth Army moved out.
For this writer, dozens of Significant Others preceded my fully committed love affair with Mountain Lake Park: Hanover (VA) Courthouse, Bryan Park in Richmond, VA, Atlanta’s Chastain and Piedmont parks, and a long list of occasional others. But with Mountain Lake and me, it’s a forever thing. For better or for worse. Visiting grandchildren loved the playground, serenity rises from the lake and the Parcourse fitness trail beats any expensive gym or meditative yoga class all to heck.
This is why there was no question about it when the pretty, young Presidio Trust woman asked. I took The Pledge.
Behind the drive to get park people to take The Pledge is a story probably like the story of your own favorite: park abuse. Despite their extraordinary kindness and generosity – play space, clean air, quiet shade, assorted nourishments to our souls – parks tend not to receive goodness in kind. More frequently what they get includes cigarette butts, discarded hamburger wrappers and an overabundance of well-fed pigeons. In Mountain Lake’s case, abuse over the centuries also included a toxic accumulation of runoff from Highway #101 which unfortunately runs along one border of the lake. But thanks to our tax dollars and the good work of the Presidio Trust, the lake has been undergoing a multi-year restoration. It may not get all the way back to the pristine waters from which the Spaniards, and countless Native Americans before them, happily drank, but every day it gets better. Fascinating to watch.
If you love a park, you may want to generate a pledge campaign of your own. Small children were lining up at Mountain Lake for instructions and bumper stickers (“Love Mountain Lake”) – and earnestly taking The Pledge. Which reads:
To protect the wild animals that live at Mountain Lake by allowing them to find their own natural foods.
Not to abandon unwanted pets or plants at Mountain Lake or other park sites.
To share what I’ve learned about how to keep Mountain Lake healthy, and encourage others to take this pledge.
Earth Day might have slipped by recently, but it’s never too late to Love Your Park.
Where are the limits to the rights of self-protection? Has the internet’s ability to make instant connections also created instant-cops who can go too far?
Earlier today I posted a story about a suspected predator in my local San Francisco park who turned out to be an innocent man — but only after his photo and suspicions of his being a predator had circulated widely on the internet and local TV, thanks to a campaign started by an anxious mom. She had spotted him near the playground, unaccompanied by a child.
Several readers have weighed in off-site to say I should have more sympathy for the mom, because she was only protecting her child and others. Maybe.
Years ago, when my own children were growing up in an urban area comparable in potential lurking dangers to San Francisco today, there was a man who appeared around elementary schools over a period of months, exposing himself to little girls. He became fairly famous among teachers, parents and children as “the man in the white car”, though he always managed to elude the police.
One afternoon when my then 7-year-old daughter was walking home alone (the school was about 3 blocks distant and the times were not quite so parentally protective) a white car pulled alongside her, stopped just ahead and the passenger-side door opened. But about a half block away was my 9-year-old son, lagging an appropriate distance behind. He sped up, taking a pencil out of his pocket and calling his sister’s name, which was enough to cause the white car to scratch off — but not before they had written down his license number. Extraordinary children, of course, as they are mine, but to be truthful every kid in town had been so thoroughly trained in what to do it was practically a reflex reaction.
The man lived about a mile away. The police paid several calls on him. Because he had not been actually caught doing anything, and it had been over six months since the last episode, involving a child who couldn’t give any description, he was not accused of anything. But the police knew where he lived (as did I, since they drove my son by the house to reconfirm it was the car) and he knew they knew, and he knew his license number was in a file of some sort that could be easily found. That was the last episode involving the man in the white car and local schools.
Could he have gone on to frighten, and possibly molest, other children? Probably. Should we have painted a red “X” on his door, or taken his picture and put it up in the post office? I don’t think so. Plenty of phone calls flew back and forth, but there were no cellphone cameras or e-mails or internet sites at the time so the net was not cast quite as wide. And nobody called the TV station.
I am still pretty sure the man in the white car was a bad guy. We now know the man in the neighborhood park was not. In either case, there’s that business of being innocent until proven guilty. Trial by internet can mess with the system, which while imperfect is still the best we’ve got.