Saving One Small Piece of the Planet

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.

whirlpool
Mysterious whirlpool

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.

whirlpools
More whirlpools, and a spot that’s lovely even on a foggy day

“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.

aquatic plants
Aquatic plants coming soon (or their relatives will be coming soon) to Mountain Lake

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.

Halleluia.

When Fences Come Down

Fence.Mtn Lake

“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.

Sign.Mtn Lake

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.

Lake.Mtn Lake

The metaphors are abundant: fences come down, sunlight spreads from reflected waters, varied creatures happily coexist, romance blooms.

 

Where is Robert Frost when we need him?

 

 

 

 

MatchDuck.com Ceases Operation

2014-06-22_12-31-47_6472014-06-20_13-58-18_575

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

Who needs romance?

When a duck needs a duckmate

20140615-223754-81474776.jpg

Musco the duck is in existential pain.

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.

I’m just sayin’.

A love affair with a park

2014-04-05_14-36-59_401

(This article first appeared on Huffington Post)

Love the earth? Love the park.

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:

I pledge:

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.

 

Child predators & citizen cops: part two

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.

When citizen cops turn bad

In my small, neighborhood park there is a regular assortment of runners and walkers, picnic groups, dog-walkers, grandfathers pushing strollers, homeless guys and tennis players. On any given day you can hear voices speaking Russian, Chinese, English or a lovely range of other languages. And always there are children — with moms, dads, nannies or other supervisors — stumbling around makeshift mini-baseball diamonds in the meadow or tumbling noisily around the playground. It is, in short, exactly what an ideal neighborhood park should be. Its neighborhood, within a few surrounding miles, is home to the low-ish income, middle income and affluent.

And apparently at least one over-anxious mom. Recently she spotted a man she perceived to be a potential threat. The incident was reported in a San Francisco Chronicle op ed piece by former editor and now columnist/blogger Phil Bronstein, who says he used to take his own son there. (Bronstein is not among the low-ish or middle incomes.)

A worried mom took (the man’s) photo with her phone and messaged it around with a detailed description and a warning. “He does not have children and pretends he does and is there to do pull-ups,” she wrote.

The e-mail, originally intended for a small pool of officials and families, went wide in an expanding spiral onto lots of electronic doorsteps. That’s the way it works on the Web.

“Hope someone goes Woodsman on him,” one commenter wrote.

“There were people who wanted to suspend the Constitution,” investigating police Capt. Rich Correia at the Richmond station told me about some lynch-mob sentiment. “It’s interesting how people feed off the Internet, how fast it gets around and how much people can amplify it. Folks made all sorts of assumptions about (things) they didn’t know.”

In this case, the mix of digital citizen vigilance, child safety concerns and viral networking caused a train wreck with a definite victim. And it wasn’t a kid.

San Francisco blog SFist ran the headline “Potential Child Predator” with the photo the mom took. KTVU-TV broadcast the guy’s easily identifiable portrait and kept it on the screen throughout its story. “Take a look at the picture of this man,” said the reporter. “There’s obviously concern he’s some kind of predator.”

Except he isn’t.

What he is, unfortunately, is a marked man. Tried and convicted in the courts of the internet and public communications. The cops identified him, went to his house, determined there was no danger (he was “unguarded, cooperative and surprised at being the subject of a police investigation”) and that the poor guy was doing nothing but exercises in the park. The blog and the TV people took down his photo, but you have to wonder if the original mom apologized, or if he will feel very welcome in the park now.

A somewhat different go-after-the-bad-guys story was reported today by New York Times writer Dan Frosch, this one about Justin Kurtz, a hapless Kalamazoo, Michigan college student whose properly parked car was towed from its parking lot and it cost him $118 to get it back. Anyone who’s ever had a car towed can identify with the rage that then prompted Kurtz to start a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing.” But after 800 people signed up in sympathetic outrage, T&J filed a defamation suit seeking $75,000 in damages. I’m rooting for Justin and his friends (having been towed under less-than-happy circumstances myself), but the whole business will likely end up costing another unnecessary load of pain and anguish — and possibly, more than $118.

The question is, how far are we ready to trust cyberspace? In the case of the Mountain Lake Park non-pervert, the hysteria continued despite fast action by the cops.

People trusted the social network far more than they did the seasoned and reputationally impressive police captain. “After 30 years on the force,” he says, “it’s hard to accept that people believe Internet chatter more than they do reaching me on the phone.”

In this case, social media was not a new and improved town crier. Instead, the hysterical tendencies that understandably surround kids’ security led to what Correia called “long e-mails of inference and innuendo like the opening act of ‘The Crucible,”’ Arthur Miller’s play about witch hunts.

As a friend of mine with kids who lives near Mountain Lake Park and got copies of the e-mail from multiple people noted, “It’s often easier to share than to deliberate. Were we deputized, or just weaponized?”

In the emerging world, you can think you’re a citizen journalist, but you’re really a citizen cop. And in the Mountain Lake Park case, people also became citizen prosecutor, judge and jury.

Viral campaigns are hard to undo, but maybe we should try. What if T&J were to return their ill-gotten $118, enabling Justin to create a new Facebook page about what a fine business they are? Their tarnished reputation could then be restored to its former glory, if towing companies have glory, for a pittance.

With the non-pervert, it’s not that simple. But maybe the over-zealous mom will take the trouble to contact him and apologize. It would be a start, although I’m not holding my breath. If I see him, however, I’m apt to be extra kind and pleasant, and then people will probably talk. As long as they don’t put us on Facebook.

‘Pervert’ in the park isn’t what he seems.