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.

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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?

 

 

 

 

A love affair with a park

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(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.

 

Goldsworthy sculpture sends spirits soaring

Just when you think there is no good news, anywhere, any more, comes wordSpire sculpture this morning that Andy Goldworthy is considering a new sculpture in the Presidio National Park. His last work, Spire (left), created a monument to nature out of the trunks of 37 cypress trees. Like most of Goldsworthy’s works, Spire evokes a sense of reverence and peace. And, also like many others, it will eventually disappear as surrounding trees grow up to and past their silent neighbor.

The serenely beautiful film Rivers and Tides introduced many Americans to the creative Scottish sculptor a few years ago. My 40-something children loved it. Their teenage children loved it. Preschoolers love it. What’s not to love about Rivers and Tides? Goldsworthy art has a way of inching into your soul and making thinks okay. The new piece in the Presidio — that gorgeous chunk of land you and I now own — would be a band of eucalyptus branches snaking along 350 feet of Lover’s Lane, in the southeast corner of the 1,491-acre park. It may not leave the ground, but it still promises to soar.

Goldsworthy’s best known works in the San Francisco Bay area include his Stone River at Stanford, and Faultline at the de Young Museum

You’ve not met Andy Goldsworthy? Treat yourself. It’ll make your day.