Keeping a City at Bay

The Presidio in San Francisco was established as a fortified base by the Spanish in 1776 as El Presidio Real de San Francisco or The Royal Fortress of Saint Francis.

It was the northernmost outpost of a Spanish empire in decline.

The Spire, by Andy Goldsworthy. Composed of 37 steel-armatured cypress tree trunks, felled as part of the Presidio's re-forestation program. Photo: PKR

The Spire (2008), by Andy Goldsworthy.
Composed of 37 steel-armatured cypress tree trunks, felled as part of the Presidio’s re-forestation program.
Photo: PKR

We were there recently with a friend, in the Presidio’s current life as a public-private project – part park, part residential area, part office campus for commercial and non-profit organizations. It’s changed a lot since I spent time there back in the 1980s, when it was a quiet place of dilapidated barracks and virtually abandoned administrative buildings.

The Presidio has always had a special place in the city – its existence as one of the choicest bases in the United States military (golf courses, views of San Francisco Bay, beaches) protected it from the intense urban development that took place elsewhere.

A map of San Francisco, circa 1950, hung on a friend's wall. The Presidio is the entire green area at the top of the map. Source: W. Elliot Judge

A map of San Francisco, circa 1950, hung on a friend’s wall. The Presidio is the entire green area at the top of the map.
Source: W. Elliot Judge

It remains a place of tall cypress trees, sweeping lawns, surrounded by the blue of the bay and the ocean, with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop.

The base was decommissioned by the military in 1995, and has since become part of the National Park Service. The area that President Harry Truman once proposed as the U.S. headquarters for the United Nations is now a (not entirely undisputed) public-private development that includes a campus for non profit organizations.

Old Coast Guard Station and Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Presidio. Photo: Will Elder/Wikipedia

Old Coast Guard Station and Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Presidio.
Photo: Will Elder/Wikipedia

From The Presidio: From Army Post to National Park (Lisa Benton-Short):

“The Presidio is a community within a park within a larger community. We are reminded by such accidents of geography that each of us is placed in human life within the concentric circles of relationship to others and to the natural world.”

In a throwback to when neighboring farmers grazed their cattle on Presidio land, goats now keep the weeds in check.

Goats provide mowing services as part of the City Graze project. Photo: PKR

Goats provide mowing services as part of the CityGrazing project for sustainable landscaping.
Photo: PKR

Who would have thought that a military installation, established 240 years ago as a point from which to develop new settlements, would end up fortifying an entire swathe of territory as parkland for the future?

Wood Line (2011) by Andy Goldswrorthy leads through an upper forest path. Photo: PKR

Wood Line (2011) by Andy Goldswrorthy. Eucalyptus branches curve through a standing eucalyptus grove near Lovers’ Lane, the Presidio’s oldest footpath
Photo: PKR

The Taste of Contrition

I have no excuse for myself. I normally shun flavored coffees and teas. You won’t find me ordering a tiramisu latte or chocolate banana black tea. Coffee Mate® creamer flavored like Girl Scout cookies? I’m not judging, but…thank you, no.

I grew up in San Francisco, mostly, and back before the mad coffee house movement put a coffee franchise on the corner of every block, we used to head to North Beach for Italian coffee. Sometimes, if I was feeling fancy, I’d get a shot of orgeat syrup in my latte. That was about as close as I’ve gotten to the whole flavor trend.

Caffé Trieste, North Beach, San Francisco

Caffé Trieste, North Beach, San Francisco

I still drink coffee, mostly black, mostly strong. But these days, my drink is mostly tea. Black tea, the kind you can stand a spoon in, i.e. black as black coffee, but tea.

So, I bought some gifts at The Chocolate Room when I was in Brooklyn a couple of years ago, and one of those was a small tin of tea from Harney & Sons.Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 12.47.40The label says Florence – Flavored Black Tea. And then the tin got lost on a bookshelf until this week, when I rediscovered it. It’s getting near its sell-by date, I don’t want to give anyone stale tea, so I thought I’d just drink it myself this week.

No big deal, I like black tea with floral notes, this stuff is just variation of black tea. I didn’t give it much thought.

And now I am in the uncomfortable position of having to eat my own words alongside every single heavenly cup of what turned out to be chocolate hazelnut flavored black tea.

Worse, I am already getting anxious at the thought of how to obtain more for myself once the tin is empty, which at my current rate of consumption won’t be more than another 48 hours.

What have I learned? First, that labeling matters – if this box had said chocolate hazelnut flavored tea on the outside, I would never have tried it. Second, that I need to expand my horizons, at least when it comes to tea. I don’t see Girl Scout cookie coffee in my future, but I might be open to trying more adventurous tea products.

Third, and perhaps most important, never get addicted to something of which you cannot easily get more.

Butterfly House

Mission Blue Butterfly Source: California Academy of Sciences

Mission Blue Butterfly
Source: California Academy of Sciences

There’s a new building going up in San Francisco, just a block or so from where I used to live when I was right out of college.

It’s got all the bells and whistles of the kind of green, sustainable, fashionable and expensive development one might expect from that city, up to and including the rooftop biosphere and a habitat for endangered butterflies.

The building will have 81 apartments, with one-bedroom rental units listed at between $2950 – $4500/month. Amenities include a rooftop herb garden, an on-site car share program, living walls, rainwater harvesting and solar heating systems.

Okay, I admit that the presence on the ground floor of a Whole Foods store, the notoriously green but pricey organic supermarket, is a bit gratuitously over-the-top. And it looks like I, for one, would never have been able to afford living in this neighborhood when I was a recent graduate.

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly Source: Wikipedia

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly
Source: Wikipedia

The 38 Dolores complex has come in for some criticism – its combination of high prices and all-round green gentrification (and that downstairs Whole Foods market) make it look like an over-the-top enviro-indulgence for the wealthy.

It’s fair enough to say that particular building probably only appeals to a certain socio-economic demographic. And it’s true that this young, wealthy demographic is changing the nature of many San Francisco neighborhoods, especially the Mission.

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly Photo: Leslie Gonzales / WWU

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly
Photo: Leslie Gonzales / WWU

Where the media eye-rolling does actual harm, however, is in making it seem like the upscale nature of this development is reflected in its rainwater harvesting, rooftop gardens or solar heating systems. As if these building aspects are an indulgence alllowed only to the rich.

For modern urban buildings, it could be argued that it is the lack of good building water use, some form of renewable heating and/or power, or the potential for car sharing which should be considered an outdated indulgence.

And sometimes, it’s all in the marketing. Yes, an ‘urban butterfly habitat for endangered butterfly species’ sounds a bit precious. But when we know that a ‘butterfly habitat’ can be as easy as planting a few select flowers, it’s not really all that glamorous, expensive, or difficult to maintain.

I have a ‘butterfly and bee habitat’ in my garden. I call it lavender plants and bee balm flowers.

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year - most colonies only number 50 or less, so I'm assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby. Photo: PK Read

My butterfly and bee habitat
Photo: PK Read

*All the endangered butterflies above are among those listed as protected by the 38 Dolores habitat.

Retreat and Renewal

Broken pine on Stowe Lake Photo: PK Read

Broken pine on Stowe Lake
Photo: PK Read

I spent some time recently in the vast playground of my youngest childhood, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Founded in 1870 as an urban oasis back when the city was a much smaller place, the park never fails to dazzle with its beauty and design.

This time, though, among the 25,000 trees that grace the park, I noticed numerous onces that were broken, fallen, or otherwise decrepit. Most of them were Monterey pines, eucalyptus, or cypress. And lo, as it turns out, I’m not the only one to have noticed. There is a large-scale project underway to manage Golden Gate Park’s tree population. The main reason? The trees that were planted a century ago are simply reaching the end of their normal lifespans and dying. Because of their size and location, they are a hazard – several people have been injured and one woman was crushed by falling tree limbs over the past few years.

The work will be carried out with respect to the animals living in the trees, seasonal considerations, and so on. Any trees with active nests will be given a reprieve until nesting season is over, and so on.

We think of animal lifespans, but tree lifespans and end-of-life phases tend not to be on human radar quite as much. The large trees seem to be permanent landmarks more than temporary inhabitants. Most of the trees will be replanted, and other children will grow up under new trees, falling in love with the intoxicating scent of cypress or eucalyptus, watching the swaying dance of those graceful limbs against the northern California sky.

View over a dead tree on Strawberry Hill Photo: PK Read

View over a dead tree on Strawberry Hill
Photo: PK Read


San Francisco Chronicle articles here and here



Northern Parakeets

Red-masked parakeetsAratinga erythrogenys

Red-masked parakeets
Aratinga erythrogenys

I was walking in Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, yesterday when I finally saw what I’d only heard about and seen in this documentary: The wild parakeets of Telegraph Hill. Two bright flashes of green and red, a loud bird yell, and there they were. Not at all native, part of a flock of feral parakeets that have managed to adapt to the cool, foggy weather of my home town. A little piece of the jungle by the Bay.

Apparently there are two flocks now – a friend who teaches at a local kindergarten says the birds come and sit on branches outside the school windows, and are the subject of many classroom drawings. A recent article mentions at least of few of them being spotted outside of San Francisco, across the Bay – a non-native species that has done well at adapting to a climate very different from their own. San Francisco made it illegal to feed the birds in 2007, but the population seems to be successfully growing nonetheless.