By Faith Meckley
Each Sunday, San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is closed to vehicles, and pedestrians have unrestricted access. People flock to the park in the thousands to reconnect with nature. It’s no national forest, but seems to please the citizens just fine. A few, like John McLaren, seem never to have left. Buddies with John Muir, this grumpy, antisocial Scotsman dedicated most of his life to the creation and management of Golden Gate Park and is credited with planting over two million trees in his lifetime. McLaren vehemently refused to retire from his job as the park director until he was 96 years old. He is immortalized with a small, humble statue in the park – a statue he despised while he was alive and once stole from the park with the help of some friends.
Like any major city, San Francisco is loud, bright, cluttered, sometimes stinky, with construction projects sprinkled throughout. When I parked my van in Berkeley and started my new job in San Francisco, my dad said: “I thought you went on this trip to be out in nature? Why the hell are you in the middle of a city all the time?”
And yet, San Francisco is not devoid of wildness. It is a place where the natural and the artificial collide, creating something of a hybrid, a new environmental category of its own. It is a place where the waters reflect the spectacular light show on the Bay Bridge instead of stars, where the fog creeps in and erases our elaborate architectural wonders in minutes, where whales blow spouts of water alongside lumbering freight ships, where you can climb to the top of the Twin Peaks for a view of the city, only to be knocked sideways by gale-force winds.
The waters just below the Golden Gate Bridge are treacherous: hypothermia-inducing temperatures and fast-moving currents. Standing there in the middle, I felt like a fragile glass doll teetering on the edge of the top shelf. I was struck by how I could see the wind on the water, whipping about so fiercely that it drew winding, snake-like patterns on the surface, reminiscent of sand shifting across desert dunes. And I saw one of those enormous freight ships – the kind that barely clear the bridge – out in the distance, reduced to the size of a bathtub toy in the vast ocean. As I stood there entranced by the ocean’s dangerous magnificence, I completely forgot about the city behind me.
The natural environment is not quashed in San Francisco. It just takes a less familiar, human-controlled form. The trees are placed so many feet apart, sometimes in rows, underbrush and grass appears only in road medians, and gardens spill over the edges of office building roofs. It is not gone, but rather tamed and muted.
When I first decided to settle into San Francisco for a bit, I saw it as pausing my wayfaring van adventures through the most untrodden places in the United States. I knew I would not be stargazing or wading through a river or standing on the edge of a canyon looking out into infinity, and I was disheartened.
But now, over a month later, the city’s heartbeat is like a song stuck in my head. I play it over and over, and, each time, I’m left with a smile.
Faith Meckley is a journalism major at Ithaca College and is currently on a leave of absence to travel the United States. She is an environmentalist with a passion for preserving nature and addressing climate change.