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Transforming Strangers and Sojourners into a City - with Trees

I’m prepping to lead a walking/edibles tour of Golden Gate Park for Odd Salon members on April 1st. (Sold out but we may schedule more!), so I’ve been researching the history of the trees there. As beautiful as the roses are, as fun as the concerts, and as fabulous as the museums, the story of Golden Gate Park is one of trees and Romantic Ideals. Of believing that nature improves the spirits and character of people trapped in urban squalor; that if only San Francisco had parks as lush as not just New England, but England itself, it would be a proper city and not just a Gold Rush outpost populated by desperate fortune seekers and sojourners and the few lucky who sold them shovels and tents.

Landscape architect Fredrick Olmstead designed Central Park in the 1850s with the democratic ideal that all citizens should have equal access to green space and a “sense of enlarged freedom.” Olmstead referred to parks as “pleasure grounds” and he championed the idea of a great park in San Francisco. According to the book The Trees of Golden Gate Park by Elizabeth McClintock, “Olmstead saw in parks a strong democratizing influence which forged unique bonds among disparate races and classes. He also believed that pleasure grounds functioned as pressure release valves for all laborers toiling under considerable hardship.” When he was asked to design a grand park for San Francisco, he identified a stretch from Aquatic Park to Hayes Valley that was protected from westerly winds. It would be a series of parks connected by a promenade landscaped with drought-resistant Mediterranean plants. He was a little too ahead of his time. Due to political reasons, the site identified for the park was the wind-swept sand dunes of the “Outerlands” the least hospitable place to have a park, and certainly a hostile environment to the trees and plants of the East Coast.

In 1871, the city hired a 24-year-old land surveyor, William Hammond Hall, to take on the daunting task of taming the shifting sand dunes and creating a 1,000-acre park. During his time, the park planted over 66,000 trees including sequoias, acacia, eucalyptus, Monterey pines, and Monterey Cypress. They used trees to stabilize the sand dunes and create wind breaks from the ocean. Due to political reasons, Hammond Hall was replaced by John McLaren, (both were Scottish), who was said to run the park with a “green-thumbed iron fist.” He took over the nurseries started by Hammond, and by training an army of gardeners in the greenhouses, by 1924 they had planted over 3,600 varieties of trees, vines and herbaceous plants.

Last Saturday Flora Jayne and I walked the park to map our route for the tour. I thought about the idea of a park as “pleasure ground” that improves our humanity as intended by Olmstead. We encountered teens practicing their juggling, families out on a stroll, dancers swinging to salsa music, roller skaters boogying around in circles, a choir singing acapella under the Temple of Music, artists selling prints around the fountains of the Music Concourse, the food carts with café tables where people lingered, chatting in the spring sun. The rhododendrons that McLaren loved were in bloom, as were the native lilacs and red elderberry plants. We walked by the memorial for WWII soldiers and for AIDS victims. The roses were not close to budding but just reading their names of them gave me an anticipatory buzz. People were lifting their children to smell the cherry blossoms blooming. Small maple trees had jumped the fence from the Japanese Tea Garden, where landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara and his family managed and tended the garden until they were sent to a Japanese Internment Camp during World War II. The exquisite garden, with its poetic layering of trees and rocks, continues to tell their story.

Amongst all the people, birds and bees were in a springtime frenzy, pollinating the flowers. Like them, we carry nature within us, and we spread it. Most people are just a few generations away from ancestors who lived rurally and had to know the seasons and eat what they grew or could find. When people packed up and moved to the city, or to a new country, their landscape remained in their DNA. It’s in the tempo of the music we dance to, this far-away “home” is still in the cadence of our languages, it inspires our architecture and art. And the landscapes of our ancestors live on in our food. In Golden Gate Park, there are all manners of invasive wild foods – blackberries and roses, oxalis, pine tips, and borage. Each one has taken root from the millions of seeds and saplings that made the journey to this city with the strangers and sojourners who arrived here with very little, each plant a memento of the homes they left to find their fortune in this wild and windy outpost. And now they are the sites and scents of one of the world's most beautiful cities.

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