And Wilderness Were Paradise Enow

A Requiem for the Berkeley Waterfront

By Michael Rossman

         Now that the issue's decided, with civilization and development triumphant, I sing requiem for a small wilderness that nobody much cared about -- the short strip of land across the freeway where Berkeley borders on the Bay.

         When I first walked here at tide-turn forty-odd years ago, it was pure wasteland of the modern sort, economically useless and utterly neglected. A road cut through to a rag-tag marina and fishing pier perched at the edge, inviting the lazy pleasures of democratic company. But the only organized use made of the land itself was a garbage dump on one penninsula, and a rubble-yard where a few patient unemployables chipped red bricks free from mortar for their boss to sell for pennies apiece.

         The rest was worthless no-man's-land, abandoned to the hardy grasses and coyote-bush that survived the harsh winter bay-wind and summer baking on compacted fill, to spread life's kindly camoflage over the random hummocks of broken concrete, the cardboard cartons, old couches, bags of leaves and torn clothing left along the wheel-ruts by those too lazy, cheap, or poor to make it to the dump. North of the pier-road stretched a great uneven field where a few people came to fly kites or run their dogs.

         Southward a rusting barb-wire fence ran to the densest shrubbery, where a makeshift lean-to and bedding sheltered occasional tramps or derelicts. Past the brick-dump, cupped in modest hillocks of fill, some open pits of industrial chemical waste gathered rainwater and leached towards the Bay. Beyond them the vegetation changed as the land sloped past the edge-road to a narrow beach where wind-blown sand abraded the litter of flotsam, broken boards, bleach-bottles and other debris left by the Bay's tides.

         This was my humdrum wilderness, and I loved it, just because it was what it was. To say why is to confess how hopelessly out of step with everyone else I feel, even as a nature romantic and ecology buff. If I never tried to raise public interest and support to defend this worthless paradise, it's because I'm sane enough to know a hopeless cause. I could only watch it passing as over the years posh restaurants began to sprout on the shore, the waste-pits were abandoned and filled, the dump spruced up, and a small park extended its greenery northward along a cleaner strip of beach.

         How could one speak against such advances of civic virtue? By the time deals were cooking to split the whole parcel up for development -- part to condos, commerce, and industry, the rest to be remade and maintained as a gracious waterfront park suitable to a progressive and ecologically-conscious city -- it was even more hopeless. Why should anyone care about the actual nature and ecology of "useless" land, when so many good uses contended for what had become prime turf?

         Still, what was vanishing cannot be replaced. In the turbulent years of the 1960s and my twenties I used to pick my way through the shrub-covered rubble to the beach, sorting out the perplexes of my love-life and upcoming trips. I couldn't say why I chose to wander there more often than in the wooded hills that rise on Berkeley's other side. I only knew there was something about this edge where the earth and sea reclaimed the waste of civilization that felt more apt to what I faced, and gave me a deeper and more centered peace.

         So it was here I took my young son a decade later, more than to any park or ecological display, to show him wilderness of infinite delight in nature's way and ours embraced. Animals afield in the whole, we'd park beside the rank berry patches in season, pausing to gorge ourselves sweetly among the prickles, and then work our way zig-zag through the grass from one choice heap of cardboard or boards to another, with him on my shoulders when we hit thistles.

         The tunnels of grassland creatures wound through the stems and crumbled beneath our heels -- for though this resourceless strip had been isolated for decades by the spreading, befouling city, cut off from replenishment, much of its original life still persisted. At twilight sometimes still the monkey-faced owls floated down from their pine-grove roosts in the hills to hunt, and we'd find their pellets on the trail, tease them open to study the stark hieroglyphics of white bone fragments set in felted mousehair.

         Under crushed cartons and old chairs we'd find the mouse-nests, woven from fine grasses and safe from rain. Usually we'd flush a few in the flesh, mostly brown voles clumsy in their flight; and now and then a nursing mother, shifting her pups in panic as we hastily lowered their shelter back with our apologies. Their bones were fair game, though, and their skulls a prize of jewelry to my son as to me. We'd find them under old furniture, sometimes with a whole body mummified perfectly to skeleton and skin. Here and there beneath the concrete slabs my son bade me lift, we'd find a little pile of mouse-skulls, each nibbled neatly through at the base to open the brain -- likely the work of ferrets or weasels, so slick we never saw them.

         Over south, past the remains of old industry and near the water, furniture gave way to pallets and mouse-bones to the remains of rats, whose bleached lower jaws made exotic earrings. Sometimes we'd see them slinking among the breakwater rocks, busy at carrion, newcomers as well adapted here as to the honeycombed hill above the dump, where they foraged invisibly amid the clamour of seagulls whirling above the garbage. While we picked our way toward the dump over stretches of original dirt my son would watch for the patches rich with shell-fragments from the old Ohlone middens, as I told him how the great flocks of gulls had learned to feast in season on the tribe's leavings before they cycled back to Mono Lake to breed, where they still returned though we had brought them richer and year-round fare.

         Less change had come to the creatures of grass and thistle, and each autumn a riot of finches and wrens harvested the bountiful seeds while mice busied themselves at the roots. As we wandered we'd flush an occasional cottontail, or better a jackrabbit, leaving the dog to run himself hoarse with delighted yapping. Sometimes at twilight under an early full moon we'd stumble into a clearing and flush a whole convention of jacks in hopping confusion. Their usual runways converged here and there in the open fields, in honeycombed warrens guarded by concrete slabs too heavy to move.

         The lizards too, like the mammals and gulls, appreciated human debris, basking on the crushed orange-crates and crumpled roofing, alert for the occasional sparrow-hawk. We missed the sweet chirping of tree-frogs in spring, though they survive in a creek only a mile to the north. But under the cartons and railroad ties we could find the full complement of lesser creatures who still own this land. Three kinds of slugs and a small flat-spiraled native snail, the French garden-pest surviving here only where occasional clumps of gladiolus and lily bushed up from discarded garden rhizomes. Earwigs, Jerusalem and mole crickets, sowbugs grading to types as big as my son's thumb near the water, striped worms feasting on cardboard as adaptive bacteria turned it to slush. And hunting them the predators: in wet time the climbing and slender salamanders, thriving as they still do all through our town in vacant lots; and in dry time the lizards and centipedes.

         To show a child is to see again, and this small wilderness was rich with special habitats and our own tell-tale middens. On our prowls we'd stop to cut feathery lances from the tall clumps of pampas-grass that flourished where sand reclaimed the dry edge of the brick-dump. Amid their skirts we could follow a vein of crushed bricks encrusted with bright yellow sulphur, the gem-like trace of former industry, seeking the perfect crystal to set beside the slivers of irridescent glassy slag which rains exposed on a nearby hillock.

         Beyond lay the graveyard of power, a barren circle littered with chunks of black rubber from countless batteries smashed to reclaim their plates. Nothing grew in the soil between, fouled with acid and lead sulphate. But even here lichens and small mosses greened the thin fine drifts of fresh dust left by the wind, and orb-weavers spun the rubber angles for the passing flies who settled in this grassless space to preen themselves.

         As we moved on through the grass, we left a fleeing wake of small hunting-spiders, bearing bundled eggs in spring. West toward the water, where humidity lingered under boards and in the crumpled strata of overgrown asphalt shingles, black widows hid from the light as I taught my son to be careful how he stuck his fingers under what. Under pallets in an unused industrial yard we discovered a deviant widow race, confined to a tiny territory. Their abdomens were striped instead of glossy black, quite like a common innocuous kind; but the same scarlet hourglass flared CAUTION as we flipped them over with a long twig, left to wonder whether they were an unusual hybrid formed in this peculiar habitat.

         On the edge above the water, among black cystalline sands of emery dumped long ago, low sprawls of introduced New Zealand spinach offered us thick nourishing leaves to chew as we took the edge-road, less for shortcut than in hopes of finding the crushed carcass of one of the feral cats prowling the fields, with its skull intact, a fanged treasure. If maggots were still at it, we'd vault it in a cairn marked for our return in a few weeks, and then cut on through the field's fertile fill where green stretches of broadleaved parsnips brought black people out each spring to gather their bounty in gunneysack loads amid the bright yellow blossoms of wild mustard, the pale violet of wild radish.

         In that season the red-winged blackbirds warbled fiercely, staking out territory in every brush-clump and in the cat-tails that flourished in wet hollows. These grew most lushly around the sheltered shores of the chemical waste-pits, where clean surface waters nourished rhizomes growing above the deep slurry of contaminants. The most recent pits were placid ellipses of ochre and vermillion, as delicate and spectacular as hot-spring mineral pools, skinned with irridescent films where odd bacteria metabolized a chaos of hydrocarbons while the blackbirds sang. We did search for the telltale nest with dead eggs, familiar from the pesticidal groves of the Central Valley, but found it rarely. Something else had done in the grasshoppers long ago on this whole strip, and the blackbirds seemed to depend instead on salt-loving flies from the edge of beach and marsh where water and wind scrubbed all clean again.

         The land-fly count increased as we approached the dump. Here among the swirling winds the raucous seagulls soared and settled in the bulldozer's wake, freer than we to scavange whatever they pleased. Still a few coins to the dumpkeepers brought us the good wheel from the wrecked tricycle, a fair pot, a dozen delicate thermos liners. But the fleamarket's the place for bargains. What drew us to the dump instead was just what was there, the chance to stand by a great cataract plunging into a whirlpool into the earth as all the loose matter of civilization was dumped from trunk and truck into the pit where the 'dozers churned it and sealed it over with soil.

         Broken windows and toasters, cantalope rind and withered rose, the cracked block and torn condom: here the stuff of everyday life was put to compost in geology's bosom, beyond the wink of time we call the future and our own small notions of fertility and conservation, to renew the reclaiming world. What wonder I found peace in the smelly din of birds and engines, as our leavings were earthed like any creature's to await the deep promise of life encoded in the littered fields around?

         On the beach nearby I could read the same story to my son as he sought out the small shore-crabs and snapping nereis worms that thrived beneath the concrete chunks stabilizing the tide-band. The clams in the mud were unfit to gather as the Ohlone had, but the fish drew our lines in season, however seldom they bit. As he learned patience beside the sculptures of rich rust that the salt wind carved from the thick steel fittings of stranded timbers, we ate our lunches and studied our preserve.

         South where the freeway bent toward the bridge the shore cupped a true tidal marsh, where vivid orange patches of rootless parasite spotted the fat-stemmed thickets of pickle-weed, and flies bred among jumbled tons of boards and lesser offal funneled in by the tide. Here the spirit of fertility in this wasteland flowered in human celebration, as over the years anonymous artists raised up from old sticks and tin an endless menagerie of common and fantastical icons to stand silhouetted at twilight against the sunset Bay for a season till hand, wind, and wave used their stuff again.

         At their feet as in the field the story went on. A thin film of diatoms scummed the skin of a doll's detached arm. The bleach-bottles my son found to carry his shells in were brittle already, their oxidizing plastics flaking off at the lip, and in the mud bacterial populations shifted as slightly-new varieties found advantage in the changing flux of the Bay's diluted oil-spills and industrial effluents. Those deepest-living in the muck were anaerobic forms descended from microbes ruling life two billion years ago, before new species arose to begin the great poisoning that oxygenated Earth's atmosphere and changed life's course utterly.

         Through the great dislocations since, when meteor-falls extinguished three-fourths of all species, life has gone on in its way, as it does. Ten years after I first took my child to walk this little wilderness, I took another son, barely old enough to trust on the brick-heaps, for his first walk. The whole Emeryville spit where the jack-rabbits once ran was gone by then, lost to the three hundred condos of Watergate beyond the failed heliport and the convention center. But though more contracts were being drawn, in the fields that fronted Berkeley nothing much had changed yet.

         Mice still nested in the couch-springs, owls still dropped their pellets on the trail. I flushed a jack and my older son found four cold lizards beneath the boards, curled in semi-hibernation. Though there was talk of closing it soon, the dump still roared like Old Faithful through shifts of avant-garde recycling. A mile south, right beside the freeway, a monstrous square skeleton was rising, the first skyscraper of the new Emeryville. By spring it would be thirty stories tall, throwing business's shadow all the way to the shore where we hunted for the little crabs.

         From the hills above, it looked like some giant mutant fungus, sprouting from a spore blown over the waters from the rank patch in a cleft of the far peninsula, where the infection of skyscrapers had spread ever since I was a child. From higher yet in the sky the whole ring of our metropolis around the vast Bay looked like the bacterial scum around a mud-puddle, as time extended its perspective. Even in the vacant lots between skyscrapers' toes we had always found sowbugs, snuggled in discarded newspaper, and I trusted that there would be some litter left when these fields gave way to manicured grass where visiting businessmen took the breeze near their hotels. Even this would be for worship, but no park in town could hold a candle to the treasure that lingered still in my wilderness, and I hoped to have a few years yet to share it again with a child.


         This was 1983. I got those years, but barely, as my sons and I became wild animals on the run from the buzz-saw of civilization savaging our modest Eden. We might hardly have seemed so if you'd watched us picking our way North across the old railroad trestle at twilight  to where the older one could set his pole for smelt while I helped the little one dig for clams. But neglect is crucial. A decade later, two park fences kept us from that spot. By then, all the old dump was covered and landscaped; and commercial and park development had stripped the wilderness from most of Berkeley's contact with the sea. The huge corporation Catullus that owned the great field between this rim and the highway had bulldozed it twice in open contempt of fledgling envionmental law and complacent bureaucrats, leveling its elevations and deliberately exterminating its vernal ponds, to make it not worth saving from development. The turnips and parsnips went too, and with them the black folks who'd gathered their greens in Spring. And most of the rabbits and lizards, and mostly us too, though we came back to what came to be called Cesar Chavez Park to attend the wonderful Kite Festival, and sometimes to run the dog.

         Though sowbugs and slugs could still be found amidst the ratty turf, the key marks of our wilderness ecology -- the garbage and the richness -- were gone from most of the Berkeley waterfront by the time we settled into them in Albany. There, on a much larger peninsula of landfill, we found a similar ecology of pure neglect and became its inhabitants in turn. As all the ground was artificial, we missed the original bayside prairie dominated  by coyote-bush, the Ohlone midden-fragments underfoot. But it had its own grandure in the clots of concrete slabs and brick cornices, the rampant tangles of rusted reinforcing-rod, that gave such texture to the fields of fennel.

         Here, with the eclectic garbage that folks continued to discard atop sealed truckings from long ago, almost the full complement of creatures and plants from Berkeley appeared, and more besides in the rich, impenetrable warrens formed by the larger rubble; as well as many more kinds of birds in the various microhabitats around the long perimeter lapped by water. For a long time, we encountered almost no other people there besides rare dog-walkers and queer couples. Though the homeless had started appearing in town early in Reagan's reign, when the elder Bush succeeded I was still wondering why they hadn't discovered this place, for it would surely have been my own choice. Soon after, they finally began to appear, at first a few and discretely, until a deviant community of near a hundred came to be quartered there in warmer season.

         Meanwhile, for nearly a decade, my children and I had free access here again to our kind of wilderness, unmolested. The danger was not from folks of this sort, who by being taken as little more than wild animals by mainstream society qualified as just another life-form on our turf, but rather from people of civic purpose. As I could see their gentle onslaught coming as surely as it had in Berkeley, I scurried to make such use as I could. By the time my younger son grew too busy for such walks, I was taking the second-graders of the school I teach science in, on seasonal expeditions there, and warning them sadly how soon it would be sanitized.


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