Water on Her Mind: Jane Wolff, Global Ecologist Extraordinaire

Heron’s Head Park. Photograph Source: Port of San Francisco – CC BY 2.0

“Large scale changes can’t be undone and there’s no going back, but people can usefully intervene in landscapes to renew and support ecosystems, remediate pollution and encourage biodiversity to foster the complex web of relationships that characterize healthy environments.”

– Jane Wolff

Born in St. Louis near the Mississippi River, the author, teacher and ecologist, Jane Wolff, lives and works in Ontario, Canada. “Up stream” is how she describes her current location. “Water is key,” she adds. “It can tell you about all the other systems.” Wolff writes beautifully about water in two books, Delta Primer and Bay Lexicon which sprang from her research in the San Francisco Bay Area, her “old stomping ground,” she calls. In her unorthodox and even heretical view, the San Francisco Bay Area belongs to one huge, “hybrid ecosystem” built by nature and by human beings. It includes the Sierras, the rivers, including the Sacramento, that flow down from the mountains, the delta where fresh water meets salt water, San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate and finally the Pacific Ocean. In the cast of North American environmentalists and ecologists, Wolff offers a unique view of a complex and nuanced ecosystem where millions of people live and work, big ag operates, often ruthlessly, and species like salmon fight to survive. In her world culture meets nature.

A magna cum laude graduate from Harvard and Radcliffe, and now an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, Wolff learned heaps when she worked at the San Francisco Exploratorium from 2007 to 2014. Before that, she served as a research and design consultant in New Orleans and also as a Fulbright-Hayes Scholar in the Netherlands. She has delivered lectures from Amsterdam to Zurich and from Berkeley to Sydney, Australia.

In the Mississippi Delta, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, as Wolff explains in her books and in her essays, nature and culture have conspired to create recipes for disaster: “inevitable cities in impossible places.” Still, her work suggests ways to avoid the kinds of catastrophes that the author Raymond Dashmann spelled out in his depressing 1965 book, The Destruction of California. Prognosticators have been echoing him ever since then.

In Bay Lexicon, her illustrated field guide, Wolff pays special attention to Heron’s Head Park, a mini paradise and a microcosm of sorts on the edge of San Francisco Bay that reflects a tragic past and that points to the possibility of a more harmonious future than the present day portends. “Who Built Heron’s Head?” Wolff asks. Her answer: “The combined product of intention and accident.” She adds, “Heron’s Head Park exists because abandoned infrastructure became an armateur for new nature.” With ocean levels rising and the San Francisco shoreline threatened as never before, Heron’s Head Park has become a popular destination for locals and tourists. Humans as a species love vanishing and vanished places, Wolff writes.

On the controversial topic of bay “restoration,” she suggests that “large scale changes can’t be undone” and that “there’s no going back.” To restorationists those are fighting words. Wolff prefers the concept and the word, “rehabilitation,” and argues that people “can usefully intervene in landscapes to renew and support ecosystems, remediate pollution and encourage biodiversity to foster the complex web of relationships that characterize healthy environments.”

Heron’s Head might well be a window into the future of San Francisco Bay. Owned and maintained by the Port of San Francisco and operated by the Park and Recreation Department, it offers a habitat for a variety of creatures. A Field Guide to the 100 Birds of Heron’s Head helps bird lovers identify species.

In 1970 construction began for an “embankment” in the Hunter’s Point/ Bayview neighborhood that was to serve as a terminal, aka a pier, number 98, for container ships that would transport cargo globally. The pier was also meant to provide an anchor for a second bay bridge that would take vehicles back and forth from San Francisco to the East Bay. Construction continued for seven years, Wolff writes, until in a referendum when voters defeated “the span plan.“

In Bay Lexicon, Wolff tells a riveting story about the massive cleanup that resulted in the removal of thousands of tons of concrete, asphalt and debris. In 1999, Pier 98 was reborn as Heron’s Head Park where “plants and animals colonized the new land and a marsh energized from the rubble.”

Wolff offers a quotation from William Faulkner (“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past”), and argues that while landscapes change, “they always contain traces of their previous states: souvenirs.” In Bay Lexicon she deciphers “souvenirs” (i.e. mud, debris and nineteenth-century shipwrecks), and offers key words such as “land,” “water,” “work” and play” to unlock secrets of past environments and extoll the present.

“Heron’s Head‘s pleasures derive from its wildness—and from the scarcity of such wildness at the edge of the bay,” Wolff writes. “What’s rare is special; what’s special brings delight.” The park and its surrounding landscape belong, she argues, to a “hybrid ecology,” that speaks to her and to environmentalists like her about the tangled intersections where nature and culture, land and water come together.

I’ve ambled along the paved abutment at Heron’s Head until I was surrounded on three sides by water and treated to spectacular views of bay landmarks: downtown skyscrapers, including the Salesforce Tower, Oakland, Twin Peaks and Mt. Diablo. I’ve heard the cries of gulls and the sounds of waves breaking on the shore. (The Heron Head jetty is said to resemble the head of a heron, when viewed from above.) The park boasts an EcoCenter that provides environmental education, workshops and public outreach. It has a living roof, a rainwater harvesting and reuse system and solar energy. A sign reads, “The EcoCenter represents a critical effort by a community experiencing significant environmental stress to launch a positive response to the legacy left  by the Navy, utility companies, industry and decades of irresponsible land-use planning.”

Getting to Heron’s Heads means traveling through an area with factories, warehouses and railroad cars. It can feel like returning to an era when San Francisco was a major North American port and a manufacturing center. It’s the sort of place that, as Wolff explains, is fast disappearing, or has already disappeared in the Bay Area, and that has sometimes been replaced by upscale restaurants and posh shops designed to deliver food, wine and leisurely pleasures to consumers.

Labor, she observes, has been displaced by play. Harry Bridges, once the feisty head of the San Francisco Longshoreman’s Union, is now largely a ghost on what was a thriving waterfront, though Wolff honors his memory and observes that now as always “behind workers there are other workers.”

Wolff’s first book, Delta Primer (2003), boasts a preface by former California state historian, Kevin Starr, plus dozens of maps, drawings and facts. “All the powerful and conflicting forces that are shaping the California landscape today converge in the Delta,” Wolff writes in her Primer. These forces include “suburban development, environmental politics, the changing economics of agriculture, and the endless demand for water.”

Wolff has a unique voice and a special role to play. She also belongs to a wave of young academics that includes Matthew Booker, the author of Down By the Bay, as well as her former colleagues at the San Francisco Exploratorium, Peter Richards and Susan Schwartzenberg, both of whom are artists. They’re all keenly aware of the current global crisis and have devoted their professional lives to the study and understanding of the environmental past as well as the environmental present, hoping to arouse citizens and policy makers and perhaps avoid catastrophe.

During a recent conversation with Wolff, I asked her if she was deeply worried, or only mildly concerned about the state of the world today. “Yes, I’m alarmed!,” Wolff said. She added, “San Francisco is different from New Orleans and New Orleans is different again from Amsterdam and New York, but places where rivers meet oceans and seas will always be in flux. They are not always compatible with the kinds of cities we build in North America.”

She suggests learning from indigenous people that “everything is a relationship,” and also from the Dutch who realized in the face of sea level rise that to survive they had to live with water and not fight against it, too often an American way of responding to water: make it invisible, make it go away as fast as possible. In The Netherlands, Wolff realized that hundreds of years of Dutch history and Dutch hydrology couldn’t be imported directly and slapped down in the US. One size does not fit all, though she looks for models and templates.

“People have long been making changes, thinking that they will create stability and permanence in fluctuating landscapes,” Wolff told me. “In fact, the changes simply redirect the landscape’s flux and often exacerbate their instability and impermanence.” The law of unintended consequences unfolds almost everywhere that she has looked over the past two decades: San Francisco Bay; the vast, intricate Sacramento/ San Joaquin Delta; the Mississippi with its upstream tributaries and watersheds; and in The Netherlands where three rivers, the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt, meet the North Sea.

In her Lexicon, Wolff describes San Francisco Bay as “a landscape type,” and adds “If you come from someplace else, you might not recognize the details, but the big themes will be familiar.” One of the major attractions of both Delta Primer and Bay Lexicon is that the reader is never lost. The maps and the texts mean that even a stranger to the bay and the delta soon knows her way around. Wolff’s love of beauty also goes a long way toward making friends and converting citizens to her undogmatic ways of looking at land and water, not as two alien places separated from one another, but interconnected, and in a sense twins and doubles of one another, two halves of a whole that make up our blue planet.

Sometimes Wolff’s comments seem predictable, but she also offers real surprises as she does in an essay about the rise and fall of St. Louis, Missouri, her hometown, a city built brick by brick, and later, in the aftermath of white flight, dismantled brick by brick. “Saint Louis, Brick City” may remind readers how delightful an essay with big ideas can be.

Historians, geologists, ecologists and nature writers could learn a lot by reading Wolff on St. Louis, or from “Cultural Landscapes and Dynamic Ecologies: Lessons for New Orleans,” an essay published in 2014.  How comfortable she quickly became in the post-Katrina world, and how sobering her account of the city’s hydrology and engineering! Environmentalists from Toronto to Sacramento and Amsterdam to San Francisco might read Bay Lexicon and Delta Primer, think critically and engage in a dialogue with Wolff’s ideas, maps, drawings and hybrid ecologies. Both books are too big for a back pocket, but they are designed for walks and adventures. Armchair explorers will also likely find them a delight.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.