The Wilderness in Golden Gate Park: Notes of an 81-Year-Old Tree Hugger

Photo: Jeanne Hansen.

I am an inveterate tree hugger, a hugger of oak, fir, pine, eucalyptus, hickory and cedar which I first hugged as a boy growing up on the edge of a hardwood forest long gone to make room for suburbia. Fortunately, I enjoyed a second boyhood after I moved from Long Island to Northern California and fell in love with the redwood grove on the land where I planted fruit trees, harvested apples, peaches and plums. Fortunately, too, I now live five-minutes on foot from the western edge of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park that boasts thousands of trees that are clustered so closely together in some place that they make me feel I’m in a wilderness. It’s all unceded Ohlone territory.

Last winter, when winds up to 88-miles-per hour whipped San Francisco month-after-month, several hundred trees came down. The earth shook. No one seems to know precisely how many trees, but the figure 661 has been bandied about. In a city haunted by the homeless, druggies, unleased office space and criminals, citizens tend to forget about the trees and the woods at the heart of Golden Gate Park, an area that covers a thousand acres and that is the largest urban park in the US. Hurray! With hundreds of downed trees, the City, it seemed, had taken yet another hit it didn’t need and couldn’t afford.

As a tree hugger and a citizen of the city I had to see as many fallen trees as possible. Photographer Jeanne Hansen and I drove around the Park to get the lay of the land and refresh our memories of a place we had visited many times. Hansen made a name for herself documenting the lives of the punks in San Francisco in the 1980s. Alternative Voices is the title of her book. She’ll photograph most anything and anybody and she rarely goes anywhere without a camera.

Together we walked and saw fallen trees and the stumps of once mighty trees that had been uprooted, decapitated, split down the middle and shattered like toothpicks. We saw sliced and diced tree trunks, rounds way too big for a fireplace and sawdust scattered on the ground. Evidence that workers with chainsaws had been at work and had cleaned up much, but not all the aftermath of the storms. One of the workers told me, “People don’t realize the beauty of the Park that’s right under their noses and that takes them away from noise, traffic, and the problems of The City.”

Photo: Jeanne Hansen.

The fact that the Park exists is a miracle of sorts and a testament to the human imagination, landscape planning and persistence. As late as 1868, soon after the end of our Civil War, the area that is now the Park was known as a “howling waste of sand.” No one lived there and almost nothing grew. A desert of sorts, it begged to be salvaged and developed. Drought-resistant vegetation was introduced and soil was created. Little-by-little, over the course of many years, the omniscient sand was beaten back, flowers bloomed, shrubs took root and trees climbed toward the sky.

In large part, the Park was meant to be a kind of “safety valve” where urban dwellers on the Barbary Coast, the Mission and elsewhere could let off steam, inhale clean air, stretch their legs, appreciate the beauty of nature and the diversity of the vegetation, including dozens of different varieties of trees, such as guava, horse chestnut, sequoia, redwoods, pepperwood, oak and more. San Franciscans, whether nabobs, bohemians, Beats, hippies, dot.comers, cops, supervisors and the homeless have always had a lot of steam to release. They still do.          Individual trees in Golden Gate Park—a five-minute walk from my front door— mean a great deal to me, as do trees in the aggregate: the woods and the wilderness. It might seem odd to talk about a wilderness in the midst of a city the size of San Francisco, with roads cutting through the Park and major thoroughfares, including Lincoln Avenue and Fulton Street, on the periphery. Indeed, the Park boasts some of the best of civilization: a Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young, (a world class museum), the Shakespeare Garden, windmills and fields for soccer and lacrosse. Lovers find space to let it all hang out.

A few minutes walk from the Dutch Windmill, near the western edge of the Park, brought Hansen and I to a clearing where saplings had been planted and staked for support. It’s not the first time that the Park has been reforested. In 1995, after devastating winter storms, baby trees went into the ground. They survived and thrived and blended into the wooded landscape. Sometimes nature needs a helping hand, though eventually a forest will recreate itself.

Not surprisingly, the Pacific Horticultural Society calls the Park “the crowning jewel of San Francisco’s treasures.” Citizens might remember those words when they complain about the decline and fall of a mighty metropolis. At the end of a day exploring the woods and the wilderness, I looked for a downed tree I could hug, and came away empty handed. I was too old to climb a tree and perch high above the ground, and the trees were all too big around to embrace. So I put both hands on the trunk of a eucalyptus and let the life that was still in the tree flow into my body and the life in my body flow into the tree. I’d call that a symbiotic relationship.

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