I wonder if the rest of you will be as surprised as I was to learn that the area around Fifth and Mission Streets in San Francisco used to be dominated by sand hills, some at least 40 feet high. It is hard to imagine such a sharply varied and shifting terrain where there is now an uncompromising grid of flat streets. Still, I have it on good authority (see page 16) that towering hills of sand once stood where there is now a towering parking garage. How things have changed, and so quickly. Those dunes were mapped fewer than 150 years ago. And yet in that short stretch of time-covering less than two life spans-all surface trace of what was once there has been obliterated.
What does that mean for us? It is certainly a stimulating intellectual exercise to assemble records and maps and try to visualize what this area looked like before we started laying down the asphalt, just a short time ago. But it is also sad that we don’t have a collective social memory of what was here before. I guess it’s no surprise; our alienation from Mother Earth isn’t exactly breaking news.
Now, in the place of hills sloping down to an extensive marsh, we have Sony Metreon, temple of mind-numbing, ear-splitting electronic entertainment for young spirits who might have heretofore been blissfully happy tumbling down the faces of those disappeared dunes. I think of the many times I took my son out to Point Reyes for his favorite outdoor adventure of racing, rolling, and sliding down the face of the dunes at Abbott’s Lagoon.
The point here isn’t to mourn the lost sand hills. In fact, I find a thrill in visualizing the dunes and sloughs beneath the veneer of built infrastructure, and a defiant joy in resurrecting-if only in the imagination-that lost landscape. When Bay Nature reflects on the past, as we so often do (see David Wallace’s essay on page 10 on the possibilities of reintroducing large animals that once roamed this region), we’re not wallowing in sorrow for a Paradise Lost, but rather hoping to ignite bold thinking about how to take care of this landscape from here on out.
We will never witness tule elk grazing along Fifth Street, but we can go see a healthy reintroduced herd that wasn’t there 30 years ago, roaming Tomales Point. California condors are being reintroduced at Pinnacles National Monument a little ways south of San Jose. Meanwhile, lovers of sand dunes are restoring dune vegetation out at the Presidio. Here and there, piece by small piece, people are combining research about the past with imaginative use of today’s technology to implement an inspired vision of how this region can once again be home to all kinds of life. You could say we’re looking back to move forward. And I think we all look forward to seeing the results
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Veteran environmental activist, writer, editor, publisher, educator, and coastal wetlands scientist Phyllis Faber has made countless contributions to the Bay Area environmental movement.