In the movies, when an intense scene of close-ups ends, the camera sometimes cuts to a long shot. Our eyes were full of, say, the faces and hands of a couple making out in a car on the side of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, and then we get a view from a thousand feet up of the whole glorious land and seascape, for just a second or two, and our minds cool off and we gain perspective. That’s the beauty of this long shot of Cesar Chavez Park that photographer Phil Rowntree took from the top of Grizzly Peak as the sun was setting through the coastal fog.
What do we see here? An almost geometrically straight and rectangular coastline bounds the cove that lies between the park in the distance and the Berkeley shore on the near side. We know from walking it — we call it the North Basin — that it isn’t perfectly straight, but this distant view reminds us of the larger truth that it was designed with a protractor and built by humans. We’re not looking at a peninsula that waves, winds, and tectonic action raised out of the sea bed. This is the pure anthropocene — a habitat created by people that would not exist without people, and where people have left an indelible stamp. And what a stamp! People built this as a giant catbox, a place to dump their waste. Why am I saying “their”? I lived in Oakland at the time and I dropped a dead mattress and Murphy bed frame here in the late 1970s. Every Berkeley household through the mid-80s has its household waste here. Then it filled up, and gradually people covered it over and built a park on top. Nature contributed the seeds of numerous plants, mostly weeds, and eventually some wildlife other than gulls and rats arrived, and that’s cause for celebration. Still, the responsibility for the existence and the maintenance of this place is in human hands. The fate of this box depends on the governance of the City of Berkeley, on the Parks administration, on waterfront management, and on the labor of the workers charged with gardening, maintenance, and security. We volunteers of the Chavez Park Conservancy try to fill in and help out as best we are able given the circumstances. This park should not exist; creating it was a crime against nature. Yet it’s here and it’s not going away. The best we can do is to atone for our ecological misdeeds by working to make this park as vibrant, beautiful, thriving, and memorable as we are able.
And now enough of the long shot and back to our closeups of feathers, fur, and flower heads. Like in the movies.