On the west side of Golden Gate Park just off MLK Drive there’s a small green pond that boasts the name Mallard Lake. The steep hill that looms over the lake’s southern shore is populated by a sprawling grove of Eucalyptus surrounding a few tall Cypress that bear the scars of decades of winter storms. Every month or so for more than twenty years, this is the place I’ve come to sit and meditate . Until recently I’ve known it as the most peaceful place on earth.
Perhaps you know a place like this – a special place you return to over and over again, even if only in your thoughts. These places come to represent our sense of oneness with the earth. So, when the beauty, balance and soulfulness of the place is threatened, its alarm resonates deep within us. It may simply be the one among a cacophony of alarms going off around the globe.
My routines when I visit Mallard Lake are simple and unchanged. After I settle into the shaggy contoured side of the broad-bottomed Eucalyptus I favor, I recall my history with the place by recalling the history of the missing limbs of the old Cypress downslope, directly in front of me. Eighteen winters ago a powerful coastal wind toppled a tall Monterey pine that fell right across the face of the Cypress which now accounts for the jagged amputated limbs marking its entire southern face.
Though I wasn’t there to see it, the time-lapsed images of my visits after the storm damage still play across my memory. I recall the vulgarity of the fallen tree’s roots reaching six feet into the air, the trunk in big chunks after the park rangers got to it, and finally, when all the fallen limbs were clear away, a clear view of ravaged Cypress, standing straight and tall like a battle-scarred warrior above the moss green lake. Since then, little has changed.
Sitting in the tall spring grass, watching early twilights in the fall, feeling the chill of the storms brewing off-shore in the winter, watching fat bees search for late summer blossoms, many of my visits over the years have been life-saving. Mourning family deaths, decamping from business crises, recovering from over-work, reclaiming my soul, reconnecting to nature, every need that compelled me to come was lessened or resolved by the quiet, the wind and the trees that I came to know as comrades and friends. I thought I could count on it forever. It’s the place where I’d like to draw my last breath on earth. Or it was.
In early May, two months into San Francisco’s pandemic lockdown, I ventured into the park again. Kathy and I had just spent two uncomfortable hours at a public laundromat, masked and gloved. On the way home she dropped me off at the park. Seeing no one around, I stripped my mask off as soon as I got out of the car, desperate for fresh tree-scented air. I walked slowly and carefully up the familiar paths longing for the respite of my spot overlooking the little green pond called Mallard Lake. Savoring every step and every lungful of fresh air, I looked up from the rutted path knowing I was near my turnoff. The scene that confronted me stopped me cold.
When I remembered to breathe again my nose caught the sweet tang of tree sap, the smell that emanates from a logging operation. The quarter-acre that stood between me and the grove overlooking the lake had been clear cut, not a tree left standing. As I edged along the leftover piles of sawdust and bark, my mouth hanging open in horror, the anger that had first flared up when I read about SF Park & Rec’s plan to remove ‘dangerous trees’ resurfaced like acid bile. Starting to panic, I hurried toward my trees fearing the worst.
When I spotted the twins, two towering Eucalyptus whose limbs seem from some angles to be co-joined, I felt hope. I cut around them through the thick brown twig-strewn grass jogging toward the Mallard Lake overlook. Looking up, trying to find the old Cypress with the jagged limb stumps, my right foot caught a snag and I crashed face-first to the ground. The wind knocked out of me, I was slow to get to my feet. Carefully re-orienting myself to the familiar landscape, I didn’t care if I was hurt as long as I found my grove untouched by the chainsaws that had slaughtered their neighbors.
Twenty feet further on, I spotted them. The Eucalyptus that had cradled my back for twenty years and my old friend, the tall battle-scarred Cypress and the entire grove surrounding them stood swaying in the westerly breeze, unmolested.
The rest of that visit I could do little but calm myself. I jotted down notes about what I had just experienced. I meditated trying to find the deep joy I’d so often experienced sitting at Mallard Lake. After two Bud Lights and a couple tokes I was calmer but even as I walked away headed down the trail I always clean-up on my way home, a nagging sense of insecurity clung to me.
When I returned six weeks later, I thought I knew what to expect. Shaking my head as I walked past the decimated quarter acre, I told myself that it was just a few old trees, the park had promised to plant twice as many new ones. But I knew that as much as we cherish newborns, we still suffer the loss of older loved ones. As I settled once again into my Eucalyptus backrest and took in the view of the Cypress and the lake, I tried not be sad. I failed.
Knees complaining, I put my palms down on the leaf-strewn ground on either side of me to help stretch my legs from their cross-legged position. When I looked down at my right hand, I saw a small white circle of plastic. Picking at it out of curiosity I found that it was the top of a used syringe. I emptied my beer and carefully inserted the six-inch needle into the can.
Seldom did my Mallard Lake visits not include cleaning up trash, sometimes a lot it — left over from encampments abandoned by homeless people. But, for some reason my spot at the base of the Eucalyptus had never been trashed. I knew the needle could have been there for weeks, but I couldn’t help but look around, wondering if that person was still about. It was then that I spotted ‘Mr. Death.’
I’m always vigilant walking into the park, not out of fear as much as the need to be aware of my surroundings. This time I notice a man off to the side of the trail as I walked in. Dressed in dark well-worn cloths, he was sorting through the two large bags. His movements were erratic and he was cursing to himself.
Twenty minutes later, looking over my right shoulder after finding the needle I spotted the same man, now just twenty yards away. He must have found what he’d been looking for in his bags, because now he was dressed head-to-toe in black. The wind flared out the old black shirt he had tied around his head so that he appeared to be wearing a cape. He had donned a pair of dark glasses as well. Though his movements were still erratic, he seemed intent on his own little world. I saw no reason to fear him but could not help labelling him Mr. Death.
But, once again, I found no peace or fulfillment at my favorite spot on earth. The clear-cut quarter acre across the way, the used syringe in the ground and Mr. Death scuttling about over my shoulder – none of them, collectively or by themselves, should have left me so unsettled.
When I got home that night, tired and dissatisfied, I wrote about it, I talked with Kathy and yet when I woke up the next morning, the unease was still there. After breakfast I sorted through our meager pile of mail and found the latest issue of Time. The headline screamed: ‘One Last Chance’.
In the feature titled ‘The Defining Year’ Justin Worland aptly summarized the climate crisis, the abundant solutions and the limited time we have left to implement them. None of it was new to me. I am a climate activist. But all of it, Worland’s article and the dozens of other features, sidebars and opinions — all focused on climate and every writer urging us to act now – hit me over the head like I was hearing about it for the first time. ‘The Defining Year’
Suddenly I knew what happened at Mallard Lake.
Mother Earth got my attention by playing on my affection for one small part of her. She was telling me, “This is what’s happening to all of me.”
Don’t get me wrong. Though I dearly love my meditative retreat at Mallard Lake, I know it’s part of the real world — a world that includes: litigious-minded citizens forcing the parks department to deal with trees as liabilities, fellow-humans who’ve been abandoned by society and those who casually treat nature as their dumping ground. My little slice of nirvana in Golden Gate Park simply met with reality. Or I did.
Unfortunately, our entire planet is on its way to this kind of reality.