I pull to the side of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, succumbing to a sudden urge to get out of the pickup and walk in a garden that requires nothing of me. I’m in the western reaches of Golden Gate Park where the labors of gardeners have created roadside attractions, a bank of purple Mexican sage and yellow oenethera on one side, a narrow lawn with a couple of wind-beaten redwoods and bottlebrush on the other. I know that if I venture from the roadway the place gets wilder, untended, and that’s what I want, an illusion of wilderness, where time is of a grander dimension, though I also know that the happiest benefactors of neglect are the biggest weeds, cucumber vine blotting out whatever it encounters, ivy scaling the eucalyptus, blackberries shooting up through the bottlebrush.
Illusions have variable shelf lives, and this one curdles after a few minutes of exploration. Trash infests every leafy recess, hamburger wrappers, soiled clothing, used batteries. Nothing is so forlorn as old plastic, and nothing gets old as fast. Another day I might take the long view, that Nature in her own good time will attend to our messes and screw-ups. Another day I might appreciate the fact that there is a garden here at all, where once there had been nothing but dunes. Another day I might be in awe of the massive twin eucalyptuses and want to stand in the narrow space between them.
Today I think, maybe the eucalyptuses are just another screw-up, like the Dr. Pepper bottle in the ivy. Maybe the whole idea of creating a garden where nature intended sand dunes is a screw-up. I peel off some ivy that has snaked 12 feet up the trunk of one. It comes away surprisingly easily, as if eucalyptus is figuring out a defense for it, however inadequate. Every trunk nearby has tendrils attached. I quell the urge to liberate one more. NOOOOO. Kill me now.
Why do I feel so blue? It’s the gray, the fog. There, I’ve said it, whined. What would I rather have, this or 103 in Central Park? Okay, this, but still. The persistent wind, the gray; it feels like weather for unworthy stepchildren. It could go on for days. It has gone on for days.
Two relatively small, recently planted trees draw me out of the thickets. Though sparse, they are not spindly, nor forlorn, but stand like princelings. Copper beeches. Copper is not their color. Wine-dark, I’d say, not because it’s accurate either but it lends a well-deserved, Homeric cachet. I think of the gardens where I work, where I might install such a glory. Sure, in a hundred years, somebody will curse the nitwit who planted a large tree in such a small garden, but will I care?
Back in the pickup, traveling, I’m still not ready to go back to work. A parking place appears near the arboretum (that would cheer up anyone), and minutes later I’m admiring the Himalayan blue bamboo in the entry garden and wondering where I could install that. Anywhere, really.
The last time I wandered the arboretum—not that long ago—there was construction everywhere, every path being made a thoroughfare. It seemed that the demons of hardscape, the architects and engineers, had won permanent ascendancy over the muddy gardeners.
Expectations of bliss downgraded, I take a southern path toward the conifer- surrounded pond. Bliss makes a thrilling comeback, culminating in the sight of blush-pink new fronds of woodwardia ferns along the banks. I glimpse a gardener in the shade of the trees on the slope above, and go to express my admiration and gratitude for her work. Dolores is her name, unsuited, I say, for someone so full of cheer. She laughs. Her bailiwick extends beyond the native garden, incorporating, she says, 3 ponds. In addition to helping uproot the stump of a deceased maple in the meadow down below, she spent the morning grooming a nearby tree. She points to the branches piled below the canopy.
I see the tree. In an instant it becomes a landmark, a destination, a you-gotta-see tree. One of the wasteful, ill-conceived paths half-finished the last time I was here, with a ridiculous stone wall and an elevated wooden walkway, now appears a masterpiece, incorporating on the wooden section a place to sit and contemplate, a construction worthy of its function as a pilgrimage walk in honor of that tree.
“Fagus sylvatica ‘Lanceolata’,” Dolores responds when I ask what kind it is.
The truth’s established and borne out,
Though circumstanced with dark and doubt––
Though by a world of doubt surrounded.
from “Beech” by Robert Frost