Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: The Edifice Complex Strikes Again

By Ron Sullivan
Friday February 01, 2008

Speaking truth to power is all very well. Sometimes, though, I just lose my temper and feel the need to speak truth to cockamamie. 

The same people, beings, places, systems that get routinely threatened by the powerful are just as vulnerable to the thoughtless deprecations of any bliss ninnies who get hold of a half-baked notion and enough bucks to get it started.  

If they don’t do more than dig a hole before the foundation grants run out, they’ve still obliterated whatever was there before them and set the stage for the invasion of the nasties. Remember that parable Jesus told that ended with the re-possession of the victim by not one but seven devils? 

Gardens are as invisible to such visionaries as natural systems and places. Is it because of the merely mortal, living beings that inhabit and compose them? It’s amazing that such beings seem to be so disposable; maybe it’s that humans can’t quite conceive of our own mortality, no matter how often or hard we get our noses rubbed in it. 

What ticked me off this week is a ballot proposition in San Francisco, and the full-page ad in Monday morning’s Chronicle promoting it. They want to pave Alcatraz and put in a porking lot. 

I don’t think this porkbarrel proposition will pass, given the lean times and general electoral impatience: the right thing for the wrong reason.  

“The Light Party” proposes in its “Alcatraz Conversion Project” that “By Converting Alcatraz Island, a place of pain and suffering, into a ‘Jewel of Light,’ We will activate powerful forces for cooperation, reconciliation and healing.” [All sic.] 

Evidently these bozos haven’t deigned to set foot on the island in the last few years, or weren’t paying attention. There’s a lot more going on at Alcatraz than an “old and decaying prison.” One of the most interesting experiment in actual cooperation between species is happening there right now. 

The gardens of Alcatraz are being renewed. These were planted and maintained for food and beauty by prison employees, their families, and sometimes by prisoners over the years.  

The interesting bit is that the Garden Trust and the National Parks people are clearing off smothering blackberry and ivy and propagating what plants they find around and under it to populate the gardens. These plants have persisted over some four decades of complete neglect, including watering—they’ve survived on rainfall alone. Alcatraz has no natural fresh water. 

The survivors include surprises like fuchsias, ten kinds of roses, pelargoniums, edible figs, artichokes (!), tulips, chasmanthe, aeoniums—nearly 200 species or cultivars so far.  

There’s also a thriving seabird colony: western gulls, Brandt’s and pelagic cormorants, and pigeon guillemots breed here. So do snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, ravens, and song sparrows; I’d bet hummingbirds too.  

Let’s not pretend that demolition and construction wouldn’t screw all this up. 

Ignorance is not a virtue. Allowing oneself to persist in ignorance is wicked. Proceeding through ignorance toward destruction of our planet, one place at a time, is evil. Shame on these people.  



Gardens of Alcatraz 

Essays by John Hart, Russell A. Beatty, and Michael Boland; photographs by Roy Eisenhardt. 1996, Golden Gate National Parks Foundation. ISBN 1-883869-17-X (trade paperback) 





Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Daily Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Daily Planet.