I’ve been walking at the Marina and Cesar Chavez Park for 14 years. My dog Grace loved our walks and runs around the perimeter and in the center where it was pure nature. In the early 1920’s the area was the city municipal dump and in the 1990s it was landscaped and converted to a public park, North Waterfront Park. Now, Cesar Chavez Park, it has become a beautiful haven for all manner of nature beings with a Wildlife Sanctuary at the northern end. Red tail hawks, black shouldered kites, hummingbirds, finches, crows, ravens, pelicans, burrowing owls, ground squirrels, rabbits, feral cats, gopher snakes, great blue herons, snowy egrets, Northern Harriers, sea gulls and more. There are beautiful native plants, sages, fennel, pampas grass, purple and white statice, pine trees, purple thistle plants, matilija, or, “fried-egg” poppies, and crimson clover. It’s wild with nature. I walk there every day to enjoy the sounds, scents and sights.
About 10 years ago, after a long period of public hearings and a lot of debate, the Berkeley City Council created seventeen acres in the northernmost section as off-leash area for dogs. The problem of unleashed dogs bothering people who were walking around the perimeter was solved.
So, Grace and I left the perimeter, tromped up to the top and made the middle our new home. She and I had a great time pretending we were in the wild. She ran around sniffing, chasing rabbits, playing with dogs while I enjoyed the plants, animals, and birds. We’d walk up to the crest of the hill and look out at the bay. Twirling around 360 degrees I could see water everywhere. It was quiet and private—a place many of us went to watch the sunset or just sit quietly on the earth, look out at the bay, watch plant and bird life change with the seasons, and marvel at the beauty.
On the bluff of this hill, which borders the off-leash space, humans are making our mark. Now, there is a Solar Calendar Project, which has been burgeoning over the past few years. It’s meant to honor the life and legacy of Cesar Chavez, a great person. A person who, according to the project’s website, was a “devout man, spiritually attuned to the earth and sky,” who “regularly climbed a small hill to observe and meditate on the rising sun,” a person who traveled “to the ocean’s edge to be reminded of the vastness of an awesome nature.”
These words also accurately describe the area in our park before the Solar Calendar Project was installed. Now there is a four-foot tall stone, which has been cemented into the earth; and five multicolored plaques cemented down, which explain how to use the stone, and the rest of the installation. Large rocks were placed in all the directions, mounds of earth piled up, and more rocks laid in a circle around the Coit Tower-like monument.
Recently five tombstone-type stones have been placed around the circle, each with a different word stamped/carved into it in capital letters: TOLERANCE, COURAGE, HOPE, DETERMINATION.
While I’m being quiet in nature I don’t want someone telling me what values or qualities Mr. Chavez possessed, or what words or concepts I should be thinking about. I don’t need someone telling me how to enjoy nature and I wonder if Cesar Chavez did either.
It’s astounding that even though we have so little of the natural world left to enjoy, we can’t leave it alone. Nature is not about reading words stamped into a stone. This beautiful wild place has been changed, stamped with a human footprint. Developed. Is it in our DNA that we must dominate, remove, change, elaborate on nature? For what purpose?
Yes, the Solar Project, which people are enjoying, is a beautiful concept and tribute to Cesar Chavez, but the installation is also an unnecessary intrusion on nature, on personal ways we have of enjoying the wild, of being quiet in the world. When I walk at the crest of the hill now, regardless of what path I take, I see the cemented protruding stone and I know everything there is “arranged.”
No longer is this exclusively a beautiful public place for people to go and enjoy nature in a quiet personal way. It has become a public place where people come to read and discuss how to decipher the instructions. Surrounded by words, cement, plaques explaining how to use the calendar, how to interact with things, how to read the words on the tombstones and appreciate them. It’s a left-brain experience.
The other troubling aspect of the Solar Project is that no one asked the people who have been walking there everyday for years, what we thought about changing the landscape. I went to the Marina Office to investigate and talk with someone. A man there gave me the name and number of a woman at the Waterfront Commission to call. She told me, “these things get decided at meetings,” and that the meetings are posted in areas near the boats. I said that people who walk in the off-leash and nature area don’t go anywhere near the boats, so how would we know? We could have gone to the meetings.
The Waterfront woman gave me the name of another employee to call. He didn’t respond to my requests for information and to talk on the phone. Perhaps he’s using the don’t-respond-and-the-problem-will-go-away strategy.
But I’m not going away. I live here. This is my community. I don’t appreciate what the City Council did, how they did it, and how they’re removing themselves from dialogue. Why did they choose to stamp nature with a human footprint?
Is it that somewhere below our consciousness we’re afraid that unless we dominate nature, we’ll be lost in her, unacknowledged and forgotten? Perhaps we can dive deeper and find a cellular memory, a collective unconscious memory of a time when we experienced a more compassionate collaborative relationship with nature. A time when we made different choices.
Our options are not limited to either dominate or be dominated. But, it takes effort, consciousness, compassion, responsibility and the knowledge that we’re in relationship with nature to find other choices.
Maybe the real issue is that we want to stay connected to someone we knew, loved, and admired, and we don’t know how to do that without constructing material images. Perhaps we can take time to find other ways to keep connected to a person’s spirit and to honor it.
In naming the park after Mr. Chavez we honor and appreciate his work; we can think of him and connect with his spirit as we walk in nature. In leaving nature to flourish we honor and appreciate it and our relationship with it; we connect with the spirit of nature. In doing this we honor both Cesar Chavez and the natural world as great gifts. Perhaps the spirit of Cesar Chavez lives in the natural world he so enjoyed.
Alesia Kunz is a Berkeley resident.