Faking It

When I lived on the Richmond/El Cerrito border, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by many small parks. Most had snippets of streams flowing through them, remnants of the pre-European landscape I constantly tried to imagine.

I visited the parks with my dog, Isis, for 12 years. Our favorite park was Mira Vista, where we felt like we were in a little patch of wild. It had a stretch of creek that flowed from the hills; embedded in the creek’s banks were boulders with depressions carved into them by the Native Americans for grinding acorns. I was fascinated by this connection with the people who had lived here barely more than a century ago, people who had lived more in harmony with nature. I kept trying to picture the native willows and dogwoods that once grew along the creek before some well-meaning parks person planted the invasive English elms that had since taken over.

Isis liked the park not so much because of the creek but because there was a green lawn where she ran and played with Howie Dog, a fierce terrier, Polar, a renegade chow, and Osha, an exuberant black lab. The lawn had been installed on top of a section of the creek undergrounded by the city of Richmond (no one knows exactly when), and backfilled. Despite the “No Dogs Off Leash” sign, the lawn had become the neighborhood dog park—there weren’t many other places to let dogs run without their chauffeurs’ having to drive several miles.

My secret wish was to daylight the piece of creek that flowed beneath the lawn, to double the length of creek and the amount of habitat for birds and wildlife. As much as I loved my dog, I would have been willing to give up the dog lawn for the creek. But I knew it would be an uphill battle, because, while most people liked the creek, they had dogs—and their dogs needed a place to romp.

In the early 1900s when the East Bay was booming, cutting down Oakland’s redwoods to build our cities, planners Frederick Law Olmsted, Werner Hegemann, and Charles Mulford Robinson advised Berkeley and Oakland that they should preserve the many streams that flowed from the hills to the bay. This would have meant acquiring setbacks alongside all those creeks, creating threads of green from the hills to the bay—and from residents to nature.

Instead, we covered most of the creeks with streets, infrastructure, and buildings (think of the 61 storm drains that flow into Lake Merritt!). Every remaining postage stamp of open space becomes a battlefield for competing uses. People who might have been natural allies—dog lovers usually do appreciate the outdoors, after all, or they wouldn’t be walking their dogs—become competitors and even enemies in the fight over what’s left. I found myself in the midst of this incongruous, schizophrenic mix of dog owner-lover/creek activist and bird watcher; mostly I felt frustrated and sad.

Thinking about these ironies got me wondering if maybe one of the reasons so many of us have dogs—and other pets—is because we’re desperately trying to reconnect with the natural world we’ve lost. Dogs love to be out running and playing in “nature,” something we can do vicariously through them, or with them. The problem comes when our “wolves” tromp through the creeks, destroying habitat for the native fish that are struggling to hang on, or sniffing out the nests of songbirds that have survived the neighborhood cats.

I live in Berkeley now, where cats reign supreme. A pet cat is hardly a bobcat or a mountain lion—but it still has that sense of the wild, that hunter instinct we all relate to. The downside is that free-roaming felines are wreaking havoc on native birds.

This debate over the balance—or imbalance—of native versus non-native species, and pets versus wildlife, will continue, as things continue to tip in favor of us humans (or to our detriment). In the meantime, we are finding other ways to connect with the natural world.

A few months ago my dad was helping with home improvements. His store of choice was Home Depot, where he wandered the wilds of the concrete big box in search of electrical fixtures and plumbing gear. I decided to scope out the garden section. Native plants were few and far between, but furry replicas of robins, chickadees, and bluebirds “sang” their respective songs, and plastic frogs ribbited on command. I eavesdropped as two women debated the charms of the robin versus the bluebird—a species that is no longer common.

Nearby, machines played the sounds of ocean, thunder, rain, waterfalls. There is nothing wrong with listening to a waterfall. But these replicas of nature seems to be satisfying a lot of people—or at least distracting them from what is happening in the real world. The fact that consumers are willing to put greenbacks into plastic artifacts while the natural world disappears brings home the sad truth that the less there is of something, the more we want it. I understand the desire: I have a passion for bird books and art. But I wonder what we’ll do when the real thing is gone for good. Will we remember what it looked like, or the sound of its song?

The idea of digging up a creek from its underground grave—returning the landscape that was once there—gives me great hope, and I haven’t given up on my dream for Mira Vista Park. But it also makes me think that while we try to balance recreation, dogs, and other human desires with nature, it may be necessary for us to give a little more—or take a little less—if we want to have real robins singing in our gardens.

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