My 'Weeds in the Urban Landscape' class meets every Wednesday morning, and each week, we travel to a new place in the Bay Area to study the weeds that grow there; some are coastal, some are inland, some have northern exposures, some southern, some are in sandy soil, some in clay, some in landfill. On Alcatraz, we had an opportunity to see weeds in pretty much every exposure, in pretty much every kind of soil. Alcatraz is just a bare rock rising out of the San Francisco Bay; when it was used as a military outpost during the Civil War, dirt was brought in to mobilize cannons, and to absorb the shock waves when they were fired. This dirt came from nearby Angel Island. Gardens were first planted by the military families who lived here, then by the inmates when Alcatraz was used as a prison, as well as by the families of the guards who also lived on the island. The prison was closed in 1963, and for years there was no official gardening program; however, in the last 15 years, a large volunteer corps has arisen to plant and tend the flowers on Alcatraz.
The weeds arrived here in the soil that was brought in, and by birds colonizing the island. There are many seagulls (California and Western) and cormorants (Brandt's and Pelagic) that nest here each year; I met an ornithologist whose job it is to study these birds, and we had a fascinating conversation about the mating and nesting habits of the gulls and cormorants, as well as the Black-Crowned Night Heron, Snowy Egrets, and Pigeon Guillemots that were all over the island.
There were a lot of distractions on the island, but we came to study weeds and make a revised weed list for the naturalists in charge, so that's what we did. We took the first boat out to the island, with the rangers and workers and volunteers, at the crack of dawn. This was lovely because we were able to have some time alone there before the hoards of tourists descended. The last time I visited Alcatraz, I was in my early twenties, and I was more interested in the prison and the stories there, rather than the external natural communities. On this visit, we did not go inside any buildings, as our time was focused outdoors.
Since I've been taking this weeds class, I've developed new eyes. I've always noticed things that other folks haven't, when I'm on hikes or out in the wild, but now I am even more aware of the little things. There's so much to see in the micro world. However there was one thing that was very obvious right away, in a macro way - the pro-Native-American graffiti all over the island. Either I hadn't seen it in my previous trips, or it has been done in the last twenty years.
We spent the lion's share of our time on the island making a current list of all the weed species, both native and exotic. We were able to find and categorize over 100! We wandered around the island for hours, talking about plants; we had a lot of tourists stop to listen and ask what we were studying. Then they'd move away, disappointed. Why study weeds? I can totally understand this opinion. But I have grown to have a new respect for weeds, and how and why they behave the ways they do. Scrappy. That's what they are.
However I'd have to say that the planned and tended gardens really were more fun to look at, and we spent a lot of time talking about those as well. What was so terrific about all these gardens was the setting. All these old, crumbling facades, with brilliant flowers set against them. The juxtaposition of old and new was what really made this place beautiful. And then, of course, the location and the background of the bay and the surrounding hills and communities. Man-made vs. nature.
It was also very gratifying to see native bees all over the flowers. That means that they are nesting there. I only saw one honeybee - who knows from how far away that bee came? I didn't see any feral honeybee hives on the island, but I suppose there could be one in a tree or in an old building. I doubt the folks in charge would leave a feral bee nest in a place that gets millions of tourists visiting, though. Doesn't matter, the native bees do an excellent job here pollinating the flowers.
It was a fabulous trip. Not so fun on the boat ride back, with about a thousand other people; where we had been able to roam all over the ship on the way over, even in front of the captain's deck with our face to the wind and the Bay, now we were jammed check-by-jowl with a many-languaged humanity. I suppose that has its own rewards, but I was pooped and glad to get off that boat at Pier 33, only to then face traffic all the way home. One of the things about spending so much time in nature, outdoors, is how awful you feel when you're trapped in a vehicle, on a bridge, in crawling traffic. I kept thinking about a seagull I had seen on the island, perched in an agave blossom, high above the human activity milling about below.
My midterms are over, and I'm officially on spring break. Time to turn my thoughts to the home turf. It's still not time to plant the summer garden; temperatures remain in the 40's in our yard at night. However I can start to do more planning, and get the truckload of compost delivered and added to the beds. I'd like to get all my term papers done over the next week too, as well as hike in the nearby hills and see which native wildflowers are blooming. I've definitely felt that I haven't been very home-and-hearth focused, though, so I need to get some stuff done around the house and spend some time with my children, whether they want to or not. :)