By Jonathan Farrell
As summer goes into full swing, one of the spots people flock to is the Presidio. Warm weather and clear skies beckon crowds of people to Crissy Field, as well as the dozens of areas open to the public to enjoy for recreation.
Among those who treasure the uniqueness of the former military post is author and California College of the Arts professor Leslie Carol Roberts. Her new book, “Here is Where I Walk, Episodes From a Life in the Forest,” describes a place that is a part of nature and yet is set within a dense urban landscape.
“My book is basically a love song to the ordinary in nature,” Roberts said. “What I did over more than a decade of walks from my home in the Presidio is take many steps and many notes and many snaps with my iPhone. From the outset, I knew I was trying to make a book and I knew I wanted to get to know some of the foresters, to learn what they were doing.”
Roberts made it clear what her role was.
“Not to report on it as a journalist – which I am – but to write about it with the gaze and disposition of the ordinary citizen and as an artist,” she said. “The tree-management system was generously shared with me by Peter Ehrlich, who was head of forestry and knew more about the park than anyone.”
Ehrlich was the overseer of forestry at the Presidio in the early 2000s, after working with the SF Recreation and Park Department for many years. There are more than 300 acres of trees within the Presidio, along with an extensive biodiversity of plants and animals. He died tragically in a bicycle accident in 2017. She recognizes his work as being crucial to helping the Presidio be what it is today.
“The Presidio’s charter is unique in that it is required to pay for itself,” Roberts said. “This was very ambitious. This was accomplished through carefully rebuilding the elements of the former army post. That is, they brought public transit into the City and renovated buildings to make them hotels and offices and schools.”
Currently, there are about 8,000 people who work and live in the Presidio, enough to make a small town within the City.
“None of this is new,” Roberts said. “Back in the 19th century, civil society across the world was committed to creating accessible, green, tree-filled parks as essential parts of cities – London, Christchurch, New York and San Francisco. What the Presidio is doing in the 21st century is a reboot of an idea we already had. Nothing new going on here.”
“We already know what we have to do to better survive these current times of the sixth mass extinction,” she said. “We have already faced down horrific environmental challenges. We are not ‘riding’ our ecosystems as a wave but in it like a deep dive in the ocean. We are nature and nature is us. The only difference between you and a star is the water content. Scores of bacterium live in you. We are all one.”
While there are more than 318 million people who visit national parks nationwide, Roberts noted that there is a disconnect. She sees a gap between people and nature. Perhaps they know it scientifically, but they don’t really know it emotionally.
“I see this immense and amazing forest as a place in constant change. We are here, now, and any illusion that there’s a ‘steady state’ component to any part of life on Earth, including this park, is an illusion,” she said.
“Taking daily walks let me view the changes in real time, from the careful restoration of native wildflowers behind my house to the culling of trees that were old and sick and needed to be replaced,” Roberts said.
“I think landscape design around the Presidio and the dazzling success of the recovery of endangered species, sun-lighting creeks and restoration of the Crissy Field estuary tell a beautiful story,” she said.
“Should we be spending more money on our public space? Hell yeah! So, I am hoping more people come to the Presidio and advocate for a more green-minded federal government through voting in the coming election. We got this folks. We live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities with some of the most beautiful parks. Go there in peace and love and advocate for their health and longevity by participating and protesting,” Roberts said.
She also pointed out that with regards to science and data, it’s way too much information overload. She understands that for people to safeguard open spaces like the Presidio they must think of it not with statistics.
“Think of them in terms of beauty and peace and mindfulness and then take a walk. And then act to save what you see. We know what to do. It’s easy to find other people doing this too. The goal needs be adjusted to the local. So. Let’s get to work,” Roberts said. “Or get walking!”
“Here is Where I Walk, Episodes From A Life in The Forest” is available in bookstores now. Leslie Carol Roberts is an author, journalist and essayist. She is also a professor and chair of the MFA Writing Program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. For more information, visit https://lesliecarolroberts.org.