Wednesday, June 4, 2008

From the Rock Grows Beauty

This past Thursday I found unexpected inspiration from what could have been a day of drudgery. The hubby's company organized an opportunity to participate in Global Volunteer Day (at least, that's what they tell me it was - I have never heard of such a day, but it sounds good!). We were to do some gardening on Alcatraz.

To his credit, hubby (Andrew) gave me the option to not participate. But I had only been to the island once before - yes, I am a typical local: I only go to the tourist attractions when I'm hosting a tourist, which is not very often. And I like to volunteer, especially something like this where I really feel like my work would have an effect. However, the cons to the commitment: having to be in the city by 8am (good thing we're only 15 mins. away - 20 with traffic), taking the day "off" when I had a major final project due for Sat. morning class, and oh, great timing, I sprained my wrist a week earlier.

We decided to honor our commitment, and it ended up being a fantastic experience. The weather was absolutely perfect - warm and sunny, with a small breeze while we worked on the east side of the island in the Officer's Row gardens. Our hosts, Carola and Shelagh were incredibly welcoming and knowledgeable. We did some weeding, planting, and pruning - things we could look at, at the end of our half-day and feel proud of, satisfied with. Our hosts ate lunch with us, and shared with us more about their typical day at a very atypical job. For those of us who chose to stay on the island and explore, Shelagh treated us to a special tour of the laundry area and the old power plant - off limits to the "tourists". I only wish we had remembered to bring our camera. Hindsight and all that, right?

She led us down a paved road to the power plant - run down, but still impressive. At the far end of the room was a doorway, long since relieved of its door. We carefully stepped onto the small ledge just outside, taking in the uninhibited view of the ocean and Marin County in the distance. Lilies in Officers Row, 2007More impressive was the dramatic cliff just below us, dropping steeply into the ocean. There was a small (and I emphasize small!) set of stairs, without any type of railing, which led down to a small patch of land before the cliff. What they had originally been intentioned for, I cannot imagine, and who had the nerve to build them is astounding. We could not ignore this reminder of how it must have felt to be so close to the city and civilization and freedom, surrounded by so much beauty, and yet in such an uncompromising situation that the prisoners could not escape. You don't get that experience on the normal tour, where the only areas you can experience have been saran-wrapped and vacuum-sealed for your protection. Don't get me wrong - I know how stupid people can be out there. And there are way too many ways for people to hurt themselves or get into trouble on that island. But you also lose the reality of the place when all you can see are the guard rails, giant laminated signs, and reproduction tin-cups for sale in the store.

Officers Row, 1961What brought that reality home even more were the rounded brick doorways which peppered the rest of the road past the power plant and to the tunnel which led to the laundry area. They seemed so unassuming; so much so that you could easily walk right by them and barely notice that they were there. Until Shelagh informed us that they were the first cells on the island, when it was still aOfficers Row, 2007 military fort. So of course we had to dare ourselves to venture inside one. I got about halfway in before I lost my nerve. It was all paved with perfectly laid brick, floor to rounded ceiling. It also was completely dark - the only light coming from the doorway, which had no door when we saw it, but I'm sure whatever they had when they were cells was solid and heavy. I couldn't stand up straight to even enter the doorway, and it got even shorter the further back you went in the tiny space. It was damp, dark, and more ominous than standing in the "hole" cells inside. Shelagh, who works on the island almost every day, said she had never had the nerve to go in. Like I said, I only got halfway in and had to back out - no way I was turning my back on that space.

An officer's 2 girls in the gardens circa 1930's-40'sSo let me return to the light, as this post got very heavy there. The gardening was great. I really felt like we were contributing something. The links below tell more about the actual project, and already a lot of progress has been made. It had been about 15 years since my trip to Alcatraz, and the entire area we worked on had been completely overrun with plants, to the extent that I had no idea there was terraced land there, let alone gardens.

Carola & Shelagh work the Officers' Row plotsI did want to post a few things I learned that I found really interesting. All water on the island is brought in by ferry. Talk about being in a drought - we had to be extremely frugal with the watering, and a lot of what they take into consideration when picking the plants to go in the garden is how they'll fare without much watering. They have old photos that they've consulted to see historically what was planted, and interestingly it focused more on cutting gardens and beautification than native plants. Apparently nothing natively grew on The Rock, so the wardens and officers were asked to plant things to make the island look prettier. Ironic, isn't it? But there were families of officers and the warden who lived on the island; I can't imagine what that must have been like. Officers Row, the area we worked in, was a combination of garden plots and planters. Some of those plots were actually house foundations - there were fires, of unknown origin, which destroyed some of the officers' houses and medical building, and the inmates created gardens in that ash-rich soil. While weeding we discovered remains of those fires, as well as ones that occured during the Native American occupation of the island - shards of glass and chunks of cement and stone, namely.

Overall, it was a day that really touched me and made me feel a part of history, when I hadn't really expected much out of the day. Andrew and I are thinking about commiting to volunteering there consistently, although it would be easier if they offered weekend days. I know this has been a long post, but I hope I've conveyed a little of that feeling to you, and perhaps inspired you to learn more and become inspired about something yourself.

If you want to learn more, I really enjoyed these links:

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