Recently I had a fantastic opportunity – an opportunity to submit a piece of writing to an essay contest. The essay topic was open to CCSF students, and was intentionally broad – “Natural California” – to encourage a variety of entries.
The spark for this essay contest was the passing of Barbara Pitschel, the head librarian at the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture at the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum. Takes a big sign to fit all that. 🙂 Barbara was a fantastic woman, treating every single visitor who walked through those doors with equal importance, whether a ten year old or a seasoned horticulturist. She was so excited to have people visit and support such a specialized library that she really took the time with each and every person. A remarkable woman. It was a great loss to have her go.
A close friend of hers, Dr. Judith Taylor, got a bee in her bonnet to create this essay contest as a memorial tribute to Barbara. She pulled together resources from the library, the California Horticultural Society (CalHort), the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), and the Pacific Horticulture Society, and created the essay contest and its prizes.
I am extremely pleased and fortunate to have won first place in this first contest, an award I do not take lightly. It’s such an honor! My essay will be published in the October, 2012 issue of Pacific Horticulture magazine! After seeking permission to put up my essay here on my blog (to make sure there is no copyright conflict of interest) I was told I can “proudly do so”. And so I am. We’ll be working on some edits for the print, and will include a photograph or two, as well. Go get yourself a subscription! In the meantime, here’s my essay…
Four Years on The Rock: Survival on Alcatraz
In 2008 changes in my life led to me spending time in prison, you could say. I had been in the fabric industry for nearly a decade, and for the second time I found myself faced with an employer closing from economic difficulties. I knew it was time for a change, and I knew I wanted to feel a physical sense of accomplishment from my work. Gardening was the answer for me, and Alcatraz was the prison that became my salvation.
That year I started classes at CCSF to get the experience I needed to become a professional gardener, having only done houseplants and window boxes prior. My first semester included Charmain Giuliani’s plant ID class, which required us to do a presentation or spend time volunteering. I had seen a poster calling for volunteers in the Alcatraz gardens (woohoo!) and when I mentioned the poster to Charmain her encouragement piqued my interest even more. I called the very next day, after only two classes into my gardening voyage, and started going a couple of weeks later. I loved it so much that I also did a presentation for her class about my experiences. Speaking for the gardens instantly became a recurring theme for me.
The gardens were being restored after over forty years of abandonment, and there was (is!) still so much to discover. So many plants had survived on this island with no source of water but rain and fog – many species, including irises, roses, and geraniums would pop up as overgrowth was cleared. They had survived on their own, and I could totally relate. Living in a city and going through many hardships takes its toll. You can’t imagine how therapeutic it is to be out there in the fog, alone in the early morning with a pair of pruners and a trowel. Few prisoners got to experience this. Those who did spoke of salvation in gardening and here I was getting to resuscitate the very plants, nibble the same figs, cut the same roses, that nobody had tended since those prisoners left. It’s a deeper connection than I’ve achieved with even my own garden at home. When I’m out there gardening, I am one survivor helping another.
On my first day gardening on Alcatraz I was working alongside the main road as tourists walked by and gazed in astonishment that there were gardens. They would ask questions and it was so much fun to share what we were doing. About a year or so after I started volunteering the gardens were ready to start receiving tourists. A regular series of docent-guided garden tours was scheduled, and I soon became one of the first docents. Leading groups through the Gardens of Alcatraz is, literally, my favorite thing I have ever done in my life. Rain or shine, somebody is always ready for a tour of the gardens. I get to take groups into various areas and tell them stories of the gardens and the restoration, and how gardening played a role in the lives of prisoners and families out on the island throughout its occupation. With giant laminated photos showing a specific garden in its original glory, and later with decades of overgrowth, I can show what has been accomplished. It’s no small feat, what has been done, and it’s a moving experience to see what volunteers can accomplish by helping for the sake of helping.
The benefits of volunteering for the Gardens of Alcatraz are far beyond anything I could have expected. Originally it was a place for me to gain gardening experience and score a free ride to a national park, but the joy of restoring these gardens has led to a real desire to see them thrive. The experience is no longer about gardening in general. It’s personal now. I’ve developed many friendships on the island, and when I can’t make it out there for the weekly work I really miss it! My dedication to the gardens still steers my thoughts and schooling. I’m starting to explore classes in archaeology after helping restore collapsed retaining walls and recently finding a prisoner artifact – a simple handball. It was exhilarating to know that I was the first person to touch this ball since it had been lobbed over a wall some fifty years ago. Specialized training through the National Park Service has also sparked an interest in me to put more focus on the ecology of my gardening, and I’ve been taking related classes to round out that experience.
These days I have a nursery job, garden clients, and school schedule that all put limits on how often I am able to volunteer on the island, but I still go out there every chance I get. Ironically, my dedication to Alcatraz (not to mention a fantastic reference from Charmain) was pivotal in helping me get this nursery job. Though I’m not currently active in leading the docent tours, I still remain a docent at heart and in behind-the-scenes action. Besides volunteering myself for every opportunity to interact with the public during events on behalf of the Alcatraz gardens, I write a gardening blog and maintain a special category to share my ongoing experiences on Alcatraz. Once a docent, always a docent! I wear my docent sweater most of the time, and that sparks many conversations. I know I am personally responsible for having spurred many new garden volunteers over the years, including many from my own multiple class presentations on the subject at City College.
I really don’t know where I would be today if it weren’t for the Gardens of Alcatraz. It’s my grounding place, the place where I can go to escape. Quite the opposite of the prisoners who wanted to escape from the island! One of the former prisoner gardeners spoke of the hillsides being a refuge, the work a release. I know what he meant. The Gardens of Alcatraz will always be my refuge.