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San Francisco's Alcatraz Island: Lifelines [part 3]

Updated on May 28, 2014

"The Rock"

Alcatraz is nicknamed 'The Rock' for good reason. Nature made it a place man would normally consider inhospitable and barren - as would many other creatures. However, one of the more surprising {at least to me} aspects of Alcatraz Island is the astonishing verdant gardens flourishing all over the island. If you've read the previous installments I wrote on this topic, you've seen much of what I refer to.

The museum, which you naturally enter first thing after the orientation to the island, has several banners on display showcasing the gardens. On one of them is the following quote:

"I kept no record of my failures, for I had many - the main thing was to assure some success by trying many things and holding on to the plants which had learned that life is worth holding onto even at its bitterest." -- Freddie Reichel, secretary to Warden Johnston, 1934-1941

This quote is pregnant with layered meaning and rich metaphor, as I am sure will be obvious to any who read it. It is especially poignant considering its source; the time, place and circumstances surrounding these wise words that have so much potential application to lives that are circumstantially different in just about every way from those lives directly touched by Alcatraz.

It is my strong belief that what is physical often reflects what is unseen; when our bodies feel ill, it is often connected with something that is happening to us emotionally or mentally, at the most basic level. I believe this is why open, green spaces are scientifically proven to be beneficial in alleviating stress-related health ailments {for instance, this link regarding the results of a study on the subject: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140107093323.htm}; there are many other applications to this belief, but that one is appropos here, I think.

Scarlet geraniums in foreground; Angel Island in background
Scarlet geraniums in foreground; Angel Island in background
Succulent garden still thriving beside the ruined warden's house.
Succulent garden still thriving beside the ruined warden's house.

Warden's House

There is a garden path proper, and surprisingly large and diverse grounds devoted to the gardens. However, even before you get near the gates to the garden itself, you cannot help but be amazed at the vibrant, lush plant life thriving along the paths and among the ruins.

The ruins of the Warden's House are a stunning example of life taking hold in even the grimmest of places, returning it gently to beauty and fertility.

Ruined warden's house, with base of lighthouse in foreground on right.
Ruined warden's house, with base of lighthouse in foreground on right.

Historical Ruins

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One of my favorite sights at the warden's house ruins was the mother seagull roosting peacefully on a snug, intricate nest she had built in the remains of the second-story fireplace. It provides a poignant juxtaposition that is almost surreal; the lines and form of the old house's shell are still strong, the detail still just enough intact to make it easy to imagine at least some of the mundane, cozy objects and tasks that made up the daily life of those who once lived there.

In contrast, the wild gull protecting and warming her eggs in the hollow of the old fireplace seems simultaneously natural and distinctly jarring. She is serene, disturbed not at all by whatever ghosts of human intrusion may remain behind; and the wild beautiful flowers surrounding her nest with the fiery eye of the sun above support her in that.

Fireplace Nest

One kind of plant that learned to thrive despite the hostile conditions on The Rock is the succulent. There are many varieties of succulent to meet the bedazzled eye just within a few hundred square feet of this formerly barren island. Agave plants grow as tall and thick as small trees even on the jagged rocks of the cliffsides, while beside the warden's house a garden full of smaller succulents still thrives in abundance.

Along with these, such breathtaking beauties as blue lupines and calla lilies stand tall and graceful, with their inherent strength defying the stereotypical delicacy of exotic flowers.

Tall Agave Stalks

Failed Attempt to Flatten

Also of interest on the way from the warden's house to the gardens proper is the lighthouse, which is still functional. It provides a striking, somehow old-world presence that is generally one of the first things to be noticed on approach to Alcatraz Island. It stands tall, high above the ever-turbulent waves crashing against the unyielding Rock.

Looking directly across the bay from the base of the lighthouse, San Francisco's skyline is spread out in a graceful, inviting line in the distance on a clear day. The contrast between the sophisticated civilization of the modern city and the ruins in varying stages of decay on the island is as striking as the many other contrasts of which this place is almost exclusively comprised. It's made even starker by the quickly aborted efforts to flatten the island for new construction; even with all the power tools and construction vehicles available thanks to modern technology, the Rock defeated those efforts so decisively that the effort was abandoned almost as soon as it was begun.

The crumbled metal and cement left behind seems a testament to the triumph of the wild in this place, despite its ugliness and invasive nature.

The lighthouse.
The lighthouse.
The pink ground cover in the foreground is a kind of succulent called 'Persian Carpet'; it's stunning in an almost understated way, like natural velvet.
The pink ground cover in the foreground is a kind of succulent called 'Persian Carpet'; it's stunning in an almost understated way, like natural velvet.

The Gardens Proper

Eventually as you walk between stunning views on either side, as well as before and behind you, you come to a very disappointing chain-link set of gates leading into the gardens themselves. Somehow the surrounding grandeur seems to promise something more impressive - whether it be in a menacing or a vibrant way, that seems the island's usual stock in trade.

Yet despite their relative dullness, they have a subtle appeal which I credit largely to the plant life that has embraced them.

Persian carpet partially taking over the bottom part of the gate.
Persian carpet partially taking over the bottom part of the gate.

Why so Special?

All right, so the gardens are lovely; but they are not particularly imaginative to the eyes of those who are garden connoisseurs. The beds are in neat rows, with some of the group plantings seeming dutiful rather than inspired.

Despite this, however, the gardens are like no other place I've visited. This is largely due, of course, to the stunning vistas surrounding them, but it's more than that, I believe. The history of the gardens gives them a unique bittersweet flavor; you walk among the plants knowing that these are survivors planted by survivors; the one dependent on the other in some desperate, clinging struggle for light and life in a hostile place.

Many inmates loved their piece of the gardens with almost obsessive tenderness, lavishing all their capacity for caring about something outside of self upon these plants that refused against all odds to give up on reaching for the light, even against the harshest wind or the lashing of salt spray and the oft-enclosing blanket of dank fog.

Purple irises.
Purple irises.
Wall of fog from the sea, just west of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Wall of fog from the sea, just west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Beauty: Wild and Tame

The beauty of the gardens provides counterpoint to the beauties of the wild seascape, the cliffs, and the nesting wild birds along the rocks. The gulls are scattered everywhere, staking their claims among the ruins, near fences, among the rocks, or atop buildings as they see fit. The cormorants, on the other hand, nest in large groups. The most visually accessible of these groups on the island is on one of the southwest cliffsides, offering the most benefit from the warming sun as well as shelter from much of the brutal weather.

They stay well out of reach of humans, yet do not seem unduly disturbed by our admiration from afar. They have learned the art of being among us, yet remaining separate. It is a dignity we do not normally allow if given the choice, sadly.

Nesting cormorants in the foreground; Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Nesting cormorants in the foreground; Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Nesting cormorants.
Nesting cormorants.
This drop to the water was sudden and unexpected, and gave me vertigo. Sadly, I do not think I captured that with this photo.
This drop to the water was sudden and unexpected, and gave me vertigo. Sadly, I do not think I captured that with this photo.

Conclusion

All in all, I still feel I have not done Alcatraz Island justice; there is much I have skipped over or failed to mention for one reason or another. Part of that, of course, is the naturally varying perspective of one person from another's. What stands out to me is not necessarily in any way what would stand out to any of you, should you visit.

This, indeed, may be the best argument for visiting a place personally; you must breathe it in, feel it, smell it, and taste the salt on the air; seeing photos is but a poor substitute.

Still, I do hope you've enjoyed the photographs and find this astonishing place worth your while to visit on your own travels.

Safe journey to us all, wherever we may roam.

Main prison from gardens.
Main prison from gardens.
Rotting staircase along the path.
Rotting staircase along the path.

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