Assembling the Lake Merritt Neighborhood

By Paul Belz

Judy Goldhaft, co-founder of the Planet Drum Foundation. Photo: Constance Taylor

Judy Goldhaft, co-founder of the Planet Drum Foundation. Photo: Constance Taylor

Planet Drum uses strategies such as map-making workshops to connect people with local environments to highlight connections between human communities and natural ecosystems that surround them. “The part of the biosphere we can most affect is our place,” Judy said. “We need to know what’s there in order to restore or take care of it.”“We’re the Lake Merritt Commons today! We’ll make one map of the area by sharing all the information we have, which will be more than any one of us might know individually.” Judy Goldhaft of San Francisco’s Planet Drum Foundation addressed the group of enthusiastic explorers who had gathered in the Rotary Nature Center to map the multi-layered collage that forms this neighborhood.

We began with a sound mapping activity to explore our sensory connections to the Lake. Each person took a sheet of paper outside and mapped Lake Merritt’s soundscape. We drew N for north on the papers, placed the Rotary Nature Center in the middle, and began to represent sounds in their respective locations. “You have absolute creative leeway to draw any shape or squiggle that represents that sound,” Judy said.

We returned after five minutes, and one participant offered to draw our discoveries on a group map. “I heard flapping wings of birds flying north of the Center,” a map maker said. Others mentioned gulls flying and a raven calling “Awwwk!” south of the center, pigeons cooing to the north, the crash of birds landing on the Lake, the squeak of chains of children’s swings, jogger’s feet, an ice cream cart, and cars.

Discussing maps! Photo: Constance Taylor

Discussing maps! Photo: Constance Taylor

It’s interesting that even though there are so many people around, the sound of birds seem to dominate,” Judy commented. “When I did this exercise in New York City, one person reported hearing a cricket. Others doubted it, but maybe it was really there!

Even if you live in a city, you can peel back the human parts,” she continued. “Underneath that you’ll find the physical landforms of the place where you live.” One San Francisco map Judy had showed the hills and streams without the buildings and streets. “I consider anything that shows where you live and how you feel about it to be a map,” Judy said as the group prepared to create a collective visual map.

The volunteer artist drew an N to indicate the direction north and placed the Nature Center at the center of the paper. After some discussion, the group decided that winter storms approach the area from the Northwest. We agreed that San Francisco Bay was the largest nearby body of water. The Lake is still connected to the Bay, and Oakland has begun to restore native wetlands near the Sailboat House.

Our artist added the East Bay hills, and the streams that flow from these highlands to the Lake. Glen Echo Creek, Trestle Glen Creek, Pleasant Valley Creek, and others bring fresh water that mixes with the Bay’s salt water. Parts of these streams’ courses flow underground, though many activists stress the need to allow them to move unencumbered through neighborhoods.

Drawing our bioregion. Photo: Constance Taylor

Drawing our bioregion. Photo: Constance Taylor

We defined a “bioregion” as a collection of all the life forms that live in a physical place, and began to place native plants in their spaces. Oaks, ceanothus, manzanitas, sage, daisies, and many other native plants thrive in our bioregion.

The group discussed how European grass seeds arrived in sailor’s mattresses. These non-natives, which produce seeds yearly, out-competed native bunchgrasses which reproduce at a far slower rate. Judy commented that since bunchgrasses tend to remain greener throughout the summer, California’s golden hills are actually a sign of the introduced species’ presence.

We also considered eucalyptus trees, which were imported from Australia as windbreaks and as sources of wood for railroad ties. Northern California lacks koalas, which help control these trees’ Australian populations. Their leaves are acidic and they change the soil chemistry to the detriment of native plants, but Monarch butterflies and other local species have adapted to their presence. “We want native plants because they’re the basis of the ecosystem, but we might not want to remove all non-natives, “Judy commented.

We need to remember what else lives with us here in this dry summer, wet winter bioregion,” Judy said. Some of the local animals mentioned were salamanders, western fence lizards, squirrels, monarch and swallowtail butterflies, bees, ants, skunks, raccoons, deer, and the river otter that was spotted at the Lake.

If this is a bioregional map, we need to put people in as well,” Judy said. “I wonder if there are food sources here. Do people forage?” We added the Lake’s community gardens, the food trucks that visit on weekends, and the many ice cream carts; we also added the wetland restoration project as a future food source for non-human species. Children’s Fairyland and the playgrounds near the Lake added yet more layers to our map. Mapmakers mentioned cars, trash that flows down the streams, and residential waste from storm drains as pollution sources.

We’re having a love affair with our region, noticing the wonderful things about it and the things that aren’t so wonderful,” Judy said.

The workshop ended with Judy’s challenge. ‘We didn’t include our houses on these maps,” she said. “How would you tell someone how to find your house without referring to streets and buildings?” We left with eyes and ears opened to the collage that is this neighborhood.

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