The Nature Police
How many reams of caution tape and fences does it take to remake the environment
in our image?
- Anna Shaff
March 12, 2006
Fourteen years ago, when my son started kindergarten, I discovered something amazing: an oasis of natural wilderness within
the urban landscape of San Francisco. I will not identify it, for I'm about to relate a tale of negative transformation wrought
by good intentions. And while I welcome your sympathy (and offer it as a cautionary tale if you happen to frequent one of
the city's handful of designated Significant Natural Resource Areas), I do not wish company in this place, which is already
under siege by the nature police.
Nature police, nature nudges, are terms I use for those with grand designs on nature. They wish to reconstitute nature
to itself, make it ... more natural, fearing it has become too enfeebled to do the job on its own.
A recent exhibit is a streambed that was home to a grove of around 30 eucalyptus trees. The massive, decades-old trees
provided beauty, fragrance, shade, a sense of place while sheltering red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, mourning doves and
dozens of resident and migratory species. They were targeted more than a year ago, marked by red tape. Notices were posted
about meetings that most walkers lacked the time or dedication to attend. A contract was put out on the trees. One by one,
they were felled.
In the grove's place, a colorful landscape has sprouted. Not of the intended flowers and shrubs, but of hundreds upon hundreds
of tiny plastic flags, waving in the breeze. Red, white, blue, orange, yellow, anything but green, emblazoned with names,
letting the curious passer- by know where she too, can acquire a little plastic flag to designate a seed planted in compensation
for a eucalyptus grove.
A poppy, a sticky monkey flower, a coyote bush occasionally sprouts adjacent to a flag. But the area has stubbornly refused
to yield all but the most miserly of native flora, despite conscientious volunteer sprinklers. The sparseness of yield as
a function of effort invested would discourage any economist. Alas, we're dealing with amateur naturalists. The flags wave
If only the nature nudge's enthusiasm for plastic could be restricted to weeded eucalyptus patches. And to diminutive sizes.
But in this place of rock outcrops, creekbed willows and winding paths, there is yet another form of plastic wrought by the
boosters of native flora -- caution tape, the kind used at crime scenes.
I first encountered it perhaps a dozen years ago, when the "Friends of X" (of which I became a short-lived member), decided
not merely to befriend but to resuscitate the creek. It was a reluctant creek, reviving itself for several months during the
What would be the mechanism of resuscitation? Banning four-legged beasts. At places in the twisting road which did not
already have natural barriers -- arroyo willow, poison oak, cucumber vine or wild blackberry -- wooden fences were erected.
The fences were angular, visually jarring, disrupting the natural curvatures of stream and road.
A meandering creekbed, formerly accessible to eye, body and soul, had become off-limits. Thousands of passers-by, year
after year, have been denied the opportunity to sit by the creek and take a few long moments to commune with nature. Dogs
effortlessly circumvent the ban.
And here's the difficult part, the thing that doesn't allow easy condemnation. The nature nudges are sincere, hardworking
and impassioned. They defend the good/bad dichotomy between native and invasive by arguing that exotic (imported) species
do not have the predators that natives do, and therefore eventually overwhelm them.
But wait. Aren't we all, humans and other fauna and flora, imported? Didn't the Indians arrive via ice floes or land bridges
from Asia? Aren't plants affected by migrations of birds, from thousands of miles away? How much plastic tape and quivering
flags and barnyard-style fences does it take to straighten out evolution and re-make it in our image?
Several months ago, I was walking along a path familiar to me from thousands of such walks. Around a bend, I saw slim brown
legs, and what might have been a torso. Deer in San Francisco? The illusion was immediately displaced by a two-legged interpretive
redwood sign, the kind national parks use to educate the public and simultaneously establish a respectful (even reverential)
distance. The guardians of the urban greenscape had upped the ante from mere signs -- "Caution," "Keep Off," "Area Closed"
-- to signage. Signage to expound on the nature they were separating nature watchers from.
So now I'm able to read about the fruits of years of restoration, like creating a habitat for the white-crowned sparrow.
The white-crowned sparrow? The one who has been flourishing for decades in my backyard without any vigilance on my part? Farther
down the dry creekbed, I read about why the field of waving flags I'm gazing at is a riparian environment -- not what it appears
to be: a memorial for felled eucalyptus.
Does the nature crusader not have eyes with which to see what he has wrought? Does his inner eye, through a strange alchemy,
see only intentions, not accomplishments? While equally impassioned lovers of nature see flags, fences, paper, plastic --
artifacts of the most invasive species yet, man.
I admit, the leavings of the nature police notwithstanding, this idyll in the center of San Francisco still gives me the
daily emotional contact with nature for which I will be forever be grateful.
Still, I'm at a loss to understand how, from such a well-motivated, genuine group of folks, a shower of ill-conceived,
ill-designed, ungraceful stream of annoyances continues to fall.
Anna Shaff is a San Francisco writer.
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