In the bulb there is a flower… unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. -Natalie Sleeth, from the hymn “In the bulb there is a flower”
In October 2017 I traveled alone to Berkeley, CA, seeking “emotional fresh air,” and what I got instead was near-asphyxiation from the thick layer of smoke enveloping the hills of Berkeley and the entire Bay Area.
This girl from KS knows (sort of) what to do when there is a tornado, but wildfires? No clue. So when I awoke to an eerily deserted and smoke-filled neighborhood, with no transportation of my own, I panicked, threw on some clothes, grabbed a towel to put over my mouth, put in my earphones, and raced toward the water (with Brandi Carlile’s “Firewatcher’s Daughter” album—random coincidence— ringing in my ears).
I found water eventually, which in turn led me to a peninsula called Albany Bulb, a place I would return to over and over during my week in Cali. With each visit, I felt the courage to venture further and further inside the peninsula, and as I did, I wondered if I had mistakingly walked through the wardrobe of Narnia. Here are just a few photos to give you a an idea of what I stumbled upon.
I love this description by Susan Moffat, from her longer article here: https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/01/01/the-battle-of-the-bulb-nature-culture-and-art-at-a-san-francisco-bay-landfill/
“Guarding the hillside crouches a giant dragon with reindeer antlers, ridden by a warrior—all made of driftwood. Along the shoreline an iron samurai wields a sword and a fifteen-foot-tall woman reaches to the sky with a beseeching gesture. Her windswept hair is made of branches, her skirts of twisted tin. Painted gargoyle faces stick their tongues out at you from truck-sized pieces of concrete. Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the distance. You can hear the tinkling and squeaking of kinetic scrap metal sculptures spinning in the breeze. Straight ahead, past cormorants perched on mouldering piers, wetlands glisten with the movements of snowy egrets, curlews, and airborne flocks of sandpipers catching the sun like tossed confetti…Dogs bark, running in and out of the water at a small beach. You smell horses and saltwater and coastal sage… An enormous red and yellow and green concrete Rubik’s cube clings to the rocky shore just above the water line, and clouds of pink, magenta, and white valerian, golden California poppies, and crimson roses spill down the causeway’s precipitous hillsides. A castle perches on a pile of rubble with a gothic arch for a window and a small turret. The castle is covered with paintings of human-sized rabbits.”
During and after each visit to the Bulb, I did some research. It used to be a landfill for construction debris. Again to quote Moffat:
“People in the small town of Albany still remember coming here in the sixties and seventies to dump their old furniture and yard waste on top of broken buildings. When nearby cities needed new highways, commuter lines, stores, schools, and houses, what was torn down got deposited at the Bulb. Because the landfill was never completely capped, it is an open-air museum of creative destruction exhibiting huge chunks of brick walls, bathroom tile, highway supports, rebar, and asphalt with yellow highway lines intact.”
There’s more. Had I ventured to Albany Bulb a couple years earlier, I would have found a community of more than sixty people living on the Bulb in tents, shacks, or as the Bulb residents called them, “cliffside mansions.” After all, who wouldn’t want this million-dollar view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate, all for free.
“It provided refuge for people struggling with trauma and mental illness who preferred living outdoors to the claustrophobia and social threats of shelters. Amber and her partner, Phyll, built a compound of tents hidden by a scrap metal fence. “When you live indoors, nothing moves,” said Amber, who had a quick smile with no front teeth, a wardrobe of camouflage and black lace, an archaeologist’s eye for half-buried treasure, and an impressive knack for reviving laptops and mobile phones pulled out of dumpsters. The Bulb’s wind, the tides, and the movement of the grass and trees kept her sane: “The Bulb is the healthiest place I’ve ever lived.”
It’s no wonder that Albany Bulb has long been a place where people from all over memorialize the deceased via various shrines, sculptures, cairns, and labyrinths. One sees scraps and remnants of people’s lives littered and/or carefully placed all throughout Albany Bulb.
And it was here, at this labyrinth, (pictured above), with Brandi Carlile still in my ears, asking why it is we so often remember what we want to forget, where I finally received some much-needed emotional fresh air. I was grieving the death (and actions) of someone I had grown to care about (and fear). I was on my own wild and somewhat emotional peninsula of sorts, and somehow the debris, chaos, and beauty of Albany Bulb was just the right place for me to express some of my fears, regrets, anger, pain, love, grief, and shattered confidence. I walked the labyrinth and got into a beseeching posture alongside my new fifteen-foot-tall lady friend (see movie below). I built cairns, took photos, cried, pretended to be a dragon-flying warrior, and breathed in the smell of sage. Perhaps I could find a way to remember in ways that didn’t feel so scary and guilt-inducing.
In her song “The Things I regret,” Carlile suggests that when the weight of it all rests on our back, and the road seems cracked—to keep pressing forward, with feet on the ground. So I kept walking and I kept beseeching, and eventually found my way back home (both up the hills to my guest house in Berkeley and back to my loving home and community in KS).
So thank you Brandi, thank you to the one (you know who you are) who gave me frequent flyer miles for this trip, thank you to my Berkeley hosts, and thank you Natalie Sleeth for a hymn that will forever be linked to my time at Albany Bulb. (And my husband for playing it in the video below.)
There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
PS The 2017 (and 2018) California wildfires were (and continue to be) devastating. In fact, living next to me currently is a Buddhist monk who was in the middle of the California fires in 2017, helping his fellow monastery members and neighbors escape the flames. A reflection for another day.