Travels in human nature – the Albany Bulb

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ouladybwAmericans have been busy transforming the east shore of San Francisco Bay since the late 1800s, filling in tidal marshes with parking lots and in the process trading dynamic ecological function with industrial barrens. An ambitious lightbulb-shaped peninsula appeared off the Albany shore in 1963, laid down with construction waste as a future landfill. But legal action halted the flow of trash in 1984, and the “Albany Bulb” was given back to nature, time, and chance.

albany bulb - google map

A Google Map screenshot of the bulb projecting west from the East Bay shoreline.

In the last 30 years or so, wildness has reclaimed this space we reclaimed from the bay. The 25 acre rip rap and rebar base has been colonized by a vibrant succession of plants and trees, many of them “invasives.” But even if you view the non-natives as unnatural (and I hope you will not), you’ll agree the process by which they appear is consistent with “natural” ecological succession around the globe. I know of no effort to intervene and ecologically “restore” the Bulb, likely because its nonlinear history quickly deflates our assumptions about ecological restoration. Restore exactly what to its conditions when?

Bulb Shoreline

Wild nature sometimes means concrete and invasives.

Early in the ecological succession of the Albany Bulb, some keystone species appeared: homeless humans and Bay Area artists. A small community of semi-temporary dwellings has resisted waves of law enforcement, perhaps helped by the Bulb’s unique geography and cultural ambiguity. It’s now part of the East Bay Parks system, but its free-for-all technicolor murals and rip rap shoreline feel more urban than they do natural or park-like.

Several human-shaped sculptures stand watch over its northern shore, including a 12′ woman with a cascade of tree branch hair, scrap metal skirts, and driftwood arms raised to the sky. Intentional or no, the sculpture embodies the peninsula’s deft meanderings between the worlds of culture and nature: a human made of trash, and of the earth. Where our engineers failed to consider ecological function and biodiversity in the creation of the Bulb, our artists have participated gracefully in its ongoing environmental design.


Trash for skirts and sticks for hair, Our Lady of the Bulb.

Spending a morning walking the Bulb’s trails and shorelines, as I have just done, is good for perspective. It’s a place where our world is mixed up on a scale and register we are not used to. Sea water twinkles and swirls around its concrete beaches and tinny music radiates from the tent dwellings, carried by a breeze along the water. The colors of the rainbow are painted on its concrete, rocks that we’ve already ground and processed, built, torn down, and thrown “away.”

At the top of the promontory, on a gentle knob facing Golden Gate bridge and surrounded by thickets of brush, we found an old walking labyrinth. Though many of the chunks of concrete serving as its markers had been displaced by weather or overgrown by lush grasses, the pattern of the spiral footpath was obvious. We added our steps to those before us, transforming the ground as we followed a densely twisting path defined by an absence of forks or choices.

Bulb history from Wikipedia

Walking the labyrinth, Albany Bulb


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