When you grow up next to a national park, as I did, it is easy to feel like you own it, and in a very real sense you do. National parks are the property of the American people as a whole. However that doesn’t mean you can do as you like with them, as I have personally been reminded on a few occasions.
I am an inveterate flower picker. I can manage to find flowers to pick in even the most unlikely of places, not unlike the way our family’s daffy but determined golden retriever Ropher could find water to jump into pretty much anywhere that we let him out of the car. I have picked flowers on five continents, in wild places and in cities; legally, unknowingly illegally, and on occasion with a willful disregard for the law (I’m looking at you, flowering Brooklyn magnolia trees with low-hanging branches: sorry). When I’m in New York I live in one of Brooklyn’s more industrial neighborhoods, but still I have picked flowers there, too. I have picked flowering weeds poking out through the chain-link fences of vacant lots, and on one very late and slightly tipsy spring night, I plucked a sprig of lilac from a sidewalk garden near the Gowanus Canal. Again, my sincere apologies. When I was younger and living in bucolic Northern California, it was a rare hike that I went on that did not result in some wild bouquet—yellow acacia or plum blossoms in February, daffodils and narcissus in March, forget-me-nots and roses and foxgloves and honeysuckle and nearly everything else from April through June. There was flowering coyote bush in July, Pink Lady lilies in August, colorful leaves in the fall, and evergreen and red berry branches in winter. I didn’t know it at the time, but even in the county-protected open spaces near my childhood home, this is actually illegal. In Point Reyes National Seashore just a short drive away, it definitely is, too.
I was once walking back to my car from a trail hike through the wilderness area near Limantour Beach. I had begun by heading down through a wet little wood of young trees with a small musical brook running alongside. I then came out into a wide open field of tall dry grass with a view of the ocean. I could have continued on that path to avoid the sand, but instead I scampered down a dune to the beach and pulled off my shoes, opting to walk in the surf for about a mile. I then turned back towards the hills and away from the sea, trying my best to brush the sand from my salty-wet feet with my socks before put- ting my shoes back on, and rejoined the trail where it climbed upward again. The way was overhanging with fragrant purple ceanothus, a native shrub in the buckthorn family that’s also called California lilac, its fuzzy flower-clusters busy with fat and wriggling bees. There is a meadow at the top of the ridge, next to a pine forest, which has grown back now with incredible fecundity and denseness following the Mount Vision fire of 1995, but at the time was still a little charred. Then the trail slopes down again to meet the place where I started, near a daffodil field. Naturally, by the time that I was walking back to my car I had collected a modest but diverse little illicit bouquet. A park ranger drove up alongside me.
“You can’t take that,” he said, rather guiltily, gesturing towards my flowers as his engine idled. I was around nineteen years old then, my long hair wild and curly from the coastal breeze. I was wearing hiking boots but also a dress, and with my flowers in hand was generally doing my best impression of Marianne from Sense and Sensibility. It was apparent that the ranger did not want to be telling me this thing about the flowers. Similarly, I did not really want to hear it. There was so much abundant nature around my family’s house that appeared to be free for the taking, and this just felt like more of the same. Even though of course I knew it was a park, I wasn’t consciously poaching federal property. I just didn’t think about it. I was told I had to leave the flowers there by the side of the road. Yes, even though they would just wilt in the sun. Yes, even though I had already picked them.
Another time, a few years before, it was a fellow park visitor who verbally slapped my hand away from picking flowers. It was March of 1996 or 1997, I can’t remember which. There is a kind of native iris that grows all over Point Reyes in the springtime—Douglas iris— which is mostly purple but occasionally also white or pale pink. There were already lots of them before the fire, but in the years afterwards there have been even more. Anyway, on this spring afternoon I was driving back from the beach with my boyfriend when I demanded that he pull over so I could collect some wild irises—they were just so beautiful. But as I was leaning down to pick some from among the tender green grasses by the side of the road, another car drove by and an older woman leaned her head out of the passenger-side window.
“No! No! No!” she screamed angrily as they whooshed past, as if she’d just witnessed me savagely beating a child or abusing a baby animal. Or maybe not quite that severe, since whoever was driving the car did not find it necessary to slow down.
In my defense, I was in high school and there are worse transgressions I could have been committing, and I have since reformed my ways. Nevertheless, when it comes to protecting the nature of Point Reyes, people can get very passionate indeed.
– Summer Brennan was born to parents living in a houseboat on the San Francisco Bay. She has written for magazines and newspapers all over the country and works regularly with the United Nations Press Office in New York covering issues related to decolonization, disarmament, human rights and the environment. As an undergraduate at Bennington she studied with Mary Oliver. Later she took her masters from NYU in journalism and the Middle East. The Oyster War is her first book.
Copyright © 2015 by Summer Brennan from The Oyster War. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.