I have had birds on the brain recently. Just last week I was woken in the middle of the night by an owl right outside my window. It’s methodic and deep hoot was so loud I sat up in my drowsy state and wondered if it was in the house. This late-night wakening coupled with my son’s recent fascination with his North American Birds Encyclopedia has caused fowl to be on my mind. If you are like me, you may not give birds a second glance, or thought. I hear them, see them, dodge their droppings, and shoo them away when they come looking for my kid’s crumbs. Since I have been more curious about them in recent days, I have started to pay a bit more attention to them; their warbles and songs, their colors and beaks. I have known for quite some time that Lake Merritt is home to a bird sanctuary of sorts. In fact, its shores are home to the first wildlife refuge in the United States. This past weekend my family and I made two trips lakeside. The first was to enjoy an evening along the shore to burn off the energy that came from some very blue ice cream. The other was to attend the 1st Oakland Nature Festival, a wonderful event hosted by the Rotary Nature Center where I was inspired to learn more about our feathered friends.
What do giraffes have in common with Mexico? It sounds like a trick question, or a goofy one-liner. If you ask Google, you are pointed to a rather interesting spiritual society called “Free Giraffes in Mexico”, a recipe for “giraffes huevos rancheros”, and an unfortunate story of a giraffe dodging traffic on a Mexican road while trying to make a run for it from a local circus. So the better question to ask: what do giraffes have in common with Mexico IN OAKLAND? The answer is a section of town with two busy thoroughfares that run in one-way directions under Hwy 580. Oakland Avenue and Harrison Boulevard transect a portion of the lower hills; parallel roads that connect the northern tip of Lake Merritt with the highway, MacArthur Boulevard, and the Oakland Hills. Therefore, people often move fast; too fast. The statuesque giraffes have been a part of this confluence of intersections for 32 years. Aztecali, a casual neighborhood eatery with home-style Mexican fare, has just joined the area this year. Both give cause to slow down and appreciate craft in two different forms; it makes giraffes and Mexico synonymous in my book.
I have a deep level of admiration for those who entertain children for a living. Play isn’t something that comes naturally to me. When I watch jugglers, magicians, balloon artists and other performers at birthday parties and events, I am in awe. To take oneself to the level of a child may be “down” in the physical sense, but it actually requires one to move “up” in the sense of energy, creativity, and imagination. Puppeteers have always fascinated me in the ways they combine a piece of art, their hands, and their voices to create a character that will cause little eyes to open wide. While digital animation has taken over much of children’s entertainment in the 21st Century, iconic puppets still dance across our screens in long running shows such as Sesame Street. Yet there are few places where you can still watch a curtain move aside and see lively characters dance in front of your eyes. Oakland’s own Children’s Fairyland is one of those special spots. Along the shore of Lake Merritt, Fairyland has been home to our country’s longest running live puppet theater. Now celebrating sixty years, the Storybook Theater at Fairyland, and its dedicated director, invited me behind the scenes to see just how it has been pulling strings for so long.
“High on the summit of Oakland’s eastern skyline a Woodland Open-Air Theater and Temple of Honor, reached by a gigantic stairway and surrounded by a grove of huge Sequoia trees, are being constructed to commemorate great California authors of the past and of the future, who among their writings heralded to the world the scenic beauties and the historic life of our superb State.”
Gertrude Mott, 1936
I have become sentimental about Woodminster. Odd, given that until five days ago I had never set foot inside its gates. Something about how this place came to be, and how it has become a second home to a family that has been producing musicals inside its open-air bowl for fifty years, has captivated me. It’s a place that was built amidst depression; a “cathedral in the woods” to honor California writers. Its early advocates had high hopes for its use; festivals in honor of California literature, educational programs for East Bay schools and civic organizations, and of course large theatrical and musical performances. World War II caused the lights to be turned off for the first few years of its existence and the rise of the television caused interest to wane in the middle of the century. However, for the past fifty years the summer musical program has endured thanks to a husband and wife team that brought innovation, passion, and family-filled exuberance to this special spot in Oakland’s woods.
Who was Howard Gilkey? He was a little boy from Iowa who loved to collect seeds and bulbs. He was a California teenager who worked for a famous botanist, cross pollinating plants as a “bumble bee”. He was a U.C. Berkeley student who sold gladiolus bulbs to pay his tuition. He was a City of Oakland payroll clerk who designed Lakeside Drive in his spare time. He was a landscape architect who designed the Cleveland Cascade in 1923. He conceptualized the grounds of Highland Hospital. He consulted on the landscape and gardens of Mills College. He designed projects such as the Woodminster Cascade and Amphitheater, the original Lake Merritt Wild Duck Refuge, and the Arboretum at Knowland Park. He produced the annual themed California Spring Garden Show for 23 years. Are you surprised you haven’t heard of him? I know I was.
To experience pleasure through our senses is critical to health and well being. I know that I often take my five senses for granted. I try to focus on small pleasures in the form of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell; it is an exercise in slowing down. I move so fast on a daily basis, to take just 5 minutes can rejuvenate and reenergize me. Since I have been trying to focus on slowing down recently, lavender has been on my mind. It has always been one of my favorite scents; its ability to help with relaxation and sleep is why I use drops of its essential oil at bedtime. A recent trip to The Gardens At Lake Merritt with the kids was an opportunity to visit the lavender varieties in the sensory garden, and to allow all my senses the opportunity to find pleasure. While lavender’s scent induces calm and its little purple flowers add pops of color in perennial form, its flavor is a quality I hadn’t considered. Honey, tea and herbes de Provence are ways in which lavender can make its way to our palete, but I was curious about how to use it in baking. During my recent visit to Oaktown Spice Shop I saw bags of the little dried flowers and decided to try my hand at baked donuts.
When I stumbled on information about the Schilling Gardens late one evening, a double dose of irony was at play. I had just finished reading a book I thoroughly enjoyed called The Forgotten Garden, the story of an abandoned girl at the turn of the 20th century and her connection to a secret garden inside a maze on the other side of the world. I had also just arranged my visit to Oaktown Spice Shop; since I am curious about connections to Oakland history, I spent a bit of time looking into Oakland’s involvement in spice trading, which didn’t turn up much. The name Schilling rung a bell; images of old red and white spice tins popped into my head. As I opened more windows on my screen and read article after article about this hidden treasure on the western shores of Lake Merritt known as the “Gold Coast”, I discovered that this once treasured oasis of a local spice tycoon is a shadow of its former self. Furthermore, its remnants may completely disappear as development encroaches on the lakeside community. I knew it was a story I had to share.
As Monday got underway in our household, my son asked if we could go to Fairyland. While I know how blessed I am to be home with both my children on Monday and Tuesday, it is critical to all of our sanity to keep them moving and out of the house. Unfortunately, until summer officially hits and the school year fades into memory, Fairyland is closed on these two days. So as my brain churned away on how to spend the morning, I thought, “maybe we can SEE Fairyland from the Kaiser rooftop garden.” The garden has been on my radar for quite some time. The overcast morning would be perfect for snapping pictures. I had to pick sometime up downtown. So, why not go look? The answer to my question turned out to be no, you can only see the Fairyland sign. Yet we had fun exploring, snacking, and watching the family of ducks come and go. Once the largest rooftop garden in the world, this oasis amidst concrete gave us a fun family park trip to kick off the week.