Wednesday, May 16, 2007
The Golden Gate
The Pacific Ocean revealed a rare treat earlier this week in San Francisco. The wreckage of the King Philip - a 19th century clipper ship - emerged from the sands of Ocean Beach for the first time in over twenty years. This wreckage is considered the most intact wooden shipwreck in the Northwest US. This is what's left of the hull.
I went down there on a blustery afternoon to snap a few photos. The preservation is amazing, considering that the planks originate from trees that were cut down somewhere in New Engand well before the Civil War. All kinds of items that would usually degrade are preserved in underwater conditions, mostly due to an anaerobic environment where the bacteria and fungi can't get a foothold.
This is a romantic-era painting of the shipwreck by Gideon Jacques Denny. The King Philip was not the fastest ship in the fleet when it ran ground in 1878. It was an old model, and couldn't keep up with the speed of steel hulled boats or the reliability of the new steamers. By the time the old clipper slumped onto Ocean Beach, it was mostly hauling bird and horse shit for use as fertilizer.
Oh, San Francisco, what is it about you that attracts the hauling of poop from all over the world?
Everyday I walk down to the Golden Gate, I watch the cargo boats heading out to Asia, loaded down with plastic detritus and bing cherries. I've always wondered about how it's come to this, how the global market structures our social order for the dubious honor of cheap cellphone accessories. As it turns out, the trade of prestige items has always been a powerful human drive in the San Francisco Bay.
Long before European contact, Native Americans gathered along these shores. Back then, 2000 years or so ago, the bay was lined with hundreds of shellmounds, where the human dead were buried along with oyster shells, ground stone tools and animal bones. Directly across from the Golden Gate, where the tongue of fog penetrates the heart of Berkeley, the political leaders of the coastal chiefdoms held court on those mounds.
These were not just garbage heaps, but ancestral power spots. The high-status familes lived on the mounds, holding elaborate rituals and feasts, and celebrating death as the eater of all things. As Archaeologists Edward Luber and Mark Gruber suggest, "the dead must be fed."
They danced, feasted, mourned and lived their lives on the estuary shores- and oh yes, they traded too. A lot. Their activity was not so different than what goes on today in the Oakland Harbor, the aggrandizement of wealth and the trade of distantly-produced goods. Perhaps this is what the Golden Gate demands of us, to feed the landscape with our bones, our tools, and our surplus.
Yeah, the Golden Gate demands surplus above all else. Bounty and abundance! If we can't pay the ferryman, we should stay at home. When the King Philip lost its anchor in the rough waters outside the gate, it was sailing without ballast. There was nothing in the hold. Not even poop. They learned a harsh lesson; pass with sufficient abundance or be tossed ashore by the underwater allies.
Keep this in mind next time you drive over the bridge. I recommend some junk in the trunk.