Another Green World

Oakland is the only metropolitan city in the United States to have a saltwater lake in its downtown. The lake is also the nation’s oldest wildlife refuge, home to large breeding populations of herons, egrets, geese and ducks.

The lake—actually a tidal lagoon—is one of those subjects that, like physics or philosophy, only expand with knowledge. The more you know, the more you realize there is to learn. Lake Merritt is Oakland’s own existential and intellectual quandary. In addition to being a great spot to picnic, it raises all sorts of questions about permanence and the ephemeral, ecology and mortality.

One Oakland enthusiast asking some of these questions is Scott Oliver, a local artist interested in the socio-cultural evolution of water. His public art project, Once Upon a Time, Happily Ever After, features an audio tour of the lake that includes music and interviews, and interweaves history and geography.

The series of downloadable podcasts will eventually include twenty-one stops, last two to three hours, and cover three miles. As Oliver says at the beginning of the audio tour, “Place is a process rather than a measurement, a series of personal and shared experiences and stories constantly being revised and added to. This process creates a unique sense of place in each of us that is nonetheless interwoven with the experiences of others.”

Oliver, a sculptor, thinks of the project as a web rather than a path, a collection of short stories strung together based on curiosities and questions. Born in Oakland, he often walks the loop around the lake.

“There’s something really magical about the lake. It seems to hold all these disparate forces in a certain kind of harmony. To me, it’s the most democratic space in the city,” he says over a beer (a locally brewed “Lady of the Lake”) at the Lake Chalet. “You get to see people that aren’t part of your social circle. It’s people living their lives and the boundaries aren’t clear.”

It’s a big task for a body of water, but Lake Merritt has proven itself over the centuries. It’s been in some form of existence for up to five thousand years, as rising sea levels from melting glaciers inundated Glen Echo and Indian Gulch Creeks. Over the past 150 years, the lake has undergone drastic change thanks to human interference.

Lake Merritt got its name and official “Lake” status in 1867, when Oakland mayor Dr. Samuel Merritt designated 155 acres of tidal water from the headwaters of Indian Slough to be the future lake. Two years later, Merritt donated money to build a dam at the 12th Street Bridge at the southern tip of the Lake. Long before Merritt came along, the environs surrounding what is now Lake Merritt were inhabited by the Huchiun tribe of the Ohlone-Miwok Indians.

Over time, the water has gone through a mind-boggling amount of ecological and socio-cultural-political permutations. The city undertook the first major beautification project in 1925, when the lake’s “necklace of lights” (126 lampposts and 3,400 pearly bulbs) was lit for the first time. All was aglow until 1941 and World War II, when blackouts were enforced across much of the United States for national security. In 1963, the Wildlife Refuge at Lake Merritt was registered as a National Historic Landmark, and in 1985, the lights were illuminated once again.

I recently met up with Christopher Richard to talk about the lake’s history. Richard is the former Associate Curator of Aquatic Biology at OMCA; he recently retired after twenty-odd years on the job. We sat next to a water pool outside the museum that Richard informed me would have been a marsh back in 1860.

Lake Merritt may indeed be the country’s oldest wildlife refuge, but it is anything but natural, Richard explains. Lake Merritt is an estuary—a place where freshwater from creeks and storm drains mixes with salty seawater pumped in by the tides. Estuaries are naturally very productive places, but with the addition of fertilizer from urban runoff, growth of algae and rooted plants can overwhelm the system. The fountains in the lake aren’t merely decoration: they aerate the water in order to prevent the entire lake from succumbing to what Richard calls “stinky aquarium syndrome.”

The lake is eight to ten feet deep and home to shrimp, fish, clams, and crabs. Birds, too: Brazen black-crowned night herons, snowy egrets, scaups, brown pelicans, and great blue herons. If you’re lucky, you might spot an Egyptian goose or Mandarin duck. During winter, there are gadwalls, common and red-throated loons, Eurasian and American wigeons, pintail ducks, wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, white-eyed scoters, and surf scoters.

All of these critters bring us back to questions of permanence and the ephemeral, ecology and mortality. “This is a snapshot, a stop-frame in a movie,” Richard says of Lake Merritt and its constant permutations.

As Richard articulated in an email, understanding Lake Merritt as an ephemeral entity is a way of “making meaning out of a body of water, understanding that a duck is something larger than that which is contained within the circumference of its feather tips. Scientists—often accused of being rigid about absolute truth—actually thrive in a squishy world of likelihoods and probabilities.”

Conceptualizing science—and life in general—in this way brings up one of Richard’s great heroes, pioneering marine biologist, ecologist, and philosopher Ed Ricketts (1897–1948). “Ricketts started seeing a critter as more than its body,” Richard told me. Organizing animals by their interrelations with each other and the environment, Ricketts “tried to see broader connections in the field rather than just cataloguing objects.”

An upcoming exhibition at OMCA will take this all-inclusive Ricketts-like approach to explore the human relationship to the San Francisco Bay. Richard’s assessment of Lake Merritt—“an assemblage of processes and relationships, as well as water, fish, and ducks. It has a history and a future; it is constantly changing”—holds true of the Bay as well. The exhibition, opening in 2013, will explore everything from sustainability and employment to recreation and aesthetics.