National Park Week in April always inspires stories and reflections on our favorite national parks, especially the well-known ones, such Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and Glacier National Park. But the 407 National Park Service units that currently exist include not only national parks but battlefields, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, military parks, memorials, monuments, recreation areas, rivers, scenic trails, seashores, the White House and even Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia.
In anticipation of this year’s National Park Week, April 18–26, 2015, I decided to branch out and explore a place not usually thought of as a typical “park.” I recently visited one of the 19 recreation areas within the National Park System: Golden Gate Recreation Area in California. Part of that unit is Alcatraz Island.
Nature on “the Rock”
Although the word Alcatraz is today inextricably linked in our minds to the infamous federal penitentiary that was in service from 1861 to 1963, the island has also served as a Civil War fortress, the site of the first lighthouse and U.S.-built fort on the West Coast, and the birthplace of the Native American Red Power Movement. Besides this rich human history, however, there is a natural side to “the Rock”—ocean cliffs and tide pools, unexpected gardens, extraordinary bay views and numerous bird colonies.
In fact, the name Alcatraz relates to the island’s plentiful birds. In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first to sail into what is now known as San Francisco Bay. He named this island Alcatraces, the Spanish equivalent for what most experts say is “pelican,” “strange bird” or “gannet.” Over time, the name was anglicized to Alcatraz.
Today, Brandt’s cormorants, western gulls, black-crowned night herons, snowy egrets and pigeon guillemots all breed on the island.
Art on “the Rock”
Not only did I visit a National Park Service unit not typically viewed as a park, I visited Alcatraz during an unusual art exhibition. Seven installations by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei were set up in four locations. Through mixed media, sculpture and sound recordings, the @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz exhibit made statements—and made me examine my own views—about freedom of expression, the prison system and our responsibilities as citizens.
One of the seven installations is in a crumbling, two-story manufacturing building where prisoners once made clothes, shoes and furniture. Placed on the floor are portraits rendered in Legos of 176 people from around the globe who’ve been exiled, imprisoned or silenced because of their beliefs or affiliations. In a room next door, a suspended Chinese dragon kite winds around pillars. The panels in its body carry quotations form imprisoned activists.
In another installation in the cellblocks, sound recordings play. A single stool inside each small, decaying cell invites visitors to step inside, one at a time, and to sit down and listen. You might hear the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in one cell and a protest song by Russian punk band Pussy Riot—opponents of Vladimir Putin’s government—in the next. Go into another and hear the Robben Island Singers, activists imprisoned during South Africa’s apartheid era.
What’s incredibly sad to me is that Ai Weiwei will never get to see his creation on Alcatraz in person. A vocal critic of the Chinese government, Ai has been censored, detained and beaten by authorities in his home country. He has spent 81 days in solitary confinement and has been prohibited from leaving China since 2011.
I hope you will consider visiting one of your national parks next month—simply because you can.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,