At first glance, Alcatraz Island, California, doesn’t seem like it belongs in our National Park Service system. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

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.

A western gull is a large, dark-backed bird of the Pacific Coast. It is seldom found far from the ocean. ©John T. Andrews

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.

In one of the Ai Weiwei installations, a traditional Chinese dragon kite embodies political power. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

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,



The first sign you see when you arrive on Alcatraz reminds you of the island’s rich human history. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


Alcatraz Island is the birthplace of the Native American Red Power Movement. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


When Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary, staff arrived to build homes. The private gardens of resident families flourished. ©John T. Andrews


Those who lived on Alcatraz introduced ornamentals, exotics and trees. ©John T. Andrews


The plants seen on the island today are what remain of the original gardens. They now survive on their own, existing on moisture from fog and rain. They have been protected since the National Park Service took over in 1972. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


An extraordinary view of San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Island. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


The island was occupied by generations of seabirds until it became a military fortress in the 1850s. For the next 100 years, human activities kept the birds away. When the penitentiary closed in 1963, the lack of human disturbance led to their return. Today, Alcatraz is a haven for more than 5,000 nesting birds. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


Six panels of Lego portraits depict people—sometimes built in the colors of their national flags—in 33 countries who are suffering from political persecution. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


The suspended Chinese dragon kite winds around pillars in the New Industries Building, which was built between 1939 and 1941. In the Alcatraz penitentiary, work was a privilege. One of the rewards for good behavior was a job in this two-story laundry and manufacturing facility. ©John T. Andrews


The individual panels that make up the dragon’s body carry quotations from activists who have been imprisoned or exiled, including Nelson Mandela … ©John T. Andrews


… and Ai himself. ©John T. Andrews


Scattered around the room, other kites depict birds and flowers. These natural forms are icons for nations with records of restricting human rights and civil liberties. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


The confined kites suggest the contradictions between freedom and restriction and creativity and repression. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


In the installation called “Blossom,” Ai Weiwei fills utilitarian fixtures—such as sinks, toilets and tubs—in several hospital ward cells with representations of nature: delicate porcelain bouquets. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


In “Stay Tuned,” installed in a series of 12 cells in A Block, you are invited to sit and listen to spoken words, poetry and music by people who have been detained for the creative expression of their beliefs, as well as works made while incarcerated. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


In the Alcatraz dining hall, visitors can write postcards to the detainees represented in the Lego portraits. The postcards are adorned with images of birds and plants from the nations where the prisoners are held. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


Ai Weiwei will never get to see in person his creation on Alcatraz Island. He has been prohibited from leaving China since 2011. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews