Monday, August 19, 2019
Of lake and parks and creeks
When I was very small, I thought Lake Elizabeth was named after me. It’s a man-made lake in Fremont, a city to the southeast of San Francisco Bay, where I grew up. It’s surrounded by a large park, several playgrounds, and a couple of community buildings. 450 acres, and a lake that’s around 80 acres and maybe 8 feet deep. I sat in my grandparents’ sailboat on Lake Elizabeth’s waters. We rented paddleboats and bought ice cream cones. I fed ducks on its shores. A few times, we went swimming in the roped off area that demanded payment for use. I remember once we found a tiny orange kitten in the reeds on the south side of the lake, his little eyes glued shut with sickness. We named him Moses and took him to the nearby animal shelter.
There was one summer when my sister and I went to a day camp there. My sister and I were separated and the teenagers working there never gave us the color of marker we requested. If I could have figured out how to wander off, I would have. Maybe I did. As a child, I much preferred the company of nature to the company of my peers.
So many of my memories of Lake Elizabeth are of the small creek that meandered from the lake, through the playground, and into a wilderness refuge. To a dreamy girl like me, it was paradise. I was a small peasant girl, fetching water from the river to bring back to my family in our hut. I was a witch, gathering herbs and performing spells in the grass on the edges of the water. I was a pioneer, lifting my petticoats to ford a river on my way across the Oregon Trail.
There are strange, unspoken rules among children in public spaces. There are two ways to stake a claim on a particular area: be the first, or be the loudest. I was rarely the loudest, so I usually tried to be first. If I wasn’t, I had to settle for some other, smaller patch of shore to call my own.
I moved back home to Fremont for one semester during college. In the afternoons before my closing shift at the bookstore, I would take my grandmother’s old bike and ride out to Lake Elizabeth. As a twenty-two-year-old, the walk around Lake Elizabeth was short and manageable, an easy two miles. I would bring a book, or my journal, or a picnic lunch. Sometimes all of the above. I would watch as kids played by the same unspoken rules of territory by the creek. The grass was kept short (and often soiled) by flocks of Canadian geese.
There was less imagination in my use of the park as an adult. I went there for a change of scenery while doing the things I would be doing at home—reading, writing, walking, eating. But I could still feel the green of the park seep into my spine. It made me feel calm and quiet in the same way that it did when I was a child. Like a fish returning to water. Or more like breathing when you’ve been underwater.
I still visit Lake Elizabeth now and then. Everything at the lake is a little smaller to me now. The creek that was a wilderness to 6-year-old me doesn’t have the same untamed nature that it did then. I’ve embraced the fact that it was not, in fact, named after me, but rather after Fremont’s sister city, Elizabeth, South Australia. There’s a tunnel for BART, the public train, that runs right under the lake now. There’s a tree there planted for my late uncle, who died when I was too little to understand what that meant.
We adults still follow the same unspoken rules about territory—whoever’s first or loudest claims a spot. We’re more civilized about our claims, but we make them nonetheless. A picnic blanket here marks the border between my space and yours. Stay away from my picnic table, strangers. I didn’t come here to connect with people. I came to connect with the trees.
I wonder how long Lake Elizabeth will remain. If I’ll wheel a stroller with my own daughter around its perimeter. If I’ll watch her wade in the creek. If she’ll have a daughter that will do the same. I wonder if Lake Elizabeth will be a precious sanctuary to them, as it was to me. I hope it is. I believe it will be.