Above me a red-tailed hawk soars silhouetted against voluminous clouds suspended in the afternoon sky. Dotting the green hillside and impossibly nestled in hard rock at my feet, pops of orange make me smile. It is Eschscholzia californica, the California poppy, our state flower. The bright cheer of this native wildflower is so unexpected that it is like experiencing a random act of kindness on the darkest day. Further afield another California native, Viola pedunculata, reveals itself as tiny smatterings of yellow like hidden nuggets of sun.
I am standing on the crest of Bernal Hill, over 400 feet above sea level, in the midst of urban San Francisco. To the north, the stately towers of Golden Gate Bridge stretch out of the incoming fog. To the east, separating Bernal Hill from San Francisco Bay, the twisting tentacles of Highway 101 and 280 are blotted with tons of moving steel. The Mission District unfurls in front of me, and Bernal Heights behind me, its streets lined with trees, houses, and automobiles.
The wind caresses my face, its chill an oddly delicious counterpoint to the warmth of the sun. A sense of calm engulfs my being. Life seems manageable from up here and so incredibly beautiful. I am so grateful for this moment that I say aloud, “Thank you Barbara and Roland Pitschel for saving Bernal Hill.” It’s easy to take these 24 acres of natural open space for granted. There was a time when all 49 square miles of San Francisco contained such biodiversity. Our natural heritage needs stewards, and the Pitschels were that and much more.
As recently as 200 hundred years ago, Bernal Hill was a vibrant grassland covered in wildflowers and bunchgrasses. Had I been standing here then, my view would have been very different. Instead of paved streets and buildings, my gaze would have taken in an astounding array of connecting ecological communities supporting diverse native flora and wildlife—valleys of ancient oak and bay laurel woodlands, chaparral and wet meadows, saltwater wetlands, freshwater marshes, dunes and coastal scrub. Before it was reduced by fill, San Francisco Bay was much larger. I can only imagine the extensive tule marshes and the multitude of herons, sandpipers, and other shorebirds that once flourished there.
Your deepest roots are in nature. No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of life you lead, you remain irrevocably linked with the rest of creation. —Charles Cook
So how did this breathtaking panoramic view escape development? Flashback to the late 1960s—the city of San Francisco wanted to declare the crest of Bernal Hill a “blighted area” and sell it to developers. But Barbara Pitschel and her husband Roland, who lived nearby, opposed the idea and pressured the city to transfer Bernal Hill from the Department of Public Works to the Recreation and Parks Department so that the crest of the hill would forever remain undeveloped and open to all. In 1972, the couple’s tenacity was finally rewarded. And, as part of the terms of the transfer as dictated by Barbara Pitschel, Bernal Hill would be restored to its pre-1825 condition. Soon after, the Pitschels begin monthly hilltop trash removal parties. In time, their efforts focused more on habitat restoration, and in 1986 the monthly work parties received official status as the Bernal Hilltop Native Grassland Restoration Project, the first ecological restoration project in San Francisco.
I never had the pleasure of meeting the Pitschels, but reflecting on what I know of their impassioned fight to protect the site from development, and their continued work for more than 40 years, I believe their connection to Bernal Hill was profound. Their actions and commitment demonstrate a fierce respect for our ecological past and a level of stewardship that inspires and humbles me. So again my words carry on the wind that makes the native flora on Bernal Hill dance and the red-tailed hawk soar—thank you Barbara and Roland Pitschel for understanding the importance of what remains.
An expanded version of this essay was the winning entry in last spring’s Pitschel Prize, a writing contest honoring the life and work of Barbara Pitschel.