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Life on Earth: San Francisco, Oostburg, and the Figure-Ground Reversal

Herb Childress

Childress is the author of  Landscapes of Betrayal, Landscapes of Joy: Curtisville in the Lives of Its Teenagers (Albany, NY: State University Press of New York, 2000).

While walking to work in San Francis­co, I used to make a game of imagin­ing the landscape as it might have been two or three hundred years ago. Among all cities, San Francisco might seem to lend itself most readily to such a pastime. The steep hills are still prominent, the ocean and bay envelop the city on three sides, the wind and fog are always close at hand, and the native grassland and shoreline marsh systems are evident and vital parts of nearby places.

    And yet I found it very difficult to dream away the city and see deer trails on the grassy hill­sides‑-all I could see were buildings and cars and overhead trolley guides. I had played this game elsewhere with great enjoyment and assumed my bloc­kage was due to the height and densi­ty of the never-ending skyline. It wasn't until five years later, while studying the landscape history of a small Wisconsin village, that I dis­covered why San Francis­co was imper­vious to my dreams: It isn't on the Earth.

    Earth, or more specifically the Earth's surface, is not a part of the San Francisco landscape. Only occa­sionally does a patch of green emerge from the concrete, and when it does it is as likely to be on a penthouse or atop a parking garage or sunken below sidewalk level as it is to be "on the ground." Gardens are found almost as often indoors as out. Be­cause of this unpredict­ability and rarity, all plantings become discon­nected from the Earth: yards, parks‑-even Olmsted's enormous and lovely Golden Gate Park‑-are simply set into fabricat­ed niches in the hardscape, spaces that were cut out of the city grid and filled with plants as though they were window boxes. Soil and plants are the artificial elements that occasion­ally interrupt the city's natural concrete datum.

    This horizontal irrelevance of the Earth is accom­panied by a vertical disconnection as well. We go below the street to catch trains and trol­leys, the sidewalk opens up for car­tons to be shuttled down­ward, and the "ground floor" and plaza gardens of the Alcoa Building are on the third floor roof of a parking garage. Sur­prisingly, this feeling of discon­nec­tion is validated, even strengthened, whenever you get a chance to see below grade. When a build­ing is de­molished in the center of the city and the wreckage is excavated down twenty feet or so below side­walk level, the datum ex­posed is still human in ori­gin--party walls of adja­cent buildings, utility conduits, retain­ing brac­es and struts and stan­chions, almost any­thing but dirt. Da­vid Macau­lay's won­der­ful civil-engi­neering picture book, Under­ground (Hough­ton Mif­flin, 1976), illustrates exactly the experience of surface life in San Francisco: A thin crust of paving hover­ing over a plenum filled with pipes, tunnels, utilities and storm drains. Earth is non-existent; the sphere is a hollow, engi­neered shell.

    There is an old joke about an Eng­lishman in India who asks a local resident about Hindu cosmology. The world rests on the shoulders of an elephant, he is told. "What does the elephant stand upon?" "The elephant stands upon the back of a great tur­tle." "And what does the turtle stand upon, pray?" "Oh, after that, sahib, it is turtles all the way down." In San Francisco, one could take an auger and drill down seemingly for miles and miles and retrieve nothing but the lost evidence of human occu­pation. In short, city all the way down.


Oostburg, Wisconsin, is a farming village of some 2,000 people about 45 miles north of Milwaukee. There, the city's modes of object and ground are re­versed. Buildings and roads are laid cautiously onto the soil in small encroachments. Earth is solid in Oostburg, unlike the hollow ball of the city. The ground is dense, to be plowed or shoveled only at great ex­pense of time and strength. The few marks made by humans have merely been painted onto the surface. It's easy to see Center Street as a six-mile-long piece of black tape pulled taut and laid from township line to town­ship line, and just as easy to imag­ine it all gone, the land unmarked, covered with blackberries and marshy swamps.

    Human occupation is a tenuous act in the country, marked by small, some­times timid, moves to occupy a por­tion of the Earth. The city build­ers have more confi­dence (some would say chutzpa), redefin­ing the coast­line with land­fill, build­ing up into the sky and down through the crust re-forming the face of the planet.

    But what does it mean to live on Earth if Earth is nowhere to be seen? Is one's concept of Earth re­lated to urban and rural styles of liv­ing? Cultural landscape writers show how human decisions about the environ­ment, both built and natu­ral, reflect the values and beliefs of the builders and inhabitants. What does it say about modern urban cul­ture, then, when the ground itself becomes an arbitrary feature of the cityscape? It would seem to be no coincidence that we speak of homeland and native soil, of people being rooted or well-grounded.

    With all of the current work on place attachment, including my own studies of rural villages, it will be interesting to see whether place narratives reflect the respective degrees to which the horizontal and vertical surety of Earth as datum has been overcome or replaced by the engi­neered uncertain­ty of concrete as datum.