Strange and frequently momentous doings are almost always afoot in the gorgeous greenery of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, a squared-off tract three and a half miles long that was once a shifting Sahara of 50-foot dunes. In the proper season hordes of young athletes are at large on Big Rec Field, their backs emblazoned with legends that read "Johnson's Tamales" or "Wally's Fork Lifts," identifying the sponsors of the park's sandlot league which has spawned three DiMaggios, Tony Lazzeri, Babe Pinelli, Willie Kamm and such current lights as Gil McDougald, Gerry Coleman and Gus Triandos.
In the mating season buffalo bulls fight it out for the supremacy of a herd that roams a great green paddock undulating over Golden Gate's northwest acres. Just down the curving South Drive, past the bowling green where septuagenarians in the blue blazers and white ducks of the Bowling Club roll spheroids down the Kelly-green grass, young tennists gambol on Golden Gate's orange-and-green courts. Knowingly or not, they tread on territory hallowed by that oldtime great, Maurice McLoughlin, and later by Don Budge, Alice Marble, Art Larsen and Tom Brown, all of whom began the long climb by bouncing up the rungs of the park's peppy tournament program. And while all these efforts are expended in behalf of glory, on autumn Sundays the 49ers, those hard-blocking Hessians, perform for pay in Kezar Stadium, home of the East-West football game, which occupies a corner of the park too.
From the California Academy of Sciences inside the park expeditions have departed, bound for the plains of Patagonia and the wilds of Manchuria and the Gal�pagos Islands. Out of a mist-shrouded dell on foggy days, archers suddenly appear, like bowmen padding some strange Sherwood Forest-by-the-Sea. Fishermen perfect their fly-casting in practice pools, boatmen send magnificent model rigs across Spreckels Lake and converse with each other in a patois quite their own. Golfers tee off down fairways that are shielded by leafy boughs from any hint of the world of mortar that bustles just beyond the chlorophyll curtain. Polo ponies clump the Golden Gate turf on sunny Sundays, while, in another part of the forest, excursionists ply the lagoon in the shadow of a Norwegian boathouse that recalls strains of Grieg floating over some far-off fiord.
Whole hillsides are covered with hydrangeas in spring, and dahlias grow peach-colored and white, apricot, lavender and yellow, some of them a foot in diameter. Fuchsia flushes in dappled sunlight under serene cypresses, and elsewhere are stalwart redwoods, which are among the oldest living things in the world. With the late spring acacia trees around the horseshoe-pitching courts bloom yellow, peacocks rustle out of the punga tree ferns, and across the street kids suck the sugar from the nasturtiums that grow in orange clouds on the trimmed walkways.
It defies the imagination of a sometime Sunday planter to realize that in 1870 three quarters of the park was all shifting sand blown up from the bordering Pacific. It took years of experimentation and failure with barley and yellow lupine until a planting could be found that would hold the sands. Seeds of sea bent grass were imported from France by French bankers in San Francisco, and after years of nurturing in the park's hothouses they were finally planted in the dunes.
Most of Golden Gate's plants begin life grandly in a great glass palace called the Conservatory, which was shipped, knocked down, from England around Cape Horn by James Lick, a San Francisco millionaire. Inside this gingerbread hothouse an army of gardeners works not only for the park but for the city. The park supplies corsages for ladies invited to civic functions, sends potted palms by the hundreds to provide the shade and the decoration for municipal banquets. It honors visiting conventions and delegations with floral masterpieces inlaid on a slope in front of the Conservatory. Some designs require more than 20,000 plants, bouquets that cost the city a cool thousand dollars each.
The magnificence of Golden Gate's plantings is due not only to the salubrity of the weather but also to a San Francisco legend called John McLaren, who came to the park in its sand-dune days and served it as superintendent for 56 years until his death in 1943. McLaren hated signs, statues and automobiles, and fought to keep all of them out of the park. Riding his preserves in a horse cart, he battled the advent of the automobile, deplored the move to cut down the hedges so drivers would have better vision. Once, when the city sent diggers from a public works department to widen park roads, McLaren dispatched a counterdetail in the middle of the night to fill in the trenches that had been dug during the day. It was the heritage he left that caused San Francisco to rise in a body and kill the proposal to bisect the park with a freeway. Doubtless McLaren would have barricaded the roads had he lived to see the sports car races that were held in the park for three seasons from 1952 through 1954. Perhaps he might have relented if he knew the money was raised to send children to summer camp, for children were a prime consideration to him. "We're not growing grass, we're growing children," he once said.
He fought bitterly against the encroachment of statues, once warned some city fathers seeking to immortalize a patriot with a marble bust, "You plant those statues in, and I'll plant them out." And he did, letting his bushes grow long and straggly until the sculpted figure of Father Junipero Serra, a famous landmark, was thrusting his cross into a grove of untrimmed palm trees, and Beethoven, Verdi, Goethe and Cervantes lay as jungle-covered as the ruins of Angkor Wat. It is an oft-mentioned irony that McLaren himself should have been honored by a statue in the park. His image stands, however, on no pedestal, but on the lawn, like a dirt gardener, surrounded by his favorite rhododendrons, of which the park now grows some 500 varieties.
For McLaren's children there is a special playground, where the greensward warning says "This Lawn Is Reserved for Women and Children Only." In addition to a lawn a child can run on, unthinkable in many of the nation's parks, there is a barnyard full of lambs, peacocks, pigeons and rabbits, with a transient seagull or two swooping in occasionally for a potluck lunch of peanuts. San Francisco children are imbued early with the fanciful glories of the city's cable cars—there is an old one planted in the playground just to climb on. But there is a merry-go-round, too, just like other cities have, and a ride on it still costs only a nickel.
Outside McLaren Lodge, which is the name for park headquarters, two royal palms arise, and alongside them a giant Monterey cypress, which, when decorated with lights, as it is each holiday season, becomes the nation's tallest living Christmas tree, 105 feet to its highest branch. Out in Lindley Meadow, Golden Gate's herd of sheep becomes part of a living cr�che, and the shepherds are dressed in Biblical robes and given staffs (and a tot of rum now and then to ward off the chill).