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My California is the smell of eucalyptus trees in ocean air. Even salted essential oil can evoke for me whole swatches of my childhood: My father in his crazy wigs, my grandparents’ conch-shell silences on the Carmel beach, the thick grove where I got lost behind my schoolyard collecting the trees’ bell-shaped silver pods.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that eucalyptus is nonnative to California—“invasive” even though they didn’t ask to come here. They arrived in the late 1840s and early 1850s with prospectors from Australia—those Gold Rush days brought an onslaught of mostly European-American and Chinese immigrants that would triple the state’s population in the space of a few years.

Now my local newspaper prints detailed instructions on how to kill the invasive eucalyptus.

I am also invasive.

 

***

 

My Nana—my great-grandmother—was born in Illinois. Her teenage mother died in childbirth and her widower dad married his dead wife’s sister, making “Aunt Eva” both my Nana’s aunt and her stepmother.

Then my Nana’s dad got himself killed in a bar fight.

That’s when she and Aunt Eva boarded a train bound for Los Angeles.

In the 1910 census, they’re both listed as housekeepers in Santa Monica.

But my Nana would never tell you she grew up as a maid.

She and her stepmom/aunt had come to California to reinvent themselves, after all. And within a few more years they were both married. My Nana moved to Beverly Hills. Aunt Eva took a job as a saleslady and she and her electrician husband rented an apartment off Wilshire.

A hundred years later, that neighborhood is the Mexican part of Koreatown.

My daughter lives there, but she’s barely hanging on to her studio apartment.

Rising rents and there’s hardly any work for creatives in L.A. anymore.

She’s considering a move to a Midwestern city we’ve all been through but can’t quite pinpoint on a map.  She figures if she goes someplace that other people are leaving, no one will mind too much.

 

***

 

To kill the eucalyptus, you drill holes into the trunk at a downward 45-degree angle with a power drill. You space the holes about three inches apart around the circumference of the trunk. Each hole should be at least two inches deep so it cuts in to the inner tissue of the tree. You can peel off the bark, too.

 

***

 

I live up north in the San Francisco Bay Area.

My neighborhood is part of the old Sacred Heart Parish in Oakland where my stepdad had his first assignment as a young Catholic priest. When he moved here in 1945, a streetcar line ran down 40th. In his journal, he described the area as poor and residential “with small, one-story houses and the occasional tree. Less barren and less crowded than San Francisco, but rather run down.”

More than sixty years later, those small one-story houses sell for a million dollars a piece and I’m barely hanging on to my studio condo here.

All the artists in the neighborhood are losing ground.

The new arrivals drive Priuses and can be seen running fast back and forth, up and down the street carrying hand weights.

An old musician neighbor of mine yells out her window at them, “You can relax! You’ve already made it to the top!”

But they don’t seem to hear her.

 

***

 

Across the bay in San Francisco, the cops are evicting all the homeless people from Division Street because the tech bros don’t like to look at them.  Rents have doubled in the last few years and if you don’t have first, last, and a security deposit for a $4,000-a-month studio you can forget it.

In an open letter to the mayor just days before the evictions, software developer Justin Keller wrote, “The wealthy working people have earned the right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.”

The city gave the people living in their tents 72 hours notice to vacate, but within just a few hours the garbage collectors showed up with the police and started putting people’s tents and all their belongings into the crushers.

The sounds of those garbage trucks churning almost drowned out the sounds of people weeping.

 

***

 

I cried the day the bulldozers came for the house my stepfather’s father built south of San Francisco. That old 1920 craftsman bungalow held my childhood as well as my stepdad’s in its thick stucco walls. The new owners spent a half million dollars fighting the historical board, managed to convince the city that a 3-bedroom/1-bathroom house was uselessly small in this time and place.

 

***

 

Once you’ve drilled into the eucalyptus trunk, you have to fill the holes with herbicide—a 50 percent dilution of glyphosate or triclopyr works best—and then you just leave it alone. It should only take a few weeks for the herbicide to soak into the tree’s inner tissue and for the tree to die.

 

***

 

“How long have you lived here?” the woman who waxes me asks. “How long do you think you’ll be able to stay?”

It’s the only conversation in the Bay Area right now.

The woman tells me she grew up here. She says she always thought the Midwest meant Lodi, California and that was scary enough if you weren’t white and Christian-passing.

She pours hot wax onto my leg, tells me she thinks about moving to Oregon, but she worries about those “No Californians” stickers she’s heard they have on the real estate signs up there and figures they mean her because her last name is Hernandez. She figures they mean her husband, too, because his last name is Garcia.

Oregon was founded as a white-only state.

California’s majority is brown.

“So what’s new?” she says as she rips my hair out.

It’s not really a question.

 

***

 

I have a few sheets of paper made of wildflower seeds. My 8-year-old son wants to draw a picture of the layers of the earth and write what he knows about those layers on one of the sheets of wildflower paper. He wants to soak his illustration and his words overnight. And then he wants to plant the pulped paper. He hasn’t yet bought into the cultural idea that things have to be permanent—and archived—to be worth our creative energy.

 

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I know the wildflowers in the paper probably aren’t native to California, but what’s new?

At least I don’t think they’re invasive.

 

***

 

Once the eucalyptus tree is dead, you need to cut it down with a chainsaw and, the newspaper says, “dispose of the trunk as desired.”

 

***

 

Near the front entrance of my neighborhood cemetery, there’s a grassy slope where people run their dogs. I think maybe they don’t realize it’s the stranger’s plot—hundreds of mostly-unmarked graves of infants, suicides, drifters, hanged convicts, and Chinese Oaklanders who came here during the Gold Rush and probably got stranded without papers after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

There are no signs on the field.

On the graveyard map, the area is just labeled “S.”

People buried in the Stranger’s Plot died of gunshot wounds or drowning or there’s no cause of death listed. According to cemetery records, 22 of the bodies belong to Chinese men killed in an 1880 dynamite blast at Fleming Point in Berkeley. Twelve are labeled, simply, “unknown bodies from 14th and Harrison.”

One of the only marked graves in the plot is for a six-week-old baby named Hatsue Nakayama.

 

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No one here seems to know anything more about Hatsue Nakayama—or why there are so many infants buried in the Stranger’s Plot.

No one knows why only Hatsue Nakayama got a marker.

Another tombstone in the field is for William Holmes Mabien. He killed himself on Christmas Eve in 1871, when he was 68 years old. As a suicide, he would have been banned from the main cemetery, but someone cared enough to put up the stone for him.

It just says, “Rest in Peace.”

 

***

 

Once you’ve cut down the eucalyptus tree and gotten rid of the trunk, you have to grind down the remaining stump and apply a commercial stump remover. “Killing the stump is an essential step in killing a eucalyptus tree,” the newspaper says, “because, like many trees, eucalyptus can sprout from the trunk and create new plants.”

 

***

 

At home, I get to thinking that Hatsue Nakayama and all the other infants and suicides and indigents and convicts and immigrants and unknowns at the cemetery should have some flowers, so I write this story on the last of my wildflower paper and I call it “My California” and I submerge its pages in shallow water and let them soak them overnight.

 

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In the morning, I take the half-pulped story up to the Stranger’s Plot.

As I’m packing the dirt over my words, a security truck rolls past on the road at the bottom of the slope, but the guard driving doesn’t slow down to ask me what I’m doing here. I don’t have to explain why I’m burying my California in the Stranger’s Plot.

 

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Ariel Gore ARIEL GORE is the award-winning author of the memoirs The End of Eve (Hawthorne Books) and Atlas of the Human Heart (Seal Press) as well as six other books of fiction and nonfiction. She teaches writing online at www.literarykitchen.com.

6 responses to “The Stranger’s Plot”

  1. Erin Khar says:

    I love so much about this essay- the pace, the voices, the place. <3

  2. I also love this essay, and the photos that go along with it. I love the way it meshes past and present. The way it illustrates all that is wrong with our lopsided economy. And the way it considers home and belonging.

  3. A lovely braided essay, about such a relevant subject these days. I have the feeling we’re all going to get to know what it feels like to be a refugee, sooner or later.

  4. Carol Rogero says:

    Brilliant writing! Sadly we are all strangers to some group and this will be our final downfall. The forgetting, that we have all been invasive at one point or another. The forgetting that we are all related and that we all belong.

  5. Kate Dreyfus says:

    I loved this essay, and the way it weaves time, thanks!

  6. Wonderful essay, and sublimely evocative of many times and places and feelings long gone, capturing the essential unmooring that’s central to being an American, and especially a Californian.

    I thought you’d be interested in a relevant historical tidbit: My great-great-great grandfather, a Methodist Bishop named William Taylor, sent the first eucalyptus shoots and seeds from Australia home to his wife, who had remained in Alameda. The Taylors’ next door neighbors were a family called Stratton. The youngest surviving son, George M. Stratton, was the first chairperson of UC Berkeley’s psychology department. Stratton was fascinated with the potential therapeutic uses for the unusually pungent eucalyptus and subsequently planted an entire grove on his family’s property in Castro Valley. A few of the original trees still stand!

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