Story and photos by Murray Schneider
Alison Draper came to Glen Canyon to pull mustard and returned a month later to get married.
On March 9 she and her partner Neil Mitchell stood above the canyon floor next to the angelica rocks. That’s what the Friends of Glen Canyon Park call them, because the wildflower that looks like Queen Anne’s Lace thrives on a rocky slope there.
As far as anyone knows, it may be the first wedding ever in Glen Canyon.
For the occasion, Draper exchanged the sheaves of mustard she’d removed only days before for a bouquet of ornamental flowers brought to the ceremony by Kay Westerberg, another Recreation and Park Natural Area Program volunteer Draper had only known for two months.
“I made a connection with the canyon from the first,” Draper said, by way of explaining her nascent voluntary efforts along side Westerberg.
Mustard loomed large in her introduction to our canyon. It was introduced to San Francisco by early settlers for its use as chicken and goat fodder. Up in Napa Valley vineyards use mustard as a cover crop and green mulch. It’s even celebrated at Mustard Festivals. But in Glen Canyon it crowds out plants like Glen Canyon horkelia, yarrow, blue-eyed grass and coyote brush, beloved by the birds, butterflys and animals that rely on them for food and shelter.
As a volunteer Draper helps to keep it in check. But on a sunny afternoon the second Saturday in March mustard was far from her mind.
For the nuptials, she wore a dress, patterned with British arts and crafts flowers, a far cry from the jeans and long sleeved T-shirts shirt she dons wrestling hemlock and radish. “The floral patterns are from the 1920s,” said the bride, about the red and green flowers that favored her dress.
“I thought the floral arrangement,” said Kay Westerberg, the single guest, “perfectly matched Alison’s shoes.”
Alison Draper moved to Chenery Street in January with her partner of 11 years, and within a month she’d made inquiries about volunteering with the Friends of Glen Canyon Park. Originally from Brighton, England, Draper wasted little time filling her week with additional voluntary undertakings. She now works several hours at Hillcrest Elementary School, tutoring first graders in the school’s reading program.
“It was a bit challenging for the children to get by my accent,” said Draper, whose elocution rivals stage-trained Stratford-on-Avon actors. “But now I’m getting to know them and their characters are coming through.”
She’s digging in. She’ll next shoulder a quarterly Glen Park News paper route, which will take her to familiar neighborhood avenues such as Brompton, Lippard and Chilton. If all of this isn’t enough to keep her busy, she’s throwing in her lot with volunteers at Grace Center, a San Francisco program assisting 12 women in drug and alcohol recovery.
“Neil and I enjoy walking,” Draper said, trying to wrap her mind around the Hamerton Avenue steps, part of her imminent newspaper route, but not as steep as where she now stood, ready to exchange vows with Neil Mitchell. “I treasure the aroma of canyon eucalyptus trees.”
Over a century ago Adolph Sutro planted so many eucalyptus trees in Glen Canyon that it became known for a time as Gum Tree Ranch and walking beneath its fragrant branches is second nature to San Franciscans.
To recently-arrived British neighbors, it’s an entirely new experience.
“It so nice to have this on our doorstep,” said Mitchell, gesturing to the canyon behind him, silhouetted against thickets of lichen-draped Arroyo willow, which act as sanctuary to birds darting in and out for a smorgasbord of insects.
The wedding party gathered at the angelica rocks at 1 P.M. Near a chiseled chert outcropping they came across a quartet of shamanic worshippers. The group called themselves Breath of Creation and had staked out a nearby space where they stood chanting in a circle while holding hands.
On surrounding slopes, California poppies rustled in a breeze’s caress, pushing back against the invasive oxalis.
Near where the humming Breath of Creation group stood, toward Elk Street, the canyon earlier once had housed a dairy, stable and barn. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, the floor was used as a temporary encampment for San Franciscans made homeless. Negotiating the same fields now, one could believe it. Its turf, pockmarked and potholed, is better suited for pitching pup tents than shagging pop flies. In the 1850s, Forty-Niners prospected for gold along Islais Creek, and in 1869 the Giant Powder Works dynamite building blew up in what became known as the Glen Canyon or Rock Gulch Explosion.
Lots of history in Glen Canyon and more was about to be made.
The bride and groom joined hands, looking for a suitable place to recite their vows. Calvin Pennington, Mitchell’s brother, performed the role of best man. Trailing them, Jadey, Pennington’s dog, sprinted figure eights around the couple. Puffs of clouds softened the sky as the dog became distracted by song sparrows skipping among cypress branches.
Mike Watson, of the Universal Life Church, led the couple through a brief ceremony. When he asked Draper the age-old question, she simply said:
The couple kissed, as gently as the wisp of air that had whispered to the California state flower.
Jadey returned and circled the newlyweds in a congratulatory victory lap.
“This is such a beautiful spot,” opined Watson, returning his matrimonial script to his coat pocket. The newlyweds moved closer to where the Breath of Creation had completed their chanting. As they poised for photographs, the religious quartet slipped by.
“It’s a lovely day,” said one of the shamanic devotees, “and was special to share this space with you both.”
The plan now called for a Calistoga honeymoon, but only for a few days since Draper scheduled a return to the rocks the following Wednesday, ready to resume jousting with colonizing mustard.
Though not yet in flower they were surrounded by angelica plants, beloved of varied pollinating insects and butterflies and used in Europe to flavor a baba cake, according to Destinations Bakery’s Joe Schuver.
Whether the newly-weds planned to exchange bites of wedding cake at their home up the street from Tyger’s isn’t known. But given their wedding site, genuflection to an angel somehow seemed appropriate.
“It a beautiful white flower,” said Jeanne Halpern when asked about it after the wedding and who grows angelica in her California native plant garden on Valletta Court across from Glen Canyon. “The flower looks like an angel, standing so straight and proud.”
The newlyweds reached their car and headed down Berkeley Way, turned right on Elk Street where they passed the four members of Breath of Creation descending single file along the street that parallels Glen Canyon.
“It was such a lovely day in such beautiful surroundings and ever so nice that Kay came to see us tie the knot,” said the bride.
Rooting out all the mustard in Glen Canyon might take 100 years and 100 volunteers. But it took only one man of the cloth to tie the knot for Mr. and Mrs. Neil Mitchell.