"Samsara: The Birth, Life, Death, and Rebirth of Skaggs Island," Leila-Anne B.
Introduction: This essay was written by a former student of mine. It is a wonderful model for this unit. Leila-Anne successfully combines narrative and research-based writing to produce a moving and informative essay about Skaggs Island. Be sure and look at her photographs of Skaggs Island at the end of the essay.
In early 2008, I fell in love. At the time, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was that so passionately enchanted me, but I knew it was not just the abandoned, ghostly nature of the island. I have always loved exploring urban environments, especially deserted and forgotten places, but the feelings I had upon discovering the decommissioned Skaggs Island Naval Communication Station were triggered by something bigger than the sheer scale of neglect and decay. I returned time and time again, not because I wanted to see it again, but because I was being pulled by something deep inside me. I needed to go back. I was bewitched.
In 2011, Skaggs Island was completely demolished and returned to marshland. The beautiful, decaying remnants of the city, which had captivated “trespassers” for so many years, ceased to exist. I felt as though a part of me was slowly dying with every razed structure. I felt a pang in my heart and a pit in my stomach every time I drove by Skaggs Island Road on Highway 37. In the years that followed, I spent a lot of time thinking about the Island and began to better understand my intense fascination.
Samsara is a Sanskrit word meaning “a wandering through” or “the ever turning wheel of life.” In Buddhism, Hinduism, and many other Eastern religions, samsara represents the endless cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth (Loy). After studying samsara in one of my college courses, I realized that Skaggs Island was a beautiful and complete exhibit of this concept. What began as marshland had been converted to a naval base (birth and life). The naval base was eventually decommissioned and, over time, fell into complete disrepair (life and death). After years of deterioration, the base was finally destroyed, and the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge absorbed all 3,310 acres of land (death and rebirth).
Prior to the late 1800s, Skaggs Island was a thriving tidal marsh island. The Napa Sonoma area is home to over 13,000 acres of wetlands (Huffman). Skaggs Island lies between Vallejo and Sonoma and was the largest of the brackish tidal marsh islands in the area (MacKay). Brackish marshes occur as the intermediary lands where freshwater and saltwater habitats meet (“Brackish Marsh”). The freshwater lowers the salinity levels of the seawater in the area, which results in floral and faunal species cohabitating, when they can normally only live in one of the two types of marshes.
In the late 1800s, much of the marshland in the region was diked and drained for agricultural purposes (MacKay). As time passed, some of the marshes were reclaimed by nature as the dikes failed. A few of these marshes remain “naturally” restored, and are part of the Sonoma-Napa Marsh Complex, but much of this land has been converted into salt evaporation ponds or continued to be developed for agriculture.
The parcel of land now known as Skaggs Island was originally sold as a plot for gold mining (“NSGA Decommissioning Booklet”). No gold was found in the area, and the island was eventually used to raise horses and farm crops. The tidal nature of the land made it difficult to reliably farm, and a great deal of work was put forth to make the land arable. In the 1930s, the Sonoma Land Company (the owners of this land) suffered during the Depression and needed to acquire financial backing. Marion Barton Skaggs, an American businessman who had turned Safeway into a massive grocery store chain, provided the necessary assistance and the island was named in his honor (“NSGA Decommissioning Booklet”). It appeared that the land would continue to be used for agriculture for many years to come.
However, in 1939, World War II began. While the United States had not officially entered the war, the navy was seeking an ideal location for a radio communication base. After narrowing down the potential locations, Skaggs Island was selected due to its close proximity to the San Francisco navy headquarters (“NSGA Decommissioning Booklet”). In early 1941, Skaggs Island was purchased by the navy, construction began, and later that year, the United States entered the war. Skaggs Island continued to operate long after the war was over and was a key base for top-secret satellite communications and cryptologic functions until it was decommissioned in 1993. The base remained semi-operational as a communications base until 2011, but people no longer lived there.
When I visited Skaggs Island for the first time, I had considered myself ultraprepared. I was familiar with the history, and had spent hours reading about the island and its current state. My friend and I took off in his Toyota Tacoma, and a wave of excitement came over me when we saw the exit. We turned left off of Highway 37 onto Skaggs Island road and found ourselves at a very sizable bridge – the only clue one sees that Skaggs Island is, in fact, an island, as the reeds and grasses of the marsh obscure the waters from view. My stomach sank as I noticed a white SUV parked at the end of the bridge. I was just certain it was a law enforcement vehicle, and I was devastated at the prospect of having to wait until another day to finally visit the base. When we pulled up alongside it, the excitement washed over me all over again – a man stood outside the SUV with a pair of binoculars – he was a birder! I had read that Skaggs Island was a very popular destination for Bay Area birders, as it is home to a multiplicity of birds, including the endangered California clapper rail (“Tide Turns”). The coast was clear.
An imposing, towering chain link fence stood at the end of the bridge, and a power plant was just to the left. It was time for the off-roading experience! With adrenaline pumping through our veins, we drove around the perimeter of the power plant and found ourselves on Skaggs Island road, just on the other side of the fence. We were in!
Nothing I read at home had prepared me for the scope of the base. There were seemingly endless branches to the road, all of which I wanted to explore. We continued to drive straight, though, as we knew the main street was originally lined with palm trees and we could just see them in the distance. “STOP!!” I remember yelling, as my friend jumped with surprise and slammed on the brakes. I had to… because it was simply breathtaking. The palm trees had become tremendously overgrown after years of abandonment. They lined the road with grandeur and authority, perfectly foreshadowing what we were about to see. Skaggs Island was enormous.
I had read that the island was its own self-sufficient city, and that the quality of life was excellent for the families living there. Seeing the eighty duplexes, massive dormitory, classrooms, basketball courts, theaters, and the bowling alley really drove this information home (Pike and Aftergood). Before I had even gotten out of the car, I knew that I was going to be returning at every possible opportunity until I had explored every inch of the island. Exploring the dilapidated buildings satisfied my craving for urban exploration on an infinitely larger scale than I had ever experienced before. Wandering through buildings, I came upon abandoned stuffed animals, tattered and faded nowquaint-and-vintage curtains, and decomposing books… haunting peeks into the lives of the people who once inhabited the island.
The buildings themselves were quite a sight. Holes had been blasted through the walls of many of them – Navy SEAL practice, I later learned (“Skaggs Island”). Graffiti artists of widely varying skill levels had painted monumental pieces on most of the accessible building exteriors. The hallways were filled with even more graffiti, and surrounding the tags and pieces were splotches of color – paintball rounds. Skaggs Island was a popular destination for paintballers, and it’s not hard to imagine why, with the many broken-down buildings and countless hiding places.
While vandalism was prevalent, the more obscure buildings featured a different kind of disrepair. With negotiations to restore the marshland habitat seemingly stagnant, it appeared that the wildlife was making the decision for itself. Trees shot up through carports and a flooded building had become a pond with fish feeding on the growing algae. Barn owls flew above my head and had made nests safely inside the upper floors of the dormitory. Watching nature reclaim its land was beautiful. I thought I had seen the extent of this, but then I stumbled upon what remains the most stunning sight of my life. Two great horned owl fledglings stared wide-eyed at me from the corner of the room near a window. I took photo after photo and captured these beautiful baby creatures as they blinked at me, showing off the unique third eyelid seen in owls and some other bird species. As I got closer to them, Mama Owl screeched at me from a tree just outside. I took a few quick pictures and backed away, out of respect for her need to protect her babies. I stood across the room watching them for a while, knowing that this was a unique sight I would most likely never see again in my life. It was hard to believe that the island had been completely operational and a self sufficient, thriving community just fourteen years earlier.
Plans for restoring Skaggs Island to marshland had been in the works for over a decade, but the actual demolition process did not begin until 2011, when Senator Lynn Woolsey (and various environmental advocates and officials) finally succeeded in their efforts to transfer the land from the US Navy to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Poirier). The water tower was toppled, the buildings were razed, and Skaggs Island as we knew it was no more. The land transfer and subsequent demolition was a huge step in restoring the marshlands of the Sonoma Napa region in the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but it was not quite the final step. A 1,100-acre hay farm privately owned by Jim Haire stood in the middle of the island, blocking further steps in the restoration. The island could not be flooded, and the dikes and pumps would have to remain operational to allow Haire to continue farming hay on his land (“Tide Turns”). Haire could not come to a price agreement with the government, and held out until 2013. In 2013, Haire Ranch was transferred to the USFWS, and the restoration of the wetlands began.
The restoration and rebirth of Skaggs Island cannot be a simple, refreshed return to a tabula rasa. The island cannot just be demolished and flooded. In its many years as a dry environment, the island had become home to species not found in strictly wetland habitats. Most notably, two endangered species had adopted Skaggs Island as their home: the California clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse (MacKay). Skaggs Island and Haire Ranch lie below sea level, and flooding would result in a total loss of habitat for animals requiring a dry, upland, tidal fringe marsh environment. The restoration of the wetlands will include upland areas safe from the tides to accommodate these new inhabitants (MacKay).
Birth, life, death, and rebirth. As painful as it was to see the ghost town disappear, the joy of seeing its rebirth, knowing that it will be a thriving, vibrant habitat for endangered and previously displaced species of animals, overwhelms my feeling of sadness. Every time I drive past Skaggs Island Road, I remember how lucky I am to have explored and documented the final stages of the life and death of Skaggs Island. Habitats and environments change, and sometimes things we love have to pass on, making room for new life. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “It is in changing that things find repose” (Connel and Slatyer).
“Brackish Marsh.” Division of Forests and Lands. New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands, n.d. Web. 27 July 2014.
B., Leila-Anne. “Skaggs Island.” 2008-2010. Digital photographs.
Connel, Joseph H., and Slatyer, Ralph O. “Mechanisms of Succession in Natural Communities and Their Role in Community Stability and Organization.” The American Naturalist Vol. 111, No. 982 (Nov. –Dec., 1977): 1119. JSTOR. Web. 28 July 2014.
Huffman, Tom. “The Napa-Sonoma Marshes: Then and Now.” Outdoor California. Outdoor California Mag., Jan. 1999. Web. 26 July 2014.
Loy, David R. “Awareness Bound and Unbound: Realizing the Nature of Attention.” Philosophy East and West Vol. 58, No. 2 (Apr., 2008): 223. JSTOR. Web. 28 July 2014.
MacKay, Kevin. “Final Work Plan North Bay Mitigation Program at NSGA-Skaggs Island.” Biological Mitigation. Caltrans., 13 November 2002. Web. 26 July 2014.
“NSGA Skaggs Island Decommissioning Booklet.” Navy Cryptologic Technician History. NSGA, 18 June 1993. Web. 24 July 2014.
Pike, John and Aftergood, Steven. “Skaggs Island, CA Naval Security Group Activity.” Federation of American Scientists. n.p., 16 November 1997. Web. 26 July 2014.
Poirier, Juliane. “Back to the Land.” North Bay Bohemian. Metroactive. n.p., 15 June 2011. Web. 22 July 2014.
“Skaggs Island.” Land Use Database. The Center for Land Use Interpretation, n.d. Web. 26 July 2014.
“The Tide Turns: Sonoma Land Trust Purchases Haire Ranch on Skaggs Island.” Sonoma Land Trust. Shari Cardo, 13 December 2013. Web. 27 July 2014.
Reading Response Assignment:
1. At the beginning of her essay, Leila-Anne tells us that she was" bewitched" by Skaggs Island. How does she support this idea throughout the essay? What is it about Skaggs Island that is bewitching?
2. What place will you write about in your research paper? And what research topics will you pursue to help you develop your ideas? Share your ideas with your classmates.
When you finish with your responses to the above questions, give at least 2 of your classmates feedback on their paper topic and plan for research. Share any thoughts you might have for research avenues that may help them out.