There’s a short story, written by Leo Tolstoy, that poses the question, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It’s a wonderful bit of writing, and one that I reference often in response to the troubling cupidity of the human race.
I must say that visiting Alcatraz during my trip to San Francisco last year caused me to re-examine my feelings toward this question. How much land does a man need? I suppose 12 acres is satisfactory in certain contexts. When it’s all you’re allowed while society revels in an unbounded existence right before your eyes, but so frustratingly out of reach? Twelve acres might as well be 12 inches.
This fact hit me the moment I stepped onto “The Rock” and turned to watch the boat that had brought us begin to pull away from the dock. For the duration of my visit, there was no way off this island beyond the one that was slowly moving back across the mile-and-a-half chasm of frigid water that separates Alcatraz from the main land. True, the boat returned on a regular schedule and, unlike the former “residents” of the island, I was free to leave during any passenger transfer I wished.
Still, while you’re there, you can’t help but feel the claustrophobic whisper of captivity taunting you. You feel its oppressive presence all throughout the decay and atrophy that time is inflicting upon the remaining prison structures. And when you stand atop the highest spot on the island and look across at the City by the Bay, its precipitously sloping streets teeming with the bustle of a life denied you? I am about as anti-social as is acceptable to “normal” society, but even I would be driven to the brink of sanity by such isolation.
These thoughts do not mean that I have in any way forgotten that the the men who walked The Rock found their way there through felonious deeds. And, really, the only thing that differentiates Alcatraz from federal penitentiaries in operation today is that it was located on an isolated island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. I daresay, though, that if you found yourself stranded on this island for an extended length of time, watching life move on without you, feeling the damp chill of that capricious Frisco fog rolling into every corner, between every bone…I kind of think that “cruel and unusual” would take on a whole new meaning in a very short stretch of time.
This final photo, of the Alcatraz lighthouse, is one of my favorites because it invokes this image in my mind:
This is the logo currently in use by the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy for Alcatraz materials and merchandise. It’s a beautiful, striking bit of illustration by Michael Schwab, who has done quite a few other, equally gorgeous illustrations for other California landmarks. You can see more of his works at the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy online store.