June 2004 Archives

Taking the Waters at El Polin

Predicting the future or understanding the past -- which is more important? Ask the Muwekma Ohlone, who settled the village of Petlenuc beside El Polin some 5,000 years ago; they knew lots about the local plants and animals, but had no idea this land would become the Presidio of San Francisco, one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world. Their simple life ended with the 1776 arrival of Captain Anza, who chained them up and founded this fort as the northernmost reach of the Spanish crown. The following two centuries of military occupation under the flags of Spain, Mexico, and the U.S. shocked and awed this landscape into spectacular transformation, but neither quadrangles nor barracks nor landfills nor quarries nor the gloom of an historic Australian forest have stayed the original native plant communities from their appointed lifecycles: many of the "original inhabitants" still grow on the Presidio's distinctive bluffs, beaches, and dunes, telling a tale older than mankind.

Among our oldest local legends concerns the Oja de Agua of El Polin, a freshwater spring in the Tennessee Hollow watershed (the Presidio's southeast corner). The bulk of the military's water supply always came from Mountain Lake to the west, but the seasonal pulse of El Polin commanded greater mystery and attraction. Myth held that any maiden who drank of its waters (particularly during a full moon) would be assured great fertility with an abundance of twins, while any man so indulging would enjoy a vigorous jolt of pre-Columbian Viagra. In his Discorso Historica of 1876, General Vallejo described the "very good water" which "demonstrated miraculous qualities"; he cited the numerous offspring of garrison wives, "all of whom several times had twins," and listed them by family name and number of children produced (13, 18, 22), a laudable multiplication he attributed to "the virtue of the water of El Polin, which still exists."

The name El Polin derives from the old Spanish word for a giant wooden roller used dockside to load cannon and treasure aboard galleons; due to the phallic appearance of these logs, the word enjoyed widespread use as vulgar slang for the penis. Sources hint at Ohlone origins for the legend of the water's fucundity, but the nickname is 100% macho Spaniard.