Magic mountain

Among reports of book-cooking at the California Department of Parks and Recreation and sequestration-induced austerity at the National Park Service, you might wonder if nature is still open when you want to go outside and play. If the road to no where is gated, if the trail is overrun with neglect, if there's toilet paper in the backwoods biffy.

If your playground is the Santa Monica Mountains, your activity options extend well beyond hand-wringing. On Saturday, for example, two rangers at the King Gillette Ranch in the Las Virgenes Valley off Mulholland were eager to promote the remarkable resilience of their workplace to a handful of kids and adults seeking escape from urban overload.


Beginning at the shiny-new visitor center, our modest morning hike lacked the drama of a Jon Krakauer adventure, but risk was not our reward. That would be the power of perception, which is as cultivatable by an 8-year-old Boy Scout as it is by his grandmother. Four years ago, fire swept through this part of the valley, and the rangers helped us see that although humans are not masters of this regularly incendiary domain, other life-forms are.

Ian Griffith, an interpretive naturalist with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, conducted matters as if he were trying to find his job replacement among the yellow-clad Scouts.

"What's the California state bird?" he asked, pointing to the straw-colored hillside. "Anybody know?" A family of California quails scurried away, their apostrophe-like topknots bobbing toward someplace we weren't.

We trekked up the hill toward Inspiration Point, pausing for Griffith to explain how the native chaparral not only survived the fire, but requires it. Without that periodic cleansing, dead debris inhibits growth. Without fire, some seeds cannot sprout.

Although fire is inevitable here, the California Chaparral Institute notes that there can be too much of a good thing; that too many fires of human origin are damaging the ecosystem by promoting the growth of non-native, highly flammable weeds over the native vegetation.

But that is a lesson for another day; Saturday's seminar was about how coping is thriving. Griffith located a recently burned coast live oak whose abundant green foliage belied its singed lower trunk, whose alligator-like bark provided the thick skin required to endure a fire insult.

"Who knows how trees get nutrients?" he asked. The Scouts were silent. An adult voice offered, "Through the roots."

burl,-coast-live-oak,-King-.jpgTrue. But not the whole story. Older oaks are big and heavy, and sometimes roots can't deliver food high enough fast enough. So, like a bar fridge under the desk, trees have a storage system on their trunks for easier access. Called burls, they are knobby protrusions fed by the roots to provide sustenance to higher branches.

Griffith, a Michigander who clearly has come home to California, praised the hiker who spotted a fallen bird nest he later confirmed as the former home of an oak titmouse.

Drawing the wide-eyed Scouts around him, he gently pulled a few strands from the nest, identifying each--a gray human hair, a bit of coyote fur, a blond human hair... You fingered your scalp, wanting to believe that one day, a body part you no longer needed would help to coddle a baby bird.

Reveling in the panoramic view at the top of Inspiration Point, the group paused as Coral O'Riley, Griffith's National Park Service colleague, described how the terrain and the prevailing winds had sculpted the fire's contours four years ago. It stopped here, saving the developed quarters of the ranch on the lee side below from damage.

Invited to show their affection, a couple of Scouts hugged and kissed the Wishing Tree, a noble oak that stands as an exclamation Point atop the Inspiration.

"Why is it called the Wishing Tree?" a hiker asked.

Said Griffith: "We made it up."

Much of the year, King Gillette hosts groups from the Las Virgenes Unified School District for outdoor education camps. As any teacher knows, it's easier to remember something that has a name.


The group descended into the valley, side-stepping prodigious deposits of horse manure along the trail. Hewing to the hike's fire theme, O'Riley, a small, freckle-faced figure who looks about as old as a Scout's big sister, noted that sometimes horse droppings spontaneously combust in a showy burst, like fireworks. It makes sense: Just as buffalo chips served as fuel for pioneers during the U.S. westward expansion, today animal dung is collected as kindling in many less developed countries.

Fingering a spiky chemise bush, Griffith explained how it releases seeds only during a fire, and that the chemical character of burned plant material--phosphorus, carbon and nitrogen--signifies its role as fertilizer.

"When there's a fire," he asked, toeing a couple of ground squirrel holes at the base of the chemise, "what happens to the animals who live here?"

Nobody had an answer. At least one person was thinking "subterranean barbecue."

Uh-uh. Turns out the bottom dwellers sense advancing fire, and as long as they burrow a foot deep, they're safe.

Left: Bobcat track. Right: Coyote track.

The larger mammals also are pretty good at evacuating before they're trapped. Griffith and O'Riley helped the hikers meet some of those neighbors, in absentia. Pointing out tracks in the trail dust, they defined the difference between a bobcat, with its rounded front paw marks, and a coyote, whose front paws bear claw marks. Felines retract their claws when they're on the move; canines don't.

Just before the trail turned back into the packed dirt of the homestretch, the hikers spotted a couple of mule deer in the deep golden grass of the meadow. Bounding across the trail about 50 yards ahead, they were too quick for the camera but not to impress on six Boy Scouts how cool it is to see where the other half lives, and the wisdom of keeping the gates open for the ones who come after.

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

More by Ellen Alperstein:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed