Return to Bear Canyon

"There were voices down the corridor, I thought I heard them say...'Welcome to the Hotel California'".

I am aware that the writers of these lyrics (Felder, Fray and Henley), were referencing the Camarillo State Mental Hospital (Camarillo Brio) where a friend, reputably, had been incarcerated for drug related manias ("....'Relax,' said the night man, 'We are programmed to receive. You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!'..."). This information merely shuffles the elements of the State's iconography that I proposed in Hotel California.

Meanwhile, in the back country, we are busy building the Urban wildland myth - determining what exactly makes up the essence of urbanwildlandishness. Wow. It doesn't take much: take last night. A bobcat, two rabbits and the blue sfumato of mountain ridges becoming progressively paler in the increasing depths of atmospheric haze; the whole topped with a ruddy smear of sunset smog. Target locked.

I walked out the front door last evening and saw the two rabbits frozen, marooned in the no-rabbit's land of our gravel driveway. A moment later I saw a youngish bobcat with striped pyjama legs crouching on the verge amongst the deer weed. It was confused: the rabbits had disappeared - by freezing their movement they no longer registered on the bobcat's visual apparatus. Both rabbits escaped and the cat slunk off in the elegantly disdainful way they have - even the young and inexperienced. Rabbits are everywhere this year because the coyotes have gone missing. Two wet years have seen a spike in the tick population and perhaps the coyotes have succumbed to the many tick-borne diseases to which they are prey (just saying).

That morning I had run up Bear Canyon and the trail was regularly spotted with berry laden bear scat. In the coolth of the canyon, spring was still in the air. Prickly phlox in pink, foothill penstemon (rose violet), the blue of larkspur, yerba santa and ceonothus, yellow of mimulus, coast wallflower and buckwheat, the whites of sage blossoms, yarrow and the towering florescence of chaparral yucca made up the exquisite early summer floral palette. The bright spring greens of bay, cottonwood, big leaf maple, sycamores, oak, and sheltering beneath, the discreetly flowering coffee berry, shadowed the path. The return trip, down Bear Creek, from below the spring outlet, featured blackberry vines, mugwort, giant rye, Indian tree tobacco, and poison oak beneath the canopy. The sound of the creek fills the bottom of the canyon - until it doesn't. The creek dips underground for half a mile or more and leaves the birds and the insects in full control of the aural accompaniment. Here the rocky creek bottom is white with mineral sediment from the winter run-off. (White-Out).

That's chaparral mixed with a little riparian woodland. What more could you want? If you're John Taft then it's necessary to have three ecologies in one thirty acre garden with the potential to study the comparative evolution of three mediterranean climate communities - California, South Africa and Australia. The garden has been charmingly laid out by Laurence Nicklin, a South African expert in protea who was tapped by John Taft, while still living in his homeland, for the task. He has since married the boss's daughter, Jenny Taft, and has been an Ojai resident, for at least part of the year, for some twenty five years.

The remainder of the 300 acre spread off of Baldwin Road a little way past Rancho Matilija, is essentially given over to the fire protection of the garden - with results that are more pleasing than one might imagine. Laurence and his gang of four full time gardeners have grubbed out acres of chaparral - leaving the oaks - and sown native stipa and fescue grasses (from S&S Seeds (Where Native Meadows Come From)), essentially creating oak-meadowland which forms a low-fuel fire buffer. He has cut the bunch grasses short and the hills, even this late in the season remain green. He battles the same invasives that plague the meadowlands up on Koenigstein and like us is not totally averse to the sparing use of chemical agents in his attempts to roll back the clock (Manichean Plant Order).

We picnickers, for it was an alfresco, early afternoon meal that was the occasion for our visit to the Taft Gardens, strolled over the Californian hillsides with Laurence and visited his favorite knolls. The landscape is blessed with many springs and ponds that sit in hollows fringed with native rushes, reeds and grasses. Only a very few eucalypts mar the edenic, native aspect of this back two hundred and seventy acres which stretches to distant ridgelines and beyond to unseen canyons. Away from the gardens, the landscape is intelligently managed and, from my perspective, evinces the appropriate politics. Only the very naive believe that gardening can be anything other than a political act, but Laurence wears his politics lightly and lets his work persuade.

In the Gardens, his work celebrates the circumstances of California's climate and, with minimal irrigation, pushes the geographical boundaries of its endemic plant communities to include a range of redwoods from Northern California and, of course communities from the antipodes and the southern tip of Africa. To this extent, he is a non-isolationist, believing that we will benefit from this creative mixing of plants from other Mediterranean climates in his own and other gardens. I'm O.K. with that: just keep them out of the hinterland.

My first experience of beating back the exotics came in Australia in the late 1970's when I was involved in clearing an area of Sydney's native bush of lantana (Lantana camara) - an erstwhile harmless Victorian house plant that was devouring acres of native habitat. Ironically one of the gnarliest invasives in Australia is Oppuntia, the native Californian sage brush cactus. The commonality of climate across Mediterranean species is no guarantee of respectful behaviour once a species is loosed on another continent.

By far the safest strategy is one of isolation - but, as I am often reminded, that horse has already left the stable. Laurence has little tolerance for the kind of historicist exotica that plague so many residential and public gardens. His plant choices demonstrate the range of adaptation in this climate type, broadly characterized by warm dry summers and wet winters, and offers visitors an in-your-face botanical experience with some mild educational benefits.

The pleasures of unadulterated chaparral are not so easily appreciated: they are revealed best, it seems, to those with a nativist committment, and a desire to learn the local plant vocabulary. That the discreet charms of California's signature plant community be better understood is essential to its preservation: are Taft Gardens a distraction or an ally in the pursuit of this goal?

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