The Canyon Bust

Do you care about San Diego's urban canyons? Then join us on a little hike

by Jim Ricker

he canyon in the late afternoon is half shaded, a wide expanse of chaparral-scented wildness that looks puny on Paul's map, a photograph of a North Park neighborhood with lines drawn through the open space to show the proposed road. We are walking with purpose today; at least they are: Paul, the Sierra Club Coordinator and Terry, the amateur botanist, are on a mission to save this little piece of coastal sage scrub from the ravages of the Department of Sewer and Water.

I have decided to be the native guide for this pair of do-gooders from back East. This attitude permits me to do nothing but wander, and wonder over my homeland. This canyon, part of my homeland, is beautiful today.

It is the walk, the sun, the clouds and rain, the time-of-day. The walking is muddy, wet-shoe-sticking walking, with the official purpose lost while being in this small, wild place in the middle of the vast real estate development of San Diego. The "looking at the place-to-save" is the beauty of the walking and the scent of the fresh rain on the baccharis that sage smell of wet chaparral. We have just left our trucks, descended the hill along the golf course, and I am in the beauty and the memory. We walk together in the late afternoon in the chest-high brush and talk of the mist and the plants and the sky, and I tell Paul the story of Jerry and Phil making the evening news back in 1971, smoking dope in this very canyon, and I just didn't walk home from school with them that day. It was a big deal back then, I remember.

We stroll down the hill into the canyon proper, in the cloudy clean shiny light of this January day, and the ground is dampened a deep tan with the first good rain, and the plants and rocks are dusted off and the air is fresh. Paul is looking for the spoor of sewer surveyors and Ter is writing in her notebook. As she glances at me, she points to the low shrubs to our right to begin our native plant tour.

"There's the prickly pear, see? Opuntia littoralis." It is a small plant, two or so feet high, with a small number of pads that it is possible to count, unlike the huge barriers of its cousin the tuna, with its thousands of leaves and edible red fruits, that we see lining the edges of the cultivated canyon-tops that we call our neighborhoods. This little cactus likes to hide among the chaparral, low-to-the-ground and humble in its spread, protecting itself with long spines and a low profile. I look at the pads and try to walk around them, momentarily fooled into thinking they are backlit by the near sunset. But it is the rain and the jade green leaves set against the olive color of the buckwheat and black sage that make the plant look translucent, like green window glass, and the brown spines are in sharp contrast to the pads. Ter rattles off the list of plants we see as we parade down the slope; "lemon-adeberry, agave shawii, black sage, toyon, laurel sumac. That yucca is the schidigera, the Mojave yucca," she says, pointing. "Native." We go on and she goes on describing her botanical ambit, her way to feel at home here in the brush. To acclimate herself she Latinizes the world. We walk alongside a small, brown field of buckwheat, dried flowers stiffly shaking in the cool pre-shower wind and she announces, "Eriogonum fas-ciculatum. We're in Coastal Sage Scrub for sure now." I can see the description next to the little colored box on the Key to Vegetation Types on her map at home, and I know she has oriented herself botanically.

Paul has found the first green paint of the sewer guys, and it matches the lines on his map. He looks around, up the dirt track we have descended, and to the left, up-canyon, where we will continue, and he looks relieved, oriented; he knows where to put his next step.

I stopped going into the canyons in 1971, the year we all got busted. Jerry got caught twice: that time on the news after school, and the time with me and O.B. and my brother, in the East County mountains, on the way to a wilder, bigger canyon. The refuge of the small wild places was gone to us, for now we were not just playing anymore, experimenting with boyhood and adolescence, but were experimenting with adulthood and more serious vices. The stakes were higher, and the rewards of being among the secret quiet and hidden serenity of the canyon as we walked home from school were lost to us; there were too many cops, and we were "too big to be in there -- what were you guys doing down there, anyway?" And we didn't have a good answer for that.

There were other reasons. I had to keep my clothes looking clean, without boyish burrs or dust or stains, on the off chance that a girl we knew would see us, and I would be written off as "immature," which is one of the worst things an adolescent boy can be. And it wasn't just the girls or the pigs or the neighbors or our parents, who knew what was up. Danny, who gave us our daily ride to St. Augustine in the mornings, knew just what to say to keep him older and superior. "You boys been beating off in the bushes again?" and we knew he knew, and we were busted.

We reach the canyon bottom, and start walking upstream, following the green paint trail of the City of San Diego, and the stream is running today, wonder of wonders. I pick up a stray golf ball and look west to the sunset and the golf course and chuck it (one stroke). The ball doesn't make it back to the course; it is useless anyway, as Paul points to the others, hiding in the brush like the ancient remains of an unsuccessful egg hunt, and now I see all the trash. The beer cans, old socks, plastic flotsam of lighters, bottle caps, grocery bags all are standing out now. I put the next one in my pocket, and I realize that it is only litter, and can be picked up; our hike today is to save the canyon itself from much worse. I am participating in the conservation of a land that I have lived on for all of my 44 years, and my record of care for this land is spotty at best and downright rude at worst.

I remember some of the beer cans I have thrown down here, and the cigarette butts and paint cans and the shopping carts which were so much fun, and I cringe a little, and now I know where I am, which way to go. I run my eyes along the edges of the neighborhoods above, and I remember the other neighborhoods and the other canyons in which I have grown as a citizen and a man, places only a few miles from here where I have worked, lived, flowered, withered, and bloomed anew.

Wendell Berry writes that we need a wilderness as human beings, that we need a place that is not of our creation, to see ourselves correctly. "And so, coming here, what I have done is strip away the human facade that usually stands between me and the universe," he says as he enters the woods.

These canyons, pieces of natural San Diego now scattered throughout our County, are far from a wilderness like the huge forest he describes. And mine is a different universe; a scrub-covered habitat that invites the eye to see in the distance, to look to the infinite ocean from the hilltops. For me, however, these scented islands of native flora have been my wilderness, that thing which has exposed my humanness to myself, and the view hasn't been all that pretty.

While I was away in my 20's and 30's, the canyons -- these small wild places where I learned to smoke, drink, swear, be a friend and get lost, where I experimented with building construction, learned first aid first hand, where I practiced my imagination -- have suffered a bit and have survived a bit less, and I have learned that I am not my own best world.

I am learning, too, that for myself and these beautiful islands it could be too late; the damage may be too great to be mitigated, the guilt too deep to be forgiven.

I am walking now with Ter and Paul. As we walk, we discuss the politics of the upcoming meetings and Paul has some good ideas about getting the homeowners and canyon neighbors educated and active. I am describing the pink sidewalks of Burlin-game, the set of houses to the south of the those eucalyptus trees, how the sidewalks got to be pink, and we turn around and see the sun set, right down the middle of our canyon -- the rain clouds have parted and the sun is diving yellowly to the sea. The light in the hills and the sky to the east is darkening, and the ground around us is now as bright as the sky.

Ter shows us the ceanothus, a mid-sized shrub with delicate white flowers that is California's wild lilac. "Verrucosus," she intones, "It's always the first to bloom. Spring is coming!" We stroll and pick our way along the temporary stream, and around a big eucalyptus that permits no wildflowers to grow under its toxic bed of leaves. We pass a small stand of scrub oak, and come upon a wonderful old native coast live oak, the lone survivor of centuries of depredation for firewood and proper landscaping. This tree reminds me that this hillside once was part of a garden, the immense landscape of the Kumeyaay, who tended these trees for shade and sustenance.

Paul spots the gem of the walk along the trail a little further on, on the south face of the hillside. This is the first time he has taken his eyes off the map and looked around him to see the place as a being and not a habitat conservation planning exercise. And he is excited. "Look!" He points down to the deep brown soil, at the startling green at his feet. The golf-ball-sized little rosette of succulent leaves is lime-green and bright against the ground and looks as if it just landed from the golf course on a long drive; I almost wait for it to bounce, stop moving, before I try to look at it closely.

It is a live-forever, a plant with several species that are native to California and South Africa. Some that are endemic and endangered are known to be in this area of San Diego. As we stop and look around, we see more of them on the hillside near us, in between and among the holly-leaf cherry, the ceanothus, the laurel sumac that are the big shade brush of this little forest. They form a small bright constellation of dudleya, the only one we will see on this walk, for it is getting dark and the clouds have returned threateningly, and the wind has gusted a few times; it is going to rain soon. Ter is not sure of the species, and it is too early for any of the spikes of the flowers to appear, so we do not know if this is one of the endangered species, or a landscaped South African escapee, or a hybrid; therefore we cannot stop the tractors of the Department of Water and Sewers with this little plant alone.

Paul doesn't seem to think that one sighting of a rare succulent will keep the City Fathers from their important sewerage work, Ter is only mildly baffled by her inability to nail down the exact taxonomy, and I have not been caught at anything. We are all, however, gazing with delight at the little green wonder at our feet, and the rain is starting to spatter our faces, the wind is chilling our cheeks. We are together in this, the world, with no other reason for being here than the succulent leaves turning towards the dying sun, with no purpose but growth and death, with no beauty other than the wonder of our being here, now. And I am happy to be here looking at a little rosette of jade with my friends, with muddy boots and stained pants, and I don't know what I'm really doing down here. I'm busted.

Jim is a native San Diegan and volunteer for the San Diego Sierra Club.

Do you care about San Diego's urban canyons? Be a part of a new city-wide network of volunteers working to protect our canyons from encroachment: the Canyons Coalition. Faced with more and more growth pressures, our urban canyons need a continuing base of support. To participate call Liz Freirich at (619) 299-1741.

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