I live in a beautiful pocket of green in east suburban LA, a rare pocket of wilderness and wildness among suburban houses and shopping malls. Houses are few and far between; the land separating homes is covered with scrub oak, California buckeye and bay, the remnants of an old avocado farm, and poison oak. Lots of poison oak.
On the other side of our hill, the green of our woods gives way to an ecosystem that seems like a whole different planet. Coastal sage scrub and chaparral replace the stately oaks and buckeye. This is Turnbull Canyon and, to the south, Arroyo Pescadero, and exploring the trail system that laces through the hills and canyons of this sensitive ecosystem is a joy and a privilege.
June mornings usually begin with a thick fog blanketing these hills, the result of the marine layer creeping far inland. The air smells primal, earthy, as it must have smelled thousands of years ago when the First Peoples walked this land. Birdsong echoes through the hills like whispered secrets. The steady hum of bees, so prevalent later in the day, is nowhere to be heard.
I welcome the fog as I walk along the trails. The Southern California summer sun is brutal, unforgiving. The gift of morning fog makes it possible for me to walk these hills and canyons without feeling as if I am going to wither up and blow away on a desert breeze like so much thistle fluff.
The trail that runs across the ridge above Turnbull Canyon is a gentle hike, just right for waking up sleepy muscles. On a foggy morning earlier this week, Scott and I wandered down the trail, alone save a pair of pinacate beetles, more commonly called stinkbugs. On a normal day, these large, black bugs would have done headstands, aiming their rear-ends at us, threatening to spray us with their noxious secretions. But today, this pair were mating, and were oblivious to our presence.
Our destination was the old water tower that stands guard over the canyon. It was a short, easy hike when approached from the ridge trail. Before when we have hiked to the water tower, we’ve climbed up from the canyon bottom along a trail that is both challenging and long. Today, we reach our destination without so much a breaking a sweat.
The graffiti on the old tower has always fascinated me. Do the people who tag here doodle on their homework? Are they graphic artists in training? Or are they simply looking for immortality, a way of telling the world, “I was here”?
We are saddened by the atrocious amount of trash we find along the trail. Frequently when we hike, we carry a trash bag or two with us. This time, we have forgotten to do so. We make a mental note not to forget again.
Yesterday, we were ready for a more challenging trail. We headed down the road to Arroyo Pescadero, a trail we hiked only once last summer and were eager to explore again.
The trail down into the arroyo was lined with monkeyflower and thistle. Although the fog had just lifted and the air was still relatively cool, a lone honeybee was slowly creeping along a thistle flower head, searching for pollen.
There are rabbits everywhere. I remembered this from last year; there were so many bunnies along the trail I dubbed it the coyote buffet. But today, it isn’t the ubiquitous coyote who is making these cottontails nervous. In the distance, we hear the scream of a hawk, and it is coming closer. The rabbit effortlessly melts into the chaparral.
Around the bend, we come to what looks like a giant snowdrift. All the thistle have gone to seed, but the breeze has not scattered them far. Western goldfinches, house finches, and wrens flit among the fluff, greedily devouring the seeds, enjoying the banquet so much they take to song as they flit from perch to perch, singing an avian “Ode to Joy.”
Scott spots her before I do. It is the hawk, silently perched atop dead tree branches, waiting patiently for a rabbit or ground squirrel to make a mistake, to not notice she is there, to wander too far onto the trail to escape when she swoops down on silent wings. She looks right at us, and I can’t help but feel she is both sizing us up and urging us down the trail. She is hungry. Her breakfast will not show itself with us on the trail.
We turn around. We are tired, dusty, and very thirsty, having foolishly forgotten our water bottles.
Arroyo Pescadero provides both recreational space for hikers like Scott and me and a home for wildlife like the hawk and rabbit, coyote and bobcat, even the rarely seen mountain lion. It is a protected bit of wilderness that offers refuge to both Humans and Others.
But now, that refuge is being threatened. Recently, the Whittier city council voted to allow oil drilling in a section of the arroyo so environmentally sensitive people are not even allowed to hike there. According to the activist group Whittier Hills Oil Watch (WHOW), this fragile bit of land was purchased by the city with Proposition A funds specifically earmarked for preservation and protection of this natural wildlife habitat. The proposed 60 well sites, oil processing facility, gas plant, storage tanks, truck loading facility, and nearly three miles of oil and natural gas pipeline are clearly not in the best interest of preservation and protection.
The Open Space Legal Defense Fund has filed a lawsuit against the Whittier city council and Matrix Oil, the company contracted to develop the site. Until that lawsuit it resolved, the fate of this beautiful bit of urban wilderness remains unresolved.
The creatures who call the arroyo home cannot speak for themselves. But the people who hike the trails can. I take heart in the fact that when I drive through Whittier, I see more yard signs urging the city council to “Save the Hills” than I do signs in favor of developing the hills.
The country has seen enough environmental devastation caused by greed for oil. Let’s hope the Whittier city council backs down and takes a stand in favor of the environment. It’s the responsible thing to do.
For more information, visit the WHOW website at http://www.whittierhillsoilwatch.org/