You may think that it is anomalous for me to take a writing workshop, since after all I have been teaching such workshops myself, but the workshop in the Irvine parklands is something different, one designed to teach something not primarily about writing but about the wildlands in this area. That is something I do not know well, knowledge that I can use. It may be a way for me to get into hiking a little, since I am certainly not inherently an outdoors person.
Yesterday we went to a place called Baker Canyon, off (way off) Santiago Canyon Road and Black Star Canyon Rd, in the middle of nowhere. But it seems that this was not always the case. In earlier times, there was lots going on there. While I was there, I wrote the following, based on the tales (tall or otherwise) our guides told us:
Places like these are supposed to be peaceful and pure, pure because free of all that is human. But more than a cursory look belies this view: barely visible in the trees, a bug zapper hangs in a live oak, a remnant of a time not so long ago when people frequented this place, now peopled only by scrub jays and scorpions, coyotes and red-tailed hawks.
What strikes me now as the potentially hazardous aspects of this place, its remoteness, secluded behind a defunct RV park on a rutted dirt road, the close circle of black hills ringing the entrance to the canyon, jagged as molars, probably seemed less of a threat to earlier generations when the metropolis Orange County has become had not yet sprung into being. That was a recent development.
In fact, when I came to Southern CA in 1980, lemon groves still dominated the landscape and massive eucalyptis made driving hazardous, particularly at night. Now only a few of these remain. And Baker Canyon is back country, that once, no doubt, seemed not all that different from the rest. The shrubs and wild grasses, opportunists, seized the opportunity, claiming abandoned irrigation valves, the bare chassis of a tractor, the fallen roof of the school for the blind that once occupied this place.
If it had not been for the flames that swept the Canyon last year like a herd of roan horses, gnawing the bush down its roots, we would find no trace from that earlier time. Some things have disappeared for good though, like the baseball diamond where sighted teachers pitched screaming sinkers from the mound, bound for the carefully aimed bats of the blind children. We are told the teachers would call out from the bases, guiding the children on their route toward home.
An interpretive trail for the blind looks daunting now, headed up rocky and steep hillsides scored by sharp metal stakes. Perhaps a wooden walkway once made the way smooth or perhaps blindness alone honed the children's senses so much that what seems daunting to us represented no particular threat, no more than the rest of the wide, dangerous world.
What did those children experience here that they could not find elsewhere? The smell of wild lilac, the rough bark of a venerable sycamore, the feel of the dirt trail underfoot. How was their experience different from mine now?
History haunted this canyon then, as it does now. Some say that the infamous Orange County outlaw, Juan Flores, hid out in this area after robbing and murdering local farmers and shopkeepers. However, much about this man is in dispute. Before that, Native American baskets and arrowheads probably could be found in these fields. Did some blind child squat in the dust between stalks of wild rye and feathery yarrow to test the edge of a chiseled obsidion arrowhead with his thumb?
Now I bend to look more closely at tiny winecups, wild flowers that look like inverted exclamation points or tiny matches, tipped with magenta. A scrubjay scolds me, his cold avian eye a pool of black light.
Though the world I inhabit seems miles of winding blacktop away, I can almost hear the voices of the others who once walked this land. We are never alone in this world. Every place we go, someone was there before us. It takes only a bit of careful observation or a fortuitous burn-off to reveal their treasures.