Take a Picture, Itll Last Longer

What do we want from whats left of Orange Countys open space?

Photo by Jack GouldMay He not hurt us,

He who made earth,

Who made the sky and the shining sea?

Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

—Veda

 

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My wander through the wilderness in search of the biggest old oak tree in Orange County took about 15 minutes. That's nearly as long as I spent in the Villa Park Coffee Grove Espresso Café picking out fancy bagels to go with the double latte I took on the trail.

I'd anticipated something more challenging. Up before daylight, I arrived at Santiago Oaks Regional Park decked out in lots of the cool gear I'd bought for the High Sierra backpacking trip I took last month with my brother and his wife: navy-blue, midweight, long-sleeved, moisture-wicking Patagonia T-shirt; khaki pants that convert into shorts via zip-away leggings; thick Thorlo socks; and heavy-duty, high-topped, all-leather Vasque boots. I'd even taped the places on my toes and heels where I tend to blister. It was 7:04 a.m. when I fed a couple of bucks into the park's automatic entrance gate; at 7:20 a.m., I was tossing my empty coffee cup into the dinged-up trash can that sits beneath the massive, gnarled, centuries-old limbs of the biggest old oak tree in Orange County—right next to the four rows of benches and a bulletin board the rangers use for second-grade field trips.

So much for my long, mettle-testing pilgrimage. And I would have reached the tree even faster, except I started my hike by turning onto the wrong trail. What can I say? It's been a long time since I was in the second grade.

Then, a couple of days after I got back, I learned that this tree in Santiago Oaks Regional Park isn't the biggest or oldest oak in Orange County after all. "There's a bigger one at Caspers Wilderness Park," Tim Miller, superintendent of the county Department of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, informed me as delicately as possible. So the whole thing was kind of a letdown.

SOME QUESTIONS

What do we want from what's left of Orange County's open space? What do we expect from what passes for its wilderness? Inspiration? Do we preserve these parcels of unpavement to serve as natural chapels, places where we can take a break from the technological world we are erecting nearly everywhere and draw from the divine plan of plants and birds and rocks and things? If so, what for? Just so we can stock up on the spiritual sustenance we'll need to finish our construction job? Entertainment? Do we set out to see the biggest old oak tree in Orange County with the tourist attraction mentality that draws us to a Sleeping Beauty's Castle—whether it's the one Tinkerbell flits around during Disneyland fireworks or the one Jan Crouch skulks about during Trinity Broadcasting Network programs? Are we capable anymore of drawing a meaningful distinction between the heritage of Robber's Peak, where bandits used to wait above Santiago Canyon for unsuspecting stagecoaches, and the re-created Calico Ghost Town at Knott's? Validation? Have we conserved these few wild places so we can give ourselves a little pop quiz, test ourselves against the self-sufficiency scale—hiking, climbing, camping—that determined human survival through most of history? Isn't this the same as admitting that wilderness camping has become an earth-toned urban vanity—that the only camping skills with any pragmatic purpose anymore are those employed by the homeless? Delusion? Is traipsing through a pristine canyon—even if it isn't exactly pristine anymore—supposed to convince us that we're doing a good job of balancing the man vs. nature equation? That there is plenty more open space where this came from? It's been 110 years since Congress officially announced the end of a true American frontier. But can it be that our national identity has subsequently come to cling more desperately to the frontier's romantic myth than it ever did to the harsh reality?

These are the kinds of questions that come to you when you're sitting disconsolately on a bench next to a trash can beneath a silent, solid, shady oak that was already a tree when the Spanish explorer Portola showed up in 1769. The answers quickly become too big to figure. So you seek understanding from a more personal question: What the hell was on my mind in the early morning darkness as I was turning the key to my Toyota RAV4, clicking on the headlights, popping on the radio, swinging past the coffeehouse and lighting out in search of the biggest old oak tree in Orange County?

The honest answer: I hope I've left early enough to miss morning traffic.

But the chagrin of that admission isn't the only reason I began to smile as I sat beneath that big old oak tree. It was also the warm memory of my gliding drive eastward along the Garden Grove Freeway—uncongested, the way God intended freeways to be. I realized it had been my first full joy of the day. Now I began to experience some others. I relaxed a bit and considered the girth of the tree trunk beside me, followed the twisting reach of its motherly branches, wondered absently how many bedroom sets or living-room hutches could be cut from a plant of this size. Gradually, my attention shifted to the sounds of the canyon surrounding me. First the crow squawking like a rusty hinge from halfway up a eucalyptus. Then the chirp of jays swooping through the clearing. Finally, I became aware of the gushy flow of Santiago Creek and the soft whoosh of the breeze through the trees. I wondered why these sounds seemed so familiar. Then it struck me how much they resemble what I hear every night at my home: the breathless rush of tires on the nearby freeway.

I SUCK, TOO

Okay, so I am imperfect. I came to Santiago Oaks Regional Park as compromised as the adjoining countryside, as unrealistic as my idealistic expectations for the biggest old oak tree in Orange County. But I'm not tainted just because I arrived in a wannabe SUV and fitting the physical picture and psychological profile of the supraliminal, high-end-retail, urban outdoorsman—like Grizzly Adams if he had a desk job and a health-club membership and voted for Nader only when he was certain Gore would win California anyway, consoled by an ingratiating relationship with the salespeople at Adventure 16 but still a little self-conscious about the fact that he could never grow a full beard, although at least his girlfriend didn't like full beards and would honestly rather stay in hotels on vacation, anyway. Not just because of all that. Those things just make me me. My grossest shortcoming was the setup I concocted when I decided to search for the biggest old oak tree in Orange County: I knew beforehand that finding it would be a letdown. I had checked the maps and recognized that Santiago Oaks Regional Park was merely a bone thrown to nature; I could see it was besieged right to the lip of its boundaries. I had read the papers and knew that the gigantic Serrano Heights development is being carved into the hills to the west, that views from the park's other ridges would be fouled by selfish homeowners who decided their unspoiled view was worth the cost of ours. I knew the park was only 480 acres. Yet I showed up at dawn with my long checklist and snap judgments and began conveniently confirming all my worst opinions—of Orange County in particular, of humankind in general. It's a familiar formula, filled with things that keep me from being the real me—the ironclad evidence that prevents me from enjoying a moment. And, thus, I sat beneath a big old oak—all dressed up like the Happy Wanderer but wallowing in the dirge of the Volga Boatmen, using the backdrop of nature's most sublime scenery to pathetically revel in the sweetly sickening muck of my deepest pessimism.

Nice.

Suddenly, there was a nearly combustible rustle in the nearby brush, and my thoughts latched onto the sign I saw as I walked into the park—the sign that warned of mountain lions and noted the last sighting was May 19. Immediately, I surrendered all my allegiance to wild things for the wish that the next mountain lion sighting wouldn't be moments from now. But it turned out just to be birds—quail, I think; the California state bird. And that piece of natural trivia made me feel better. The crickets, which went still during the commotion, resumed their rhythmic, bedspring squeak. I sighed and noticed the air was refreshingly cool—chilly, even. Hell, it was still early. The sun hadn't even come up over the park's eastern ridges. And, kind of automatically, I dragged my imperfect ass up off that bench, affectionately patted the biggest old oak tree in Orange County—it's the biggest one I've seen, anyway—and set off on a hike around Santiago Oaks Regional Park.

ROBBERS

Walking along the bottom of the canyon is like being underwater. The sounds are distinct but contorted. My boots gave a muffled grunt each time they hit the hard earth that lies an inch or so beneath the soft sand pocked with the claws of hopping birds, the shoes of horses and the knobby streaks of mountain bikes. Climbing the steep trail unplugged my ears, for better and worse. The breeze sizzled through the dry sagebrush, and the cries of birds floated in from far away. But so did the machine-gun thunder of big engines, the labored sound of earthmoving equipment scraping forward over distant hills, followed by the obscene courtesy of the warning beeps that announce these machines are backing up in preparation to give the ground another shove.

The sky was getting spotlight bright as I approached the top of the ridge, where the sun behind the hills ricocheted off the high gray clouds. Looking over the other side, I gasped at the modern version of the sinfulness Moses saw when he returned from his first trip up Mount Sinai for the Ten Commandments. Hundreds of years of natural beauty were being drawn and quartered by henchmen straddling huge yellow machines—veritable golden calves spewing black smoke and bawling horribly—that had been dispatched from a long trailer bearing the name of the Ebensteiner Company. This was the massive Serrano Hills housing development, whose storm drains are rumored to be pointed toward tiny Santiago Creek. I hurried along the ridge, simultaneously trying not to look yet feeling obliged not to ignore the truth, as I sought the refuge of another canyon. Instead, the trail obscured my view by curving around a hill, climbing still toward Robbers Peak.

For two hours, I hiked along, in and out of places that alternately inspired, terrified and consoled me. My emotional terrain rose and fell and curved with that of the land, which would not let me ignore it or myself. It would not let me pretend. Eventually, my many scattered thoughts and feelings congealed into something like meditation. I considered the value of this place called Santiago Oaks Regional Park, the arbitrary nature of its presence. Why this canyon? Why not another? I thought about those benches and the bulletin board beneath the oak tree. I thought about those second-graders. What are those field trips really teaching them about the environment? That interpretive displays and mitigating slices of preservation are enough? That nature is just a collection of well-managed, undevelopable canyons? But it also came to me that the wilderness is not what I long for most, or even the days when Robbers Peak referred to greedy, reviled horsemen rather than insatiable, revered land developers. Mostly, I wished for the days of my parents' or grandparents' youth, maybe a half-century or 75 years ago, when perhaps man and nature lived a little more harmoniously—if not because of man's intent then simply because of his lack of numbers or gigantic earth-scrapers. I miss my own childhood, 25 or 35 years ago, when Orange County was more spacious. I've seen it a few times on this hike, when I've positioned myself just right, standing in places where I can't see any development at all, where I don't have to use my imagination to see what this land really looks like. I miss Orange County.

Coming down the hill, circling back toward the big oak tree, the midmorning sun behind me cast my shadow far down into the canyon. It reminded me of the family trips to San Clemente State Park we used to take in the 1960s. The place was so much bigger then. My brothers and I liked to get up early and go for long hikes. We liked to end up standing on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, facing west, the sun behind us casting our shadows far below—laying them across the railroad tracks. Often, we would wait for a train. Sometimes, a train would come. Then we would force ourselves to stand there, trying not to flinch, watching our distant silhouettes lie vulnerably across the tracks until the train tore through them.

MEAT THE BEETLES

Back at the oak tree, I rested, sweating, feeling good and sad, resolute and confused—strangely okay, gurglingly dissatisfied. But then, what did I expect? How should I feel after such a hike through so much natural beauty under such relentless assault? And then it came to me: this is how I am supposed to feel! If the precarious state of our environment didn't distress me, then I would really be in trouble. So my endless questioning and deep anxiety are actually good signs—indications that I care, that I am in search of God's purpose. And in an inkling, that pain became a reason to feel a little bit better. No, my walk through Santiago Oaks Regional Park didn't bring me the bliss that I've somehow come to expect from communing with nature. Instead, it suggested that achieving personal bliss may not be the best measure of a good life. In place of that, it brought me some honesty, through rigorous personal inventory and a bit of self-surrender. My turbulent meditation gave me the opportunity to reflect on what I have and on what I have lost. It gave me the opportunity to commit myself to the work of making things better. It allowed me to see that the process of humbly working for something better —God's will—is what life is all about, anyway. Finally, it proved to me that a walk through nature—even in its compromised, corrupted state—still works as well as it ever did.

Suddenly, a cottontail rabbit dashed across the trail by the big oak tree. Moments later, a couple of joggers appeared. They huffed and puffed past, discussing a football game in gusts of half-sentences they traded every few times they exhaled. Each slap of their shoes on the trail sent up a little tuft of pale dust. Not all of it settled. A small patch of dirt continued to squirm beneath one of the branches. It was a beetle quietly fighting for its life, struggling to escape up a small embankment while two bees took turns attacking. Every time the beetle almost got away, one of the bees would send it tumbling down the hill. Suddenly, a jay swooped in and ended the torture, snatching up the beetle and carrying it away. The bird flew to a high branch of the oak, stopped and swallowed.

As I looked up through the leaves at a patch of sky, I saw a jet bending low through the blue, on approach to John Wayne Airport. I grimaced in disgust but made a note to look for this old oak tree the next time I fly in.

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