HABITAT for This and That

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.” ~Anonymous

Statements like the above can be heard when observing tree people in their natural habitat. This is Part Five in a Five-part series on the April 7th Chatsworth Nature Preserve Earth Day Open House hosted by the SSMPA and the LADWP.

The blue Elderberry was in bloom. Our docent, Valerie, seemed very fond of that bush, or maybe all Elderberry bushes. She had many interesting things to say about that old Elder.

“You may have heard of Elderberry wine or jam. Its made from the berries. If you were to make jam from a plant on the Chatsworth Nature Preserve you would be making Jam from a Preserve. She waited a beat then added, “And you would get arrested for trespassing.” Somebody laughed. “Despite all that, the plant is poisonous. You need to know what you are doing. Never eat the leaves; the berries should be cooked.”

She waited for questions, then said, “It’s a very effective and strong purgative. I’m sure it was helpful to the early inhabitants.” The lady with red hair spoke up, “Native American tribes used the Elder to reduce fevers, treat headaches, encourage labor, and to treat wounds and inflammations.” Then she added, “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“No, please, we are all here to learn,” Said our guide.

As the walk progressed I got the impression that some of the facts and names and points of appreciation were learned just for the tour and some of the information Valerie imparted must have been known, carried in her heart, for some time.


We walked a little way, stopping next to a couple of large oak trees. Turns out Valerie liked Oaks even more than she like Elders. She explained, with grand visual aids, the difference between the Live Oak and the Valley Oak and all the benefits they provide to wildlife. “Which one is the Poison Oak?” Asked a teenage girl. With patience and complete sincerity, our docent explained, “Poison Oak is a bush, looks like Blackberry, but does not have thorns. Three leaf pattern; green in spring, redder in the fall. Ticks, Rattle Snakes, sun-exposure and Poison Oak…those are my concerns when hiking. Just be aware and wash your hands when you get home.”

Then Valerie pointed out Deer Weed and Lupine in bloom, and a lone cluster of Poppies out on the empty reservoir floor. Somebody asked, “What’s a purgative?” But Valerie was already moving the group to the next plant. The red headed lady took the question. Meanwhile we all gathered around a bush. “California Sagebrush is not really a sage or a brush, but it smells pretty nice. John, the man that coordinates these guided hikes, calls it Cowboy Cologne because Cowboys would use it to cover up their cowboy smell before heading into town.”

We all crushed that plant between our fingers and thumb and agreed it was a good smell.

On the way down to the pond we heard about all the different plant and animal habitats; the oak woodlands, the savanna and the grasslands. Vernal pools and the riparian areas sustain a variety of amphibians and insects. The pond is a welcome sight to shore birds like the Blue Heron, as well as migratory birds. Mixed chaparral surrounds it all.6B65EBED-AF7B-4E0B-AED3-8EFED47FCFC2

The pond was thick with toad tadpoles. Their movements, random and choreographed, and thoroughly hypnotic, propelled by tails that curved out in wiggles left, right, left. Some tree frog tadpoles, slightly larger and a little translucent and golden in the sun, mingled among the Toad Poles, which were black.

And then I started to feel like I was being watched. I looked cautiously around. Nothing.

Hiking up away from the pond, Valerie was back on the subject of Oak trees. “So back a couple hundred years ago Oak was a major source of fuel around here. Oak wood was used in the lime kilns that dot the western edge of the Valley. There was one on this property. It’s a historic sight. You can see it from the road.” Somebody asked, “What’s a lime kiln?”

Our guide was already at the bird observation area, out of range of the question. The red-haired lady was slowing down. She gave a one-word answer. “Cement.”

BF4AE8BB-30DA-4BA8-970A-32A2A8116FFEThe Audubon Society had a telescope trained on the pond, as well as binoculars they were sharing. Eighteen different bird species had been observed that day. Over 200 species have been seen on the Preserve since the society has been keeping track.

We gathered around one young member of the bird group as he asked us “Have you ever heard a honking sound and there’s no cars around?” You look up and see a big V shaped flock of Canadian Geese. You notice one side of the V is longer than the other, as it always is. Do you know why one side is longer?”

Our answers were numerous and wrong…Wind resistance? Navigation?

We gave up. Asked if he knew why one side was longer, he said he did.

“One side is longer because there are more birds on that side.”

The clouds were clearing and it was starting to get hot. On the way back to the exhibit area, Valerie pointed out a Santa Susanna Tarplant. Then she pointed to a purple-blue round flower on a thin stem, “That’s a Blue Dicks!”

Someone asked her to repeat herself, as if that person was hard of hearing. I hope it wasn’t me.

“Blue Dicks.”Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum).

There were some middle-aged giggles, at least one lady looked to her phone to see what the Urban Dictionary had to say.

3E71B093-E964-4490-A01C-42C9318E0F45We moved on. The last stop on our tour was underneath a huge Live Oak tree. The temperature dropped twenty degrees under that tree. Years of dead leaves made the ground cushy like a good mattress. There was enough room for the whole group. We all thanked our guide.

Back at the exhibit area I had two sensations I could not explain. One was that I was being watched. The other was that I was missing something.

We saw a beautiful Barn Owl up close. A pair of Patagonian Manas, the World’s third largest rodent, were on hand. A rattle snake in a bucket, caught nearby and to be released later; an unexpected guest exhibit. There was a Chuckwalla, Turtles and Tortoises.


I talked to many exhibitors, never using my polite poker face. Everybody cared about what they were talking about. They were really interesting!



I learned about the bill in Congress to establish a Rim of the Valley Park. A man with the US Fish and Wildlife Service told me that the best place to see a condor, something I have only viewed at the zoo.

There was the SFV Sierra Club, The National Audubon Society, Santa Susanna Mountain Park Association, The Chatsworth Nature Preserve Coalition, The National Wildlife Foundation, Mountain Restoration Trust, The Department of Water and Power, The Chatsworth Historical Society, the West Hills Neighborhood Council and several animal exhibits, in addition to several other exhibitors.

At the Boeing exhibit, a friendly, helpful and brave lady named Kamara was ready to explain the Conservation Easement on the property that Boeing owns.

There were two tables dedicated to planting trees; Sky Valley Volunteers and Tree People. I have volunteered with the SVV group.

I also know one of the Tree People. She has a John Muir love of the mountains and a Rachel Carson protective sensibility. She majors in Environmental Studies, went to a university with a street and College named after Rachel Carson (who was the person most credited with inspiring Earth Day). Now among her other endeavors, she is a hard-working member of Tree People.

I talked with John and Wendi at the Sky Valley table. They were getting 63 Oak trees ready to give to Tree People. They were busy planting and watering Oaks at multiple locations. John said about 1,500 people were expected to visit the Preserve this day.

“Not as much as Coachella.”

“But more than the last Presidential Inauguration.”

“Maybe food trucks or Lenny’s Smoke House could provide some good barbeque next year.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

We said goodbye, still feeling watched and wondering what we were missing.

Back in the car my wife got a text from our daughter, a senior at UC Santa Cruz. Her first college roommate and good friend Alyssa texted her a photo of us. She was working at the Tree People table. We forgot to visit that exhibit. We missed the next Rachael Carson!


1 thought on “HABITAT for This and That

  1. Sharon Shingai May 30, 2020 — 8:49 pm

    Thank you, Steve, for this beautiful article. Your words flooded my mind with so many special memories and people atvthe CNP Open House. You have an amazing way of capturing the emotions of the day.

    take care and I hope to see you soon with some oatmeal raisin cookies! Love to all of you.

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