A monumental shift in seeing, enjoying our own backyard
by John Pixley
“Here come the Gabriel lads and lassies from the commonplace orange groves, to make love and gather ferns and dabble away their hot holidays in the cool pool. They are fortunate in finding so fresh a retreat so near their homes.”
Oh, if only there was “so fresh a retreat so near” where we can “gather ferns and dabble away…hot holidays in the cool pool!” Not to mention where “lads and lassies” can go also “to make love.”
But this isn’t John Keats or William Wordsworth in an ecstatic state, channeling an idyllic vision of man’s relationship to the natural world. It isn’t Jack Kerouac or Bob Dylan riffing on a psychedelic fantasy of an utopia in a world out of touch with nature.
No, this is John Muir, and he is talking about us. We are the “lads and lassies” with the San Gabriel Mountains looming over us, although we no longer live in the “commonplace orange groves.” Their numbers were rapidly dwindling when I was growing up in Claremont some 40 or 50 years ago, but orange groves were indeed commonplace here. They were a big part of why Claremont is here, as reflected in the Packing House and the efforts to save it as an integral part of the Village. The groves were certainly here when Muir, the great, passionate naturalist, was exploring and writing primarily in the in the late-1800s.
The San Gabriel Mountains, unlike the orange groves, are very much still here, still looming over us “Gabriel lads and lassies,” so near to our homes. These are the same San Gabriel Mountains that Muir delighted in and gushed over, waxing poetically and so colorfully. These are the same San Gabriel Mountains that means that “so fresh a retreat so near” is very real, not a wild-eyed fantasy or a romantic vision.
Yet, these are also the San Gabriel Mountains that are often merely a backdrop for us Gabriel lads and lassies. It is easy to forget that the mountains are there, looming over us, except when there is snow on them—and sometimes only when the snow is exceptionally low. And this isn’t because the mountains are shrouded by smog on many days, as was the case when I was growing up.
I tend to think of going up to Mt. Baldy when there is a lot of snow. Even then, it seems like a novel idea, or at least something I have forgotten. And every time I’m up there, I’m surprised and struck by how it’s another world a half an hour away. I almost never think of going up there on a summer afternoon, when it’s at least several degrees cooler and a lot easier to get to than the beach. It has been literally a decade since I have gone to the trail at Azusa Canyon, which follows a nice, lazy stream.
Of course, it is another world up there, and all the more so when it’s a white world. After all, it is “so fresh a retreat so near.” No doubt all the more so when we can “dabble away…hot holidays in the cool pool.”
I think one reason or the reason why I forget this—or, more accurately, don’t see this—is that it is forgotten or not seen. Ironically, it’s not that it’s ignored and not enjoyed. It’s very much used. Almost to the point where it is taken for granted and taken advantage of, where it is abused. The graffiti and the litter along the roads and trails have been long documented.
So has the fact that the streams, like the one at Azusa Canyon, are used as laundromats and dumps—certainly not what Muir had in mind for the “cool pool.” I have seen it and I can say that it definitely makes these mountains less of the “so fresh a retreat“ than they should be. John Muir would weep. Or maybe he would bawl, considering the way he was so passionate and gushy.
All of this is why it is a big deal that President Obama came to this area about a month ago and designated 540 square miles of the San Gabriel Mountains—stretching from the Angeles National Forest to Telegraph Peak north of Rancho Cucamonga—the San Gabriel Mountains National Mountains. Using the authority of the National Antiquities Act, the president gave the US Forest Service greater ability to protect and preserve the area.
Although it isn’t a national park, Forest Service personnel will have the authority and ability to manage crowds, clean up areas and make needed repairs. This is something of a compromise, the culmination of 12 and a half years of effort lead by then-Representative Hilda Solis and Congresswoman Judy Chu, with legislation proving to be elusive.
Compromise is very evident locally, with Mt. Baldy, somewhat ironically, not being a part of the monument. With echoes of a “don’t tread on me” argument that has been voiced loudly and frequently in recent years, there were private property, water rights and recreational use concerns as well as worries about emergency access.
In other words, big government wasn’t trusted, even if it could help. Sounds familiar?
As one Mt. Baldy resident stated, “We love our mountains and feel local control is the best way to do that!” But local control hasn’t done much about the graffiti and about the streams being used for washing up.
There is concern that because of these compromises some of the places that need the most protection and upkeep—like Mt. Baldy?—aren’t getting it. As a result, some are saying that this new monument isn’t what it could be.
Assemblyman Chris Holden, who represents us, put this in perspective. “For Mt. Baldy and some of the other communities, I think as time goes on, they’ll see the benefits that come along with being part of a national monument and maybe at that time, they’ll want to be carved in. We clearly don’t want to force anything down anyone’s throat and if they don’t want to be a part of it, we’ll honor that request.”
Hopefully, in the coming years, having this national monument in our backyard will be more and more of a benefit to more and more of us. Too bad it doesn’t include our Wilderness Park. Perhaps, then, it would be better managed, and it wouldn’t be such a headache for us Gabriel lads and lassies to go to such a fresh retreat so near our homes, to dabble away our free time. But perhaps not on our hot holidays and most likely not to make love.