VIEWPOINT: Meandering through town

By Char Miller


I walk. A lot. I’ve always done so but now with a different kind of energy, an unsettling drive. Restless.

Clocking more miles due to the quarantine, its prohibitions have altered some of my normal routes through Claremont. Morning treks up into the chaparral-studded foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, or along dusty Thompson Creek Trail, are no longer possible. So I have been hugging closer to interior neighborhoods, from dawn to dusk, and one consequence has been to become more sharply attuned to small moments.

Like walking along the chain-link perimeter of the Bernard Field Station, and trailing behind a chattering convoy of Lesser Goldfinch. They flit through the diamond-shaped openings in the fence, a structure designed to keep us out: Private Property the signs read. For these avian acrobats, it is a portal and playground and perch.

At first light at a Metrolink railroad crossing, my eye is struck not by the sun as it rises above snow-wreathed Mount San Gorgornio well to the east, but by the first rays as they slide along the curving steel rails turning them gold, alchemy made manifest.

Or, at walk’s end, to spot a pair of Western Fence lizards stretched out on the drive, luxuriating in the morning’s warmth. The second my sneaker touches down, they dart under thick mounds of baccharis, showy penstemon, or buckwheat—indigenous plants we dug into the alluvial soil for our pleasure but which they turned into habitat, home.

By narrowing the range of my roaming, COVID-19 has widened my perceptions; crimped by where I can wander, I’ve found myself listening more carefully, looking more closely, and smelling more discriminatingly (or, to be honest, actually thinking about what I am inhaling). On rainy mornings—and we have had some this March—I have mapped my path so as to brush by the California Botanical Garden and its heaven-scent coastal sage biota. Transporting.

From there, a paradoxical quick-time veer north along rain-splatted macadam toward the nearest gash in the landscape, a hard-edged, straight-walled flood-control channel. Glasses fogged: the ripple, wash, and sluice of water bring a clatter of pebbles.

Then this rare admonition: Look up. Rare, because here, as elsewhere, that possibility has been so clouded by the toxic emissions we daily have pumped into the air from tailpipes and smokestacks. Now, with many working from home, with cars parked, and trains, planes, and trucks idled, the sky has dazzled. By day, it’s azure. By night, ebony. So dark, that my evening stroll is more of a stumble, trying to put one foot in front of the other while craning my neck to pan the star-lit world above, anchored by a waxing moon and Venus bright.

Somewhere to my west, perhaps high in the sentinel-like stone pine at the end of the block, a Great Horned Owl calls. Grounded.


Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. His recent books include Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream, Hetch Hetchy: A History in Documents, and Theodore Roosevelt: Naturalist in the Arena.



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