230 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas
Julian Duval is about to rock my world. The 68-year-old president of the San Diego Botanic Garden drives me around the garden in a golf cart talking my ear off and making me laugh with the corny little things he likes to say.
It’s a cool, overcast Wednesday morning in May. I’ve come to the garden on a mission. Interest in fauna, I hope, will be my motivation to rise from the couch and explore outdoor San Diego. Duval has a tour planned for me, and we make the rounds from a two- or three-hundred-year-old coastal scrub oak to the 80-year-old dragon trees that could potentially live as long as 2000 years.
“One of the things I like to say when I give people a tour of the garden is, ‘Well, let’s all come back in 500 years and see how big the dragon trees are,’” Duval says.
He waxes poetic about the plants in his care, referring to them the way one would refer to people: “This little guy,” he says, pointing to a tiny baobob tree; “These guys here,” he says, indicating a group of cycads; “He’s still a youngster,” he says, referring to a 115-foot-tall Queensland Kauri (Agathis robusta) tree that rises high above all else around it.
“This is the coastal scrub oak or Quercus dumosa,” he says, showing me a scraggly tree with a missing heart that stands just off the west path of the Australian garden. “Although I think we’re calling it berberidifolia these days. Anyway, the tree knows what it is even if the taxonomists are confused about it.”
My eyes glaze over when he inserts botanical vocabulary into our conversation, but there is no place I’d rather be. Duval is guiding me to the edge of an awakening that has been in the works for a long time.
The terrifying yip of Eastlake’s coyotes
I’ve lived in San Diego for eight years, and although I stay for the weather, I rarely spend time outside. Last summer, a new neighbor asked me what I like to do for fun. If I’d been honest, I’d have said, “Law and Order: SVU marathon plus cake.” Instead, I said, “You know, just hanging out and stuff. How about you?” When she responded with, “Hiking and camping and going to the beach,” I knew a lasting friendship was unlikely. I couldn’t relate. Hiking? Why? And what does that even mean?
But then one day, six months later, I sat in an Adirondack chair in a fancy exhibition room at the Natural History Museum overlooking a fake-but-so-realistic version of Tecolote Canyon. I gazed in fascination at the scene brought to life by taxidermy: a Cooper’s hawk feasting on a red-crowned parrot in a tree overhead; a bat eating from a hummingbird feeder; and a coyote stalking a house cat on the ground below. Two thoughts occurred to me: I really should spend more time outside, quickly followed by, but I am terrified of nature. If this were real life, I would not be watching a coyote stalk its prey. I would be scrambling to get back inside before the coyote turned from the house cat and came after me.
Before I moved to Eastlake in 2011, I relished the idea of getting out of City Heights and taking my morning walks on the sidewalks of wide, beautifully manicured parkways. I had long felt cramped and overstimulated by the dense atmosphere of urban grit. I couldn’t wait to take the kind of meditational walks where I could allow my mind to wander and my eyes drift from jacaranda to sycamore tree, and leaf-rustling lizard to soaring red-tailed hawk rather than keeping my focus ever downward in order to avoid stepping in dog piles. I told myself I was seeking nature, and in a sense I was, but not the wild kind. I was more interested in resort-like nature, where one can partake of the outdoors without concern for anything scarier than a bee sting. That’s what I thought I found in Eastlake — a place to enjoy nature without fear of wild things.
Then I saw my first coyote crossing Eastlake Parkway in the middle of the afternoon. That was the day I started carrying my keys in my fist on my walks. Not long after, I saw another coyote in mid-morning on Olympic Parkway. That was the day I began going to the gym instead of walking outside for exercise.
At night, and occasionally during the day, I can hear the communal yip of coyotes in the canyon behind my home. It’s a wild and terrifying sound, and when I hear it, I’m inclined to lock all the doors. If I’m watching television or listening to music, I mute the sound to hear the coyotes more clearly. While I’m terrified, I’m also fascinated. If it’s daytime, I scan the canyon from my living room window and try to see through the gray-brown brush where I imagine hundreds of the creatures tearing bunny rabbits to shreds.
When my neighbor’s mother-in-law moved into the area from Louisville, Kentucky, she carried a four-foot-long wooden stick with a metal spear point. Every morning and afternoon, I’d see her at the bus stop with that stick. Although it looked cumbersome, I began to want a stick of my own.
For a city girl, this fear of nature might be common. But I’m really not a city girl. Growing up, I spent whole summers barefoot, collecting water skippers, catching grasshoppers, hiking (against my will), and camping (loved it.) My parents were disdainful of cabins and motorhomes on camping trips, so when we camped it was always in tents. They told stories about close calls with bears, and still we camped. Once, my dad took my brothers and me on a three-day backpacking trip into the deep wild where I had to use a shovel and leaves to do my business. (I hated that trip.)
My point is, while no one who knows me now would ever describe me as “outdoorsy,” it’s not like I’ve never been outside either. I just wish I could get over my fear of wild things and get out there more. I live in San Diego County, for Pete’s sake. I pay the sunshine tax. It’s time for my refund.
When I find myself searching online for a stick to spear at the rattlesnakes and raccoons I might see on my walks to the bus stop, it occurs to me that my fear of nature has gotten out of hand. The San Diego Natural History Museum is great and all, but I think the staff spent over a decade designing the exhibitions that replicate San Diego’s natural environment to inspire outdoor exploration, not replace it.
Back bends on Potato Chip Rock
San Diego Instagram hikers shame me with their triumphant summit poses (backbends on Potato Chip Rock, anyone?), and I decided if I was going to conquer my fear of nature, I needed a specific mission. I wouldn’t go as extreme as Wild author Cheryl Strayed, who braved an 1100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail — alone — but I could choose to be inspired by the mindset with which she did it:
“I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told,” Strayed wrote. “I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”
In my line of work, I spend much of my time trying to get real information out of people whose job it is to pass on to me the company message. They answer my questions with words they have said hundreds of times before — regardless of whether or not those words answer the question I’ve asked. CEOs are the worst.
When Julian Duval picks me up from the botanic garden’s parking lot in a golf cart, I brace myself for PR-speak, expecting he will answer my less-than-scientific inquiries about nature with statistics about visitors per year. I am okay with it, though, because we are outside, and the garden is magical.
The first thing that crosses my mind as we head up the hill and turn right past the Walled Garden (a little enclave that calls to mind all the shenanigans and secrecy in The Secret Garden) is that I’ve lived in San Diego for eight years and this is the first time I’ve been here. I don’t know, maybe because of its old name, “Quail Gardens,” I thought the general vibe would be one of cacti, sand, and desertscape, sort of like the cactus garden at Balboa Park. But instead, it’s lush and…atmospheric…the kind of place one might like to come to be alone and write poetry and weep over the beauty of the world.
As Duval drives the golf cart this way and that, pointing out groves of dragon trees (native to the Canary Islands but seed produced here in California) and stopping occasionally to tell stories of the Larabees (who donated the land to San Diego County as a park and wildlife sanctuary in 1957), I begin to feel like a kid hanging out with her cool grandpa. When he goes on about how the cork oaks were likely planted during World War II, I’m only half-listening. Instead, I’m marveling at the corkiness of the tree trunks and thinking something equivalent to, Wow, Grandpa! You’re in charge of all this?
Rather than discussing the origin of trees, I want to sit in the Walled Garden and marvel at them. I want to wander the grounds and absorb this beautifully manicured and tended to version of the natural world where there is nothing to fear. And I want Duval with me, because when I steer the conversation away from science and more toward man’s relationship with nature, he’s game.
“My lightning bug collecting bottle was never traded in for a baseball glove,” he says. “I just never got the sports gene. My brother did. He was always playing sports and stuff. Living things to me were my main squeeze.”
We’re driving past the African Garden, and he has just finished telling me a story about a group of cycads stolen from the garden in 2001 (and later found, by anonymous tip, where they’d been dumped on Gopher Canyon Road), when I ask if he sees the plants as having personalities.
He begins his answer by paraphrasing an African philosopher. “Ultimately we’ll only conserve that which we love, and we will only love those things we know about and are taught.”
And then he stops the cart, pointing to a small plant just up the paved slope from a giant Mysore fig. “I actually know that cycad. So he — some plants are male and female and that one happens to be a male — is somebody I’ve known for a long time,” he says. “Some of them, you care for them, they respond. Some of them don’t respond as much. They’re your problem children. So, yes, definitely, of all these plants, there are certain ones that are going to stand out and have personalities. Definitely.”
On our way back to the parking lot, I realize I haven’t thought about snakes or coyotes for an hour. I’m inclined to credit Duval’s grandfatherly presence. But what he says next reminds me that I was here, too, that it was not he that made me forget about my fears — it was the trees and all the wonder they invoked in me.
“Why do we find beauty in this?” he says. “Because I think all of us as humans are connected to the rest of the living world in a sense of an affinity that we have for this.”
On our way back to the parking lot Duval shows me a sweet little baobob tree that looks like a skinny stick figure standing guard on the side of the path. I’ve seen the ancient baobabs in Sussman’s book. They are enormous.
“This guy here is one you want to come back and see in 500 years,” he says. “It’s just a youngster yet. It’s probably about 20 years old.”
Cocktail umbrellas in the dog poop
Navajo Road and Golfcrest Drive, San Carlos
I take my first ever San Diego hike at Cowles Mountain on an overcast Tuesday morning in late May. I’ve chosen the location because the reviews say it’s easy and heavily populated. I bring my cousin, my best friend, and her 20-pound baby. We meet in the parking lot at the corner of Navajo Road and Golfcrest Drive in San Carlos and begin our 1.5-mile ascent to the highest point in the city of San Diego. When I heard the trail would be populated, I imagined seeing people every now and again. I didn’t picture stopping to stand aside every few minutes to let a hard-core trail runner pass or standing in line at the top for prime photo-op spots.
Though I imagine my hardcore camping family might question whether Cowles Mountain is really nature if there are this many people here, I’m psyched because I can mark it on my map of places to enjoy the out-of-doors without fear of being eaten. I can’t imagine too many coyotes hanging around here. All the goofing around and chitchatting we do make me forget to be afraid of the rattlesnakes that must be out there somewhere.
Someone has stuck tiny little cocktail umbrellas in the occasional piles of dog poop we come across.
A week later, I coax my husband to Poway so we can make the 7.2-mile roundtrip, 2000-foot-elevation-gain hike to Potato Chip Rock. We see no coyotes, mountain lions, or snakes.
When we get to the top, I stand among a couple dozen other hikers awaiting a turn for photo ops on the rock. It’s all smiles and good cheer. My husband stays below to take my picture while I crawl out to the rock’s overhang then force myself stand in a triumphant pose. In the picture I post on Instagram, my smile belies my trembling knees, my shortness of breath, and the sudden onset of acrophobia.
But, you know what? I did it. And when my mom comes to town in mid-June, I point to Mount Woodson and I say, “See that mountain there?”
“Yeah?” she says.
“I totally hiked it.”