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High Drama in the Mountains

November 09, 1986

The best view of Decker Canyon and the Santa Monica Mountains is in a darkened room of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, before a 65-foot diorama, as a program of sound, film and light tells the story of life in the mountain chaparral.

This is a story of high drama and extraordinary surprise as the camera explores the growth of the chaparral on the steep slopes, the secret life of insect, spider, reptile and mammal beneath the umbrella of decades-old plant cover, the cataclysm of fire, real fire, the devastating burn of November, 1985, and then the miracle of regeneration.

"Life From Fire" is the title of the exhibition. And so it is. Most of the more than 200 plant species in the chaparral blossom only in the months after a fire. Their seeds will in turn lie in the soil for years, for decades, until again there is fire. And then the terrible heat, the chemicals leached by rainwater from the ashes and blackened stumps stimulate the long-dormant seeds to germination. There are records of century-old seeds revived. And suddenly from the scorched earth there is the rare vision of pale yellow whispering bells ( Emmenanthe pendulifera ), the reddish orange of the fire poppy ( Papaver californicum ), the intense deep purple of Parry's phacelia, the blushed cream of the Mariposa lily ( Calochorthus catalineae ). To live and flower for a scant, rain-fed season.

Kent Hodgetts--who wrote, directed and did most of the filming of the program--spent 140 days in the Santa Monica Mountains, then edited 23 hours of film to 18 minutes. The sounds that accompany the program were captured on location, supplemented by recordings from Cornell University's Library of Natural Sounds. Hodgetts' 16-mm film version was converted to a video disc, read by laser, to assure high-quality sound with the video projection, enhancing the realism. A computer coordinates about 90 lighting cues in the program as dawn, daylight, dusk and moonlight touch the diorama, bringing a sense of immediacy to the display. The chaparral is depicted at four stages of its life cycle--many of the plants in the display actually harvested in the foothills and preserved in the laboratory. The fauna also are authentic, including a king snake captured in the mountains and freeze-dried for the exhibit.

This is a permanent addition to the Natural History Museum, funded by a $250,000 grant from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, supplemented by work of the museum's habitat staff. The program is continuous, repeated every half-hour.

There was one disappointment as the exhibition was readied for its opening Nov. 8. Hodgetts had hoped to add odor to sight and sound in re-creating the world of the chaparral. But the company charged with producing the appropriate smells missed the mark so completely that it was decided that the imagination of the audience would be more reliable.

Not much imagination is needed, within the hall, to sense in every dimension the chaparral environment. And to capture--in the delicate sound of an insect, the insistent call of a quail, the terrifying roar of fire, the image of fragile blossom born of ancient seed--the vitality of this complex ecosystem that is, as one staff member called it, "our backyard."

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