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Al Martinez

La Tuna Canyon seems frozen in time, a blend of homey gardens and horse corrals, with a pace to match the look. : Some Quiet Places

October 01, 1987|Al Martinez

An old horse stands under a weeping willow tree on La Tuna Canyon Road, a few miles east of the Foothill Freeway, chewing on hay from a feeder and looking up occasionally to watch the traffic go by.

I've seen the horse before, a dappled gelding that looks too decrepit for anyone to ever ride again, but who seems to possess a kind of wisdom of the ages from having lived a long time. He's seen it all before.

Having owned a horse once, I doubt that they have a brain in their heads, but every once in a while I spot one that appears to possess at least an ounce of recognition of what's going on around him. "Shorty" is one of them.

I don't know that his name is Shorty, but he looks like the horse my daughter used to ride through the Santa Monica Mountains, and since I don't know his real name, Shorty will do.

He always seems to be standing under that willow tree, no matter what time of day it is. I stopped once to check him out, but no one was around to answer questions, and since I don't talk to horses, we just looked at each other for a few moments and I left.

It was as a result of that exchange of glances, however, that I began to wonder if old Shorty realized that the serenity of the canyon he inhabited might be coming to an end.

The question popped into my head, I guess, because there is an infinite sadness to old horses and I couldn't help but think that maybe it's a recognition of passing time and fading days, an awareness that things can never be the same for them again.

When I looked at Shorty I was certain he remembered summers when he rode the trails of the Verdugo Mountains, up past the quiet stables and the white clapboard homes, winding through the scrub oaks to the hilltops, the wind in his face and the sun at his back.

Days of youth, days of strength.

I was in the kind of mood that blended time and tranquility, I suppose, because I had been reading that La Tuna Canyon has been "discovered." Land developers are carving out tracts. Builders are revving up their bulldozers.

This saddens me because there aren't too many quiet places left in Los Angeles, and I'd hate to see this one crammed with fields of houses with red-tiled roofs, which, by their very homogeneity, defy the tones of natural beauty around them.

Everyone needs a place to hide, whether it's in a canyon or a room in a house, a place where there is quiet enough to contemplate the dynamics of change around us, undisturbed by the furies that haunt the freeways.

I have my place in Topanga Canyon, so I can appreciate what's going on in the heads of those in La Tuna Canyon, who worry that one of these days soon the builders are going to march in like armies of destruction, and all the serenity will be gone.

No more Shorty and no more weeping willow tree.

We're surrounded by parkland in Topanga, but builders are salivating over other open spaces that remain, and even over the parkland itself. Just because it's park doesn't mean it's safe.

Integrity has never been a big factor in the decisions of those we entrust to guard our future. I'm convinced that if contractors came along with enough campaign money to sway a legislator, the oak trees would be ripped out tomorrow and condominiums would go up the next day.

I drove out to La Tuna Canyon the other day not to see Shorty but to absorb the beauty that surrounds him.

It was late afternoon on a hot day, and the leaves of the eucalyptus trees shimmered under the flattening rays of a descending sun. The foothills lay in misty tones of blue-gray, cascading back into shades that darkened with distance.

La Tuna Canyon seems frozen in time, a blend of homey gardens and horse corrals, with a pace to match the look. The Foothill Freeway borders it on the east and the Golden State is not far away on the west, but the canyon still seems removed from the bustle.

Even cars whizzing by on the narrow road somehow fail to disrupt the bucolic nature of the environment. The hour of commuting passes, the heavy traffic fades and the quiet returns.

Life remains a slow dance there, despite a quickening tempo to the music over the ridge lines, and late afternoon is the best time to take measure of the pace.

I drove down the quiet streets just to look, rustic roads that lay at the feet of mountains drying in the blaze of summer. Children played nearby. A dog barked far off. A horse whinnied.

I absorbed the tranquility and found myself hoping beyond reality that the people who own it will not surrender their peace easily, though, I fear, surrender it they will.

Shorty was still standing under the willow tree as I drove by, and I had the feeling that I might never see him again. I hollered "So long, Shorty," and I swear that he looked up and, in his way, said goodby.

To me and, perhaps, to life in the shade of a weeping willow tree that was probably never meant to last forever.

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