Bearing knapsacks, canteens and a point-and-shoot camera, a dozen fifth-graders left civilization behind and plunged from the parking lot into the Matilija Environmental Science Area near Ojai.
The special-education class from Poinsettia School in Ventura is designated language-handicapped, but when they reached the picturesque canyon for the daylong Nature Safari program, the adventurers had their questions ready.
From an initial, "Are there scorpions here?" posed by Adolfo Barrera, the conversation tended toward the dramatic and the ominous.
There was talk of rattlesnakes, which have a habit of emerging craftily from thickets, and concern was expressed over the poisonous properties of wild rose hips. When the class was challenged to name uses for the sharp-pointed yucca plant, the first suggestion was "blow darts!"
Leader Tia Gatica assured the hikers that scorpions must be diligently searched out under the earth's surface. She offered them samples of nutritious rose hips, and assured them that all the rattlesnakes found in the area had been taken "to faraway places."
Gatica, who directs the MESA program, knows her 11-year-olds. She warns them that the yucca's needles are "real gnarly," deters them from exploring a weed-choked bamboo tunnel with, "It's very thick and jungle-y in there," and proposes examining the trail for animal tracks.
Leaping at the suggestion, the children hopefully ascribe each print to bears--but for many yards the marks are analyzed as coyote, deer, fawn. Then, a bear track does appear. Wandering down the trail, it is pursued by eager explorers.
"What if the bear is leading us to his den?" Tom Wisenbaker asked. A more practical classmate suggested that the bear was only searching for water in the sandy environment.
Whatever his purpose, the bear managed to stay out of reach of the class, which settled instead for sighting lizards. Then they backed under a fallen "wishing tree" Chumash-style, tasted wild cherries, and ceremoniously cracked walnuts on Chumash Rock--an ancient food preparation stone large enough for the entire class to rest atop.
Gatica pointed out a nearby stone stairway--left by 19th-Century pioneers--and explained that the stairs and the Chumash grinding stone are legacies left by previous cultures. She asked, "What will the people of the 1990s leave behind?"
"It might be all trash," said ecologically conscious Joe Oberhausen.
This was not the lesson that MESA wanted to emphasize, Gatica said later, seated near a newly dug organic garden.
"We have a philosophy about the environment that people are working together to solve problems. Instead of focusing on the gloom of landfills, we stress that when we recycle aluminum and glass we are helping to solve this problem," she said.
All children who visit MESA are asked to deposit recyclables, and are left to ponder the wisdom of using containers that can't be reused.
They may also enroll in a session on conservation skills called Ecosystems, Environmental Issues and Solutions. Like the Nature Safari program, it combines exploring, group endeavor, crafts and history to impart its lessons.
Other one- or two-day programs available to children's groups include Settlers, Pioneers and Miners, which offers a chance to discover relics and pan for minerals; Native American Culture, which explores Chumash crafts, dance and games; and Survival Skills, with practice in finding edible plants and learning directional skills.
The setting for all this is more than 500 acres in spectacular Matilija Canyon, a harsh environment where winter rains can transform the now-absent creek into a deluge from the towering Santa Inez Mountains.
There is a sparkling lake--off limits to boats or bathers; in most seasons a brook; and a rare combination of oak grove, meadow, marsh and chaparral-all crowded into an area easily covered by a 6-year-old. There are longer trails for the adventurous.
MESA's staff is made up of specialists in such fields as biology and Chumash history, each of whom brings a special approach to the lessons. For instance, Gatica said, during craft sessions Bruce Vinent of Ojai often demonstrates making rope with native grasses.
"The rope is so strong," she said, "he hangs it in trees and swings from it like Tarzan."
It is a demonstration project only. Children's activities are more likely to consist of making natural paints from rocks, or creating practical items from yucca leaves, such as soap, shoelaces or woven mats. Blow darts are definitely not a part of the program.
* WHERE AND WHEN
MESA programs are available to groups such as schools, churches and scouts at a cost of $8 a day per child. For further information or brochures, leave a message at 646-8712.