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Around the Foothills

Time moves slowly in the life of a forest.

November 22, 1990|DOUG SMITH

The greening of Eagle Rock's Mt. Fiji, heralded here last spring, is proceeding apace, even though months of drought may have left the opposite impression.

As seen from the freeway--the most familiar perspective of the prominent round, bald peak behind Occidental College--all looks dead on Mt. Fiji.

The usual yellow cover of dried grass and mustard weed has disintegrated and blown away this fall, leaving a desolate landscape of exposed earth, more like Death Valley than temperate coastal hills.

It takes a closer inspection to mark the progress made since Scott Wilson first led a band of volunteers up the hill in March bearing saplings, buckets and shovels.

You have to pull your car through a gate on Townsend Avenue, park on a large dirt plateau and walk along the side of the hill. Only then can you see the 500 little trees. Each is in a small shoveled basin. They are about two feet high--twice what they were in spring--and are sending out lateral shoots. But they still look so much like twigs that they become invisible about 30 feet away.

It may be another five years before the trees even begin to stand out. Time moves slowly in the life of a forest.

As reported in March, this one had gestated in Wilson's thoughts for 35 years.

All that time, he lived under the influence of the mountain, both as a resident of the valley to its north and as the horticulture instructor at Eagle Rock High School during the 1960s. He had led students up Mt. Fiji's northern flank on many a planting expedition.

Mt. Fiji, as you might have guessed, is an affectionate name Oxy students have given the neighborhood landmark, which is actually part of the campus, having been bought by the college long ago.

According to Oxy's media director, Frances B. Hill, it has been "the scene of many a special event, ranging from the predictable fires, floods and tree plantings to the clandestine midnight parties and occasional off-road hot-rodding."

The most ambitious tree-planting yet began to crystallize in Wilson's mind after he retired from teaching in the early 1980s and enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona to earn a master's degree in landscape architecture.

It wasn't the study of where to plant petunias, he said.

It was "soil, water, population pressures, team solving of problems, keeping open space, manipulating the system to preserve the resources."

At 67, Wilson put his new training and his still frenetic energy to work on planting an urban forest.

He formed an organization called Northeast Trees. He recruited high school and college students, city and county foresters and residents. The college agreed to supply the water. Los Angeles County provided oak and black walnut saplings.

In the flush of good intentions, Wilson and his crew put 200 saplings into the ground in a single day. Before the spring was over, they had planted 800 trees from the south side of the hill, just above Oxy's baseball field, to the north side, overlooking Eagle Rock High School.

That was the easy part. There is a ritual gratification in planting trees. It marks the renewal of life and connects one to the Earth. But forests don't grow on ceremony. They need water.

"I couldn't see planting things and not being able to water them," Wilson said. "The TreePeople planted all these thousands and thousands of trees, and they're probably all dead!"

Wilson's first tactic was to raise a small army of volunteers.

"We started out watering the whole thing with big gang activities: get 30, 40 people there and everybody waters at once," he said. "Didn't have enough water. Everybody's standing around, filling up buckets. It ticked off everybody. It's a waste of time."

The task got easier as Occidental groundskeepers dug a trench halfway up the hill and Wilson's crew laid plastic pipe. In stages, they extended the pipe up to the crest and outward in branches.

"I've got probably a mile of pipe," Wilson said.

Now, he's delegated irrigation to one man who oversees a team of about half a dozen volunteers.

Some trees were lost in the learning process. Others have fallen to the gophers.

"The rodents seem to be desperate for food or water," Wilson said.

All told, about 300 have died. That leaves Wilson considerably wiser and still only about one-third of the way to his goal of a 1,500-tree forest.

The rain brought him back this week with freshened resolve. The work began Monday with a group of USC landscape architecture students joining in the afternoon. The work will go on through the fall.

By the way, there may soon be a contingent of Oxy students toiling on Mt. Fiji.

It seems some frat boys stripped the fronds off a resident's palm tree as props for a party having some kind of jungle theme.

The owner of the palm tree, coincidentally a member of Northeast Trees, caught the culprits with the evidence in hand.

They graciously wrote out a check to Northeast Trees and promised to trudge up the mountain one of these days to perform a ritual repayment to nature herself.

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