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A Course of Outdoor Schooling : Guided environmental walks reveal the flora and fauna of Soka University, a tranquil region despite the ongoing battle over the property's future.

January 14, 1994|KATHRYN BAKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kathryn Baker writes regularly for The Times

CALABASAS — You wouldn't guess from the tranquil surroundings that this beautiful property just off Mulholland Highway is something of a battle site.

Soka University, which owns the land, is fending off an attempt by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to buy 245 of the school's 660 acres for a park visitors' center. Now a language school, Soka wants to expand into a small liberal arts college. In the meantime, regardless of the bureaucratic grappling, nature lovers can enjoy the area on Soka-sponsored environmental walks.

The school, which is headquartered in Japan, is at 26800 W. Mulholland Hwy., just east of the intersection at Las Virgenes Road. Environmental walks led by a docent are conducted the first Tuesday of each month, historical tours the third Tuesday, and walks geared toward youngsters the second Saturday. For more information and reservations, call (818) 880-4649 or (818) 880-6400, extension 3500. We attended the Junior Environmental Walk on a Tuesday morning.

9:30 a.m.: The guard at the entry gate directs us to the parking lot, where we are greeted by the docent. Our first stop is at the magnificent sycamore trees that populate the property.

The sycamore-lined drive leading to the university might look familiar, the docent says. The land was once owned by film director Clarence Brown, and the long, estate-like drive was used as the entrance to the plantation Tara in "Gone With the Wind." It seems you can't get away from Hollywood around these parts. But soon our walk will take us into the territory of coyotes and bobcats and the Chumash Indians who once lived hereabouts, long before anyone ever heard of screenwriters and movie directors.

We learn a little more about the sycamores: They usually grow near water and require so much moisture that they can dry up a stream. In the fall, when they don't need so much water, they can replenish the stream again. And we learn to differentiate between a coast live oak--whose leaves look like little boats, to remind us of "coast"--and the valley white oak, with more traditionally shaped oak leaves. Oddly, at one spot on the property, someone seems to have grafted two of these types of trees together, apparently successfully, since they are huge and growing out of the same spot in the ground.

Holes with mounds of dirt beside them indicate a gopher's residence. Elsewhere on the ground is early-morning evidence of recent visits by coyotes and even a bobcat.

10 a.m.: We stop at a pond near the university's main building that is home to ducks and swans. This area didn't occur naturally, but it is beautiful to behold.

Two pairs of swans are separated from the rest of the flock because they have mated. One pair--the male is called a cob and the female a pen--are raising a brood of babies, or cygnets. We think the cob is extra friendly or wanting food, since he's swimming alongside us as we stroll on the road next to the pond. Not so, we're told. He is so protective of his brood, he's making sure to stay between us and them--and he'll be very happy once we hit the trail and don't come back.

10:15 a.m.: Next we pause to admire the deodar cedar trees, an import from India. We learn that only the female trees bear true cones. The male trees get those little caterpillar-looking growths that most of us used to think were baby pine cones. They are called catkins.

10:20 a.m.: As we take the easy walk--even suitable for stroller-pushing--up into the low mountains above the university, we are taught to identify a low, silver-colored plant called turkey mullen, which is said to make birds that eat it act sort of drunk.

We also come across a funnel spider, so called because it builds its web on the ground in the shape of a tunnel and waits at the bottom for unsuspecting insects. The acorns from the plentiful oaks were used by the Chumash to make a grain that they used in cooking. They also used sage to mask their scent when hunting. The lighter, grayish-colored sage is purple sage, that fabled plant of the Old West. Perhaps the sage helped the Indians avoid any encounters with the 800-pound grizzly bears we're told once roamed here.

10:30 a.m.: From the top of the hill we have a magnificent view of the valley below, including a mansion built by King Cab Gillette, the razor-blade mogul. Sadly, we're told, he never got to live there. Gillette lost his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash and died of a heart attack soon afterward.

Along the trail we see odd-looking pellets of hair and bone and other unidentifiable matter. We learn that these have been dropped by owls hunting at night. The birds swallow their prey whole, letting their digestive system sort things out before spitting the unneeded stuff onto the ground.

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