Griffin, my 18-month-old, recently starting exclaiming "wheee" every time his stroller passes over those Matterhorn-like peaks buckling our city's sidewalks. His urbanization, in other words, is all but complete.
Which is why we've taken to penciling in Nursery Nature Walks--guided tours through 75 of L.A. and Ventura counties' pastoral nooks and crannies. A not-for-profit program hatched in 1985 by Harriet Bennish, an L.A. mother aching for some leafy distraction for her child, Nursery Nature Walks are slow and deliberate, with plenty of pauses for kids to touch trees or behold the aerodynamics of butterflies. (Parent and child also learn that "nature" can be sequestered in the most unlikely spots, such as the refinery-shadowed Madrona Marsh or the Kenneth Hahn Park, near the oil derricks off La Cienega on the way to LAX.)
Recently, Griffin and I joined eight other kid-mom duos for a morning romp around the Malibu Lagoon. After coughing up the suggested $5 donation and slathering baby from head to toe with SPF 15, we queue behind walk leader Joyce Ireland ("Single file, please") and dutifully traipse through the brush with military precision. I almost forget city life, despite the Texaco sign bobbing in and out of my peripheral vision. Ireland, 44, is busy singing "Oh, we're going on a nursery nature walk. Oh, we're going on a nursery nature walk. . ." (the first of many, sung in march step to "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain"). Our neophyte nature lovers, meanwhile, are happily framing the unfolding seascape with ingenious toilet-paper-roll binoculars doled out earlier.
On the peninsula, we hopscotch over dried papier-mche-like algae, scattering the pelicans and gulls. Ireland, yellow bandanna knotted Jeanette MacDonald-style around her neck, warbles a ditty about pebble evolution: "Boulder's getting washed away/boulder's getting knocks/boulder's rolling down the hill/and turning into rocks." Mothers' eyes roll heavenward, but diaper-clad Olivia, Mitchell and 8-year-old Jonathan gaze at Ireland with Barney-adoring fealty. Griffin, on the other hand, chooses this moment to heave a succession of rocks into the lagoon.
Ireland clears her throat. "Everyone put a rock in a sock," she says, ignoring Griffin and dispensing footwear in assorted colors. "See if you can feel which rock was yours by its smoothness and shape." The children hem and haw and then present their selections to their beaming moms--except Griffin, who pitches his into the drink like Hideo Nomo.
Our troupe parades to the beach, where urbanization insolently resurfaces in a blimp advertising a video store that seems to be taking over the planet. At the shore, we get to create suitable-for-refrigerator-display sand paintings using Elmer's glue and Chinet plates. Ireland informs us that the smaller a grain of sand, the older it is. (All right, did you know that?)
A stocky tattooed fellow ambles up. "Hey, you missed the blimp!" he says to the children. He looks familiar. In fact, this mom is pretty sure he's Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But the children, oblivious to celebrity and beginning to yawn, seem to think this kind stranger is yet another prop on our promenade--a native loose in the urban landscape.
Nursery Nature Walk complete, we leave in lockstep behind Ireland. Griffin is in a blissful state of repose and I'm humming turn-of-the-century mountaineering tunes, totally refreshed for PCH summer traffic, talk radio, or perhaps the Chili Peppers' "Under The Bridge."