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A potent symbol of nature is rooted in a rare white flower

Black Mountain is one of the few homes of the wild Carpenteria. Thanks to people who have loved it for decades, it will remain there.

June 12, 2011|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times

Peck and his wife, Peg Smith, were working to form a local foothill conservation organization. The valley below was the fastest-growing region in California, the foothills held the most biodiversity of any inland area in the state and there were few protections in place.

"The problem is that the foothills tend to be just what people drive through to get somewhere else, like the mountains," Smith said. "They don't stop to look around."

The Nature Conservancy transferred Miller's land to the new organization and Miller then sent a $120,000 donation. He had inherited some money.

"It kind of embarrassed him. It was against his principles to be rich," Peck said.

The piece of land Miller most wanted protected was the Kneeland homestead with the ruins of the houses and Clarissa Kneeland's favorite Carpenteria bush.

Miller eventually donated $750,000 to the Sierra Foothill Conservancy, which used his money to obtain grants and matching funds. The organization uses Carpenteria as calling card and fundraising tool.

"There are a lot of amazing things on Black Mountain, but the Carpenteria is what stops people in their tracks," Peck said.

Miller died in 2007. He requested that half of his ashes be scattered on his wife's grave in Paso Robles and half on Black Mountain.

It was two years before the second of his wishes was fulfilled. Peck waited until the conservancy had finally bought the Kneeland place and the Carpenteria was in bloom.

A small, eclectic group gathered at Clarissa Kneeland's Carpenteria shrub in the Mary Elizabeth Miller Preserve: Peck and Smith, Stebbins, chemistry students, botanists, even a retired Prather electrician also named Bill Miller. The two Bills had become friends over mail mix-ups.

Each took a teaspoon of ashes and dropped them on ground Clarissa Kneeland had long ago declared a sanctuary while they said a few words about Miller.

Peck said his friend was a man who lived by his principles and had left them with a mission.

"The way I've been thinking about Carpenteria, especially on that day," Peck said, "is that it's a beautiful obligation. When we have something this genuinely rare and beautiful in our own backyard, it's our own job to take care of it."

metro@latimes.com

Marcum is a Times special correspondent.

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