Beaux-Arts & Deep Ravines

Up above the skyline of San Diego just 2.5 miles from the Embarcadero, wind the Cabrillo, Florida and Palm Canyons. In 1868 these rugged gorges sweeping down from the mesa were a barren and undeveloped 1400 acres then known as City Park. This is where the first of two innovative women enter the story. The first, Kate Sessions, was a botanist, horticulturalist, teacher and business person. Are you, like me, beginning to feel like an underacheiver? Just wait. Sessions inked a deal with the city leaders of the time to plant 100 trees a year with the caveat that they deed 30+ acres to her for a plant nursery to support her business. She has a litany of other acheivements across the San Diego region.

Kate and Alice Conquer the Canyons

While there are other figures in the development of the park, these two , in my opinion, are the lodestones of human energies which transformed the fallow mesa canyonlands into a gorgeous natural park with an arts complex. Here now, along with gardens and mostly undisturbed canyon trails, stand Spanish Colonial, Mission and Pueblo revival structures which nearly five million persons visit per year.

Meet our second innovator, Alice Klauber. Alice was born in San Diego in 1872. She was a painter who studied with Robert Henri, a major American “Ash-Can” Realist who exhibited at the groundbreaking Armory Show. Alice was also a poet, interior designer, arts administrator and cultural influencer.

Her influence on what would become Balboa Park, was to launch, as chairman of the art department, the first major contemporay art exhibition at the 1915 Panama California Exposition. The Exposition itself commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal. Henri, whom she convinced to move to San Diego, was also on the board and his work was featured. The exhibition would bring to the American West an event that, while not of the trend-changing magnitude of the Armory Show, would be the first of its kind west of the Continental Divide.

As regards the architecture for the Exposition: of the seven major structures, many are still standing as permanent museums. This includes the ornate baroque influenced buildings and the bridge spanning 1500 feet across Cabrillo Canyon. Other buildings have been added over the years as the plaza developed into the central arts district of San Diego.

There were many women innovators like Alice Hauber largely unaccounted for in the stories of the winning of the West. One transcribed the songs of first Americans. Others were principal in development of the art colonies we know as Sante Fe and Taos. If you’re interested, please check out Lesley Poling-Kempes’ eye-opening book: “Ladies of the Canyons.” Not demure by any stretch of the imagination, these “ladies” rode the range across extraordinary distance and encamped in the high desert when it was primitive, unthinkably dangerous and virtually roadless. Lesley can tell you the rest in her informative and entertaining book.

Up the Junctions

This blog is about natural areas, not cultural history, right? Truth. But, I will break the rules often.

There are trails, lots of them, many maintaining the features of the original terrain especially on the eastern section of the park. The Florida Canyon Trail can be difficult hiking in sections and virtually all of the paths are dirt and scrabble. Heat can be punishing there in the Summer. My two experiences have been in the mild but breezy first weeks of October when the Santa Ana winds roll in from the Great Basin. It is landscaped in portions, especially the cultivated cactus refuge at the edge of the canyon. Flowering cholla and prickly pear bring vibrant contrast to the frequently pale landscape, with their wine, ochres and yellow hued brilliance. There’s plentiful buckwheat also ranging across the dusty landscape. It blooms in pale red to maroon and ivory.

The other easily scalable hike is within the heart of the park in Palm Canyon. Commencing near the Japanese Friendship Garden, it contains 58 species of palm, is shaded, and teeming with pollinators: bees , monarch butterflies and western hummingbirds. Should you be overcome with a sudden onset of patience you’ll see them all. Like Central Park, all of this is in the center of a major city.

Wooden Water

One of the most stirring visions you’ll experience in a non-intoxicated state in the Palm Canyon is the sprawling rootwork of the Banyan-like Moreton Bay Figs. Imagine a mythic story where unseen powers transform a waterfall’s torrents into wood. (George R.R., are you listening?). Something like this happened in this canyon where roots cascade over a man-made stone and mortar wall. Others flow across rock and leaf-bedded slopes merging into the sunken ingress to the public trail.

Along the less traversed canyonlands of the park, like Florida Canyon, there are constant reminders of the Wild, Abandoned theme: as you develop near natural areas, constrain the urge to conquer and subdue the terrain too much. The terrain and its flora, native or otherwise, often win. The designers of Balboa Park seem to have agreed. Please stay on the trail.

Welcome to the Wild, Abandoned World

the author. brought in with the tide.
the author, brought in with the tide

Hello, my name is Vince. I’ve been a professional in film/television/performing arts for a few decades. I write poetry & prose largely for my own well-being. Here I’ll share some thoughts about exploring glimpses of the natural world in our urban landscapes. Started back in 2011, under this same name, Wild, Abandoned, sat untended for quite a while.

I’ve cleared the metaphoric kudzu from the blog. I have an inkling that there are others who enjoy experiencing the same kinds of places in their own cities. When I started this there was no Atlas Obscura. The Atlas is a fine reference for those who want to explore the weird world around them otherwise unreferenced by Google Maps. But the Atlas generally catalogues fantastically scaled abandoned and usually previously inhabited places. Atlas Obscura is also often finely tuned to cite places you can visit to get yourself a dose of creepy. I’ve mad respect for its editors. But this is different.

kudzu: invasive vine

I’ll speak more about marginal micro-habitats inside the cities and suburban worlds in which most of us live. These are “micro” only in relation to sprawling urban regions. Some can be very large, like the Forest Preserves in the Chicago area. Miller Meadow, within which I rambled growing up on the far west side of Chicago, is alone comprised of 316 acres. The Forest Preserves are premeditated public projects brought on by intentional conservationist motives to serve the public good. Others are simply “preserved” because development of them is too difficult or expensive. They are left alone. There also is a more committed movement toward open space conservation and development across the country.

Sure, what we call the natural world is shrinking. Civil engineers will certainly continue to discover methods to overcome construction challenges involving difficult terrain and availability of optimal land mass. Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” is a classic example of building upon difficult, even unstable, terrain and incorporating it into the structure. The verdict is out on whether the home, now museum, can be maintained indefinitely. For more on Falling Water check out the Guardian’s wonderful piece: “Falling Water is Falling Down” (link below). .

But development can’t effectively (read: economically) conquer every natural border. Good for us urban adventurers, who can visit:

  • canyons too steep and rugged for constructed foundations
  • intermediate wetlands left for drainage
  • intentional preserves with limited human design applied

So, if you please, visit a post or two and better yet become a para-naturalist of your own Wild, Abandoned world. Be advised, that I’m fond of light-footed trespassing and may sometimes find myself accidentally on private lands (never secured, government, nor protected lands). I’m not recommending the practice. So, don’t go chasing waterfalls.

In the same way that I lightly trespass and willfully go off course out there, I’ll also liberally drift from pure reportage of urban wild areas. Expect deviations as I wander off to alledgedly related topics such as music, literature, art and matters of the spirit. Everything but politics. I’ll also update and correct posts often, add images from time-to-time. They may grow like cultivating kudzu.

I’d love to hear from you anytime on these posts and/or your experience with nature in the margins of your urban territories. You have the option to post anonymously (e-mail/real name not required). It’s administered, but, why not be be polite? I’ll do the same. Otherwise: Let’s Go Wild.

The Lowly Wild Places (original 2011 introduction)

Like most Americans, I’ve spent the better part of my life in an urban or suburban community.  Nature was something to be discovered while on family vacations.  One summer, this was along the seemingly endless beaches of the barrier islands of North Carolina with their inland borders of dunes.  Another was within the weird, beautiful, stony desolation of the Badlands of South Dakota.  Places like these were available to me.   I have been fortunate.  Perhaps it is less so for my own children who have grown up stimulated by the cities of their homes and cities they visit afar.  I concede that cities are where the stuff of daily life is found:  our schools, libraries, museums, hospitals, markets, and the jobs which sustain most of us.  I would live nowhere else but within a city.  Such city-bound institutions are indeed essential to our daily lives.   But arguably they are not enough to fully enrich those lives.

Wild places, or simply wilder places, are an essential relief to the stimulation of city life.  What is found there is stimulation still, but of another kind, the kind experienced through contemplation and observation.  I would argue that both contemplation and observation are active states of mind.  If you are a journal writer, you know this to be true:  you are thinking about writing (and are writing) even as you contemplate your surroundings.  Fortunately, wild places, or places wilder by comparison, are increasingly accessible in cities and suburbs.  This would seem paradoxical, given the seemingly continuous sprawling growth of metropolitan regions in the U.S.  Except that as land is incorporated, so are conservation easements and the rough boundary lands may be left undeveloped but accessible to the even mildly adventurous.  Often these urban wild places exist as as much by accident as design.

I was raised to have a sense of curiosity about my immediate surroundings, as well as the more exotic locations my family might visit.  With two working parents, I walked to school between the first to eighth grades and was often left to make my own amusements after classes.  Inspired by the grand wild places I experienced over my Summers growing up, I sought, and more often, stumbled upon, the lowly wild places near home.  These were to be found in the intervals between the developed sections of the towns I lived within.  In Bloomfield, New Jersey, in the 1960’s, I wandered with galoshes through the marshes beyond the chain link fence of my back yard.  In Chattanooga, Tennessee, I climbed the limestone ledges behind the gas station at the corner of Hixson Pike & Hanover Street, looking for fossils.  In Chicago, I ambled through the old growth forest preserve  no more than three and a half miles from my front door.  In my adult life, I’ve canoed and fished with an aquatic biologist in a Trinity river overflow, a small lake in a former quarry behind an abandoned cement mill in inner city Dallas.  I mountain biked the unincorporated hills of suburban Austin.  Now I tour some of the 60+ mile stretch of service road along the Highline Canal.  It courses through Denver and its northern and southern suburbs.  The canal served as a an irrigation utility ditch designed to move water from a source in the foothills southwest of Denver to the farms in the eastern plains. The brainchild of a Scottish businessman in the late 1800’s, it never really prospered for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it was frequently dry.   It’s founder didn’t secure the junior water rights from the South Platte River to adequately refill the canal when other sources were dry.

Over time I’ve been something of an amateur naturalist, observing wildlife in the unkempt and overgrown inter-regions of the cities I have lived within.   As Henry David Thoreau put it, “I’ve been perambulating the bounds of the town.”  Like Thoreau, I find that in these places I can “recover my tone and sanity…perceive things truly and simply again.” (Henry David Thoreau, Journals).
This blog will occasionally address the joys found in such reliefs within the urban landscape.  I hope to share photos along with observations.  If you enjoy it, consider commenting, and sharing something you’ve discovered while exploring some wild interval in an urban landscape of your own.
The title is an obvious (I hope) play upon the phrase “wild abandon.”  These places may have been left alone for a very long time, abandoned as it were.  They may have been preserved with intention, as with urban preserves and open spaces.  Sometimes they are simply an egress for drainage or erosion control which in turn make homes for marsh birds and foxes.  Also, look for egrets in the egress.  They may be places which have been given back to the earth in not so intentional a manner.  The later might be the site of a demolished factory or homes or a discarded strip mall, which neglected, have become overgrown and incrementally reclaimed by nature.  These are the Lowly Wild Places.