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Santa Monica Mountains Homecoming

I went to UCLA because it was a reason to get away from the small, foothill town that I grew up in. Like many destinations that you flee to, it was more about the escape than it was about the particular setting. I found myself suddenly in a matrix of rich suburbanites and sleepy urban areas with expensive juices, without a car. I was disenchanted with my new home to say the least. In my fourth year of undergraduate, I was lucky enough to get my hands on keys to an old Subaru and through these retro wheels I began to see more and more of Southern California . I regularly traveled to the tide pools around Palos Verdes for my senior capstone, trekked to Bakersfield and Perris for summer field work, and hiked frequently in the Santa Monica Mountains for a course on California conservation. By expanding my view to cover more and more of Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, I slowly began to understand Angelino pride.

I started working at Mountains Restoration Trust around three months after graduating from UCLA. My early career at MRT brought me to many remote areas within the Malibu Creek Watershed in order to supervise a crew of technicians removing an invasive species of crayfish in the Santa Monica Mountains. I was proud to consider a day surveying frogs and native fish under the shade of oak, willow, and mulefat a “typical work day”. I began my true romance with Southern California wading through the entirety of Malibu Creek, in awe of the beauty of such a massive canyon, of the cattails covered in exuvia that I pushed through, and of the charming kingfisher that followed me along the way as if to guard its caches of crayfish that were left within depressions of larger boulders.

MRT brought me closer to the natural beauty of Southern California than anything I had experienced before and ultimately concreted my reason to stay. The longer I worked at MRT, the more I regularly interacting with biologists and land managers who shared my exuberance for the Santa Monica Mountains. I began to understand the principles that were taught to me in my classes. The Santa Monica Mountains are so special in their beauty and rarity and yet they face so many threats and require so many resources in order to coordinate their management.

On November 9th, I sat in a coffee shop in Hollywood and watched the Woolsey Fire whip through MRT’s restoration sites, landholdings, and nursery facilities. I could not help feeling despair after losing so many natural and material resources. Not to mention, that after nearly six years of struggling to embrace my new home, I finally felt settled and near moments later my comfort was ashen! I wondered what I could do to heal this burn scars and return my sense of ease. I am writing from the other side of an atmosphere river that washed through southern California weeks ago – the scorched shrubs are re-sprouting from their root crowns and many of the hillsides are blanketed in green. For the next six months, I will be working UCLA and the La Kretz Center for Conservation to oversee 50 teams of undergraduates studying the impacts and recovery of this devastating fire. For now, I see my purpose right in front of me as I refind my home in the sprouting fields of the Santa Monica Mountains.

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In The Field

By Rebecca Kosugi

In the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, one must find serenity through forming a relationship with their higher power. Admittedly when I first got sober this was just an abstract concept to me. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my higher power was to be found in nature. As cliché as it sounded I was confident that I had found more serenity outside of cityscapes, away from power lines and bright lights, than anywhere else. Most of what triggered me to drink was found in my role in society and in my interactions with other people and things in the “human” world. It was when I was able to see myself as a small part in something bigger than day-to-day life that I could quiet my mind. Fortunately for me, my job at MRT has allowed me to spend the majority of my time outside. The practices and principles found in my recovery are revealed to me “in the field” almost everyday. The most recent example of this centered on the Woolsey Fire.

On November 8th  2018, my fellow vegetation crew members and I were out watering the Coast Live Oaks trees at Nicholas Flats trail. MRT was in the last month a 3-year contract with California State Parks to establish 300 oak trees along the Nicolas Flats trail. It had always been my favorite project and I took my role as Site Captain there very seriously. I used to think it was strange how attached the previous Site Captain was to the oak seedlings. However once I inherited the project from him, I got it. Every tree received a monthly check up and report card. All individuals were watered by hand – a very strenuous and time-consuming process. The crew built shade structures out of strategically placed pieces of dead wood. Due to the large number of trees and the enormous area we had to cover, each tree was only visited once a month. If we fell behind schedule some trees would be under-watered. Because of this and my passion for the site, I became increasingly more controlling as time went on. I felt the urge to ensure that everything was perfect. I had to make sure that the seedlings would make it. This all changed later that night.

The Woolsey Fire made it way to the Calabasas-area practically overnight. I tracked the fire from home as MRT HQ and its operations were shut down. Several days passed before I could go back to work. Being grounded took a toll on me. Without work to take up my time I realized my sober life was empty. In stripping my life of what was unhealthy I also lost what was familiar to me. I stopped going out, I severed ties with old friends, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I went to meetings, but without the liquid confidence of alcohol in hand, I found it difficult to introduce myself to new people. Once the smoke cleared (literally), I was relieved to be able to return to the field. However another month passed before I was able to visit Nicholas Flats again. I knew the fire blazed through the region but I had to see the damage for myself. Finally we had our chance: the crew and I got out of the truck and stepped foot into what had become a sepia-toned portrait of a stark moonscape. The ground was bald except for the charred remains of the trees. It was unrecognizable. Up until that point I was afraid the destruction would be too much for me to handle. As we looked closer we could see new growth at the base of some of the woody shrubs and trees. After a fire the shade of the older trees is cleared and young trees that had been hidden in their shadows, and the seedlings lying dormant in the seed bank rise up to seize their opportunity. Eventually these re-sprouts would grow and fill in. But for now the scenery was going through an awkward phase – filling in the barren landscape would take time. The stark parallels that nature draws to my own life do not go unnoticed to me. My life will take time to fill in as well – new hobbies, friends, new methods of coping. Eventually the awkward phase will pass, and I will re-sprout.

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