An Orange County, California Eco-Biography
By Joel Robinson
“Don’t it always seem to go That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?”
Here’s how I realized my life’s purpose to be a naturalist. As a jaded forty-four-year-old resident of the City of Orange, any time I hear “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot,” from the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi,” I can’t help but wonder why I still live in a county that indeed replaced my childhood home with an actual parking lot. I remember my old neighborhood like it was yesterday. From pre-school through third grade, I lived in a one-story, sky blue stucco house that was built either in the late 1940s or early 1950s along with many other tract homes on Walnut Street, near the intersection of E Orangewood Ave and S State College Boulevard. The Orange Drive-in Theatre and Anaheim Stadium were a few blocks away. A wicker furniture store, railroad tracks and the 5 Freeway ran alongside the southwestern border of our neighborhood.
Even though my neighborhood was far from the Hawaiian tropical paradise that inspired Joni Mitchell’s memorable song, it was still a magical place where the neighbor kids Tim and Nathan, my little brother Glenn (three and a half years younger than me) and I rode bikes on the street, climbed backyard fences, made whirlpools in our doughboy pool and played outside for hours without the supervision of my parents, Bonnie, a school teacher at West Orange Elementary and my dad, Don, an employee at Union Bank.
In front of our living room window, a bird of paradise grew like a child-sized jungle where western fence lizards, or “blue bellies” as we called them, sought refuge from our grubby hands. These adorable miniature iguanians were about two to three inches in length with blotchy brown, gray or black backs, spiny scales, orange thighs and cobalt-blue chins and stomachs. Occasionally, the males put on a show by doing pushups and exposing their blue chin flaps. They scurried over most surfaces hunting fruit flies and other small insects. Even though I was uncoordinated and slow to react, I was determined to catch these intriguing reptilian acrobats. On the rare occasion when I caught one, I immediately put it in a glass jar with a screen over the opening, held on with a rubber band.
Unfortunately, I was completely ignorant of the lizard’s insectivorous diet, so I expected it to consume a handful of grass clippings and leaves that I tossed in the jar. I left my prisoner on a wooden shelf nailed to the back wall of our house. Thankfully, I didn’t fasten the screen very well, so it escaped before it starved to death. During the pursuit of another innocent victim, I reached out to grab, but its writhing tail broke off in the palm of my hand. The torn muscle and bone were fully visible on the one end. I watched in horror and fascination as the severed tail continued to live without a body. So disturbed was I, that I threw it away in disgust and ran inside the house to escape the responsibility for what I had done to the poor creature. Needless to say, my short-lived career as a lizard catcher came to a screeching halt and the vivid memory of the incident continued to haunt me for years. Almost two decades later I was surprised to learn, while working as a naturalist for The Nature Conservancy on the Irvine Ranch, that these common lizards from my backyard were studied for their immunity to Lyme Disease. A tall hedge of pink camellias bloomed by the front door. A towering row of Italian cypresses divided our driveway from our neighbor’s driveway to the southeast. In the center of the front lawn, a gnarled Peruvian pepper tree beckoned us to climb its curvy branches. After a climb, our hands were left with a sticky residue from the leaves and sap, which had an unmistakably sweet and spicy smell. The honeybees loved its blossoms and eventually built a hive in the canopy, but my parents hired an exterminator to spray it with pesticide. Eventually the dead hive fell to the ground with all the comb exposed. Lining the boundary fence of our extensive backyard were the tallest Valencia and navel orange trees I’d ever seen. Our family imagined that these trees were remnants from an expansive orchard which predated our subdivision. To confirm our family’s assumption, while writing this article, I visited Orange County’s online archives where I found historic aerial imagery from 1945, before our neighborhood was developed. As I panned out from our intersection of Walnut Street and E. Orangewood Avenue, the black and white photograph revealed more and more rows of neatly spaced black dots laid out in a grid where dirt access roads intersected the boundaries of hundreds of orchards for at least six miles in almost every direction. The further I panned out, the more I realized that the thousands of dots were the canopies of orange, walnut and other fruit and nut trees!
Using our Hamilton Beach electric orange juicer, my mom and I had taken turns pressing the orange halves on the ribbed plastic dome which spun on a tiny groaning motor sounding like an automatic can opener. After separating the pulp and seeds with a strainer, we filled our Anchor Hocking clear glass jug with the finest juice I’d ever tasted in my life. The full-bodied flavor had the right amount of tangy sourness to balance out the sweetness. There was just enough acid to give a slight tingle or burning sensation to a young boy’s chapped lips. I coveted the juice and could never get enough. Why would anyone consider purchasing the frozen crud from concentrate, the diluted syrup in a carton or the granulated powder meant for astronauts?
We also had a young almond and peach tree. My mom’s abundant vegetable garden was loaded with tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, and lettuce. A flock of rebellious Rhode Island Red chickens regularly hopped over their enclosure fence when the gate was closed and foraged the lawn during and after my dad mowed. The hens preferred roosting in the high branches of our orange trees. They even tried to lay eggs from the precarious branches. I was so accustomed to their speckled brown eggs that I couldn’t fathom why anyone would consider the white eggs from Alpha Beta or Market Basket. On Sundays, we ate fresh scrambled eggs for breakfast with bagels baked in the oven. I occasionally cleaned the chicken poo out of the wooden shack that served as their coop. Sometimes the poo ended up in the house because a hen snuck inside before the screen door closed. When my baby brother crawled around the dining room floor near the screen door, I once saw him put chicken poo into his mouth. I couldn’t wait to tell my school friends Zachary and David. I even reminded Glenn about the incident when he was old enough to deny it, never letting him live this down.
This was my paradise until I reached the third grade when The Koll Company acquired my entire neighborhood near the intersection of Orangewood Ave and State College Blvd in West Orange and developed it into a Hilton Hotel and 24 Hour Fitness parking lot. In 1987, we gave our chickens to the Foothill Feed Store on Chapman Avenue and moved into a bigger beige stucco house built in 1977 with a tiny backyard in East Orange. Before the big move, my parents drove my younger brother and I around the county looking at expensive model homes. A new neighborhood called Cowan Hills featured homes that overlooked a grassy valley where cattle grazed. I had no idea that the valley would soon be developed into a housing subdivision called Santiago Hills. Further south, we visited a real estate office trailer full of conceptual drawings for another new neighborhood. The trailer was surrounded by a windbreak of old eucalyptus trees, the remnants of a farm.
I got excited when we visited a housing tract called Robinson Ranch because I thought our family was related to the owners of the neighborhood. As a ten-year-old, it didn’t occur to me that Robinson Ranch used to be an actual working ranch. According to Chris Jepsen’s O.C. History Roundup, “Robinson Ranch was located along the east side of the Plano Trabuco. Walter K. Robinson was born in Santa Clara in 1853. In 1883 Robinson purchase[d] a section of railroad property and the claims of Jim Brown and Lew English. He named it 'The Mountain View Ranch.” It also didn’t occur to me that before it was a ranch, it was a paradise for the Acjachemen tribe for thousands of years. While the county raced to replace fertile farmland and biologically diverse natural areas with housing tracts, malls, industrial complexes and loads of parking lots, I was distracted with TV, movies, computer games, cub scouts and friends from school. After high school, I got a job at Disneyland and studied illustration at Pasadena Art Center, but depression and hemorrhoids kept me from becoming a Disney Imagineer or creature effects artist. Thankfully, I found that hiking in Santiago Oaks Regional Park served as a natural therapy to bring balance into my life. Of course, my timing coincided with earth movers scraping the wild hillside next to the park in preparation for a new residential development called Serrano Heights. The county of my childhood was rapidly disappearing. I could’ve left O.C, right then, but I decided to stick around and fight to preserve our remaining rural landscapes. Big mistake. You know how in Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan, you get emotionally attached to the endearing characters over the course of the film, but then have to watch as each one tragically dies at the end? My new hiking addiction got me so emotionally attached to the undeveloped landscapes of OC, that I was traumatized each time one was destroyed.
Here’s a handy if startling review of what I call Casualties of Orange County Planning: In the early 1990s, the strawberry field on Hewes St and Rancho Santiago Blvd was developed into houses. In 1997, the foothills next to Santiago Oaks Regional Park were developed into the Serrano Heights neighborhood. In 2001, the foothills overlooking Crystal Cove State Park were developed into houses and a mall associated with Newport Coast. In 2006, the Peltzer Pines pumpkin patch and Christmas tree farm were developed as part of Santiago Canyon College’s expansion In 2004, OC Supervisors approved 14,000 new homes on Rancho Mission Viejo. From 2018 to the present day, the historic 320-acre Holtz Ranch in Silverado Canyon is being developed into a Catholic monastery and private boys’ high school by St. Michael’s Abbey. From 2018 to present day, foothills at the headwaters of Aliso Creek are being developed into the Saddle Crest neighborhood. From the 2000s to the present, Whiting Ranch has been developed into the Portola Hills neighborhood. Since 2001 the City of Irvine continues to develop farmland and hillsides into tens of thousands of houses and malls.
Yet despite my heartache, I continued hiking, mostly because there were so many stimulating details to absorb. I spent most of my time on the trails at Santiago Oaks Regional Park because it was within walking distance of my neighborhood. Because the park was impacted by unwelcome sights and sounds suburbia, I began wandering further away, deep into the Santa Ana Mountains. Eventually, I was lured to Black Star Canyon where I caught sight of a young bobcat for the first time. It was spacing out at the bend of a SoCal Edison access road beyond an Irvine Ranch gate. Its wispy tufted ears, striped sideburns and spotted coat were unmistakable. When it noticed me, it casually scampered up the road, revealing its black nub of a tail, and disappeared. I wandered up Silverado Canyon past Maple Springs Gate in the Trabuco Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest with my dad on an intolerably muggy and buggy summer day. After swatting swarms of biting flies from our ears and faces for about an hour, we retreated to the car, laughing at our inability to tolerate the situation. I quickly realized that I craved the unexpected, the unmanaged, the undeveloped, the unprocessed and the undiluted experiences accessible only by hiking trail.
I became obsessed with the sweet aroma of California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), a frilly gray-green shrub known as the preferred nesting and foraging spot for the protected Californica Gnatcatcher, a tiny blue-gray insect eating bird sounding like a buzzy kitten, that I stuffed my pockets with the leaves and held bundles up to my nose, inhaling deeply during my hikes. Sometimes I picked a leaf of mug wort (Artemisia douglasiana), a related medicinal herb that grows next to poison oak, and stuck it up my nose to cure a headache. Its longer, bicolored leaves featured a similar aroma to sagebrush. I was mesmerized by the mule fat, a taller willow-like shrub adapted for streams that put out a sweet, herbal tea smell when the coastal fog rolled in at night or in the morning. The distinctive fragrances tied to each landscape kept me coming back for more.
Lucky me, I found somebody else with whom to share these experiences. While working the late shift at Mickey’s Toontown as a wardrobe attendant managing the character costumes – imagine Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Donald heads on shelves with their bodies hanging in an air-conditioned subterranean warehouse – I met my future wife, Leslie, and invited her on my hikes. Just before getting married, I scored a job as a Park Maintenance Aid at Crystal Cove State Park, the earth movers busy scraping the land next door. While looking for outdoor wedding venues, I asked the managing park rangers what I needed to do to become a park ranger. They recommended that I volunteer at the nature center and zoo at Irvine Regional Park, train to be a docent guide for The Nature Conservancy on the historic Irvine Ranch, volunteer at The Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy and enroll in the environmental science program at Saddleback College. I did, and also began volunteering at the Santiago Park Nature Reserve in Santa Ana. My waking hours were spent cleaning toilets, removing litter, greeting guests, guiding walks, and learning even more about the negative impacts of humans on this planet. I was hired as a Field Naturalist for Inside the Outdoors, an environmental education non-profit that facilitated earth science field trips at Crystal Cove and other public parks for public schools, but left that for a full-time naturalist position with The Nature Conservancy on the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve.
Before too long, the Irvine Company decided to develop more of the hills and valleys between Jamboree Road and Irvine Lake, known as Santiago Hills Phase II, with 2,000 more homogenous housing units. After the Orange City Council voted in favor of the development, I decided to escape with my family to Frazier Park adjacent the Grapevine, and become a park ranger on the Wind Wolves Preserve, a 97,000-acre ranch with tule elk at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley in Kern County. We moved into a small rental cabin up a dirt road on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest. However, my relief from the pavers of paradise was short lived. While enjoying a meal at Big John’s Restaurant, a popular diner in town, I noticed an Irvine Ranch Land Reserve baseball cap suspiciously left behind on a hat rack. Soon I learned, no kidding, that the Tejon Ranch Company, with the assistance of Irvine Company executives, were prepared to develop a new city called Centennial on the edge of the Antelope Valley along with Tejon Mountain Village, a golf resort in critical habitat for the endangered condor. After six months of patrolling the preserve and raising awareness about the Tejon Ranch Company’s development ambitions, I gave up my ranger position and we retreated to Silverado Canyon, one of the last rural parts of OC, where we raised our young daughter, Sydney Sage, with bantam silkie chickens, frogs in the creek and deer browsing the hillside. During our nine years in Silverado, the county shut down our elementary school, relocated our library, demolished our swimming holes in Silverado Creek and gave the green light for St Michael’s Abbey to erect its monastery and private high school on a historic Holtz Ranch homestead and significant Indigenous archeological site. I realized I couldn’t escape. Why? Because, alas, the majority of OC’s population weren’t aware, didn’t care or actively supported these massive development projects.
Because of this realization, I was inspired to create Naturalist For You, an environmental education nonprofit that shares the gift of mindfulness with everyone while exploring our rich natural and cultural history throughout OC and beyond. No matter where we go, we gain memorable experiences full of stimulating observations. As our community awareness grows, so do opportunities for harmonious stewardship. After years of beating my head against the wall every time a new development project was proposed, I finally realized that I had a choice on how I responded to any given situation. Now I’m grateful for the ability to alleviate my suffering.
Joel Robinson, Director & Senior Naturalist, Naturalist For You. He has guided interpretive nature walks, restored wildlife habitat, conducted biological surveys and organized environmental awareness classes, workshops, presentations and events for the public benefit since 2001. He worked for The Nature Conservancy, City of Santa Ana Parks & Recreation, Inside the Outdoors, The Wildlands Conservancy and California State Parks. His services are regularly appreciated by public agencies, schools, community groups, nonprofits, religious institutions and businesses throughout Southern California. He enjoys foraging wild foods, birding, barefooting, hiking and camping with his family and performing sea shanties in a pirate band.