About 10 years ago, walking along a path at the San Diego Botanical Garden, I caught a whiff of the scent of black sage. Brushing up against the crinkly leaves of the shrub released its pungent fragrance and unlocked a torrent of childhood memories.
I am a young girl of seven, growing up in San Diego’s Mission Hills not far from the south rim of Mission Valley. It is totally rural. Across the street from my house is a wide canyon just waiting to be explored. I have a playmate named Edalee, who is as nature oriented and adventurous as me. After school, we change into our blue jeans and go into the canyon in search of treasure. The abundant black sage releases its scent as we brush against it in our quest. A shed snake skin, the home of a trap door spider, pretty stones and lots of wild flowers; today we have hit the jackpot! We know the names of the many different wild flowers but the native yellow violet is our very favorite.
Yellow violets, native violets, they are not common; they are rare. Their delicate, fruity smell is sweet to our noses. Edalee likens it to apricots. Seeing a glowing patch of these beauties close to what is now the King’s Inn Hotel, makes us smile and breathe in a deep breath of clean, pure nature. We relish the outdoors and the adventures yet to be discovered. I do not play with dolls and so, I am fortunate to have a friend who is like me, and doesn’t play with them either. Kindred souls, Edalee and me; we have been friends for eighty-five years.
In Mission Valley, my brothers and sister splash and swim in the childhood paradise of the large emerald green ponds of murky, musty smelling water. I prefer to explore the shore, catch funny looking pollywogs and take them home in a jar. In Kearney Mesa in 1930, there is beautiful nothingness and open space, except for the Scripps home and a farm house.
At age ten, on a narrow dirt road, I learn to ride a horse. It is my sister Mardy’s horse that she bought with her own money when she was sixteen. His name is Buck and he is a beautiful golden buckskin with a black stripe down his back and a shiny black mane and tail. I am twelve years old when Mardy goes off to Berkeley and leaves Buck in my care. He and I enjoy many wonderful times together.
Riding on Buck’s strong, muscular back, I breathe in his familiar and comforting animal essence. I am in heaven as we float in the dust clouds all around us. As we ride down Mission Valley Road, I dare to dream that it will always be like this; me, Buck and the unpaved road; not oiled and spoiled which, unfortunately will happen one day with progress and turn it into traffic filled Interstate 8.
There is a shack where a man with a strange passion, works in Mission Valley. He is a taxidermist and his place is a shop of odd smells and curiosities to look at. As a young girl, I enjoy visiting and watching him work. To my delight, one day he presents me with a stuffed opossum on a board. Absolutely thrilled with this unique gift, I exuberantly run home with this prize and present it to my mother. To my dismay, my mother says “not in this house!” So, the opossum is relegated to living in our garage and me having to visit it there. A short time later, the taxidermist gives me a beautiful, stuffed red-tailed hawk with its delicate feathered wings extended as if in flight. It is also ordered by my mother to live in the garage with the opossum.
We have a fig tree in our back yard but the birds peck at the fruit rendering the sweet treats nestled in its branches useless for us to eat. My mother’s sister, Clara, has noticed the birds. She says that she has heard that if one hangs a decoy of a bird of prey nearby, it will solve a bird problem like the kind that we have. “But of course, who has a stuffed chicken hawk or the like for such a purpose” she asks? To her surprise, I declare “I have one!” Out of the garage comes my red tailed hawk, which Dad hangs from a pole near the tree. It works like magic just as Aunt Clara said it would and we feast on tender, juicy figs thereafter.
On the north side of the river from our house lives a farmer with a large barley field. It is on a site which was formerly an Indian village. At plowing time, sometimes Indian arrowheads and ragged pottery fragments are unearthed. My brother has a keen interest in such things and tirelessly searches for a black obsidian arrowhead. He has a theory that Indians on Catalina Island used these and if he could just find one here, it would prove that these two tribes traded goods. As luck would have it, he never finds one but I do! One day in my explorations, I happen upon an object in the dust reflecting the noonday sun. It is indeed my brother’s much sought after obsidian arrowhead which later is housed at the Museum of Man for many years.
Growing in the glorious country side of rural San Diego in the 20’s, is Cleveland sage, a rare and aromatic plant with a pungent, herbal, delicious smell. With the windows down in our car, we inhale its’ intoxicating perfume as we travel through Alpine to my family’s favorite picnic destination. Along the way we stop at a rustic log cabin that carries groceries and more importantly, ice cream. As Dad changes the smelly, liquid mixture in the carburetor to allow the car to complete our travels, my siblings and I happily lick at ice cream cones that melt quickly in the warm summer air, leaving us with sticky fingers and faces.
The scent of rain in the air can be a welcome sign for famers and for kids like me who just like to splash in puddles. But In 1927, the rains do not let up and the deluge of water creates a huge flood in the rural part of Mission Valley. As I stand on the Mission Valley rim and survey the swift moving, debris laden waters below, an odd sight appears amid the rushing chaos. A chicken coop with clucking chickens perched on top of it, bobs and twirls on the waves as the waters make their journey out to the ocean.
It is the year 2000 and I walk Eucalyptus Hills in Lakeside as I have done so many times in my life. To my once again good fortune, I stumble across a patch of my glorious yellow violets in bloom. I am transported back to that time when I lived near here when the land was pure and vast and life was simple. It is from here that Mardy, Buck, Edalee and her horse Kitten, and me on a borrowed horse named Donnie, often rode to Tecolote Canyon. Who would have guessed then that the dirt road above would one day be the location for the San Diego Mesa College campus? And never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed that years later as an adult, I would be working in that exact spot. As the first woman Landscape Architect in San Diego and for the San Diego/ Schools, I landscaped that area when it became the parking lot in front of the Administrative building.
I have been very fortunate in my life to experience the resplendent San Diego terrain with the hills and valleys in their pristine and unspoiled splendor. To have free reign to roam and explore my amazing surroundings contributed to my very happy childhood. Besides warnings to beware of snakes, quick sand and poisonous castor beans, it was a safe place for kids and my parents did not worry about me too much. An idyllic environment to grow up in and wonderful freedom was mine. Today’s children can only read about it and dream.
Oh, to be able to explore the canyons and hills of the 1920s and 30s again with that youthful abandon! We had good rain then, the rivers ran full, the landscape was lush and wild, and life was so very sweet. When I look at Mission Valley through my now aging eyes, the wildflowers and sages are sadly gone and Mediterranean weeds and construction have snuffed out just about everything that I remember so fondly. Like the captured pollywogs which did not live long in a jar, the ponds from where they were snatched and the natural playgrounds of my youth unfortunately did not survive very long either.
- Jane Minshall