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Lessons in Natural and Human History Discovered on Saturday Morning Walk

Mission Trails Guide Haiman answers questions about birds, bugs and botany.

Everywhere you turn in , there is a lesson to be learned. The gnatcatcher, dusky-footed wood rat and laurel sumac plant are among the hundreds of animals and plants that make their home in the forty-square-mile park.

Steve Haiman explains, while walking on the Trail, that the people were the first to inhabit the area. They lived off the land, moving when it got too cold near the coast to the back country.

“They had to carry their houses and everything they owned on their backs,” he said. “So their houses were built very light and their lives were uncluttered.”

The Kumeyaay thrived on the blossoms, berries, seeds and leaves of plants. Haiman pointed to wild blackberry, one of the Kumeyaay’s favorite treats.

“But they had to get there first thing before the birds and squirrels got to them,” he said.

San Diego’s arid climate allows different plants to thrive at different points of the year. As a result, there are always some bees buzzing about. “The first big industry in the county was bee-keeping,” he said.

Most pollen is yellow or white. But the pollen of the flat-topped buckwheat is pink. “So these male bees must be sure of their manhood,” Haiman joked.

From the berries of the lemonade berry plant, the Kumeyaay people made their own brand of lemonade. Haiman passed out a few of the berries to the walkers. As people tried the berries, their mouths puckered.

Haiman laughed. “Their lemonade was tart, not sugary like we’re used to,” he said.

Next, they moved on to sage bush, which Haiman explained was not a true sage, but a member of the sunflower family. “Actually, this bush is one in the plant community called chaparral,” he said.

The term chaparral is one that was coined from the time of the Spaniards who brought their cattle in to graze.

“When the vaqueros rounded up their cattle, the sides of the horses and the riders got chewed up by the rough plants,” Haiman said. “So they use chaps to protect themselves. Chaparral is a derivation from that word.”

A true sage in the chaparral is black sage, which the Kumeyaay used to flavor their cooking as well as for medicine. The men also used the fragrance of sage to cover up their human scent when they went out hunting.

Both black and white sage were used in their bedding to keep away.

Haiman picked up a pellet of rabbit scat. “I don’t mind holding a piece of this because I know that rabbits eat all vegetable material and there’s nothing weird or processed in it like there is in dog scat,” he said.

“Let’s go to this Laurel Sumac. Sometimes people call this tree the taco plant. Look at the leaves,” he said. “They’re shaped like tacos.”

Haiman explained that the tree is able to because of the leaf’s shape. “This tree thrives in hot, arid conditions,” he said.

On the other hand, laurel sumac is a frost-indicator plant for deciding where citrus crops can thrive. “Because of the cold last week, we almost lost a couple of the laurel sumacs,” he said.

In a slightly higher elevation, the branches of a coast live oak stretched out over the rock. The Kumeyaay women learned how to crack the acorns of this tree and mash the meal into a powder. This was a real art because the acorn has tannic acid, which is poison.

The women would put the powder into one of their tightly woven baskets and dunk the basket into a stream, leaving it there overnight.

“The water would leech all the tannic acid out and they would have a very high protein mash, tasteless, kind of like a tofu,” Haiman said.

Poison in the plants was always something the Kumeyaay had to be concerned about. They would observe the actions of animals to learn what not to consume.

One of those animals making a home in the chaparral country is the Dusky-Footed Wood-Rat. “That funny looking pile of trash there is the house of a little pack-rat that comes out at night and looks for food,” he said. “But don’t go poking around in their house because there are snakes and things living in there. Like the assassin bug that sucks the rat’s blood.”

Something else to be on the watch for on any out in San Diego’s chaparral is poison oak. Leaves of three, let it be, Haiman reminded the group.

If someone does touch poison oak, the best thing to immediately do is use sand or dust to rub away the oak oil.

Ending the walk on a happy note, Haiman and the group walked to the end of the trail where the was gurgling among reeds. A gnatcatcher flew back and forth around the trees grabbing small insects.

“Pay attention to how you feel when there is only the around you,” Haiman said. “You’ll see and hear things you just never hear in the city.”

For more information about Mission Trails Regional Park, go to www.mtrp.org.

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