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Descanso Gardens Bard Leads a Lyric Tour

Times Staff Writer

Walk with Dorothy Pool through Descanso Gardens and you will feel the rhythm of a green, growing world, an ancient place that rustles and creeps and drips undisturbed by concrete and steel.

“See this, this is elderberry,” Pool told a group of women with name tags as she pointed to a tree-like shrub that wound around a wire fence.

“Indians called it the tree of music. They made flutes out of it,” she said. The women hung on to her every word.

Then she was off, scrambling up a grassy hillside while the women followed breathlessly. “Single file, Indian style,” the energetic, 75-year-old Pool admonished her charges.

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Pool is a Descanso docent, a lecturer and tour guide who leads visitors through the flowering plants, delicate Japanese gardens and tree-lined paths of the 165-acre county park in La Canada Flintridge. Eighty of the acres remain uncultivated hillside.

Two-Month Program

On a recent day, Pool was shepherding docent trainees, all women. They were nearing the end of a two-month program in which they learn, among other things, to identify migratory and native birds, explain ecology cycles, distinguish among the hundreds of camellia varieties and spot elaborate homes constructed by trapdoor spiders and red-tailed hawks.

“I hope we can all emulate Dorothy,” said Genevieve McKay, one of Pool’s trainees. “I’ve seen her with the schoolchildren, and she really holds their interest. She’s great.”

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If Descanso has a bard, Pool is it. For 28 years, she has led lyric tours of the gardens, singing the praises of dogwood and lilac, urging visitors to speak to the redwood trees and showing them how to commune in eerie whistles with ravens that circle overhead.

“We’ve all copied a lot of the things she’s created,” says Ruth Akins, chairman of the docent training program. Pool has been around Descanso longer than any of the others, Akins says, and is especially recognized for her knowledge of Indian culture.

Pool takes inner-city schoolchildren into the first forests they have ever seen; she brings senior citizens back to rose gardens reminiscent of their Midwest youth. A grandmotherly-looking woman with wavy gray hair and green-gray eyes, she is among about 40 volunteer docents at Descanso, which means “rest” in Spanish.

All but three of the docents are women, and more than half are over 60, Akins says.

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Love of the Outdoors

Docents are drawn to the gardens for various reasons, but most, like Pool, just enjoy the outdoors. A number say Descanso was a favorite haunt for years but that work and family ties kept them away before retirement.

Said Docent LaVerne Chandler, “I look forward to leading tours. My children are gone, my grandchildren live far away. It’s a real joy for me to see things through the eyes of a child.”

After completing their course, the new docents will don goldenrod smocks and begin leading tours, imparting their nature lore to others in an unbroken cycle that has held sway over this garden since 1953. That year, Los Angeles newspaper publisher E. Manchester Boddy turned over his Foothills estate and one of the grandest flower gardens in the country to Los Angeles County.

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Like many who volunteer their time at the gardens, Pool is retired. A former teacher, she has a bachelor’s degree in science from USC, where she majored in botany and biology. She lives with her husband in San Marino, is an Audubon Society member and was the first supervisor of the Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Pasadena, another county-run park. An expert on Indian lore, she can tell you how to make acorn mush and yucca petal soup faster than most housewives can rattle off a recipe for tollhouse cookies.

Role of ‘Interpreter’

“I’m really a nature interpreter,” she said. “What I try to do is help the visitor feel what I feel. With the kids, I ask Socratic questions,” she told the docent trainees, referring to a teaching method used by the Greek philosopher Socrates in which a series of easily answered questions leads the student to a logical conclusion.

The docent trainees nodded. Some took notes. The group moved on through a Japanese pagoda and tea house. It was cool and serene there. Large, orange koi, Japanese fish that look like oversized goldfish, darted around a pond. Pool dropped to her hands and knees to get to eye level with a semicircle of small, jagged boulders artfully arranged around a bonsai tree.

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“This is a miniature world,” she began. “See, there’s a mountain, and here’s the valley. Can you picture it?”

Following her lead, the women squatted to get Pool’s view of the garden.

“Yes, I can see it,” one of them said excitedly.

Later, in an interview, Pool talked about how she came to love nature. It began in childhood, she said, the heritage of a Yaqui Indian step-great-grandmother who lived in the Castaic Dam area.

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With her mentor and relative, Pool would go out and gather medicinal herbs, learning the lore of the chaparral-covered slopes. “Even now, if my head is congested, I just go out and find some California sagebrush, and, if I hold it in my hand and crush and sniff it, it will clear my head right up,” Pool said.

In her early years, mountain lions still roamed the remote countryside, she recalled, nurturing their young in hillside caves. She learned to respect wildlife, to understand the chain of life, of predators and prey, and to see how important the big cats were in keeping down smaller pests and rodents.

Respect for Life

She said she tries to impart a similar respect for life on her tours. When one woman pointed with a grimace to a large spider web complete with a malevolent-looking spider, Pool went into action, speaking in the language she uses with small children.

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“I’m so glad that spider’s there,” she said. “They eat a lot of insects. They’re an important part of the garden.”

Another lesson Pool teaches is that tea comes from camellias, notably the Thea sinensis, an Asian tea leaf of commerce. As the women pick buds to scratch and sniff, Pool explained that the top of the camellia bush yields buds used for oolong tea; orange pekoe and soolong comes from the center buds, and black tea is made from fermented buds picked near the plant’s base.

One woman found a feather, which Pool said belonged to an owl. As the small band marched along a dirt trail, she pointed out clumps of wild rye grass.

“That indicates there’s water near the ground’s surface,” she explained.

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Today’s manicured gardens are a far cry from the old Spanish rancho, owned by Jose Maria Verdugo and known as Rancho San Rafael, that once sprawled across Descanso and 36,000 acres in the Foothills. Back then, the land was home to a number of Gabrieleno Indians, who take their name from the San Gabriel Mission.

Part Indian herself, Pool is enthusiastic in recalling that vanquished life style to visitors at Descanso. The Indians understood the cycle of nature and the importance of open space, Pool said.

“We need more areas today where people can go to get away from being tense and crowded,” Pool asserted.

“Here, it’s cool and relaxing,” she said. “It’s a good place to rejuvenate yourself. The people that come here, they remember how pleasant it is. And they come back with their children.”

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