The 40 students gathered in a small, dimly lit nature center lined with glass cases of stuffed birds and mammals, eager for instruction in the ways of the wild.
"Do you know any animal that, for a small twinkly thing on your finger, would slit your throat?" asked instructor Frank Hovore.
"Our humanity is what sets us apart from nature, very truly, but it doesn't set us above it."
That bit of natural philosophy was part of lesson one of a series, delivered by Hovore, a top county department of parks and recreation official, to a group of adults who want to learn how to teach about the outdoors.
The gathering last week at Topanga State Park was the first of six all-day sessions designed to produce minor experts on the natural and cultural history of the Santa Monica Mountains who will be qualified to lead hikes through the hills.
Learning about the flora and fauna of the mountains, along with their cultural history, will be basic to the course of study that began in the nature center.
But an understanding of ecology and biodiversity appeared to be the key element in indoctrination of new volunteer guides of the Topanga Canyon Docents.
Hovore's perspective: It is a mistake to apply human-based value judgments to non-human organisms.
He once shuddered, he said, to hear a docent from another group "curse" hawks and squirrels because they could interfere with raising chickens and vegetables.
"I dislike the terms 'bad' and 'good,' except when they're applied to humans," Hovore said. While it can be easy to dislike rattlesnakes or poison oak, "the fact of the matter is, there's no good or bad with poison oak any more than there's good or bad with a red-tailed hawk.
While people often refer to creatures they dislike as "varmints" or "pests," Hovore said, "what do you suppose an organism at the wheel of a bulldozer wiping out all life forms in front of it should be called?"
"I think 'pest' is a mild word for it."
Those who attended the all-day session seemed enthusiastic about what they had heard, and what is still to come in classes that will focus on mammals, prehistoric American Indian culture, reptiles and amphibians, insects, geology, oak woodlands and grasslands, birds and plants. Instructors for these classes are drawn from Pepperdine University, the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, UCLA and elsewhere.
Short walks into the park broke up the first day's lectures. Later sessions will include more fieldwork than classroom talks, organizers said.
Those who attended ranged from teen-agers to senior citizens.
Jim Hurt, 60, of Woodland Hills, a retired public affairs director for Hughes Aircraft, was looking for new ways to become involved in the community.
Cindy Wang of Canoga Park, a computer programmer in her late 20s, said she attended for "the learning experience . . . . I don't know if I'll continue (as a docent); there's no guarantee."
Those who complete the training are asked to give two hours per month of volunteer work to Topanga Canyon Docents.
The classes are "fantastic," said Mer Laufenberg, 64, of Highland Park. Laufenberg, who joined the docents last year, plans to participate in the group "until the end of my driving. The information you get is wonderful, and the people are wonderful."
Nancy Helsley of Calabasas, president of the Cold Creek Canyon Docents, said her group routinely sends its members to the Topanga Canyon classes, where they get "more information than they really need" to be good trail guides. She herself has attended parts of the Topanga training sessions for the last 10 years. According to Donna Potter, 36, of Woodland Hills, participation in the Topanga Canyon Docents can be addictive.
Three years ago, Potter said, "I came here only for selfish reasons." She wanted to learn about the mountains but had no intention of actually becoming a volunteer tour guide.
"And then when I started going to training, the people were so neat." She said that after completing the course, "I did one school walk and boom--I was sucked in." Potter is now president of the group.
The work of the volunteers is particularly important in a time of declining budgets, said Barbara Applebaum, acting chief of interpretation for the National Park Service's Agoura office.
"The Santa Monica National Recreation Area would not be around if it were not for all you folks," she told the gathering. Without the volunteers, "no way could we cover everything available" in the way of outdoor activities.
That view was echoed by Barbara Conrad, a ranger at Topanga State Park. "We as state park employees love it that you're here. You not only help us out, you help out the public," Conrad said.
From October to June, the guides lead Tuesday morning walks for 60 children, who come from classes throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The guides also lead free Sunday walks for the general public from January to June. The Topanga docents also lead walks elsewhere in the Santa Monica Mountains, and take natural history exhibits to environmental and ecological fairs. The group has 95 active members.
The group has no paid staff, and raises most of its funding through the annual training session, which costs $40. Regular dues are $20 per year.