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Entertainment & Arts

Column: With California reopening, L.A. County Arboretum charts safe path for people, peacocks

L.A. County Arboretum
A peacock adjusts its feathers as masked pedestrians pass by at the L.A. Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia, Calif.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones/Los Angeles Times)

It’s peafowl mating season, in case you were wondering, which means the peacocks are strutting and posing like celebrities on the red carpet all over the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, COVID-19 be damned.

They are also screaming quite a bit, a startlingly desperate whoop of a noise familiar to many residents of Arcadia and adjacent neighborhoods — a noise that’s currently being deployed to get the attention of any nearby peahen who might be looking for a good time.

For the record:
4:00 PM, May. 12, 2020 An earlier version of this story stated that the Los Angeles Arboretum and Botanic Gardens had been able to keep all of its full-time staff employed. It was able to keep most of its full-time staff employed.

The peahens, it must be said, appear generally unimpressed. Indeed, none of the other Arboretum fauna reacts at all to the mournful cry, not even the wee gaggles of fuzzy goslings, skittering about their mamas in photo-op adorableness.

Wandering the gardens, you can hear in the peacock’s howl an echo of our shutdown fear and frustration — or you can pretend it’s the paparazzi trying to get your attention.

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Certainly, the birds are the perfect ornithological symbol of Los Angeles. Children of immigrants (brought to Arcadia from India in 1879 by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, founder of Arcadia), peacocks are very beautiful and often quite irritating — over the years, residents of Arcadia, Pasadena and La Cañada have complained about the birds, which do not belong to the Arboretum and which have been known to wander, in search of the perfect place to be seen.

“The males choose a spot and stand, and the peahens essentially go shopping,” says Arboretum Chief Executive Richard Schulhof. “Unfortunately, most of [the males] are …. unsuccessful.”

Which may explain all the screaming.

The popular La Cañada Flintridge gardens will require advance reservations, masks and social distancing.
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Resplendent in a peacock pattern mask, Schulhof is taking a break from his wildly varied executive duties, which include pulling weeds, handing out water bottles and, lately, fielding calls from the heads of other botanic gardens around the country.

While most other gardens, including the nearby Huntington and Descanso, have thus far relied solely on websites and Instagram to share the bounty of pandemic spring (Descanso will re-open on May 16), the Arboretum (which also has an Instagram account) has managed to stay open.

L.A. Arboretum CEO Richard Schulhof
Richard Schulhof, chief executive of the L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, pauses in the Arcadia park, which has remained open through the coronavirus shutdown.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones/Los Angeles Times)

Some of that is down to its size — 127 acres in the foothills across the street from Santa Anita Park — and layout. “Our great distinguishing feature is our road system,” Schulhof says. “We have 2 ½ miles of roads that are 18 to 20 feet across. So we can accommodate the public while adhering to the safety distancing restrictions.”

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But creativity and legwork have played a major part too. Schulhof and his staff have worked hard to create a system that could act as a template for other gardens, parks and commercial venues as they take gradual steps toward reopening.

Indeed, a look at the homepage of the Arboretum, with its explanation of how safety is maintained, is very probably a glimpse at the future.

Visitors, including members, must book advance reservations for specific time slots and wear masks. Tickets are not available at the park’s single entrance, where a masked staff member checks tickets and reminds everyone of the rules: Visitors must stay on the asphalt roads and maintain social distancing.

The gardens’ many benches are taped off. The trails and the buildings — including the cafe, gift shop, the historic Queen Anne Cottage, Coach Barn and Santa Anita Depot — are closed.

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But the peacocks and goslings are not, nor are the flowers — California poppies, Chinese snowballs, pink and yellow trumpet trees, wide swaths of irises — or the trees, the enormous stands of bamboo, the wide, restful green lawns.

A peacock wanders through the L.A. Arboretum on May 6.
(Mary McNamara/Los Angeles Times)

Well, the wide, restful green lawns are closed for traversing, not for gazing. And after weeks of being shut inside with daily rotations of the same neighborhood, just seeing those lawns — and the beauty that surrounds them — feels both refreshing and adventuresome. For minds perpetually agitated by fear and boredom and increasingly numbed by horrifying numbers, charts and predictions, the glorious oblivion of nature, even curated and socially distanced nature, is just as restorative as those darn Transcendentalists always insisted it was.

Which is why Schulhof and his staff have worked so hard to keep the gardens open.

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In addition to the roads, the Arboretum went into the shutdown with another big advantage. The winter Moonlight Forest event was so popular that the gardens already had a system of advance reservations and timed entries. It had to be reconfigured as “overcrowding” took on a whole new “6-feet-apart” meaning. Figuring out how many time slots to make available, and how many people to allow in during each one, has been a learn-as-you-go process.

LA County beaches should reopen Wednesday with some restrictions on activities and other rules in place, officials said Monday.

“We began very conservatively,” Schulhof says. “And the staff monitors and makes changes daily.”

The recent heat, and the longer days, mean more people want to come early and late, so hours were extended. The Health Department’s shifting attitude toward masks was also reflected; now they are required.

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Visitors practice social distancing at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia.
Visitors practice social distancing while enjoying morning exercise on the paved roads of the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden on May 8 in Arcadia, Calif.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones/Los Angeles Times)

Daily visitors currently number 1,300, Schulhof says, compared with a pre-coronavirus average of 2,500, and many days sell out in advance. The Arboretum, which is funded 50/50 by L.A. County and its own foundation, has been able to retain most of its full-time staff, which is key to ensuring that social distancing is being maintained.

“We go out into the landscape on golf carts to check up on compliance, and so far, we have had no problems,” he says. ”I read about the beaches and how everyone got there and forgot about distancing, but here, people are very mindful.”

They are also remarkably generous; a much higher percentage of visitors now make donations on top of their admission fees, Schulhof says, and most go out of their way to thank the staff for keeping the gardens open.

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As Schulhof makes the rounds, he offers bottled water to anyone who has forgotten theirs — the Arboretum water fountains are also closed. More than one visitor comments on his peacock-print mask, suggesting he sell them to make money for the gardens.

California allows some retailers to open with curbside service, including bookstores, florists and toy stores. Many parks will reopen Saturday.

“We had some leftover fabric from last year’s Peacock Day,” he says. “One of our staff made me this one. We need to find more before we can sell them. But some of the staff has pulled out their sewing machines.”

Peacock Day, which was scheduled for March 28, is one of the many events the Arboretum has had to cancel during the shutdown; Mother’s Day was another.

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A peacock hangs out near a closed wooden bench at the Arboretum.
A peacock hangs out near a closed wooden bench at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. The Arboretum is open to the public, and visits can be scheduled online.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s our most popular day of the year,” he says, “and we were worried that this might be a day when we had problems with numbers, when we would have to turn a lot of people away. Which we wouldn’t want to do. So it seemed better not to open at all.”

He knows the decision disappointed some — “a lot of people come to the Arboretum one day a year and that’s Mother’s Day” — but he thinks people will understand. “One of the best things about this situation is how supportive people have been. I read in the newspapers that the lockdown is bringing out the worst in people, but that’s not what I see here. Everyone wants us to stay open. This is a community garden, as well as a tourist attraction, and it really does feel like a village right now. ”

A village, perhaps, but one that may be creating a model for other parks and gardens anxious to reopen. “Someone told me we were one of seven botanic gardens in the country that is still open,” Schulhof says. “And a lot of people have been calling, asking for advice about timed reservations, points of entry and compliance.”

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Indeed, the model of advance reservations, timed entrances and social distancing will no doubt be used by many venues, indoors and out. I know two young women — in fact they are related to me — who would be happy to make a reservation to visit the nearby Santa Anita mall. Just saying.

On its website, the Arboretum states that all classes, events and tours are suspended through May 15, and so far Schulhof has had no word from the county about lifting or lessening restrictions. Until that happens, the gardens will continue operating as they are now — flowers blooming, people strolling, peacocks screaming.

Because until the peachicks start hatching, beginning around the end of May, pretty much every day is peacock day at the L.A. County Arboretum.


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