Thoughts from Dr. Joe: The garden before the Gardens

I enjoy the serenity of Descanso Gardens. I go there often and sit on the ground, usually in the oak forest. It puts me closer to the earth. I like to feel the decayed leaves and smell the ancient earth, whose remnants of humus and mold are products of the circle of life, replenishing the very soil I sit upon.

I sit with a book and paper and pen and transcend to another dimension as I imagine indigenous peoples, the Tongva, living in the garden before the Gardens. I smell their smoky fires and hear the dull pounding of mortar and pestle as they grind acorns.

Descanso Gardens was a major hunting area of the Tongva. Archaeologists tell us that the area has been inhabited for more than 9,000 years. The abundance of oaks, each potentially yielding 1,000 pounds of acorns, fresh water cascading from the hills, an unlimited source of firewood, and protection from the adjacent mountains tell me that Tongva Indians camped here.

Each breath I take fills my lungs with a billion atoms, many of which are long-living argon atoms that are exhaled and dispersed with the winds. Time mixes them, and has been mixing them for a long time. Something tells me the ancient Tongva may have visited the same air that I breathe.

On Sept. 24 Descanso Gardens will celebrate the land and the power of story in a day-long festival titled, “The Garden Before the Gardens.” Lisa Kurstin, the program director, has sculpted a celebration of story connecting us to the Native Americans who inhabited the land and to the mythic quality of place where wonder and insight into human values enhance life.

Native Americans believed that their identity evolved through nature. Mother Earth is a mirror in which everything is reflected. Thus the earth reflected who they were. Their soliloquy, “I am a part of everything,” gave them a sense of place, purpose and awareness.

“I am so excited,” said Kurstin. “This experience is meaningful; it’s about history; about a place of beauty and a place we love. It touches your heart as we celebrate the wisdom of the land, learning about people who lived in harmony with their surroundings. It is important to tell this story because it brings us full circle with our past.”

As I sit under the oaks, I read the journals of Father Juan Crespi, a Franciscan missionary and explorer. His journals are the primary documentation for a California that no longer exists. His words are a portal to the past. Under the direction of his superior, Father Junipero Serra, Father Crespi describes the area as a Garden of Eden. He spoke of a sea of wild grape and roses, sycamores and oaks. He would have seen swamps and marshes filled with waterfowl, antelope, bear and mountain goats.

Kurstin will use story to tell the tale of Descanso Gardens, connecting us to the mythic nature of the land and the ancient peoples who inhabited it. Australian Aborigines say that the big stories, the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones that hold the secrets of life, are forever stalking the right teller. The festival will have storytellers who will bring the garden to life.

The festival will portray the fictitious life of a young Indian boy from the 17th century, Yamino Kwiti. The Yamino Kwiti adventure trail will take explorers into the forest and through the labyrinth of myth and history detailing Tongva life in the garden before the Gardens.

Yamino Kwiti was the Tom Sawyer of the Tongva. I can almost see him picking the acorns in the oak forest. What a remarkable life he would have had in the gardens. I’ll re-visit his story next week.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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