My original intent in last week’s column was to try to capture the Zen of “The Garden Before the Gardens,” a festival this weekend sponsored by Descanso Gardens. I became enthralled in the history of the Tongva, the earliest inhabitants of the Verdugo foothills. Their connection to the land and the spirit world gives them a sense of place that lingers throughout greater La Cañada. I wanted to tell their story.
Tongva settlements called Tujunga, Cahuenga, Cucamonga, Azusa, Pacoima, Hahamongna and Topanga encircled present day La Cañada. Our only account of their presence is from the journals of the Spanish padres.
My research involved reading and walking the trails of Descanso, channeling the presence of the Tongva. However, my inspiration came from James Walden, a writer, thinker and friend. Walden, a mythologist, frequents the paths of Descanso. He is a storyteller who inspires the listener toward wonder.
“People are hungry for stories,” Walden told me. “It’s part of our nature and because stories go from one generation to another, they are immortal.”
I had read the journals of Father Crespi, describing Southern California as paradise. However, I wanted to know more. Who were these people whose mythology was ingrained in the spirit, animal and natural world?
I asked Walden where I might find a book about the soul of the Tongva. He suggested I read “Yamino Kwiti,” by Donna Preble. Walden was instrumental in assisting Lisa Kurstin, Descanso’s educational programs director, with the vision of the festival. They created the Yamino Kwiti adventure walk that will take explorers through a portal into the past.
Native Americans are painted as having a simplistic culture. However, after delving into their world, one gains an appreciation of a ritualistic world grounded in spirituality, mysticism and deep-seated traditions depicting strong bonds and loyalties between the people. There is nothing simple about the life and time of Yamino Kwiti.
He was the Tom Sawyer of his day, and like Tom, Yamino is full of mischief as he pushes the rites of passage in his attempt to become a man. His life is a study of anthropology as we learn about Tongvan gods, customs, and the spiritual geography of their land. Mark Twain calls his landmark novel, “Tom Sawyer,” “A story of a boy.” Yamino Kwiti is an inclusive story of both boy and land. It’s a celebration of boyhood and the ultimate freedom a child would have as he explored the wonders of the world during that time.
On Sept. 24, explore the Yamino Kwiti adventure trail. Examine an authentic Tongva hut, called a “kich,” built by the Girl Scouts of Troop 889. Listen to the stories throughout the garden. I’m one of the storytellers and will read an Arapaho tail, “The Girl Who Married a Star,” retold by James Walden. Go see the basket-weaving demonstration and listen to horticulturalist Rachel Young as she explores the wisdom of indigenous peoples’ use of native plants. Find a secluded bench and experience the silence. In silence we find new eyes enabling us to view our surroundings differently. In silence you can channel the past.
Walden said, “If you invest in the experience of the festival and commit yourself to understanding what is there and what happened there, you’ll feel the presence of Yamino Kwiti and touch the life he lived. Without the story of what happened here, Descanso is just another pretty place. The story of a place brings value to a place.”
I asked Kurstin for some closing thoughts regarding the festival. “We are committed to be good stewards of the land, and work very hard preserving what is here,” she said. “On Saturday we celebrate the wisdom of a people who practiced the art of stewardship … perfectly. I find that interesting.”
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.