The Mountains Once Again Called

by Rachel Burnap

I fell in love with the Santa Monica Mountains in 2008, when I first hiked in the Cold Creek Canyon Preserve with my husband. We would spend hot summer days picnicking next to the boulder home once occupied by homesteader Herman Hethke. Later, I volunteered for Mountains Restoration Trust and began learning native plants. A few months later, I was given a job at MRT, where legendary MRT Program Manager (and former co-director) Jo Kitz and restoration supervisor Tom Hayduk taught me to save native plants from the threats of tall prickly thistles, massive giant reed colonies, and huge black mustard plants. I loved putting native-plant seedlings into the rich soil on misty rainy days in the Cold Creek Valley Preserve, plants so carefully and caringly sown from seeds. I loved hiking Malibu Canyon from PCH to Malibou Lake and discovered the ultimate adventure: looking for invasive giant reed in the wilderness of Malibu Canyon, a removal project started by Jo Kitz. This kind of ecological restoration intrigued me so much that I embarked on a bioregional graduate program through Green Mountain College.

In the winter of 2014, I planted mulefat and willow pole cuttings along Malibu and Topanga Creeks for my master’s dissertation experiment. That year I had a surprise like no other: I was pregnant! Nevertheless (and with help from my husband John, National Park Service interns, and friends), I painstakingly visited and hand-watered my 98 experimental plots every two weeks. In October, 2014, I gave birth to my little Joshua. Consumed by motherhood, I left MRT and the mountains behind and eventually finished my dissertation in 2017.

Flash forward: my son is now four, and we picnic almost every week in the mountains. The mountains once again called. Back at the MRT, I now work at a restoration site in Malibu Creek State Park. My body, used to wrangling a wriggly child, quickly readapted to hauling heavy garden hoses and bags of weeds. My sleep-deprived mind, used to multi-tasking, welcomes the opportunity to focus on one plant at a time. When I get the chance, I enjoy taking Joshua to volunteer restoration events, where I almost always feel Jo Kitz’s presence in the breeze.