By Donald H. Harrison
Originally published at San Diego Jewish World, a member of the San Diego Online News Network
Photo: Kumeyaay elders by T.J. Dixon and James Nelson
December 8, 2019 (San Diego) - The Visitors and Interpretive Center of Mission Trails Regional Park is low-tech compared to razzmatazz commercial attractions like Disneyland or Sea World, but it effectively teaches about Native American life and about nature. Its exhibits appeal to a full range of age groups with a variety of learning styles.
Whether you’re a preschooler or a grandparent, you’ll find something at the interpretive center to arrest your interest and appeal to your senses of touch, sight, and sound. You’ll find yourself learning just by walking through the place. Or you can deepen your appreciation by spending time in the theatre to watch a video , or at the outdoor amphitheatre to listen to a ranger’s talk, or in the library to read reference material and take-home pamphlets and brochures available as supplement the exhibits.
The sense of excitement builds as one walks up a path from the parking lot to the entrance of the center. You pass boxes with pictures of different indigenous animals and paragraph-long legends about them. First-timers may be startled to hear the boxes suddenly reproduce the calls of mammals, birds and reptiles as they pass by, but the visitors will look forward to nature’s cacophony when they retrace their steps on this path at the end of the visit.
Inside the doors, one immediately is drawn to five large standing columns bearing the faces of Kumeyaay elders. They were sculpted by T.J. Dixon and James Nelson in 1994 in celebration of 30,000 years of Kumeyaay history in San Diego. A sixth column has a hollowed out space for people
to sit and contemplate the surrealistic array before them.
One can go next across the lobby to the main exhibit area. Near the information desk, there is a notebook with recollections from people who visited the Mission Gorge area over the last century. One woman, born in 1899, remembered playing as a child on the banks of the San Diego River which goes through Mission Trails Regional Park. “We used to push each other into the water,” she recalled. “I have a corduroy skirt that got all wet.”
A man recalled the 1940s when he was climbing Fortuna Mountain, which today can be seen
from the visitor center. He and a friend pulled up large rocks and rolled them down the mountain. They rumbled almost all the way to where State Highway 52 now divides Mission Trails Regional Park from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.
A favorite exhibit for children consists of six metal plates, each with a raised reproduction of an animal track. One can put a piece of paper over a plate, and by rubbing chalk, make a copy of the tracks of a dog, mule deer, bobcat, mountain lion, raccoon or coyote.
Nearby is what has been called a “humanitree”—a tree on which paper cut-outs of handprints may be attached as leaves. On the hands/leaves, children and some adults make pledges about how they will “keep our world healthy and clean.” For example, one child said “I won’t litter”; another pledged, “I won’t waste paper,” and a third vowed. “I will not throw tinfoil in the wilderness. BTW (by the way,) on the trail there is a lot of tin foil.” An adult wrote, “I will turn off water while I am shaving.”
An exhibit case begins the visitor’s orientation into the life of the indigenous people, the Kumeyaay. Judy Alvarez, who donated the objects, dates a clay storage pot and a clay water jar to approximately 1700, and a woven winnow basket to about 1800.
A photo shows a woman identified as Mrs. Lugo using a seed beater and a winnowing tray. One took the seed beater in one hand, and hit a branch with it, catching the falling seeds in the winnowing tray held beneath the branch.
From that case, one can go next to an exhibit showing other tools and implements used by the Kumeyaay such as throwing sticks, stone projectile points, and tools for making and sharpening weapon points. There also are rattles made from gourds. These rattles, according to the printed legend, were “used by traditional bird signers to share stories about coyote and eagle.”
“The game, peon, was played with bone or wood pieces made of chamise or buckwheat bush,”
the exhibit also informed. “The pieces were hidden in the hand while the men bet on the player’s skill in disguising his move….”
Pictures and artifacts explained how Kumeyaay women “harvested many different herbs, seeds and fruit that were then ground and roasted. Throughout the park, thick mortar holes and slick grinding surfaces can be seen on large granite boulders. These are the food processing machines of the Kumeyaay.”
Another exhibit on the Kumeyaay tells some of the secrets of Mission Trails Regional Park plants that the Kumeyaay used for food, lodging and medicine.
For example, white sage was used for food, shampoo and medicine. “The distinctive taste of sage made it a popular food item,” the exhibit instructed. “The seeds were ground and roasted with wheat and wild oats into a flavorful cereal. The tender young stem of the sage was simply eaten raw.”
Not the tiniest bit of an acorn was wasted. The meat of the acorn was an important Kumeyaay food source (after being pounded into a powder, and having boiling water poured through it to leach it of its tannins). Black acorns were preferred because they tasted better. “Acorn shells were dried as beads and strung as necklaces and used by children as game pieces. Acorn caps were used to make a black die for coloring basketry materials.”
The bark of the coast live oak “was burned as fuel for cooking, heating and making pottery, and boiled as an antiseptic for wounds and used in tanning hide.”
The cattail, also, had medicinal purposes. Its roots “were ground into an ointment and applied to bleeding wounds.”
Animals are another important theme of the visitor center. A diorama with a stuffed mule deer and a red-tailed hawk against a scene also showing a cooper’s hawk, great blue heron, coyote, bobcat, western fence lizard, common moorhen and a bullock’s oriole provides a foretaste of what awaits on the second floor.
The second level is approached via a corridor of sound, in which animals again call as you pass their images sculpted by artisans of the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park. A coyote and a mountain lion are among those making the trip upstairs a mini-adventure.
A legend with the exhibit informs: “Coyotes howl to inform others of their location or sing together in family groups. Mountain lions generally remain quiet to conceal their presence from prey…” It makes you wonder of what one should be more wary: animal noise or animal silence?
Upstairs, there is a low-tech quiz for kids who can lift a panel to learn the answers to such questions as “Which animal is the smallest in the park: house wren, mockingbird, hummingbird.” Answer: the hummingbird. Or which is the only one that hoots: barn owl, screech owl, or great horned owl? The answer is the great horned owl.
A video with music shows some of the bird species that can be found in Mission Trails Regional Park, including the peregrine falcon, sharp-shinned hawk, red-shouldered hawk, yellow warbler, mallard, bulrushes, lesser scaup (looks like a duck with a bad haircut), cinnamon teal, and a shoveler.
However, most eyes will be drawn to the piece de resistance on the second floor, a diorama of a rocky habitat featuring what appear to be a stuffed bobcat, coyote and mountain lion.
In fact, the mountain lion is a reproduction, as stuffing and displaying mountain lions is against the law in California, even for educational facilities such as the Mission Trails Regional Park visitors center, according to Ranger Tracey Walker.
A zookeeper probably could tell the difference, but most lay people wouldn’t know that the mountain lion wasn’t ever real.
Although Kumeyaay life and animals clearly are the major themes of the exhibits, there are numerous smaller displays that also are well-worth the time. Among them are those dealing with earthquakes, the park’s topography, and its rock specimens.
There is also a case of military ordnance, with the explanation that for approximately 40 years, the area of Mission Trails Regional Park north of the San Diego River was part of Camp Elliott, a training camp for soldiers learning how to fire artillery, machine guns and anti-aircraft guns.
“These training exercises left behind large quantities of munitions and ordnance, some unexploded when the camp was closed in 1961. Since then more than 6,000 ordnance items and 25 tons of ordnance debris have been removed from Tierrasanta (a nearby neighborhood) and Mission Trails. Today old ordnance items can still be exposed by erosion and are considered dangerous regardless of age. In 1983, two young boys were killed after throwing rocks at unexploded ordnance discovered in the Tierrasanta area. For the safety of the public, the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers continues to monitor this property at least every five years…”
Another exhibit discusses San Diego’s climate, which it describes as having only two seasons rather than four per year. “There is a warmer longer season from April to October, when there is only a moderate range of temperatures between day and night along the coastal plain and very little rain. The other season runs from November to March (and includes) more variable temperatures including a few frosty nights and occasionally some rain..."