Living in the asphalt-and-glass tangle of Los Angeles, it is sometimes easy to forget that we live in an area blessed with abundant natural beauty, from our gently folded green-and-gold mountains to our powdery sand, glittering sea and everywhere, the regal trees.
Until this week I had never been to Malibu Creek State Park -- a mere 40-minute drive from my home -- where I saw a family of deer grazing in a meadow, where the open skies are unblemished by billboards and antennae. Until last summer I had never been to Franklin Canyon, where unassumingly majestic wood ducks live in a still pond and the hills of Beverly Hills become graceful mountains with no signs of material mansions.
Tu B'Shevat, the fifteenth of the month of Shevat, is a yearly reminder to get out of the house and enjoy God's world.
Designated in the Talmud as the new year of the trees, Tu B'Shevat marks the time when the sap starts rising and buds begin to appear on trees in the Land of Israel, first the shkadia (almond tree), followed by the others.
In Israel, the day's halachic importance lies in calculating the age of the tree, as Tu B'Shevat is designated the birthday of all trees. This date affects in which year the fruit of young trees may be eaten and what tithes and offerings will be taken from the trees.
But for those of us with no trees to call our own in the land (aside from a JNF plaque, perhaps), Tu B'Shevat is an opportunity to get close to the yearly cycle of nature, to appreciate the complexity and depth of the natural surroundings that God has asked us to till and to tend.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, told a story about a congregation who questioned why its rabbi was traveling to Switzerland, where there wasn't much of a Jewish community. The rabbi replied, "I don't want to meet my Maker and have Him say to me, 'What? You never saw my Alps?' " If the Alps are a bit far to make this year, here are a few suggestions for something a little closer to home.
Join the Party
The public is invited to commune with nature beneath the oaks and sycamores that canopy the grounds of Shalom Institute Camp and Conference Center of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles in Malibu, about 45 minutes from both the Valley and the city.
Last year about 1,000 people showed up for the festival, and Bill Kaplan, the institute's executive director, expects a similar or larger crowd this year, if the weather is kind. The festival is also a reunion for Shalom's campers and counselors.
The Tu B'Shevat festival will feature hikes and nature walks, tree planting, nature crafts and chances at the camp's rope course and zipline.
Singers Cindy Paley and Robbo will entertain, while the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life will mount an exhibition, including books on Judaism and the environment, movies, quotes from the Torah about the environment and opportunities for advocacy.
"In our tradition we have the responsibility to take care of the earth l'dor va'dor, from generation to generation. What we do today affects our children and grandchildren and generations thereafter," says Kaplan. "It's about educating ourselves and being aware, and we're trying to give people the tools to do that."
The festival is Sun., Feb. 4, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at Shalom Institute Camp and Conference Center. For directions and more information, call (818) 889-5500 or log on to www.shalominstitute.com.
Take a Hike
The Children's Nature Institute (CNI), a nonprofit group founded by a nature-loving mom in 1985, has a long roster of family-friendly nature walks. CNI docents lead several educational walks every week, where they help children use all five senses to decipher their environment. The hikes are about two hours of leisurely walking along a trail, some of them stroller-friendly. For groups of about 20 people, CNI will arrange for private walks.
The institute also does outreach through educational field trips for inner-city schools and for kids with special needs. Its Wondermobiles are portable museums about birds, insects and mammals that are available for schools and birthday parties.
I spoke with Lizette Castano, the assistant to the executive director at Children's Nature Institute, about trails Tu B'Shevat hikers could tackle on their own. Here are some of her favorites.
Solstice Canyon in Malibu, off Corral Canyon Road from Pacific Coast Highway, has a beautiful, wide trail with sycamores and oaks where kids have fun searching for woodpecker holes or listening for the telltale tap-tap. The canyon has a small stream with frogs and other creatures living in little pools. The site is shady, with all the basics: bathroom, water fountain and parking.
Temescal Canyon is a good one for families with kids in strollers, with its paved trail and convenient parking. There are huge eucalyptus, oak and sycamore trees, plenty of squirrels and, if you're lucky, deer. For those without strollers, continue up the trail for a substantial hike up the canyon to a small waterfall and creek.
Temescal Canyon Road is off Sunset, near Pacific Coast Highway.
Malibu Lagoon is a good destination for a marine experience. Birds are plentiful at this oceanside lagoon, and there are bridges from which you can watch fish and other marine wildlife. Rock hunting and studying the sizes and colors of grains of sand stuck to clear tape are favorite CNI activities here.
There is a picnic area and parking off Pacific Coast Highway and Cross Creek Road.Budding botanists can head out to Santa Ynez Canyon in Pacific Palisades, where a wide variety of plant life abounds and a stream runs through the area.
Castano says she hasn't seen too many birds at the Griffith Park Bird Sanctuary, but there are a lot of other interesting details that make it a worthwhile outing. Look for spider webs in intricate patterns, and animal signatures such as gnawed off twigs and piles of leaves amid the sycamores and wild mustard. The bird sanctuary is across from the Greek Theater, right near a huge lawn with shade trees, ideal for picnics, with a bathroom and drinking fountain.
Eaton Canyon in Pasadena is worth a visit just for its nature center, Castano says. Plants are identified along the trail, and there are some great smells, especially after it rains. There are plenty of ground squirrels, lizards and insects, along with picnic tables and easy parking. Eaton Canyon is at 1750 Alta Dena Drive in Pasadena.
My current favorite spot is Franklin Canyon, accessible where Coldwater and Mullholland meet (across from TreePeople). I was first introduced to the park through CNI when my toddler and I sang songs about pine trees and we identified wood ducks -- birds with black-and-white heads, iridescent green crests and red-ringed eyes. The pond has picnic tables around it, along with some big rocks to climb on. The trail around the newly restored reservoir has tons of lizards and a teepee to sit in. The nature center has an exhibit of local flora and fauna and deals with local water issues. Parking, bathrooms, water fountains and even a few vending machines make this a very friendly site.
For detailed directions for any of the above sites, or for a Children's Nature Institute schedule of walks, contact (310) 364-3591 or www.childrensnatureinstitute.org.
If big mountains and really cool bugs just aren't your thing, you can always celebrate Tu B'Shevat by helping to plant an urban forest. Neal Shapiro, who last year spearheaded a community effort to plant trees on Pico Boulevard, is at it again, this time planting trees west of Robertson up to Doheny. Shapiro and the B'nai David-Judea Tikkun Olam committee gathered local schools and shuls to participate and will have help from TreePeople, the L.A. Conservation Corps and the West Hollywood beautification project.
The project, which will plant 55 trees on the heavily Jewish street, is supported by the Jewish Community Foundation, the City of Los Angeles and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The community is invited to get energized for the event at Tu B'Shforest, a preplanting party at B'nai David Judea (8906 W. Pico Blvd.), with food and song from 9-10:30 a.m. School choirs will perform, teachers and kids will offer presentations about trees and Judaism and live animals will pay a visit. Wear old clothes and shoes, and bring work gloves. Shovels will be provided. Check-in for tree planting starts at 10:30 a.m. at Victory Patio Furniture, 9040 W. Pico Blvd.