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UPDATED: Mentryville vs. chain saw, part II

Posted: August 18, 2008 9:45 p.m.
Updated: October 19, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Darryl Manzer stands next to the stump of a pepper tree of the historic town of Mentryville. Arborists, saying the trees are diseased, are cutting them down. Darryl Manzer stands next to the stump of a pepper tree of the historic town of Mentryville. Arborists, saying the trees are diseased, are cutting them down.
Darryl Manzer stands next to the stump of a pepper tree of the historic town of Mentryville. Arborists, saying the trees are diseased, are cutting them down.

On an early morning hike through Mentryville recently with Darryl Manzer, past the big house, the wrought-iron pen he said he built to contain pigs, the gray splintered and crumbling shed by the school, past the school itself and through wisps of swaying pepper-tree branches laden with clusters of peppers, it becomes clear that Manzer has done his research.

Walking past TV crews shooting an episode of the popular television show "The Unit," past the show's star Dennis Haysbert and crew members relaxing under the shade of pepper trees, Manzer is animated about history and annoyed about trees as wide as storm drain pipes reduced to stumps.

The pepper trees are an integral part of Mentryville's history and should not be cut down, he says.

His walking tour through the gullies - punctuated with anecdotes of farming, pig-slaughtering, shed-building and sledding through the snow down hills normally covered in nothing but mustard weed - is peppered with assertions about what does and what doesn't belong in Mentryville.

Notable on the hike is the savory scent of peppercorns that crunch underfoot as Manzer makes his way through the hanging branches of the trees.

Every 20 yards or so he would stop to pinch the tip of some spiky fern or exotic leaf and claim: "These don't belong here."

The 1968 graduate of Hart High School has a message for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy: Stop cutting down pepper trees. But if you must and you decide to plant anew, make sure you use plants indigenous to the area, such as California oak and scrub oak.

Rori Skei, the conservancy's chief deputy director, says she respects Manzer's right to his opinion but wonders where he gets his botanical expertise.

"If there are ferns growing there, they're native ferns. Is Darryl Manzer a botanist?" said Skei. "He breezes in and out. We welcome his suggestions. I'll be happy to discuss things with him.

"We have people on our staff who are botanists," she said, listing several indigenous plants promoted by the conservancy in the area, including coast live oak and elderberry shrubs.

Manzer never claimed - at least on his walking tour - that he was a botanist, just a regular guy concerned about preserving the history of an area, one with which he is intimately familiar.

But that, too, is where Manzer and conservancy staff differ.

Historical Evidence
For Manzer, the history worth preserving in Mentryville is of pepper tree seed-toting oil workers who settled there about 130 years ago.

For Skei, even though she and other conservancy staffers treat Mentryville's oil town history with care and respect, it's the history of the Tataviam who, as a culture, were indigenous to the area before the arrival of Europeans.

The Native American Tataviam (translatable as "people who face the sun") lived in the upper basin of the Santa Clara River long before oil-working migrant laborers.

"We looked at photographs taken in the 1880s and found no pepper trees or eucalyptus," Skei pointed out.

Manzer's assertion that oil workers brought pepper tree seeds with them is documented online by historians who agree pepper trees became popular ornamental trees for people on the East Coast in the latter part of the 19th century.

Besides, all one has to do to verify the age of Mentryville pepper trees is to count the rings on stumps as wide as the tops of card tables.

So far, all but one of the eucalyptus trees have been cut down and 10 percent of all the old town's pepper trees have been reduced to stumps.

A little research reveals there are two predominant types of pepper trees: the California pepper tree (Schinus Molle) which, despite the name, is indigenous to South America - it grows 20 to 30 feet tall and loves the sun, blooming with pale yellow flowers in early spring; and the Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus Terebinthifolius) which was introduced to Florida in the mid-1800s and became popular on the East Coast as ornamental plants.

But whether they're California or Brazilian pepper trees in Mentryville, if they're healthy they will be there for as long as they stay healthy, Skei said.

"The healthy pepper trees have been not taken out," she said of the trees still standing, still providing shade to tourists, history buffs, picnickers, and reporters ill-equipped to hike a mile to where Pennsylvania natives once pumped oil in the California sunshine long ago.


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