Trailblazer: Nick Hummingbird
Location: Pasadena, CA
Trailblazing Role: Culture-keeper and manager of Hahamongna Native Plant Nursery
I’m a Modern Hiker because: I’m as ancient as the landscape in which we all find constant renewal.
Time stands still in the Arroyo Seco – or at least it does when Nick Hummingbird speaks.
I listen, enrapt, in the generous shade of a large sycamore, its shifting shadow the lone hint at an hourglass. “Grandmother sycamore – she was the only thing here,” says Hummingbird, pointing up towards its leaves and branches. “She’s happy now, because she has water, she has relatives, she has energy.”
We’re at the Hahamongna Native Plant Nursery, located in Pasadena’s Hahamongna Watershed Park. While the nursery is relatively new, only two years old, the watershed is ancient. Born in the heights of the San Gabriel Mountains, the Arroyo Seco River flows down nearly 25 miles to join the Los Angeles River at the Glendale Narrows. The area between was once home to the Tongva, an indigenous people later dubbed the Gabrieleño by Spanish missionaries who decimated their numbers – and culture – in the late 18th century through disease, violence, and forced assimilation. The lush riparian corridor that once sustained the Tongva suffered, as well, as resources were culled to build missions, then ranches, and finally the burgeoning infrastructure that would become Pasadena.
Today, the altered watershed still provides water, recreation, and solace to its human visitors, along with offering crucial wildlife habitat. It also contains the means for its own renewal, in large part thanks to Hummingbird’s efforts as nursery manager. The facility grew from the Arroyo Seco Canyon Project, a joint resource management and restoration effort between the Arroyo Seco Foundation and the Pasadena Water & Power Department. Hummingbird and a team of volunteers tend to a wealth of native plants intended to help restore some of what was lost through two centuries of human impact.
A native Californian of Cahuilla ancestry, Hummingbird is as indigenous as the plants he tends. His connection to not only this mission, but to the land itself is emotional and personal, wrought from experiences both painful and powerful. Hummingbird’s white European mother, separated from his native father, raised him in a cultural vacuum; at one point, he was so confused by his own heritage that he assumed he was Mexican. Hummingbird spent most of his childhood shuffling across the southland, kicking around outside all day while his mother sold homes. He found familiarity among the yucca and laurel sumac, and communed, unafraid, with rattlesnakes. In summer, he visited his grandparents, traditional healers who imbued him with not only a sense of culture, but also a deeper knowledge of the flora and fauna he encountered during those latchkey hours. The outdoors became his sanctuary.
Then came the housing boom. Tens of thousands of homes went up around his stomping grounds, and with each one, a small corner of Hummingbird’s world was torn apart: lizards disappeared, birdsong quieted, chaparral was replaced by pavement.
“Everything I knew and loved and appreciated and understood was basically destroyed,” he explains. “That was tremendous for me as a young person because I didn’t know what to do. I felt upset, I felt angry, I felt sad – but then I also felt helpless. I felt that there was nothing I could possibly do; you feel this sense of being robbed of everything and the injustice of it all. I think back about it, and I can only imagine what our ancestors felt – what we still feel today, because we have to bear witness continuously to the destruction of all of this that we come from – and that left a big hole where I just kind of learned to not care about or love anything anymore.”
Hummingbird’s sadness, anger, and hopelessness led to substance abuse, attempted suicide, and eventually, rehab. There, he reconnected to himself – and to the land. “It was an indigenous, Native American rehab and that’s where I learned who I was. That’s where I learned for the first time, culture, and understanding that I always had a connection with nature and native plants,” he explains. “Going through that, I learned a lot of things about myself and I learned a lot of what I had forgotten. A lot of that knowledge from my grandparents came back – and then came responsibility.”
The lessons gifted from his grandparents – the thousands of years of Cahuilla culture and natural knowledge – are passed down through Hummingbird’s work in the Hahamongna Watershed. He is a gardener and educator, to be sure, but he is also a storyteller, a keeper of culture. I mostly listen as Hummingbird talks, his quiet voice carrying his hard-earned truth, along with that of his ancestors, of the plants and animals. The experience is humbling and intense. At one point, I realize that we are both in tears.
During that timeless afternoon, we remain in the shifting light beneath the beautiful sycamore. There are a few children out exploring the area, but it’s otherwise quiet. Softly, Hummingbird taps out the rhythm of a heartbeat on his leg and sings a song of healing, of willow trees – “a tree of medicine, a tree of tolerance.” He says, “You can have it on there” – pointing to my tape recorder – “but it’s just for us in the moment. When we sing and when we pray, we put that energy into the world.”
What’s written below, however, is for all of you.
On teaching people about native plants
I utilize my culture to teach people. I don’t tell them all our secrets, because there’s always room for exploitation, [but] I teach them a little bit so that they bring the plant and put it in their yard, and it opens up a door. They see the hummingbird come, and then they may use that plant for a tea or something and it works for them, and then they want to learn more. I call it the gateway drug – the gateway plants to the rest of the plants.
On urban wildlife
If you can have a fruit garden, you can have a native plant garden, and what comes with it is all the life in the middle of the city. Native plant gardens are a great way to expose people to nature, because native plants don’t exist in isolation – they bring butterflies, they bring bees, they bring lizards, coyotes, squirrels, rabbits. And in that, people start to become aware of these little dudes running around – that hey, we still have wildlife like the mountain lion. We still have the brown bear and the black bear. We may have lost the grizzly bear, unfortunately, but we’re still fighting for the California condor.
On the human connection to the environment
We look at the environment, we look at the plants, we look at the animals, we look at the mountains, we look at the water, the land, the air, the everything – and we kind of just want to enjoy it, but leave it alone like we have nothing to do it with it. There’s a separation. But our culture and our way of life is the human translation of all that. The perception that humans are separate from nature is a mentality that needs to be overcome, because there’s no separation between the two. When you take humans out of nature, there’s something wrong with nature. When you take nature out of humans, there’s something wrong with humans. A lot of us don’t have exposure because that situation of nature being “separate” from humans is that you have to go someplace far to experience nature, and in that, there’s always going to be that separation of distance where you feel that nature’s there. That’s so wrong because all this city was nature until it got paved over.
On the purity of Mother Nature
Mother Nature was my only real mother. When people celebrate Mother’s Day, I go out and I celebrate the Mother Earth, because I found that as a young kid, people are always going to hurt you in ways, whether it’s intentional or unintentional, and you’re receptive to that because it’s so personal, where nature, the plants, the animals, and the land don’t have that ability to hurt you. If they hurt you – like, if a rattlesnake bites you – it’s to protect their own livelihood. They’re never gonna go 50 miles to shoot you, [or] kill you because of some malice. That’s something I learned early on; the plants, the animals, and the land – everything – it’s there, it’s pure, it’s not corrupted. It cannot be corrupted as human beings can be and will always pretty much be unless they come back to the Mother Earth. She has an energy that’s ever renewing; society has an energy that’s always exploiting.
On rights versus responsibilities
Everybody’s always talking about their priorities and their rights. You know, we don’t have rights as human beings; we have responsibility as human beings. That responsibility is that you have an effect, and when you have an effect it has to be either positive or negative; too often than not, negative is not only the most convenient, but the easiest way to go about things. So, for example, if you have a hose and you have a driveway that’s dirty, you can either hose it down or you can sweep it. The most convenient way is to hose it down, and there goes that valuable resource, that precious water, but it’s your right, because all you have to do is just pay for it. But your responsibility says that that water is sacred, you need to save that water because there’s not enough here in Southern California, [and because] we have to steal it from other places, there may not be enough for the future. That’s the difference between rights and responsibility.
On California culture
Very few people know what California really is, because it’s our culture. Our culture is of the mountains, our culture is the condor, the grizzly bear, the healthy water, the kelp forest with our tomols – our canoes – going to the islands that are unique with the little island fox. That’s California culture. With the abalone fishhook and baskets and beauty and health and abundance of oak trees. That’s California. People aren’t exposed to that, so they don’t know, and that’s not their fault. The education of getting out and hiking is important [in order] to be exposed to what California is, rather than what people have made California become; palm trees and Hollywood, it’s all artificial like those tract houses. In learning about all of this stuff, I learned to really appreciate where I call home…and now with that, I have roots, and now I’m willing to fight for my home, now I’m willing to sacrifice whatever I need to, in order to protect this place not only for myself, but for all people and for all living things.
On fighting for those who cannot speak
We believe as native people that we have mana, which is the Hawaiian word for a sense of being, and that sense of being is your power. Your power is what you’ve gone through in hardship and whatever you’ve overcome, and it builds the integrity of you as a human being. When you have that mana, it comes with the responsibility of fighting for those that cannot fight for themselves. The plants, the land, the animals cannot fight for themselves; we have to fight for them because we are the ones destroying them.
On being a true warrior
Modern society has the vision of a “warrior” as somebody who joins the military and goes and kills innocent people to procure resources that are exploitative of not only the landscape, the people, the country, the society, but also the planet. In that perversion of what a warrior is, we’ve learned that violence is a way of making a change. If Standing Rock has taught anything, it’s about being peaceful, that a “warrior” for us is standing up for life, standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, and doing it in a peaceful way, not in a combative, confrontational way.
On plants as medicine
People always ask me, “Nick, what plant can I use for this, that, asthma?” Our people never had asthma, our people never had these diseases; these are all conditions of what we’re doing wrong. And I don’t know if nature has that ability to heal those things because they’re unnatural.
On forgiveness and moving forward
Somebody told me once, you can live every day pissed off and angry, and you have every right to, but that just means that “they” won. Our culture doesn’t teach that – our culture teaches love and appreciation and gratitude and respect, and not only that, but honor, dignity, and forgiveness. You’re no longer going to be able to heal if you harbor those things that destroyed our people, destroy our land, and continue to destroy the human species and the planet. So we continue with the notion that whether there’s justice in this life or the next, we have to do everything we can to re-right the wrongs that we never wrote. To educate people as much as we can about not only our ways, but the ways of the earth, the one true mother that we all hold in common.
I encourage young kids – all people – to get out and hike. And not only get out and hike, but just shut up for once. Don’t take your boom box, don’t go out there and talk loud. Because when you go hiking and you take the music and you take your loud voice and you tromp around, you just clear the area. When you learn to be quiet and just sit there and just observe and be a part of everything, you become part of that world, instead of exerting your world upon it all the time.
There’s a lot of mental illness in our society and I feel like it could all be healed if we just get back to nature. I was diagnosed as a schizophrenic person, major depression, all these things, and here they had me hopped up on medication and I went bonkers. I was a vegetable. I was on Skid Row and lived on the streets for a good portion of time. The situation was just basically everybody against each other. It was all about these finite resources – food, shelter – and it was just hostile. But when I came back into this, it restored me. It renewed me. No matter how busy I am, or how much work there is to do, I’m always going to be fulfilled by this because it’s so much greater than me. It’s so much greater than my existence.
So many people feel lost with global warming and the environmental crisis as it is – it feels beyond any of us. The last thing I want people to do is lose hope; I never want them to lose the ability to make a difference or feel like they’re going to. So, when they come here, they grow these plants and they meet a community. I don’t know how long the nursery will be around, but for now, it’s a beacon of hope for a lot of people.
On reconnecting to nature
My main message is that for people who are lost, get lost in nature, because you’re never truly lost in nature – you’re only embraced in nature. Nature will always be there to help you find who you are, and that’s the real you – it will always be the real you. Go out into nature, but take it a step further – take a guide with you and challenge yourself to learn certain plants, wherever they’re native or non-native, and the animals that you see. Learn their stories. Are they endangered or not endangered? If they’re endangered or if they’re having a hard time, what can you do to help them? Because the solution is not taking us away from nature, it’s not leaving nature alone and humans just being eradicated and everything’s gonna be fine – we had a hand in this problem, we have the ability to be the solution. I think people will really learn to be better advocates for not only the outdoors, but for nature – and for their own survival and future.
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