Under the comforting canopy of live oaks and massively overgrown olive trees, with cool early mornings and star-filled evenings in the canyon named after her, it’s easy to see why superstar actress Madame Helena Modjeska christened her Polish-American rancho “Arden” a century ago. That’s the enchanted forest glen from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, a play perhaps most performed in amphitheaters or outdoor stages in this sweet summer season of nature, and of the Bard.
Indeed, there’s a theater quality about this small box canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains, encouraging drama if you like, a setting begging for performance. Actors, directors, audiences might only dream of a set like this one, which is why Madame Mo constructed her front porch to overlook the creek and her gardens, as if she’d offer from there the lines of lovely Rosalind, or of Queen Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This diorama-world calls quiet attention to itself: Juan Flores Peak, Modjeska Creek, crazy wild turkeys, the old stone hippie castle, ancient rusting fire trucks, horses clopping by and, at the end of the single-lane road, the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary and its chief dramaturge of the natural world, your host in this magical Arcadian setting, Marcella Gilchrist.
Gilchrist has been a canyon resident for 20 years, and is so enamored of this canyon, this classroom as retreat, indeed this sanctuary in all senses of the word, that she left an earlier career to earn the academic and administrative chops to take this specific job at this very specific place. Gilchrist has for six years been the eager, smiling and omnipresent site manager of the 12-acre nonprofit facility, and the hardest-working eco-fairy queen, nature ambassador, interpreter and guide to these environs where imagination can only begin to accommodate the large and small magical realities of the miniature laboratory sponsored by Cal State Fullerton and visited by thousands, old and young, local and international.
“It’s the career I’d wanted since my childhood,” says Gilchrist, “since camping trips with my family.” Determined, she returned to school in her early 40s for an AA in environmental studies, simultaneously volunteering with every county or state wildlife agency there is, earning certificates in planning and interpretation, and then graduating from CSUF. The job was there, waiting for her at the end of her path, where she knew it was: introducing school kids, amateur naturalists, mountain bikers, and birders to the Matilija poppy, giant moth, millipede, fox, snake, praying mantis, and local and migratory winged creatures. There’s nowhere you can’t find something to admire, learn about. In late summer, tarantulas emerge, looking for a date. Mule deer graze, tree squirrels scamper, the iconic desert tortoise mascot Tucker puts up with kids climbing into his pen. Gilchrist’s tenure has been ambitious, and wildly successful. She likes her work – it's more of a calling – organizing Bat Night and Astronomy Night, supervising the building of a simple, elegant cinderblock amphitheater for nature talks and celebratory occasions. She’s got more plans: “We are a year behind in my head. The fires and floods set us back.” Indeed, damage from both provided unwelcome opportunities for necessary improvements, and the sanctuary today looks as good as ever, bird feeders full, cacti and succulents flowering, wild strawberries fed on drip irrigation, the fish and turtle pond reliably clean and comforting, a great spot to linger. And congratulate yourself for visiting.
And Gilchrist will be there to congratulate you, too, and invite you to visit the indoor interpretive center, with its taxidermy critters, microscopes, displays, and gift shop. Gilchrist is a joyful booster, emcee, leading lady of this human-made micro-environment which stands in for, and among, the larger Cleveland National Forest ecosystem. She is a talker, a generous enthusiast. “At the end of the workday, when all the guests have gone, I often spend quiet time on a bench near the creek bed. Even when the creek is dry, there is much activity in this little ‘wildlife corridor.’ I watch the California quail families search for food, I listen to the birds sing, and if I stay late enough, I watch the bats fly about and the foxes begin their nightly scavenging. I think it’s the most peaceful place at Tucker. It reminds me of why we’re here teaching every day; so that this habitat and these animals will still be here for future generations to enjoy.”
See how she did that, easily causing you and me to want to share that view, that moment, and also challenging us to make a commitment to sharing and appreciating? Yes, all the world’s a stage, friends, and Marcella Gilchrist, visionary director, shows us how to best play our parts in this little corner of it.