A Walk on the Wild Side: Canyons explored in new La Jolla Historical Society exhibit

The latest La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) exhibit looks at the canyon lands of La Jolla and San Diego, including their wildlife, history and the issues that surround them. Curated by Susan Krzywicki, “La Jolla Canyons: Place, Diversity, Connections” will be on view June 9 to Sept. 2 at Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St.

“We spend a lot of time — and the community spends a lot of time — dealing with issues of the built environment,” said LJHS executive director Heath Fox. “But integrated in that is the natural environment and topography of San Diego, and one of the prominent features is the canyons.

“(Krzywicki) has been working very hard over the past couple of years to develop this exhibition to address life in the canyons, animal habitation, geography, geology, and history associated with the canyons. We hope to promote a dialogue within the community with regard to the stewardship of these elements of the natural environment as we continue to think about issues related to the built environment.”

The exhibit features paintings, pastels, artifacts, taxidermy animals, photos, informative panels, old maps of canyons, voucher specimens (plant specimens picked and carefully pressed), maps of the bathymetric make-up of the underwater canyons offshore, letters from early explorers and scientists, and more. Partners in compiling the exhibition include: The Surfrider Foundation, The San Diego Natural History Museum, San Diego Archeological Center, San Diego Canyonlands and more.

Krzywicki explained: “One of the really important things is that our canyon system is unique geographically along the California coast. There is an integration of urbanism and natural elements, which is extremely unusual. To live on the rim of a canyon with wildlife that has been there for millennia, and be able to turn around and look at a skyscraper, is a different viewpoint from what most people experience.”

To showcase this, an exhibit centerpiece is the partially enclosed, three-walled, walk-through feature with plants along the bottom; photos of native wildflowers (such as the daisy-like California tidy tip) and native bees in the middle; and a panorama of the canyon lands, lined with houses across the top.

“This is actually Tecolote Canyon,” she said. “This image at the top is to replicate what it is like to be at the bottom of the canyon, enclosed to be like the sides of a canyon. It’s a classic San Diego image, with houses lining the mesa. In other places, maybe Europe, this wouldn’t be people’s backyards. There would be a promenade on the edge and the houses on the other side.”

During a walkthrough ahead of the exhibit opening, Krzywicki also points out the “fingers” of canyons on an old map that show the extent of canyons across San Diego, and the rates at which the different types of sediment erode.

Fox said: “This map is so interesting because 99 percent of people think of maps in terms of freeways. But here is a visual of all the canyons and their names going right up the coast.” Other exhibition maps date back as far as 1904.

In another room, maps and videos showcase the underwater canyons off the La Jolla coast. “If you look at what we think is a large canyon above ground, this dwarfs it by comparison,” Krzywicki notes. Supplementary artifacts include an underwater camera from the 1950s.

Supplementary parts of the exhibit include how fire cycles have changed and their involvement in healthy canyons, road infrastructure development over the years, water runoff issues, wildlife habitation changes, how wildlife is being barcoded and catalogued, and more.

Also reflecting on the modern state of canyons, one photo shows what a healthy current-day canyon is supposed to look like, and panels also highlight some of the issues with modern canyons, such as the crowding of canyons in urban areas and how invasive species impact natural elements and infrastructure.

In connection with the exhibition, two nature walks are scheduled, where participants will get a citizen science data collection kit, hike into local canyons to collect specimens — June 30 to Rose Canyon, and July 14 to Kate Sessions.

Krzywicki concluded: “Our canyons are so close, they don’t require a big excursion … we have Rose Canyon, Penasquitos, Kate Sessions, La Jolla Shores, ones in the Soledad area, there are several in the area really nearby. We hope to encourage people to find their local canyons and explore.”

IF YOU GO: “La Jolla Canyons: Place, Diversity, Connections” is on view June 9 to Sept. 2 at La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage Gallery, 780 Prospect St. Public hours: noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Free. (858) 459-5335. lajollahistory.org

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