by Noah Jaffe
Do you know the differences between a snake and a legless lizard? I didn’t. They are completely different animals from different evolutionary lines, but it turns out the two main physiological attributes most useful in telling the two reptiles apart are the eyelids and external ear holes present on the lizards that are not found on the bodies of snakes.
Pitzer’s ‘Outback Preserve’ is home to many interesting animals, including our friends the legless lizards. It’s a smallish piece of land behind the sophomore dormitories, just touching Foothill Boulevard, at the most North Easterly part of the Claremont Colleges. As a resident of the above mentioned dorms, I come into contact with the Outback quite often, and yet I realized I don’t really know that much about it. What is it used for? What is its purpose?
“It’s just a waste of space until they build something there,” one student said.
I wondered whether this was true. Walking through residential campus up to the Outback Preserve, the first thing I noticed was a group of planters surrounded by chicken wire, evidence of human activity of some sort. A student project perhaps. Apparently, then, the Outback isn’t just a nothing space. Walking a little further, I came to a piece of metal sticking out of the ground, greeting me upon my arrival. On the front of the metal the word ‘Outback’ was carved in, and on the sides there were carvings of symbols. Behind the sign there were more signs, made of plastic, with pictures of animals and plants that are found in the Outback, such as black widow spiders, California quail, and, of course, legless lizards. Above these images it says simply, “Respect the Outback”.
It turns out that this approximately two-acre plot of land is a preservation of the natural environment. One of its several purposes is to give students a taste of what the natural landscape of their current home town would look like if not for the concrete and gravel that make up Claremont, Ontario, Pomona, Chino, Upland, and so on. The Inland Empire is pretty urban and grey and I like the idea of giving students a place to enjoy nature.
I spoke with my friend and fellow sophomore Adin Bonapart to see if he shared my positive view of this conservation attempt. He began by telling me of two habitats found in the Outback Preserve: Coastal Sage Scrub, and California Chaparral. These two habitats are nearly gone in other parts of the country, Adin said, and are globally endangered for the simple reason that they occur in places people want to live: temperate, Mediterranean-type climates. Pitzer, then, is trying to preserve fragmented habitats that would otherwise disappear from California.
For some time after Pitzer’s founding in 1963, the Outback Preserve was wild land, an untouched natural sanctum in which students could relax. Most of Pitzer’s community life grew on the opposite end of campus, near the other colleges. Adin pointed out to me that the clock tower was built with clocks facing in three directions, all away from the Outback.
During the school’s construction and growth, the land was used as a garbage dump, its natural beauty marred by tires, pieces of wood and metal, and other refuse that students are still digging up to this day. When Pitzer grew further and first-year dorms were constructed, the Outback Preserve diminished in size considerably. Then, it was nearly halved to make room for more dorms, Phase II, just a few years ago. Adin’s perspective on this development was sad and regretful.
“The natural world can’t be contained like a garden,” Adin said.
The land was recently given a new name, the “Outback Preserve”, which he criticized as being too limiting.
“It makes it sound like the Outback can just exist on its own, but it can’t,” Adin said. “The amount of resources, such as water, time, and even publicity required to keep the Outback as a preservation of the natural world is completely unnatural.”
“It’s like keeping someone alive with life support. We should be able to interact with them and learn from them,” Adin said.
Instead, we are simply struggling to keep them, or it, from disappearing.
I agree with Adin’s point. I think the Outback Preserve serves as a statement for Pitzer much more than a preservation of anything substantive, and I agree that it lacks the feeling of natural, untouched beauty that may have defined it in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
However, Pitzer is an institution serving many people, and those people need somewhere to live and work. The natural beauty of Claremont and beyond isn’t being fragmented and destroyed just for fun. Students, including myself, live in Phase II.
I can see the remains of the Outback Preserve from the balcony adjacent to my room. It is an intractable problem, then. When human society grows and expands, what happens to the natural world we inhabit? Adin argues that no new structure that we could build in place of the Outback is worth destroying the last remnants of Coastal Sage Scrub and California Chaparral habitat, but I wonder how we can reconcile that sentiment with our human need for space and resources.