By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Landers, a town of around 1,000 residents, is known to most of California for the magnitude-7.4 earthquake that occurred here in 1992. If not for the earthquake, people know Landers as a center of New Age mysticism and extraterrestrial activity. From 1954 to 1978, George Van Tassel — a Douglas Aircraft test pilot — built a wooden dome called the Integratron here based on plans he claimed to have received from Venusian astronauts. These days the Integratron hosts a variety of New Age conferences, but nothing on par with the UFO gatherings that took place in the ’50s and ’60s up the road at Giant Rock, allegedly the largest freestanding boulder in the world. Landers is also home to one of the largest orchid growers in the United States and, not coincidentally, the Eighth Annual Morongo Basin Orchid Festival.
Chris Gubler is a stocky, decidedly unsinister guy with a big beard and a straw hat. His grandfather operated the largest nursery of any kind in turn-of-the-century Switzerland. His father, Hans, immigrated to the U.S. in the ’50s, eventually settling in Landers in 1976. Gubler praises the location for its year-round sunshine, lack of pollution, and high-quality water. But he wasn’t always an orchid man. He was an electronics major at Cal Poly Pomona when he decided to take a horticultural class. “Gee whiz, the people were down-to-earth,” he says. “I changed majors much to my father’s delight. I’ve been running the show since.”
Gubler Orchids is a complex of greenhouses perched on a plain dotted with creosote, chollo cacti and the occasional California juniper. It nurses some 500,000 orchids and exotic carnivorous plants, and supplies thousands of plants to home improvement stores nationwide, as well as to independent garden centers and individual growers. It offers tours year-round, but on the first weekend in October, Gubler Orchids hosts the Morongo Basin Orchid Festival, bringing in hundreds of orchid hobbyists from all over Southern California. Gubler tells me to expect a mellow crowd.
On the first day of the festival, the parking lot is overflowing. Out behind the greenhouses, tubby country rockers Central Station play to a crowd enjoying margaritas sold from a Conestoga wagon that seems to be manned by two 8-year-olds. Inside the nursery, people wander amid a forest of exotic orchids blooming in the humid, artificial environment.
Richard, a deeply tanned man with bleached-blond hair and a skinny black goatee, peruses a table of phalaenopsis and considers purchasing a plant for his wife. He found out about the festival through a flier his son brought home from Landers Elementary School. Gubler donates profits from the festival to the school as well as several other local charities.
A woman named Pam flew down from Washington with her husband and her sister, Christine, after visiting the nursery while on vacation last year. Pam came to sell her stained-glass orchid lamps. Her husband — a man with a long, gray beard and a lot of tattoos — is selling his orchid photographs next to a smattering of tables where rapt, margarita-sipping attendees participate in an orchid re-potting class. Christine bashfully confesses that she lost most of her orchids to crown rot and is seeking replacements. “We were surprised to even find the place last year,” says Christine. “We were the only ones here, but one gal took us on a 45-minute tour. It’s just a real personable experience.”
Yes, but can Gubler Orchids ever fill the hole in the Landers economy left by the long-gone glory days of the Giant Rock UFO conventions?
“If we ever got that big I think I’d be pulling my hair out a little bit,” says Gubler. “I can only afford donating so much.”
Peace, Love and Fund-raising
At first glance, the sold-out gathering of the Center for American Islamic Relations Saturday night, in a massive banquet hall at the Anaheim Convention Center, looked like any ordinary rubber-chicken dinner. But these are not ordinary times, and in the wake of 9/11, American Islam has become the convenient whipping boy for extremists on the cable/talk axis. In fact, on the very day before the dinner, North Carolina Congressman Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) went so far as to blame the CAIR office in D.C. for his divorce from his wife of 50 years (the stress of living near the nation’s leading Islamic-rights watchdog group, so close to the U.S. Capitol, led Ballenger and his wife to constantly worry that “they could blow the place up”). ‰ Ordinarily, this kind of idiocy could be pooh-poohed. But in George Bush’s America, where 18-year-old Rashid Alam was nearly killed by white supremacists this February in Yorba Linda, every statement by an official in power with those overtones can be terrifying.
The atmosphere among the 1,800 attendees, however, was not at all defensive. And Ballenger might have been surprised to learn that only about half the women wore traditional dress to the dinner, with many flowing hajiband colorful, floor-length dresses alternating with business suits and carefully coifed hair. Nary a turban was to be seen, except upon the head of Sikh representative Nirinjan Khalsa, an activist with the California Sikh Council. “Ninety-nine percent of all Muslim men, even the imams, don’t wear turbans,” Khalsa said. “Sikhs do, and we have been the targets of six hate-crime-based murders since 9/11.”
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