All photos: Kathy Rudnyk

As an American citizen, we are periodically called to serve as jurors in a court of law – a civic duty I recently fulfilled. It’s a duty requiring ample patience and a willingness to sit quietly amongst a group of strangers from all walks of life for hours on end. And beyond a few moments on the phone to catch up on news, texts, or work, or to escape out onto the sun-kissed patio of the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse in West Covina, serving jury duty can be quiet and lonely.

During my breaks I would find my way to a leaf-covered patio – complete with a mismatched set of Kmartplastic stacked patio chairs and a table.  The only plants growing in the patio are a Plumbago auriculata (Plumbago) and a bright green groundcover, the succulent Aptenia cordifolia (Red Apple).  The sky blue flowers on the rambling Plumbago look great, even though the only water the evergreen shrub has ever probably captured is the occasional run-off from the roof or a passing rain shower.

None of my fellow thirty-five jurors ever attempted to enter the patio. Why would anyone?

For those who know me, they’d recognize the isolating and difficult challenge of being surrounded by strangers and immersed in quiet for hours on end. My laughter is generally heard at miles distance.  The courtroom is a sanctuary. Yet a court can feel devoid of spirit, a space where criminal and civil court trials unfold under the duress of urgency stretched out for hours, days, weeks, maybe even months by procedure – stressful – and not just for the person(s) charged.

The tension of the courtroom only broke when an elderly juror fell asleep and began to snore loudly inside the jury room.

The long hours of sitting and walking around during jury duty did permit me ample time to imagine the possibilities for integrating more nature around the grounds for jurors, lawyers, clerks, law enforcement, judges, and even the accused, to enjoy. I began imagining a therapy garden.

I also made an effort to observe the public’s behavior in and around the mid-century era courthouse in the mornings.  It was rewarding to smell the sweet fragrant perfume of Lonicera japonica ‘Halliana’ (Hall’s Honeysuckle) along a brick planter where everyone sat while waiting. Unfortunately, Tulbaghia violacea (Society Garlic) was planted along the entryway sidewalk, perfuming the air and patrons’ clothes with the pungent smell of garlic. Thankfully the bailiff noticed me, and called me to enter from the back of the building just as the combination of bold scents nearly overpowered me.

To enter the courtroom, visitors  walk by a procession of planter boxes facing the West Covina Police Department, each filled with an eclectic collection of houseplants that have clearly outgrown their decorative indoor containers and monuments dedicated to fallen officers.  A warm bench sits underneath a Pyrus sp. (Pear), offering little real shade, resulting in a noticeable amount of early morning grumbling and bad attitude. My theory is that bad attitudes can lead to bad decisions by all.

Also, I noticed the distinctive smell of fresh cut grass pungently perfumed the air, its source initially a mystery. I left my bench to discover the source of the scent.

This large mid-century modern civic complex includes the West Covina Police Department, West Covina Branch Public Library, City Hall, and the West Covina Superior Court of Los Angeles County – the entirety surrounded by turf grass!  Over a mile around when walked, I discovered the unnaturally green lawn was maintained by a riding mower, a gardening tool I had not seen since my dad bought one for our acre lot in Louisiana.

Looking south from the courthouse, I spied a floating building facing the noisy 10 freeway and invisible to the passerby, cloaked by an apron of conifers. Completed in 1969 by the late architects, Donald Neptune and Joseph Thomas, this space-age structure serves as the West Covina City Hall. Neptune and Thomas designed not only the West Covina City Hall and the Los Angeles Public Library of West Covina, but local landmarks such as the Annandale Country Club and Avon Headquarters in Pasadena, Haugh Performing Arts Center on the Citrus College Campus, and Glendora High School.

The edges blackened by the hallmarks of skateboarders.

The building has a futuristic-brutalist architectural style softened by a white exterior.  The building is raised off the ground, featuring a cool, dark breezeway directing the eyes into a sunlit terraced garden of shrubs and intoxicatingly lush green grass. I sat and ate lunch peacefully alone on the ledge of an abandoned planter box, avoiding tables positioned directly into the sun. I must have seen over a hundred employees within the entire spaceship-like complex, but never anyone coming in or out of the building, a rather disturbing observation.

The Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse in West Covina, CA, and its surrounding campus plan, is a truly fractured site with real potential for desired solace. Designed by celebrity “starchitect”, the late Maurice H. Fleishman, the building’s indoor/outdoor design is timeless, and the campus has the bones to integrate horticulture and the nature it attracts as a functional feature of anyone assigned to be present within court.

Since jurors are not permitted to eat lunch inside the courthouse, I sat awkwardly here. While munching away on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I noticed the grass being watered with a hose and tiny sprinkler. Do water regulations apply to a civic complex?

Wasting precious clean resources and taxpayer’s monies feeding, manicuring, and watering the grass as if it were a formal living room – complete with white carpet that nobody would dare walk on – was a mystery to me.  For the city workers facing the decorative green space, the sunken terraced landscape must appear as if it were art work that no one could ever deface.

To mitigate the noise and pollution of the 10 freeway, Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’ (Hollywood Juniper), Pinus canariensis (Canary Island Pine), and a signature Cedrus deodara (Deodar Cedar) are surrounded by Hedera canariensis (Algerian Ivy) and a morning glory type of weed that butterflies found rather desirable.  Throughout the entire campus are hedges of Lantana camara ‘Confetti’ (Confetti Lantana) that have been heavily sheared.  Butterflies such as fritillaries, western tiger swallowtails, sulfurs, and monarchs danced around flowers before their eventual hedge clipping.

Sitting there for hours on end, I completed a nature site analysis. How could I enhance a space celebrating the natural world, specifically, West Covina reimagined as a significant butterfly migration and feeding pathway?  These butterflies need all the help they could get!  I inventoried over 30 butterflies during my first day of jury duty. By day two, I included more transient natural wonders, such as hummingbirds, songbirds, and insects like honeybees in my count. With this new assignment, I felt a sense of calm and respite from the pressures of the courtroom. Even though it was clearly over 100 degrees outside, I really didn’t care.  It was rewarding to observe insects and birds moving across the campus without concern, or imagining re-engineering a barren rooftop into a working green roof that would act as a bridge for these traveling natural living jewels.

Deciding a stranger’s future – guilty or not guilty – within a court of law is a serious and difficult responsibility.  Fortunately, the gravity of my situation was counteracted by the great outdoors, its presence offering a calming respite…my very own therapy garden that provided hopeful perspective in an otherwise grim environment.

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