In that beautiful early summer evening Amir raised his glass of wine with a smile to palate his favorite cabernet and with his ubiquitous sense of humor he said:
“I have to teach you guys how to stop messing around with cheap wines. You just make me look bad in Hollywood circles and among celebrities. I have a solid reputation out there and you are ruining it.” We then laughed together and drank our wine. Comments like those always made us laugh and realize why we loved Amir and enjoyed his company.
That was fifteen years ago and we were sitting near our campfire at Denali National Park in Alaska. This wasn't just any camping trip. We had jars of caviar, fine California wines, avocados, Amir's home made bread, smoked salmon, variety of cheese, best after dinner drinks and Swiss chocolate. That was a well-planned trip, thanks to Amir's taste, as an alternative vacation to luxury hotels. We slept in our tents and watched aurora borealis before we fell asleep.
Tall, grey and handsome, Amir Dialameh knew how to level with anyone from all walks of life. Amir was never shy or submissive nor was he complacent or self-satisfied. He had been a leader since childhood, but he would not rush ahead of you with hasty steps. Once you got to know him you would realize that this man has many good traits seldom found all in one person.
He was a disciplined and determined man. Humble, content, down to earth, forgiving, charitable. Amir was a master of cleansing one's soul by association.
A decorated graduate of the Military Academy in Iran in mid 1950's he was a strong advocate and follower of truthfulness in thought, speech and behavior, the three metaphysical signs of humanity in ancient Persia.
Yet at the same time there was an innocent child in his heart, a child who was still missing the loss of his young and only sister decades earlier in Iran of 1951. A woman's kindness could remind him of his lost sister. Painting was one of his hobbies; he drew many beautiful abstract images of nature and still life. His own favorite was a portrait of his beloved sister which he drew in 1980's.
Amir came to the US from Iran in early 60's and settled in Hollywood. He always expressed a deep respect for America the beautiful. During his college years he followed his favorite habit of hiking, and the hills of Griffith Park gave him that opportunity nearby.
Around 1971 a brush fire burned a substantial portion of the chaparral in the hills above the golf course and just behind the Los Angeles Zoo. Amir was saddened by the damage the fire inflicted. One day he approached Griffith Park authorities and, to their amazement, asked whether he could get permission to create a garden on top of the hill behind the golf course.
He was not taken very seriously at first but when he discussed his plan they told Amir that the ranger station could grant him a permit but that was it. No water, no shovel no plants and no help. Amir accepted with delight.
He carried the shovel and his tools up the hill everyday. Seven days a week! Soon he cleared the area of debris left by the fire. New vegetation started to sprout. He planted drought tolerant plants that he bought at local nurseries. Within a year the garden grew to a quarter of an acre. The rangers would drive their trucks on the fire road and visit him. He bemused them with his perseverance. A few of the young and inexperienced rangers had their doubts about him but older and senior ones admired him.
Finally he became “lucky”, as he put it, and the chief ranger in Griffith Park informed him that they are going to give him access to water. Amir was delighted and soon a pipeline was carried all the way from the bottom of the hill to the top.
This helped Amir's garden grow faster. Another year passed and it became an acre of lush green drought tolerant collection. The eucalyptus trees, the liquidambar, ash, pines, jacarandas, a magnolia and other plants started to grow. He even tried fruits and herbs but human and animals competed each time to ruin, stampede and destroy his fruit trees and seedlings. He jokingly blamed the destruction on “occasional grazing by deer and rabbits but frequent visits by lawyers and dentists.”
Within the first four years, the garden attracted the mayor of Los Angeles, the LA Times, two radio stations and several hiking clubs. Amir's garden became what the LA Times in 1975 called “an oasis within oasis”. TV and Radio stations interviewed him, followed by receptions in his honor. Soon Amir attracted occasional volunteers who would pick spots mostly to plant a tree in the name of their lost loved ones.
Three mayors visited his gardens on various occasions during the last 32 years, each handing awards and praises. Amir later reflected on some of these high level visits and humorously reminisced, 'They come here and approach me to run for the president of the United States but each time I decline, I just don't have the time.”
Amir never accepted gifts or monetary donations in any form and shape. On two occasions in 70's when some charitable persons sent him money to spend on plants, he returned them with a thank you note. Amir's motto was: “In the land of the free, plant a tree”.
If you visited his garden you would hardly could tell who was Amir and who was a visitor; he was not pretentious. He was not the owner, the man in charge or the founder, he was just Amir, the man with the sense of humor.
Twice the garden was engulfed in brush fire since 1971. Each time Amir was there for quick to the rescue, to salvage and rebuild. He put more volunteer time in that garden than many organizations would in their lifetime.
The LA times once asked Amir, “In the past fifteen years how many times have you been away from the garden?” Amir knew the number by heart. Two weeks vacation each year, and once he did a three-month cross country hike followed by a short trip to his native Iran. Those were the only times he was away from the garden for more than two weeks in any given year.
Amir's Garden is now 32 years old and listed in several hiking guides.
Many knew Amir by his smiling face, his brisk sense of humor and energetic manners. He loved to bake bread and give to friends. He cautioned people about wastefulness, and believed people should avoid being envious of other or carry resentments in life. He felt everyone should look inside thir own soul and find answers and not just follow the crowd.
Occasionally some visitors stole plants from the garden but he always recalled with smile and generosity, “they need them in their backyard, so they come and get it from here and perhaps sell the surplus in their garage sales.”
Some drunken kids once attacked him in the middle of his garden; his wallet was stolen and his his nose was bleeding, but again he kept his sense of humor and devotion. He said, “so much for Sundays, I am not going there on Sundays anymore.” And he kept his promise. He went Mondays through Saturdays then after.
Several years ago the park gave him additional access to water and the main pipes got changed to a much thicker and powerful one and he and his volunteers installed bird sprinklers and expanded the garden to almost current five acres. If you were down the hill or in Glendale and wanted to know whether Amir is up in the garden or not you would just look for the large US flag. If the flag was up Amir was up.
In Christmas he decorated the garden. He installed beautiful and comfortable benches and he drew abstract images with lively colors on them. He created steps all the way to the bottom of the hill, an extremely difficult project.
In a city where Iranians have flourished financially and socially for the past 40 years, Amir kept to himself and led a simple life. On many occasions he made comments to close friends that “when I am gone what I have is going to go to the boys and girls camp right there, can you see it down the hill?” And in fact his family is currently implementing that wish.
Indeed there is a Boys Camp down from his garden and the camp staff brought children up the hill for the grand finale of lunch or snack and tour of Amir's Garden. Those tours always ended with a surprise bird feeding. Amir would take peanuts out of his pockets and stretch his hand and just yell “Speedy… Speedy” and there came a blue jay or two to sit on Amir's hand and grab peanuts, a scene that made children cheer and applaud for Amir.
Amir was every child's role model. Yet he cautioned people not to try to be like him. He knew well that very few could put up and tolerate the difficulties and endure obstacles that he faced in his 32 years of voluntary work. His sense of humor and pure soul kept him in balance.
If you ever go to Griffith Park make sure you know where you are going ahead of time, as it's known as the largest city park in the world. Find the golf course and if you park near the metal fences outside of the golf course there is a hill behind you with tall trees on top. Find the steps among the grass and beyond the bushes and start walking up. Ten minutes later you are in Amir's Garden. You can also park at Mineral Wells picnic ground just behind the golf course and hike the fire road up to Amir Garden. A huge green water tank is there as a landmark half way to the top.
If you are thinking to plant a flower or a small tree in the name of a loved one, just take a small shovel and your favorite “legal” plant up the hill and find a good spot to plant it, no questions asked. And if Amir were still around he would most likely tease you by yelling: “Please, make sure to go back down empty handed; don't snatch a souvenir or a sample.” And then you would both laugh.
Amir Dialameh passed away on October 27. He was in his early 70's. There will be a memorial at his garden on Saturday, December 13th at 10 a.m. Wear your casual clothing and comfortable shoes and walk up to the Garden.
Please see a collage of images from his garden at this website address. Click on Amir's Garden.
What does he who plants a tree?
……He plants cool shade and tender rain.
And seeds and buds of days to be,
……And years that fade and blush again;
He plants the glory of the year,
……He plants the forests' heritage-
The harvest of a coming age;
……The joy that unborn eyes will see-
These things he plants who plants a tree.
Farrokh A. Ashtiani is the founder of PersianParadise.com