January 12, 2006
"…what else can we do when the mysteries present themselves but hope to pluck from the basket the brisk words that will applaud them…"
-Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, from her poem "Mysteries, Four of the Simple Ones" in New and Collected Poems, Volume II.
One of the hardest parts of living in the city is being disconnected from nature. I live only two or three miles from the largest municipal park in the U.S., Griffith Park, but I have yet to visit it. I don't do much communing with the environment, and I miss it. Not that I've ever been one of those hearty, REI-clad wilderness types; my favorite part of any hike is the cold beer and the nap that follow. Just the same, I wish there were a magical armoire in my apartment that transported me, Narnia-like, to Padden Creek Trail or Whatcom Falls Park whenever the smog and the cement get intolerable.
My days, after all, consist of leaving my urban apartment in the car I've parked in a four-story garage, traveling on a highway through the quasi-industrial, strip-mall laden San Fernando Valley to a concrete building protected by a razor-wire fence. Seeing and experiencing the beauty of the natural world amidst the concrete, metal, and neon is a brain-strainer. And maybe that's a good thing—perhaps if I weren't so aware of what was absent, I wouldn't be as able to, or as interested in, seeking it. I'm trying to train myself to be on the look-out for any bits of nature that infiltrate my urban world.
My parking garage is an unlikely habitat for wildlife—except for the kind that can occasionally be found passed out on the ground next to its Hummer—but it's proven to be a spot I look forward to visiting each day. The pillar just above my Subaru meets with a crossbeam, and on the ledge where they join, a spotted dove has made a nest. Unfortunately, the garage isn't turning out be any more hospitable to her than it is to humans—twice I've found squabs that had tumbled from the nest; one lived for a day, the other died in the fall, and just last week I found a small, round broken eggshell and a splattering of yolk on the ground.
At the gym I belong to across the street, they don't even have any indoor plants, let alone a decorative fishbowl (the swimming pool doesn't even have water), but on my walk over there, I pass through the Arclight Cinema courtyard, which sports a couple dozen palm trees, a neatly groomed garden, and a not-unattractive fountain. A fountain which, it turns out, is to the local pigeons what the Hollywood Club is to gay men; most days, but especially when it's hot, I pass by and there are birds taking advantage of the fountain's mellow bubble. Often, the birds are paired up and take turns sprinkling each other's feathers.
Pigeons are also members of the dove family, columbinae. The kind that old people feed from park benches—the ones my mother refers to as "flying rats"—are specifically called Rock Doves. I only know this stuff because I Googled it yesterday during the 5 and a half hour break between the actual work I was assigned and the time I left the office to go to yoga. In addition to researching birds, I've also been trying to learn about the different kinds of palm trees, which could take awhile, since there are at least 2,600 species. There's also 70-80 million years' worth of research to go through, since that's how long they've been around. I never would have thought that Google would bring me closer to nature, but there you go—a little boredom and a high speed Internet connection, and I'm an urban Thoreau…all of L.A. is my own little Walden Pond.
Speaking of ponds, the most famous Nature Site in all of L.A. is located in Hancock Park, an enclave for the wealthy that borders Beverly Hills. The La Brea Tar Pits, or "Rancho La Brea," is a geological novelty—an expanse of bubbling asphalt in the middle of the city from which have been excavated the fossils of thousands of animals (mostly wolves and saber-toothed tigers) that were entrapped in the sticky crude oil and then devoured by their speedier neighbors eons ago. Visiting the tar pits is pretty cool, even if it does cost $7, because really, how often do you get to see millions of years' worth of history just bubbling up from the ground? Unfortunately, the area is "enhanced" with some kind of lame plasticky-looking replicas of mastodons and stuff. Also, according to the official web site, the asphalt is not available for sale, which is a shame because I think it would make a really cool Christmas gift.
When I returned to L.A. from my winter vacation in Bellingham two weeks ago, I was smug with the certainty that I'd see the same urban non-nature-ness: the border of bare brown hills, the smattering of palm trees and yucca, the occasional noteworthy bird, and the choking heaviness of cars and highways. But I arrived in the midst of a monsoon-ish storm. Huge palm fronds and hunks of bark littered the streets, clogged the drains, and turned the Valley's main thoroughfares into canals. Even the "L.A. River"—a dry cement slough that weaves its way through the area—was filled with gushing, muddy water. And it reminded me—the wind and the rain and the Wizard-of-Oz otherness of it all, that there is nature here, and variety, and beauty, and life and elemental drama to take note of and absorb. You just have to know where—and
"Happiness isn't a town on a map, or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work ongoing." --Mary Oliver, "Work, Sometimes"