Writers’ Block

By Jenny Price

“Is there nature in Los Angeles?” people typically respond when I tell them that I write about nature in my city. The question sometimes betrays sarcasm, but sometimes not. L.A., after all, has long been decried as the Anti-Nature: it’s the American megalopolis with brown air, fouled beaches, pavement to the horizon, and a concrete river. It’s sort of the Death Star to American nature lovers. But I have happily ended up here, exactly because L.A. has become perhaps the finest place in America to think and write about nature as well as the ideal place to tackle the problem of how to write about nature.

In the past 25 years, the venerable American literature of nature writing has become distressingly marginal. Even my nature-loving and environmentalist friends tell me they do not read it. Earnest, pious, and quite allergic to irony: none of these trademark qualities plays well in 2007. But to me, the core trouble is that nature writers have given us endless paeans to the wonders of wildness since Thoreau fled to Walden Pond, but still need to tell us far more about our everyday lives in the places where we actually live.

Historically, nature writing has hewn to a powerful definition of nature as only the wild things, which we destroy and banish when we build cities. This way to define nature—the great American nature story, and the heart and soul of nature writing—has become so firmly entrenched that seeing nature in other ways has been next to impossible.

To be sure, I head for L.A.’s wild spots whenever I can, and I delight in hawks, dolphins, and sunsets as much as the next nature lover. I have a special soft spot for ducks. But the nature anthologies ignore about 90 percent of the nature in L.A. and all the other places we live, as well as most of people’s encounters with nature on Earth. What the crisis of nature writing amounts to, in a few words, is that Thoreau really, really needs to Get on the Bus.

My own list of favorite representative topics for more comprehensive, on-the-bus nature writing in Los Angeles would have to include mango body whips, the social geography of air, and Zu-Zu the murdered Chihuahua. And, of course, the L.A. River, where all the possible kinds of nature stories in L.A. converge.

The mango body whip story begins like this: Soon after I moved to L.A., a woman who ran into my car while it was parked on the University of Southern California campus left a note on the back of a sales receipt for a mango body whip she’d purchased at SkinMarket at the Beverly Center mall. What’s a mango body whip? I didn’t know. Skin product? More perverse? I made a trip to the Center and found out that it’s a mango-infused, thick, and buttery skin cream.

Nature stories abound in such an encounter. Begin with the mangos. Follow them, and you can tell an intricate set of stories as farm workers harvest mangos in rural Mexico and drivers truck them into the L.A. area and into the SkinMarket factory in Simi Valley—just over the L.A. County line—where workers use industrial technologies to turn them into skin butter and distributors transport them to upscale malls like the Beverly Center, where shoppers cart them away to bathrooms in adjacent Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and to other places throughout the country.

Mango body whip stories, in other words, look for and follow the nature we use. They watch it move in and out of the city to track specifically how we transform natural resources into the mountains of stuff with which we literally build cities and sustain our urban lives. These tales might track nature through cars. They could be about soap or magazines. They can look for the nature in refrigerators, sushi, dog food, TVs, linguine, baseball caps, closet organizers, digital cameras, bracelets, concert halls, laptop computers, bicycles. If you tell stories that follow nature through our material lives, you will see a lot of L.A.—
the city’s warehouses, factories, commercial strips, cultural centers, and residential neighborhoods, some of which have a great deal more stuff than others.

Which brings me to the social geography of air. The air in L.A., if polluted, is not equally polluted everywhere. The coastal and mountain areas, which tend to be the wealthiest, enjoy the cleanest air on average. On the inland flats, the poorest, least-white, and most-industrial neighborhoods in L.A. suffer the worst air.

While mango body whip stories follow nature as resources through L.A., geography-of-air tales narrate who encounters what nature where. They ask, importantly, who benefits most and who suffers the worst consequences as we use and transform nature. But they also ask who eats what foods and who doesn’t, who plants what in their gardens, who lives nearest to and farthest from a city’s parks, who hunts and fishes or watches birds, and who chooses parrots or pit bulls or rabbits or goldfish as pets. This brand of tale asks how different people encounter nature differently.

Nature writers have largely ignored the resources we use and who uses them. It has been a literary universe in which we visit and contemplate wild nature but seldom use and transform nature: when the mango becomes a mango body whip, it ceases to be nature, as does the oil in a laptop computer or a maple tree that becomes a table. And the genre describes nature as a unitary force or kind of place that Man encounters and where we’ll find universal meanings—but seldom as something you encounter from a specific social position and point of view.

But such a way of seeing cannot fully explain any encounter with nature in 2007, whether in a wilderness area, on a farm, or at the Beverly Center mall. I love to go hiking on the vast trail network here in the Santa Monica Mountains. Sure, that’s a typical nature story in which I seek refuge and simplicity and quiet in L.A.’s wilds as antidote to the stress and noise of my daily life. But to narrate all the encounters with nature that define my hike, I also have to ask where the natural resources in my GORE-TEX shell and hiking boots come from—the oil, stone, metals, and animal skins in my twenty-first-century hiker gear, which keeps me warm and dry and makes my closet look like an REI outlet. How do they connect me to the global transformation of nature? And how do they shape my experience of hiking? The Simple Life out in nature is complex as hell. I’d also have to narrate how wealthier Angelenos are more likely to live near L.A.’s mountain parks—and to own cars to get to them. And how does the particular work I do at a desk all week make a strenuous weekend hike sound like a good idea in the first place? The hike has to be a story about how our connections to one another define our encounters with nature. And it’s about how the National Park Service in the Santa Monica Mountains has chosen my favorite trail routes, and how they manage fire suppression, and how they draw up hundreds of rules and policies to keep both the visitors and the parklands happy.

Which brings me to Zu-Zu, the murdered Chihuahua. As The Los Angeles Times reported, Zu-Zu’s story begins, or ends, like this: In summer 2002, a coyote entered the yard of a casting director in the Silver Lake area west of downtown and ate her Chihuahua, Zu-Zu. Coyotes, her husband warned bitterly, are “urban terrorists”: the bereft owner said, “I have no liberty in my front yard.” A letter to the Times, though, lionized the coyote as the real victim, an indigenous animal encroached on by evil yippy Chihuahuas (if, like me, you tend to agree, then try substituting a Labrador retriever puppy for Zu-Zu).

Zu-Zu stories narrate how we change places and how they respond and how we respond back and so on and so on. They’re about paving, building, planting, bulldozing, fires and fire suppression, polluting and cleaning up, pet keeping, earthquakes and seismic retrofitting, water supply and flood management, sewers, gas lines, lawns, gardens, roads, trails, and parks.

Nature writers have in fact told this kind of story—usually, however, with an evil Chihuahua moral in which Man stomps into Nature Primeval and ravages and desecrates it. But as guidance for how we can inhabit places, seeing people only as invaders in these stories works about as well as branding coyotes as terrorists. An “evil Chihuahua” moral demands that we leave the nature we live in as it is (in which case we’ll die), but a “terrorist coyote” moral urges us to eradicate nature (in which case we’ll die). Neither approach helps us navigate how to keep pet animals in a landscape with native predators—or how to make a road or build a house or ensure a water supply or figure out how to keep the air and water clean. Ideally, Zu-Zu stories should help us ask how we can create livable and sustainable cities. They should be deeply informed by knowledge of the ecology, geology, and natural history of the place. They should help us walk the essential line between doing nothing in nature and doing whatever we want. Like mango body whip tales, they should seek to understand what our connections to nature actually are so that we can think about what our connections should look like.

True, there’s a lovely yearning in the American vision of nature as a wild place apart—for simplicity, for a slower life. There’s great wonder about the natural world and terrific love for wild places and things. There’s legitimate bewilderment in response to the mind-boggling complexity of modern connectedness (how could I possibly keep track of where the nature in my Toyota wagon comes from?). There’s a large dose of real regret for the wanton destructiveness of toxic industrialism and excessive consumerism. And there’s powerful, overriding denial in the service of powerful self-indulgence and material desire, which push us to imagine nature out of rather than into our lives.

Just how powerful? Well, in L.A., enough to let us lose track of an entire river—not just the nature in the stuff in our houses. We can’t find L.A.’s major waterway, although it sustained L.A. for 150 years and now runs under ten gridlocked freeways through the heart of L.A. County. A 51-mile river in plain sight: lost.

The saga of the concrete L.A. River plays out as every brand of nature story I can think of. First, a “what-nature-means” tale: Angelenos reimagined the river as nonexistent and banished it from their collective imagination of history and place. Also, a traditional tale of wild things: many birds and frogs continued to use the river (they apparently hadn’t received the memo that it was no longer a river), but other birds and most fish species did disappear along with extensive wetlands and riparian habitat.

Also, a Zu-Zu story. As Los Angeles altered the Southern California landscape to control the river’s floods, we largely ignored the basic hydrological processes. The jacketed river could no longer flow out into its basin and therefore no longer replenished the aquifer with water, the soils with nutrients, and the beaches with sand. The county designed the storm sewers, however, to empty into the channel, which promptly turned the river into L.A.’s Grand Sewer, gathering pesticides, motor oil, trash, dog feces, and many hundreds more pollutants from driveways, lawns, roads, and parking lots across the 2200-square-kilometer watershed and rushing the toxins downstream into the Pacific Ocean. And yes, floodwaters have stayed safely within the concrete walls, but the extra water from the storm sewers has actually dramatically increased the volume of the river’s floods.

The cement channel also constitutes L.A.’s strategy to move storm water, that life-giving natural resource, through the city. Here is the river’s mango body whip story: a city with a semi-arid Mediterranean climate pours as much rainwater (which we get from the sky for free) as possible into the storm sewers, through the river, and into the Pacific—and then pays dearly to import water by aqueduct from up to 400 miles away. Call it watering the ocean, by draining watersheds across the West.

And finally, a social-geography-of-air story: L.A. may have wild places, but as the American city that has so consistently valued private property over public spaces, it historically has also set aside remarkably little public park space per capita—and L.A.’s poorest areas suffer the worst shortages of neighborhood park space, enjoy the least private green space, and lie farthest from the mountain parks. In this infamously fragmented city, the poorest neighborhoods also invariably have been the most chopped up by freeways and industry. The concrete river channel turned the basin’s most logical site for green space—as well as the city’s major natural connector—into an outsized open sewer that carves a no-man’s-land through many of the city’s most fragmented and park-starved areas.

In sum, L.A.’s errant treatment of a major natural feature has profoundly exacerbated nearly all of L.A.’s notorious troubles—environmental chaos, social inequities, community fragmentation, water shortages, water imperialism, and erasure of civic memory.

The good news, on the other hand, is that by using and managing this nature more sustainably and fairly, we can make the city a healthier, more equitable, and all-around lovelier place to live in. First, though, you have to see the nature in the place. You have to find it.

About the Author

Jenny Price is a writer in Los Angeles, where she lives on Venice Beach and happily gives tours of the L.A. River. An earlier form of this essay appeared in Believer Magazine.

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1 Comment

  • michele modglin March 18, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    HELP!

    I have been trying to locate an article you wrote for Sunset Magazine Jan 2011 without luck. Think the article was titled East LA Day Trip. Described taking the metro line to visit Mariachi Plaza, El Mercado, etc.

    Would so love to get my hands on the article. The local libraries have the Northern Cal edition, not So Cal.

    Would you be able to pass on the article to me? It was one page but full of great info. Planning on taking some friends exploring and wanted to consult your info.

    Thanks so much,

    Michele Modglin

    Reply

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