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Spring/Summer 2002, Volume 19.3

Essay

 

Penelope Grenoble O'MalleyPhoto of Penelope Grenoble O'Malley.

Urban Nature: Your Place or Mine?


Penelope Grenoble O
'Malley is the recipient of three Los Angeles Press Club Awards for journalism and is a Fellow in the Society for Technical Communication. She has written extensively for newspapers and magazines on urban planning, community government and land use. Her current field of interest is the urban-wildland interface, where urbanization has intruded on fragile landscapes. She is the former managing editor of
Westways magazine and the former Director of Communication for the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. She writes from the edge of nature and chaos in Los Angeles.

 

There is a place on the eastbound Ventura Freeway, between the Haskell Boulevard off-ramp and the 101/405 interchange, where if you're stopped in traffic in the far right lane, next to the concrete block wall that protects the houses next to the freeway from the roar of thousands of cars going seventy miles an hour, and if it's January or February and it's just rained—so the dust and smog haven't had a chance to rise yet—you can look out your driver's side window, past the roofs of the cars to your left, and see nothing but the Santa Susana Mountains.

You won't see the ticky tacky grid of houses that stretches for six miles between the freeway and those mountains or the nondescript glass-and-chrome office buildings, the thrown-together corner malls or the Anglo churches with the extra line of Spanish or Filipino letters stenciled above the door. Instead you will look right past the wire mesh fence mounted on top of the concrete K-rail on the far side of the freeway and see only mountains and blue sky and green grass. If you're lucky, like I was the day I am talking about, the first day I noticed this, with traffic stopped because a slide blocked Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and the morning's commuters were all crowded onto the freeway, you might also see a red-tailed hawk circling the thin strip of grass, looking for a mouse or a rabbit.

Or maybe there will be two hawks, and if you're lucky, there'll be snow on the San Gabriel Mountains in the east quadrant of your view, and you will look out of your car window and think, "I could be in New Mexico or Arizona—out where they shoot the Patagonia catalogue, where they take the photographs for the wildlife calendars." But you're not. You're in Los Angeles, with ten million people and eight other freeways, most of them bumper to bumper at this hour, even though right at the moment, you don't feel it. What you feel are the hawk and whatever the hawk is hunting in the green field next to the freeway, and you wonder, "Is this enough?"

Is this image enough, the knowledge that there's raw land under the freeway and that at any time the land could rear up, like it did eight years ago when the earth shook and pushed the mountains I am looking at a foot closer to the sky? Is it enough that the field is here and the hawk and whatever the hawk is scouting? Will the image hold until I can get out to where they take the photographs, out where I can clamp on a pair of snowshoes and skim across ten inches of new snow? And why does this image make me tingle? Because this small strip of land is the way it's supposed to be, free and unencumbered, the possibilities unpredictable? Because the land exists this way, and the hawk, hemmed in by concrete and threatened by too many people, but still here and still real?

Like the canyon behind my house is real, where I can walk for four miles due north and not see another person, even though I know there is a line of subdivisions on the other side of the far canyon wall and a four-lane highway and two shopping centers? In the same way, I can sit on a battered gray picnic table under an old oak close to my house and look northwest and see nothing but open hills and rolling oak savanna, and it's another one of those calendar views. Until one day I think, "There are houses on the other side of those hills." And this makes me wonder about those calendar shots, about what might actually be to the right or to the left of the sharp-peaked mountain in the photographs I admire, the quiet lake that appears so serene. When I am thinking like this, I begin to suspect whoever took those shots of some fine points of manipulation, serving up something that might not really exist because whoever took the photographs knows what I want to see: infinite nature. Isolated. Distant. Thinking this way gets me wondering how much nature I really need. How much land and how perfect it has to be, and what I need it for.

 

There are pipelines signs every mile or so along the first half of the trail I hike into my canyon: "Caution, High Pressure Gas Line." "Warning: Petroleum Pipe Line." The signs march down one side of the canyon and up the other and up and down the canyon next door and the canyon next to that. The petroleum sign is black and yellow, round like an old gasoline pump sign, but the sign for the high-pressure gas line is rectangular and white, and on bright afternoons if the sun is at just the right angle, light reflects off the burnished metal. One day when my gaze was drawn to the yellow and green of spring mustard lying like plush on the hills, I looked up and saw the reflected light, and I wondered what was up there. Then I remembered: the pipeline signs.

I know if I walk high enough on the west side of my canyon, I will see the road and the walled subdivisions on the other side. I forced myself to do that one day because I don't want to be fooled. I want my experience of the canyon to correspond to what I know is real. I've seen the pipelines where they cross the stream in the canyon bottom, slung on supports above the ground like a miniature Golden Gate Bridge. The pipelines and the poles they're suspended on are painted a too-pink shade of beige that doesn't blend with the dusty color of the dried grass that blankets the canyon bottom in summer and stands out even worse against the waxy green leaves of new season growth. In the same way the hills hide the subdivisions, I know that if I stand in the right place on the small rise where the connector road comes in from the canyon next door, I won't see the storage yard that belongs to the local water district or the cinder block wall that surrounds the gas tanks that are hidden there. What I will notice is the way the land rises steadily toward Shepherds' Flat, and in this same way, I know when I reach Shepherds' Flat and stand in the abandoned sheep pasture there, my attention will be focused on the high sandstone ridge that rises to the north and not on the Rocketdyne test lab I know is located behind the ridge. I know the lab is there because I was out walking one day when they fired up a jet engine. At first I thought it was an airplane until I realized the sound didn't diminish like the whine of an airplane engine does on takeoff.

If I am complacent and forget these things are part of the canyon, I will become agitated and disappointed when they turn around and bite me. Like the day I first heard the engine whine, on a Saturday morning when I was tracing the patterns water left beside the trail from a storm the night before, or the time I stood watching a hawk land on the nest it had built in the steel girders of a power line tower. Or the day I was being especially careful where I put my feet because it was April and the rattlers were out and baby rattlesnakes don't know how to control their venom. I want to stay current. I want to remember these things are part of the canyon. I don't want the pipeline signs and the jet engine noise to catch me off-guard, in the act of thinking I'm somewhere else, out where they shoot the Patagonia catalogues or the wildlife calendars.

If by "perfect" I mean "wild" in the sense of uninhabited (by humans in the present tense) and unfettered (no streetlights or sidewalks) and I can't predict what might happen (a bobcat, usually shy and reclusive, crossing my trail in broad daylight), then I guess I'm okay thinking of my canyon as wild. But if by wild I mean uncivilized, my canyon is far from perfect. Until a decade ago, cattle roamed its fragile hillsides, trampled its soft riparian bottom. The hills still bear the scars of the cattle's hooves and the canyon floor is littered with weeds and introduced plants that took hold once the soil was molested. The trail I hike is actually a dirt road with fences and cattle guards built along its length. Uphill from the old ranch site, which now and then scatters debris downcanyon when the wind is right, a wide gash in the chaparral announces where a water main is buried.

My canyon has been broken to human purpose in another way. With all its scars it has been rescued from a speculator's dream of a golf course and two thousand "fairway" homes ("Go out to where the houses stop," said Bob Hope, "buy land"), and it now emits a sacrosanct quality, redeemed at the hands of Hope's neighbors who were determined to keep what wilderness remains here, because wild, even urban wild, gives pleasure to the senses and to the spirit. On good days, when the jet engines are quiet and I pass by the pipeline signs without noticing them, when my eye is caught by the purple and green of spring lupine, my canyon does, indeed, have the power to exalt the mind.

 

How much land do I need, and what do I need it for? Do I actually need the land or only the knowledge that the land is there? Space or a photograph that suggests vastness set apart? "Open space," as we say in the cities, an area with distance and volume, an expanse of breadth and width and depth, a wild sweep without houses and malls and office parks, valuable because it separates us from what we humans have created. Not empty space, because empty implies something in need of filling. Certainly not unoccupied. By people, yes, but not if you think of rabbits and rattlesnakes, bobcats and cougars. One night after she'd had a glass of wine, a woman I ride with in the canyon suggested the park service should remove the cougars that live around here because, unlike us locals, outsiders don't know there are cougars in the canyon, and cougars are dangerous. Is it true people don't know the difference between a small strip of grass next to the freeway and a canyon full of wild acres? Is it true they don't know that to live comfortably, a cougar needs thirty thousand acres to call its own? Two days ago, running along the canyon bottom, I surprised two hikers, not hikers really, a man and a woman in street shoes. The man grinned. "I thought you were a bear," he shouted as I ran past.

"I Haven't even seen a deer this year," I shouted back, attempting to set him straight on the local fauna.

"You mean there're deer out there?"

I told him there were deer, and I was about to add coyotes and bobcats but decided to let it go at the deer.

 

Some people say they need space, and lots of it, so they can feel free. But free from what? The artificial constraints of civilization, as one rancher put it, the crowds and the compromises. An area big enough and open enough to feel safe from outsiders, an out-of-the-way place. But out of the way of what? A place to burrow in, where every day you see mountains and you don't have to wait for one lucky day on the freeway when the traffic stops? Putting distance, enormous distance, between yourself and the rest of us, ah, now that's perfection.

I hear some people look for solace in nature, to minimize grief or anxiety. What's the idea here? You look at the mountains, you imagine a grizzly tearing at the side of a salmon, and all's right with the world? And if not now, soon? Some people say they find comfort in the order they find in nature. In the midst of what doesn't make sense in their lives, they find a reasonableness that's reassuring. Others say they connect with something in the silence the wind blows their way; they imagine life on that picture-perfect mountain is simpler than what batters them day-to-day. There is also nature as adventure, a way to test oneself, like the mountain bikers who ride at night in my canyon, dodging April rattlesnakes. Other people hope that what they experience in nature will bring out the best in them, that the sight of the San Gabriel Mountains with a dusting of snow will stir inner resources. Living in that faraway place, out of sight of the rest of the world for a week or a lifetime, some people say they come to terms with themselves, with life at its most primitive, that nature is their place to find God. "Live in the moment," they say, like the grizzly with its salmon, like the coyote eating Pringles from my garbage can. Live in the moment and feel yourself connected with the web of life. Given this kind of awakening, a small patch of open land next to the freeway becomes sacred, as removed from what is real as the converted are from the rest of us.

Do you notice the common denominator, the reference point? It's us. Are we running from each other, do you think, or do we yearn to be outside ourselves, to be part of something larger? It's a good deal to ask from a small patch of open ground next to the freeway, a sharp granite ridge. And what do we bring to the party? Only ourselves, it seems, loaded down both with enthusiasm and angst.

Isak Dinesen said it: "There is no world without Nairobi's streets." Recalling life on the East African frontier, Dinesen understood the value of human company, its worth, say, compared to standing in sight of a lion. More than one biologist has said it: We are driven to conquer, even as we fear the loss of what is distant and unknown and mysterious. A poet in a workshop in Moab, Utah, said it: "I never thought of apple trees as nature." Could it be the value of wild places is how they stand in contrast to what we humans have made, and our job is to bear witness? We build our houses to take advantage of the view. Los Angeles from the Hollywood Hills mimics the vastness of a rolling sea. In the California desert, writer-naturalist Mary Austin sought a place where her "creature instincts" might grow, where she could find "room enough and time enough." Might there be solace in Austin's distant place, the satisfaction of connecting spirit with body? (In my canyon there is not quite enough room. If I have the dogs with me, I also have to watch for the park ranger's truck. It's fifty dollars if he catches me with the border collies off-leash.)

"Perhaps I don't like the idea that we humans have taken over," I write on the back of a manuscript paper. "I don't like that once we get a taste of something, we always want more than we need." There's a fence around the acre my husband and I live on. Even in April I walk around the yard barefoot, as if the fence will keep the rattlesnakes out. "This is my territory," I say to the snakes. "This is where we have coffee in the morning, where we entertain guests on Saturday nights. Your place is in the grass across the road."

Like most people, I am susceptible to images. Given a good sturdy mountaintop bathed in sundown light, I lose whatever capacity I have to think critically. The image becomes the test of what is real, the yardstick by which we measure the value of what we actually experience. The image is always perfect, and this is what we count on.

"It was right out of Nature" (the TV series), my husband tells me, describing the four-foot rattler he spotted near the entrance to our canyon. Having seen a real rattlesnake for himself he didn't think that TV got it right—captured the essence of rattlesnake. The television image became the benchmark by which he assessed the authenticity of his own encounter.

Across the Santa Monica Mountains from where I live, real estate agents have invented the Queen's Necklace to sell ridge-top houses, a half circle of shoreline lights that stretches from Malibu to Redondo Beach and on clear nights includes the hump of Palos Verdes. Without an uncluttered mountaintop close at hand or a nice patch of empty desert, will the Queen's Necklace do, token of an infinity of another kind? Never mind that what lies beneath this pleasant arrangement of lights is what many of us run from—all those people. Never mind that the openness of the ocean, the blackness the necklace outlines, the image we can't see, is what we're really after.

 

I used to keep an Ansel Adams calendar in my office, one of those wall-hanging kind with a photograph on top and the days of the month lined up in a grid at the bottom. Last year, I exchanged Adams' landscapes for Georgia O'Keeffe's flowers. I thought I wanted to keep company with a woman. Eventually, I realized I was off experimenting again, not land this time, but with image. How much do I really need? Might O'Keeffe's tight focus replace the sweep of an Adams' landscape now that I know how easily I can be fooled, what a little judicious cropping can do? Might it not be fun to think in terms of cells and molecules for a change, to bond with a vision of life on a more elemental level? But I picked the wrong model. O'Keeffe's work is first of all about form. The images are so powerful you sometimes have to turn your head. O'Keeffe's act of witnessing crops out the clutter, true, and adds perspective more intensely than the camera's shutter. Her form draws you, then challenges you to chip away at content. Did I want that on my wall? Much easier to glance over and see Half Dome, formal and standoffish in its cape of snow and ice.

I turned one day in May and caught O'Keeffe's Light Iris in my peripheral vision and got nothing. I had to stop what I was doing and look more carefully. First, I noticed how easily I could see past the petals of the flower to the shapeless pink-gray-green background of the painting, then how the two down-turned petals, left and right, curved in a way that reminded of me of a cave. One small, dark-green triangle suggested an abyss. This started me thinking of how static those landscape photographs are, the perfect moment captured. I decided Light Iris is about process. In O'Keeffe's portrayal of the lush world of this one flower (no stem, no leaves) lies its imminent decay.

Adams' photographs remind me of what I know. O'Keeffe's flower points me to a place I have never been before. And in the act of sliding forward into O'Keeffe's abyss, I understand it is not only space that's important but what that space contains, the way the land works, how it drains and feeds itself, its cycles of propagation, birth, decay. Likewise, I discover how important you are, the woman whose horse I borrow on Tuesday mornings, the friend I'm meeting for drinks on Friday. If I didn't have you, would I be so smitten with a distant mountain top, so keen to see a cougar? Over dinner or a glass of wine, I talk, swap ideas. In the canyon, I am quiet. I collect what I can, come home and lasso what I've seen on pad with pen, can't wait to tell you what I've discovered.

 

The small size of the rattler's head surprised me. The head, poking up between the coils of the garden hose in a rigid S-like motion, said baby. The body, once the hose was moved, was adolescent and growing up fast. "Look," said my husband, as the snake burrowed back among the coils. "You can't see the son-of-a-bitch." As if the snake were being intentionally menacing.

So it has happened, what my husband feared. April, fence or no fence, our territory or not, a baby rattler coiled three feet from the teak table where we eat our summer dinners, a step away from my office slider. How much land is enough, how much space do we need? However much territory this snake claimed, it fell short. I thought we might leave it where it was, but my husband reminded me of the dogs. He rummaged around in the garage for a shovel, slammed the blade through the snake's body near its head and scooped up the severed parts. I stood there for a moment motionless—remembering that a rattler's head can bite up to an hour after it's been severed—then started after him to see how he planned to dispose of the remains. Ours is one of the last houses before the unbuilt land that leads into my canyon. When I didn't find the snake in the garbage can, I walked to the end of the driveway. I turned right and looked north up the street just in time to see my husband carry the snake parts over to the dry grass on the far side of the road and dump the rattler back where it belonged.

 
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