By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
In a dry, fault-block basin in the transverse ranges of Southern California, where the Gabrielino once lived well on 60 different kinds of plants and a hundred types of seed, another group of people built a world of well-watered fields. However they may have reasoned the water was theirs, they made an arid land bloom. And so I understood as a boy I could do the same. I could address the thing in me that threatened to become a vast and spreading desert. I had only to discover the water to make it happen.
The water, it turned out, was ordinary life. The water was the braceros, working every day in the fields, making a curiously knowing nod to a young white boy passing on his bike. The water was the ordinary determination of everyday people to contain something deep in their lives. It was a detachment from distraction, which led many of them to eschew both nostalgia and the pages of Sunset in a search for what they hoped for from life in the Valley.
My pigeons, in all the rise and fall of their aerial scripture, were the water. (In one of the ironic twists that give life its signal, curious spine, these were the gift of Harry Shier.) As I understood them, lining the ridge of their coop in the morning, waiting for the air to warm, they were happy for the light. It did not seem that they would later return home disappointed because the ground they found beneath their wings had changed in the night. Whatever they might encounter, it would take neither energy nor beauty from their flight.
WHEN, EVERY FEW YEARS, I RETURN TO THE VALLEY I make the same rounds to pay my respects. I drive out to the first home we lived in, a ranch-style house still standing on Wilbur Avenue in Reseda. In 1948 it was isolated, surrounded by alfalfa and barley fields as far as a small boy could imagine walking. Today it sits hemmed in by other houses and sheltered from the street by a row of sawleaf zelkova trees planted where another 20 feet of the front yard once was. Out back, Aliso Creek, the first seasonal water of my life, lies straitjacketed in concrete. In the late '40s, Wilbur was a narrow, paved trough, a steep-sided street designed to carry heavy winter rain south to the river. When the river was in flood, we parked out on Sherman Way and walked in to our place. And sometimes on summer days we had to ease the car through a tide of sheep being driven to pasture along the same corridor.
Today, Wilbur is as tame a road as Aliso is a creek.
We lived for a while in a second house on Wilbur, this one in Tarzana. It, too, lost most of its front yard to the widening of the avenue before being razed in 1988. I happened to drive by that year on the last day the bulldozer and the loader worked. The lot had been scraped clean and subdivided with flagged lath stakes. House, garage, chicken coop, horse barn -- all of it had been hauled away, along with the walnut, apricot and grapefruit trees. I pocketed the single apricot pit I found.
The house I lived in the longest, the one on Calvert Street, I could easily move back into today if it were mine. The current owners have been obliging enough to let me come by to visit. The lot is smaller by half, and the house has an addition and has been remodeled inside and out, but the family has preserved a measure of its old Valley stature.
I brought a friend with me on a recent visit to the Calvert Street house, a man who grew up in Lakewood in the '50s and who now runs a commercial nursery in Arroyo Grande. All I could recognize in the front yard from the past were two camellia bushes my mother planted in 1954, from which I now take an occasional blossom. At a glance, Dave identified 17 different flowering plants and trees around the house, a landscape he compared to that at the Getty Museum -- "something from the Mojave, something from the Alps, something from India, something from riparian Botswana."
"It breaks the horticultural rules, having so many different plants growing right next to each other, but it works," he said. "It's like L.A."
On that same visit, I asked Dave to drift us out across the Valley to Chatsworth. I wanted to take advantage of his knowledge to identify some of the jungle of what now grows there, most all of which didn't when I was a boy. We recalled to each other the sensations of our boyhood days on the suburban perimeter of L.A., how the blooming of jacaranda trees signaled the end of the school year, and how we fought the crabgrass in our lawns and tried to sell our parents on dichondra turf as a replacement. We remembered hauling trash to backyard incinerators and pulling "foxtails" out of our socks, the tenacious seed cases of ripgut bromegrass.
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