By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
I returned to the Valley again and again to encounter, again, the physical ground of this understanding.
ON THE FINAL DAY OF A RECENT TRIP, I SLIPPED away from the home of friends before dawn, came across Topanga Canyon into Canoga Park and turned right onto Sherman Way. The sun was still below the San Gabriels, but it had filled the sky with a milky blue color, backlighting the crowns of Mexican fan palms lining the avenue. It seemed I could see all the way to Van Nuys Airport down this promenade, modeled, I had always understood, after the Paseo de la Reformain Mexico City.
I saw people getting their coffee at the 24-hour stores. It's no longer outdoor work for most of these early risers in the west Valley, and it is no longer the simple racial mix of my boyhood -- white and Mexican, perhaps a few Japanese. Today I see Vietnamese, Chinese, West Africans. I see faces I would call Nordic, East Indian, Aboriginal. Here was one dramatic change from my time, reiterated in the remarkable array of ethnic restaurants now in the Valley.
I had two thoughts I wanted to follow out that morning. One was about trees, the other about the river, that great, constricted shadow-life moving through the Valley.
As a boy, I imagined trees the most enduring and graceful of all creatures. Historically, the river watered an intermittent gallery forest of Fremont cottonwood, California black walnut, hackberry, California sycamore (the aliso of Aliso Creek), coast live oak and varieties of willow. By the 1950s, the idea that trees were only associated with the river and its big washes -- Tujunga and Pacoima -- was long gone. Trees grew northward from the river all the way to the alluvial fans of the Santa Susanas and westward to the Simi Hills. Among the dominant ones were species of eucalyptus from Australia, Lombardy poplar from Italy, pepper tree (from the Peruvian Andes, but often mistakenly called California pepper tree), and types of pine, many of them from the Mediterranean. ã
Settlers frequently assumed early on that although the San Fernando Valley was blessed with a favorable climate and good soils (both true), it could never become farming country because it lacked water. (All it lacked, of course, was surface water.) When Owens Valley water came in, trees could be planted and sustained far across the formerly treeless plain. These trees, especially blue gums growing to a hundred feet or more, gave the west Valley its first vertical relief. And where they were planted as windbreaks, they demarcated its first volumes of space.
I oriented myself toward trees as a boy. I slept under them. I sought them out as I might otherwise have gone to grandparents. Now, I clip a few sprigs to take home.
The L.A. River, like the Gabrielino people, could not be accorded a place in the Valley unless its fundamental nature was altered. Coffined, bound in such a way as to suggest imprisonment, civilized in the most vehement ways, it still manages to raise its fist to the ruling party. In an open gallery of graffiti, it proclaims the city's ethnic and class divisions and registers the degree of people's alienation and marginalization. In these scrawled and sometimes stunningly executed outbursts of pride, of self-actualization, one can imagine the voice of the river itself, whose behavior for so long has also been proscribed. The difference lies in the great maturity of the river. It came before. It will outlast. Its wish is not for vengeance, a young man's goal, but for release.
For many Angelenos today, the city is a bizarre, exaggerated and superficial environment, but it never was to me. And I knew, making the turn onto Sherman Way that morning, it was not to those I grew up with. Once unearthed, the transcendent essence of the Valley, the sense of what is eternal about its expression of life, deeper than race, deeper than money, deeper than a creed, cannot be misplaced. Once discovered, it can defend an otherwise terrified person against the intrusion of ordinary evil, against the banal horror of the truly deviant, which we persist in declaring is shockingly unfamiliar to us.
MY MOTHER, MARY BRENNAN, DIED of cancer in New York City in 1976, less than 30 years after she heeded her friend's call and came west to try to make a life for herself in the Valley. She is buried in the community graveyard of the small Alabama farm town from which she came. Sidney Van Sheck died in 1991, having become something of an icon at Hughes Aircraft. Esther, following his wishes, scattered his ashes in the Pacific. She is now 91. She lost her second husband, Bobby, to a heart attack in 1951. Remarried, she was widowed again and now lives in Sun City. Whenever I'm in town, we go to dinner. I do not know, really, what any of the three of them hoped to find in L.A., and I wouldn't presume to ask Esther now. We spend our lives trying to say what it is we want, sometimes in denial of all we have. L.A. is perhaps more symbolic of this syndrome than other cities, and it likely accentuates more the leisure circumstances that can make such contemplation an obsession.