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I ended that final day of my recent visit at Reseda Park, at the corner of Reseda and Victory boulevards. I sat at a concrete picnic table, reading Blake Gumprecht's exceptional history, The Los Angeles River, now and then shielding my eyes against the setting sun to take in some event. Like Waldie's Holy Landand Robert Adams' Los Angeles Spring, Gumprecht's book made palpable a landscape I have never wanted to be too long absent from. I'd walked through the park for an hour before I sat down with the book, brushing the flanks of trees with my hand to see if I remembered the textures -- Italian stone-pine, holly oak and cork oak from the Mediterranean, redwood, trees of heaven from China, Canary Island pines from the eastern Atlantic -- the familiar heterogeneous mix.
I had passed a camarilla of older men playing serious cards, mothers anxiously eyeing children feeding animals at the edge of a murky pond (many of the latter missing digits and tails). I'd bought a cold drink from a vendor on a bicycle, discreetly watched a young man and woman in physically passionate conversation, taken in the enthusiasms of Spanish-language talk radio, the thwack and return thwack of a tennis match, the gleeful screams of girls at jump rope, and the apparently detached but actually quite scandalized looks of a conservatively dressed Middle Eastern family strolling through.
The most exotic component of this late-afternoon tableau may have been a gorgeous male Mandarin duck swimming the pond. (Small numbers of these brightly feathered Asian birds are now feral in California.) I thought the most striking element in the park, though, the hour I watched, was the unadorned love of these people, the pleasure they were taking in each other's company. Here were fathers giving the children of other fathers (presumably) hour upon hour of gentle encouragement in pursuits no more exalted than the fundamentals of base running. Here were mothers, pleased merely to see their children at play, showing no signs of distraction from the task, no need for a book or CD player. Here were old men who, but for the presence of another old man on the other side of the backgammon board, might be in the relentless, dark grip of some other emotion. Here were young men in close, emphatic discussion, perhaps of the political affairs of the day.
I am sufficiently aware, I hope, of the possibility for seduction in such a scene, the danger of imputing to it more than is there. Still, I recognized something here that I had first seen in the demeanor of the braceros I had encountered as a boy. You could build anything on the backs of such people. They, more than any couture boy on a cell phone passing the park in a spotless, air-conditioned Hummer, were the ones to be reckoned with if you wanted a society capable of perpetuating itself.
The river, with its battered chainlink barrier fence, is very close here. The shallow stream running in the low-water channel, swirling bright-green algal fronds, is runoff from storm drains, not treated sewage. The arroyo chubs, three-spined sticklebacks and crayfish of my youth I suppose are entirely gone, but what I see in the water is not nostalgia or despair. I see the infinite patience we associate with the still ocean. And I see behind me here on the river's banks the ebb and flow of diverse humanity, engaged, adapting to whatever mean threat or wild beauty may lie in its path.
As always when I return, I have found again the ground that propels me past the great temptation of our time, to put one's faith in despair.
Barry Lopez is the author of 14 books, including the National Book AwardwinningArctic Dreams, and, most recently,Light Action in the Caribbean: Stories, aNew York Times notable book of the year.