Los Angeles River, west
Valley, circa 1955 (top) and
the same location today.
In 1911, a huge public auction of farm machinery and implements marked the end of the 40-year reign of King Wheat in the Valley. Four years later, William Mulholland's water surged through a network of steel and cast-iron pipe, and the Valley changed swiftly and radically. Immense reaches of dry-land farm suddenly became a bocage landscape: small-scale, mixed truck and garden crops, alfalfa fields, walnut and avocado groves, and citrus, apricot and peach orchards. (To avail themselves of Los Angeles' Owens Valley water, Valley residents had to agree to annexation, most of which took place on May 4, 1915.)
By 1917, with its irrigation system completely in place, the Valley had become a nearly contiguous expanse of small (2-to-3-acre) rural lots centered on farm towns — Marian (soon to be renamed Reseda), Owensmouth (Canoga Park), Zelzah (Northridge), Girard (Woodland Hills) — and somewhat larger, outlying farmsteads, these demarcated by windbreaks of Lombardy poplar or Italian cypress and by “eucalyptus alleys,” one-track farm maintenance roads bounded by rows of blue gums.
The lands that would one day be called Reseda began their modern history as part of the first Rancho del encino (1787). They were then included in Eulogio de Celis' post-secularization purchase of 121,542 acres from the Mexican government in 1846, his Rancho de la antigua misión San Fernando. In 1869, de Celis and his partners, the Pico brothers Pío and Andreas, sold most of the Valley south of present-day Roscoe Boulevard to a group of San Franciscoarea investors, among them Isaac Lankershim and his son-in-law Isaac Van Nuys. The syndicate managed its 59,000-acre property under a variety of plans (and titles), the last of which was a series of six ranches operating as the Los Angeles Farm and Milling Co. (One, Patton Ranch, approximated the future site of Reseda.) Anticipating the bounty of water soon to come, LAF&M sold its holdings in 1910 to the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Co., which immediately began to subdivide. With similar subdivision going on in the north Valley, nearly 100,000 acres — two-thirds of the Valley — was in real estate development that year.
By the time the first pipe load of Sierra water arrived, Reseda had been a town site for three decades. Along with Van Nuys, it had established itself as a poultry-raising center. Its outer lands were mostly in sugar beets and other field crops — lima beans, lettuce, spinach, melons, squash, carrots — and alfalfa, grown to fodder dairy cattle and for chicken feed.
When my family arrived, Reseda was still about this kind of farming, though by 1948 it was rapidly coming to a close. The population of Reseda in 1930 was 1,805. In 1940, 4,147. By 1950 it had topped 16,000 — but the Ventura Freeway lay 10 years in the future, and like many other Reseda residents, my family still bought most of its fresh eggs, milk, honey and vegetables at stands along Ventura Boulevard. The name “Reseda” was given first to a siding on a branch of the Southern Pacific in the south Valley. In 1905, after Edgar Rice Burroughs bought 550 acres near the intersection of Reseda and Ventura boulevards and named it Tarzana (after his famous fictional character), Reseda came to refer more directly to an area farther north. About 1920, Reseda — after a fragrant North African yellow-dye plant, Reseda odorata — replaced Marian as a designation for a stop on the Pacific Electric interurban railway running along Sherman Way. (Marian was the daughter of Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, a director of the L.A. Suburban Homes Co. syndicate.)
I recall an evening in 1952 when Mother drove my ã brother and me over to Pacific Palisades to have dinner with Sidney and Grace. I spent some of that time in Sidney's workshop, watching him fashion aluminum struts for a model-railroad bridge. (It would turn up later under our Christmas tree, part of a large train layout he built and painted for me.) Crossing back over the mountains that night in our '32 Ford coupe, Mother had me hold a flashlight beam on the shoulder of the road to guide her, there being no money in the budget for new headlamps then. With the car beams out and little traffic coming up the hill toward us, we could see the grid of the Valley's lights clearly, and dark patches to the north where farm-style houses still occupied small holdings — the last remnant of working land, of Old Valley life.
Los Angeles County was the most productive agricultural county in the United States in 1950. By 1955, its agriculture had become largely vestigial. Faced with one of the most astonishing phases of urban development in modern history, commercial agriculture in the San Fernando Valley came and went in a span of 45 years (191560). In 1915, about 3,000 of the Valley's 155,000 acres were irrigated; by 1920, according to one estimate, it was 50,000 acres. The number of irrigated farms peaked in 1937 and then began to decline, decreasing not through consolidation but by elimination. Between 1940 and 1958, an average of 2,500 acres per year went out of agricultural production.
What had happened was that an abundance of water had brought an abundance of people. Along with irrigation, agriculture and annexation, the Valley got, in virtually the same instant, urban subdivision and industrial development. In 1911, by one estimate, only about 2,000 people lived in the unirrigated Valley, the land out beyond Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Burbank, Pacoima and San Fernando. By 1950, 402,538 people were living on the same land, an almost incomprehensible increase of nearly 20,000 percent. Urban subdivision, bringing with it freeways, supermarkets and apartment buildings, overwhelmed a young agricultural landscape. Water that had once grown food now filled swimming pools (a per capita amenity in which the Valley led the nation) and kept golf courses green. It served tens of thousands of plumbed dwellings and supported a suburban horticultural architecture of Babylonian proportions.
It is hard to grasp completely the change wrought in the Valley by water. A hundred years after de Portolá crossed Sepulveda Pass in 1769, only a handful of immigrants, few of whom spoke English, were occupying the Valley floor. It remained a place of casual property bounds, a dry steppe landscape without fences, a flatness relieved only by a few hills. At one point, around 1876, some 48 square miles of the Valley was standing in wheat, “league upon league of grain,” wrote a traveler, “waving ready for harvest” in a “landscape flickering under an ardent sun.” A hundred years further on, irrigation agriculture having passed like a migrating bird, the Valley's population stood at more than 1 million. Its sprawling and vigorous economy was fueled almost entirely by newly developed technologies — television and movie production, automobile assembly, and the aerospace and electronics industries.
It is tempting to say that what was once grand and beautiful about the Valley, a place of Steinbeckian dignity, undercurrent and innocence, had all but vanished by the time we came over the mountains that night, guided by the beam of the flashlight, but the truth is the river still flowed down there in the dark, however restricted and burdened its channel; in scattered single fields, food crops still matured in the indigenous light and wind and rain; and my pigeons, the aerial component of my fertile imagination, still circled the last of the Valley's rural districts — Platt Ranch, Porter Ranch, Shadow Ranch — before coming home.
In July 1952, I ran out of the house during an earthquake, which made the trembling ground seem willful and aware. One winter night in 1953, Caballero Creek backed up Calvert Street to lap at the stone tiles of our porch, and that primal communion I felt with water, the visceral disturbance that completely silenced me whenever I went to the Cascades, told me that something essential was around and before me, something older than the Gabrielino, more essential to human life than economic solvency: The white coin of an August sun in Santa Ana skies, the fault-riven ground, this El Niño climate could not be paved over. It could never be lost, never destroyed.
Insofar as I was able as a child, I put my faith in that.
I LIVE IN A DIFFERENT SORT OF LANDSCAPE NOW, A TEMperate rain forest on the west slope of the Cascade Range in Oregon. It is lightly settled country, a place with no street lamps, no curbs or sidewalks. I'm 29 miles from a stoplight, and there's only one road to town. In some ways I still live in the borderland of my Reseda youth. Driving into Eugene, I will stop for fresh vegetables, for honey, berries and eggs at roadside stands. In the few broad bottomlands where hazelnut orchards grow, I can picture the walnut groves I once knew around Van Nuys, and on a hot day I can smell the sweet air rising off a sugar-beet field.
Like everyone else, I've no simple way to measure where I've been between these episodes of childhood and middle age. I've traveled through 35 countries, ended a 30-year marriage and written 14 books. I believe that I could as easily have become an orchardist as a writer. I simply found a different shape to the passion I felt as a child, watching things grow and wanting to participate in the cultivation and harvest.
Like my neighbors, then and now, I've broken down alone or with others in tears of adult despair, and known a joy so transporting, so serene, I've believed I was within the realm of the Divine. I've come to assume that these emotional extremes are a part of every human life, that they were known to the braceros whose daughters my mother taught and also to the movie-star fathers of some of my classmates at Our Lady of Grace.
I have also come to assume that one of a writer's obligations to society is to make this equality clear. As I see it, in a democracy such as ours the writer is called on especially to expose the notion of entitlement, which posits that some of us should receive more, solely on the basis of skin color, education, gender, ethnicity, supposed gifts or accumulated wealth. Such a writer, growing up like me, white in a white man's valley, must look back at the social and economic customs, the real estate covenants, the prejudicial legislation and ethical oblivion that made it so.
The peculiar task of many American writers today — though, again, only as I see it — is to address what lies beyond racism, class structure and violence in American life by first recognizing these failings as real, and then by helping with the invention of what will work in such circumstances to ensure each life endures less cruelty, that each life is less painful.
I cannot recall the agricultural richness of the San Fernando Valley in my youth without remembering that the Valley I grew up in was brought to life through schemes of injustice, at several crucial junctures. The early settlers used up the Gabrielino as a kind of grout and mortar, first to build the mission at San Fernando and make it economically viable, and then to work the ranchos designed to augment the wealth of a dozen or so men. Chinese laborers were brought in to build the railroad over San Fernando Pass, and then handed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to read. After the turn of the century, those who could most easily direct the fate of the Valley imposed on it, for profit, a regime of imported water. They created an Eden of fruit and vegetables, of jasmine and bougainvillea, and put it up for sale in a seller's market. They seemed, to some observers, intoxicated with their own grandeur. Mulholland stood there like a god at the Cascades on November 5, 1913. “There it is,” he said. “Take it.”
IT IS A LONG WAY, OF COURSE, FROM THE POLICIES OF abuse that extinguished the cultural life of the Gabrielino to the assumptions William Mulholland made about what might be bought and sold with impunity. But the policies and assumptions are rooted in a similar indifference to the sanctity of complex life. As much as the Gabrielino selected the Valley as a comfortable abode, the Valley itself exerted a selective pressure on the Gabrielino and their culture. And Mulholland ã construed water not as life but as a commodity, a market lever.
To effectively address the ordinary difficulties of human existence, each generation must relocate and protect the ground that will not give way, the ground that will sustain the dreams of its ancestors in the face of waywardness. An American writer today can hardly miss, anywhere in the country, the emergence of a culture increasingly mestizo in its ways, and yet he or she knows that many Americans still cling silently to the hope of a rule by one race, and continue to believe in a land that will produce no end of water, timber, coal, gasoline and the other fuels of culture. When the lessons come — infernos in the chaparral, the Watts riots, rolling blackouts — they are met with new technologies and new infrastructures which often prove only weirdly cosmetic.
Some fundamental shift in cultural awareness now seems called for. The economic assessment of a stretch of land, it might be argued, can be made more accurate now by taking into account what comes out of the earth that cannot be bought.
When I read the journals of 18th-century travelers to the San Fernando Valley, I can grasp that they were mesmerized by the same things I was as a boy. These essences, it seems to me, no kind of development can truly erase: the heartbreaking light clear as grain alcohol, then “weathered like aluminum,” in the phrase of contemporary California poet Robert Vasquez. Spring winds bursting along the river through bosques of native walnut and oak, those complexly graceful limbs riding the buffet. And the all-or-nothing of the streams — Tujunga Wash running one day like the upper Missouri, another day standing as sleepy as a bajada at noon.
I am inclined toward these natural elements, toward them as a foundation for culture, because they saved my life as a child. It is not nostalgia I feel for them but respect.
ON DECEMBER 23, 1955, MY MOTHER MARRIED HER THIRD husband, a businessman from New York who offered us financial security, elevated social status and private schools. At the least, this marriage represented for her the realization of what she had been seeking in the Valley for years — dependably stable, even generous economic circumstances, a more graciously appointed home and a measure of privilege; but this life would now unfold for us in Manhattan, not in working-class Reseda.
The relief I felt at the news that we would be leaving California was the kind of relief an animal might feel if that animal had been electrocuted to unconsciousness every few days by an indifferent owner, and then had awakened one morning to find the owner dead, the cage door standing open. Along with three other boys at the time (whom I've never met, and only learned about years later from two detectives in the Los Angeles Police Department), I had been sodomized repeatedly in the mid-'50s by an older man who ran a drying-out clinic for alcoholics on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood. He preyed, I would now speculate, largely on the sons of single mothers who brought a friend or relative in for treatment. He posed as a compassionate M.D. but was neither. In the way of a true sociopath, a pathological narcissist, he insinuated himself into a family with timely gifts on birthdays, extra cash for groceries and school clothes, and the offer of an evening off for a parent when he would volunteer to take a son “to the movies.”
According to the detectives, Harry Shier fled L.A. in 1959, one step ahead of a grand-jury indictment, and not his first. He had fled earlier indictments in Canada and Colorado. He was murdered, the police told me, in South America in 1961.
Like tens of thousands of sexually brutalized children, I lived in silent compliance. My patient hope was somehow to walk away, to no longer have to endure his compulsions in the small, nasty apartment he kept on the roof of his sanitarium. But when my dreamed-of escape became reality, when I was rid of him, I missed California to the point of grief. The sound of mourning doves at first light; the unpopulated middle stretches of Topanga and Laurel canyons, with their bolting jackrabbits; the long beaches at Zuma and Leo Carrillo, where it seemed to me the biggest waves in the world came to their crashing ends — these sounds and places were my refuge from the threat of ruin in that room. Without them, without the surgical sharpness and (on another day) the smoky nature of the sun's light as it spilled into the Valley; without the astringent smells of fresh eucalyptus buttons and pepper-tree leaves clinging to the skin of my fingers — without these things I believe I would have perished. Left like a wet rag doll in the bed of a beast, I might have gone through some other door.
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.
When we crossed Santa Susana Pass and drove over into Santa Clara Valley, we both had the same thought: It looked like the Valley in 1953. We came back through San Fernando Pass, and then followed the river all the way to Long Beach. We walked the boardwalk at Venice Beach and watched a purple evening emerge from light dismantled in the sky above the ocean.
The night before, we had had dinner with the writer and historian D.J. Waldie and a friend of his at La Serenata de Garibaldi in East L.A. The four of us discovered, without attempting to, that the L.A. River had played an important psychic role in each of our lives when we were boys. Our affection for the river, though, and our hopes that it might one day be stripped of some of its revetment, were not a yearning for restored scenery, or even for wild nature renewed in an urban corridor. What we felt was a desire like wanting a tourniquet removed. The river, in the very way of its trickle-and-flood personality, its El Niño essence, had shaped something vital in us, and we missed it now, as if it were a finger lost in an accident.
I intuited again the next day, on that long zigzag drive to Chatsworth with Dave, that the Valley of my childhood was not gone, only dormant. Like the Gabrielino, it's ceased to exist as an obvious force, but it's still present, vibrating in the shadow lines. A cursory glance might incline you to think the Valley has been thoroughly ruined — subdivided, automobilized, scorched by venal dreams of wealth. But its spirit remains intact. The oblivion is an illusion. When I drive the back streets of Winnetka and Reseda today, I see people of ordinary means with routine struggles standing in their front yards, watching the wind blouse sentinel eucalyptus and watering their array of exotic plants. In the trimness and intense fragrance of their mestizo yards, they have erected a barrier against much that insults and hounds them. When I stop to talk, I sometimes find these people have preserved a centerpiece of my era — backyard agriculture. A few chickens, some fruit trees and berry vines, a clutch of beehives, a kitchen garden. These individuals' sense of where they are, and how to manage, transcends what has been imposed on the Valley. The Gabrielino could have explained a life to them they would understand.
MY OCCASIONAL TRAVELS THROUGH THE VALLEY ARE only incidentally meant to find whether a restaurant I ate at as a boy is still in business on Ventura, or if two of my three childhood homes still stand, or if the field where I played Little League ball is still in use. Deeper emotions of gratitude, tenderness and wonder come over me when I study the eyes of rock doves on rooflines along Calvert Street. (Were birds I raised ancestors to these?) And when I cross the Santa Monicas to find — so suddenly — the Pacific and recall Charles Wright's description of that sight: “the ocean like a sleeping dog, its side rising and falling and twitching occasionally in the aftermath of some dream or other.” The deeper emotions come when I bend over to sip again from a drinking fountain at Our Lady of Grace, turning the same spigot handle I did as a boy, when I thought water the most delicious of all foods.
At its core, the Valley is a particular modulation of light and water, an imbalance of aridity and flood, of stagnant air and wind. As civilization has done in every landscape where it has made its pitch, settlers here thought they would get closer to paradise if they could simply adjust these amplitudes — have water coming on a more predictable schedule, completely eliminate aridity, create a consoling and beautiful horticulture, pave over the dust, and brighten things up by getting rid of as much of the night as possible.
I watched as a 10-year-old boy for clear, moonlit nights in the Valley. I would ride my bike for miles through the great dark expanses of cultivated land between Chatsworth and Reseda on those evenings. I'd look up to the high, pale lit walls of the basin, the lower one to the south named for St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, the other range for a third-century virgin martyr, St. Susanna. I saw in the fields through veils cast by night sprinklers the heads of deer come down to graze from the dry mountains in a luxuriant and wet paradise. I cannot imagine them wondering why paradise was there that night, only thinking it was fabulous.
The slow chuck, chuck, chuck of the big sprinklers and the moon-shot fields felt mythic and comforting. They held no threats for me. They carried no mean notices, like the sign I once saw in a restaurant window downtown: Se sirve solamente a raza blanco. It was simply the dampened soil doing its work under the magic wand of the sprinkler. I knew the water came from somewhere far away, that it had not always been like this. But the vistas of worked and well-watered land, seen in the intense heat haze of a stifling July afternoon or on a cool starlit night such as this, seemed stronger, more enduring, than any violation I knew, the residue of which I sometimes felt clinging to me like a smear.
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 Reforma in 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.
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 Land and 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 Awardwinning Arctic Dreams, and, most recently, Light Action in the Caribbean: Stories, a New York Times notable book of the year.
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