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    26th April 2013

    Learning to see nature in LA…

    The following is a sample essay I wrote for my students, who I am having write descriptive essays about what elements of nature they find in their environs in South LA:

    Two years ago I moved from Northern Colorado to Los Angeles and people that I talk to about this always note what they perceive to be vast differences between the two places. To those in Los Angeles, Colorado is the land of mountains and wilderness, where it snows all year around (which is almost true). Angelenos think Coloradoans are all mountaineers who are in touch with Mother Nature and go into the forest to cut wood for the fires that heat their rustic cabins. And Coloradoans picture LA as concrete and steel, skyscrapers and highways. The “river” in LA is an aqueduct known more for car chase scenes in movies than for fishing. (Of course, Coloradoans know all too many real life Californians, because they keep moving to the Front Range!).

    While Los Angeles does have a lot of concrete, I found that it also has a surprising amount of greenery – as long as you’re looking for it. I decided to survey the neighborhood where I live in Long Beach to see what natural elements survive and thrive there. I started out on my 4th floor balcony to get the bird’s eye view of the neighborhood. Palm trees are planted on either side of the street in the grass strip between the sidewalk and the road. On the opposite side of Atlantic Avenue, the palm trees are tall, straight, and their fronds are healthy green. On my side of the road, the palm trees were planted more recently but have not been thriving. The fronds look like dried straw sticking out of a headless scarecrow.

    Looking straight down from the balcony, there’s a small garden area right in front of my building’s lobby. In that little patch are several varieties of flowers. One plant had thin, vein-like stems terminating in six bright purple flower petals, folding out into perfect asterisks. Next to those flowers was another plant highlighted by purple: a variety of lavender with slightly fuzzy stems and at the end of each stem a clustered flurry of tiny purple flower heads, each fluttering slightly with the breeze. A final plant that caught my eye had many branches sticking out in every direction like a head full of dreadlocks. It looked a bit like yucca, except that each branch was covered with soft needles that jutted out at all angles.

    I strolled a few blocks south and west of my building, walking through an urban orchard, each road lined by trees that had been planted into small boxes left open in the cement of the sidewalk. Cherry trees with pink blossoms showed that it was the start of April and the sakura season. Most of the trees were palms but a few were other, leafier varieties with branches extending to the adjacent building, turning the sidewalk into a tunnel. Some of the trees were surrounded by metal grates, and the metal grates had tufts of grass and infant trees sneaking out of the drainage openings. Grass and other weeds even found ways to force their way into the air through cracks in the concrete.

    While the grass growing through the concrete had to be tough and scrappy, setting shallow roots and absorbing moisture whenever it was available, other plants in the neighborhood are luckier. Several restaurants in the Long Beach East Village area mark out their territory by placing flowers planted in large vases or pots on the sidewalk. These botanical specimens get rich topsoil and daily water – and the brightly colored flowers are rewarded with the appreciation of people passing by.

    We notice these flowers in part because they are presented to us as typical flowers, which sometimes come in pots. The other natural elements of the city we recognize less often because they are not in situ where we expect to see them. Trees are forest dwellers; when we plant them in the city, they become part of the invisible background, only noticeable when on a mission to discover the green things in a grey world. We notice grass when it is part of a meadow or a park or an athletic field – that’s where grass should be – but never stop to consider the mighty strength of Mother Nature that exists in a single blade of grass pushing through a slab of concrete. Coloradoans are guilty of this, too: believing that nature is only real when you are in pure, unadulterated wilderness, which is found abundantly in Colorado but not in big cities like LA. But nature is in the city if we’re willing to look for it, and one day – perhaps ten or twenty thousand years from now – it will likely be easy to find nature in Los Angeles – and hard to find traces of us.

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    Copyright 2005 by Daryl Holmlund - All rights reserved.