The hills were alive with wildflowers And I was as wild, even wilder than they For at least I could run, they just died in the sun And I refused to just wither in place
-- Dolly Parton, "Wildflowers"
A young mom beckons her two kids towards the blooming field of flowers bending in a warm breeze at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia: "C'mon. Let's go mingle with the wildflowers."
"You can't mingle with wildflowers!" exclaims her son, maybe about 8, embarrassed by the metaphorically social term.
She tells me the motive behind the family nature walk is to see artist Fritz Haeg's Wildflowering L.A. project, where the owners of 50 sites plant native California wildflower seed mixes at Haeg and the Theodore Payne Foundation's prescription. Mingling is, of course, encouraged in that the 50 plots must be visible, if not accessible, to the public.
The arboretum has allowed Haeg to rip up a central lawn and replace it with winter annuals, which drink much less water than grass, for the project's flagship site. Orange taffy-colored California poppies, ropy purple clarkia varieties, and patchy white yarrow (known commonly as old man's pepper) dominate the meadow. And it is magical. Two chickadees rustle in the tall clarkias, the male kicking the ground like a miniature angry bull -- his mating dance -- while hundreds of healthy bees drink nectar to their heart's content.
Of course you can mingle with wildflowers, I think, but the boy and his mom are long gone.
I first went to Haeg's house to interview him about Wildflowering L.A., which was commissioned and organized by LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division), a year ago for a now-defunct horticulture magazine. Back then, I called him "the Johnny Appleseed of art."
Now, as I drive back around the snaking Mount Washington roads, returning to Haeg's domicile, a geodesic dome built into the side of a hill, I doubt myself. Whereas old John Chapman scattered his seeds throughout the Eastern seaboard, Haeg is happy sticking to L.A. County for this project, where the clarion weather and roomy properties make for the perfect opportunity to commingle nature with civilization, much in the same way the Native Californians did prior to European settlement.
"There was a book called 'Tending the Wild' [by M. Kat Anderson] that documents how 100 native California nations lived on the land," says Haeg, sitting at a picnic table behind the dome. "They didn't have a word for 'wild,' and when they go the word from European colonists, for [the Native Californians], it had very negative connotations, because it meant 'uncared for' to them. What the colonists saw when they arrived was a productive land with lazy natives, and they didn't understand what was really going on. What was going on was that it was extremely tended. California was more beautiful and diverse and productive because there were people living in it. It was a very thoughtful relationship to the land that was not agriculture, gardening, or hunting and gathering. It was really nuanced and complicated. People had a place in the ecology, and if you removed people from the equation, things would actually start to degrade."
There's a paleobotological argument to be made. Where conventional wisdom says that if humans were to disappear, the Earth would become regenerative, Haeg might argue that the Earth would actually suffer without the persistent interaction with nature by humans. Haeg's own dome is surrounded by a wily, diverse garden with fruit trees, vegetables, succulents, and wildflowers that he has a push-and-pull with every day.
Other humans are the grist that makes Haeg's projects work. He is a tireless collaborator. His earlier projects, such as Edible Estates, where he works with a community to set up a public garden prototype, or Domestic Integrities, in which Haeg invites people to bring T-shirts to him to weave into a giant ever-expanding rug, all happen within cities and with the assistance of locals.
To find the Wildflowering collaborators, Haeg held an open call. He sought people with 500 to 2000 square feet of open land that gets some sun and is both accessible to irrigation and publicly visible to the street. After the 50 sites were selected out of the nearly 200 applicants, Haeg held public workshops where the participants received advice from Haeg and the Theodore Payne Foundation, and received one of four seed mixes that agreed with their plot of land. "And then everyone goes and sows their seeds," says Haeg. "We install [carved-wood] signs -- an homage to [the signs in] state parks -- once the seed is planted, and then it's just a long winter of watching the seeds grow. And it's very slow, because it's winter and there's not much sun."
The slowness added to the anticipatory anxiety that Haeg began to feel as news of the drought in Southern California worsened. "When it was becoming clear what a drought year this was going to be, I was like, 'Holy shit. Is this going to happen? Is anything going to even come up?'" says Haeg. "But that's a feeling that you have anytime you plant seeds. The fact that there were 10 sites that were really dramatic, and I would say about 25 or 30 that were decent, that was pretty great."
Haeg promoted social networking hashtags, so that participants could share to anyone that wanted to keep tabs on the project. But, the truly rewarding aspects of the project came when Haeg would periodically visit the sites. "Not only would you see hummingbirds and butterflies and bees and wildlife, but you would also see the effect it's having on other people," he says. "[Pedestrians] didn't even know I was behind the project, but I was just standing there, so they were asking me, 'What is this?' I was taking pictures of one site in West Adams, and this woman drove by and she's like, 'What's going on? I drive by this everyday.' That was the whole point, to watch that effect."
The winter annuals peaked at different times, but most of the sites were going strong towards late April when the project reached its culmination. For two days, Haeg took over The Shed, a Pasadena-based space for urban agriculture, planning, permaculture, and land use run by La Loma Development Company. Haeg taped out a large-scale map of L.A. County on the floor of the space so participants could bring in clippings from their sites to place on the map, posters and photographs pertaining to the project were exhibited, and a series of discussions took place. "That way you have this physical manifestation of the project in one spot," says Haeg.
When I drop by a few other sites in Northeast Los Angeles, I note the May heat has withered notable portions of flowers. According to Haeg, as the flowers die, his end of the deal is over. He will reach out to the participants and discuss what happens between now and July, when the participants can either let the wildflowers dry up in place and be allowed to broadcast their seed, or they can collect the seeds and share them.
"I'm interested exclusively in the real world creation of the project, to see what it looks like in the world and have everyone else get to see it, and then to archive it, document, and tell the story," Haeg says. "Then that's it. My relationship to it is done, and however it continues out in the world, fine, but that's the end of my work. It's not an advocacy project; it's not a commercial project; it's an art project."
To Haeg, the point of the project wasn't to have it be an ongoing initiative. That would be too much for one man with several other all-consuming global projects underway (Despite the fact that his work exists almost entirely outside the commercial art market, Haeg has been in the Whitney Biennial, and has shown at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and the Hammer Museum). No, it was to poke and prod at the normative view of what a city can look like. "It had to do with the provocation to the city, of saying, 'See what this looks like?'" he says. "And having it in very visible places that would spark people's imaginations about the very nature of the city that we live in, and what it could be and what it used to be. [I wanted to] juxtapose the city we have with a vision of the city that's some sort of alternative."
If it lives on, that's just icing on the cake, Haeg tells me. And hopefully it will, because L.A. could use a little reminder of its roots -- that of the year-round growing climate, where even the winter can produce beauty. So maybe others will see this project and be inspired to carry it on.
After all, "Wildflowers don't care where they grow," concluded Dolly Parton in her song.
Read more about Southern California wildflowers:
Savage Flowers and the Wild California Dream
The botanical illustrations in the Huntington's "When They Were Wild" exhibition function as a probe into what is real, what is fictional, and what lies somewhere in between.
Top Image: Site #22, Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden | Fritz Haeg, "Wildflowering L.A.," 2013-2014. A LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division) Exhibition. Image courtesy of Isabel Avila
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