Only in Southern California could 2014 begin this way: Just hours after L.A.'s City Hall flashed eye-opening projections in a first-of-its-kind public party in front of tens of thousands of New Year's Eve revelers, a large black bear barreled through Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard -- to the delight of millions.
Sure, it was just a representation of a bear, made mostly of palm fiber, uva grass, corn silk, strawflower, onion seed, rice, and seaweed. But it was no ordinary bear: It was Meatball The Bear, the 600-pound hillside neighborhood interloper turned ursine folk hero, who, in 2012, couldn't get enough of Glendale (and Costco meatballs), despite twice being caught and released back into the wild.
In its 100th entry in this year's Tournament of Roses Parade, the City of Glendale had perhaps the best urban wildlife awareness campaign ever: A float entry featuring Meatball and some of his forest friends, including a coyote, a mule deer, a red-tailed hawk, a skunk, a raccoon, and a swinging Eastern fox squirrel, all seen by a million spectators on the streets of neighboring Pasadena and millions more on TV worldwide.
Even before New Year's Day, the design was one of the most-anticipated Rose Parade entries. Hundreds of volunteers, including entire groups of over 30 youths each, signed up to help decorate the float at Phoenix Decorating Company's Rose Palace on Raymond Avenue. Some even got turned away. After writing an article on improving our co-existence with local wildlife, I even felt compelled to help decorate the float myself (my mother and I got to do our first-ever petal-pushing volunteer stints, inserting plastic water-filled vials of pink-hued roses and gerberas into the float's foam foundation in the area below the skunk; we also volunteered decorating Western Asset Management's safari-themed float).
The Glendale float was one of the most popular floats in the parade, winning the parade's Governor's Trophy, representing the best depiction of life in California, and a KTLA-TV poll which viewers named Glendale's as their favorite entry.
The float's theme implored human residents, "Let's Be Neighbors" with the wildlife locals. With the Verdugo Mountains and the San Rafael Hills being within city boundaries, a good percentage of Glendale sits on the wildland urban interface -- the zone where human development overlaps with natural open space -- surely this was a lesson for all to learn?
John Muir worked on a large canvas. He loved tall mountains and big places. His adoration of the Sierra Nevada knew no bounds; just as unfettered was his advocacy for the preservation of majestic valleys, soaring sequoias, and thick slabs of ice and rock. A tireless promoter of nature with a capital N, the grand was this garrulous man's muse.
His fascination with glaciers and their frigid force seems consistent with this outsized vision. Until, that is, you read Muir respond to Alaska's once-vast Davidson icesheet: "The mills of God ground slowly but exceedingly fine." What seemed so massive in scope was in fact best observed in its residue of pebbles and sand. Grit mattered enormously.
That's the essential theme of "Nature's Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir's Botanical Legacy," a new exhibit at the Ontario Museum of History and Art which runs until January 12 (relatedly, on Thursday, January 9, at 7:00 p.m., I will host at the museum a screening of the documentary, John Muir in the New World, with discussion to follow).
Old Saint Nick left two brightly wrapped packages under the Forest Service's spruced-up Christmas tree this year. Each might help it better respond to wildland fire in the coming decade, predicted to be a hot and dry extension of the current drought that has fueled recent mega-fires.
The first is a set of big, shiny toys: aircraft. Lots of them. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and John McCain (R-AZ) negotiated a deal to upgrade and increase the number of the federal agency's firefighting fleet. They inserted language in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that will allow the U.S. Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H planes to the Forest Service; the Air Force will spend upwards of $130 million to convert them into flame- and water-retardant-dropping aircraft.
These much-needed additions will nearly double the number of planes the Forest Service can send aloft to manage major conflagrations across the west, not least such massive blazes as the Rim Fire in California this past summer and the 2011 Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona.
To insure that more boots and supplies can get to the ground more rapidly, the two senators also secured funding for 15 C-23B+ S Sherpas, military transport planes the Forest Service will employ as "smokejumper platforms."
Christmas time is here, and while our built environment is festooned with tinsel, colored lights, and other festive regalia, the natural world in our own urban backyard is also ready for the holiday season.
No, it's not snow, unless we're talking about Mt. Baldy or higher with regard to our local peaks. But you don't need as much elevation to see it.
It's our very own Toyon, a plant endemic to our Southern California chaparral hillsides and canyons. Though the plant sports its green leaves year-round, during this time of year, it produces clumps of small red fruits which earned the plant its popular nicknames, "California Holly" or "Christmas Berry."
If you have a house in the Wrightwood area, tucked into the stiff folds of the San Gabriel Mountains' northern slope. If you call Arrowhead or Big Bear home, sylvan communities that the San Bernardino National Forest envelops. If you have set down roots along the ridgelines of the Santa Monica Mountains, or commute from the narrow canyons slotted into the foothills that range above the valleys below, then do yourself a favor. Step outside and walk a series of ever-expanding concentric circles around your abode, ending at the perimeter of your property. Those steps could save your life and those you love.
As you open your door, pause at the transom. Listen for the echoes of heavy boots thudding along dusty ground, panting men in full sprint downhill through thorn-sharp brush, racing away from a wind-driven fire that would soon engulf them. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, tasked with battling the Yarnell Hill blaze in Arizona as it threatened nearby subdivisions in the wildland-urban interface, could not outrun the flames. Their horrific deaths should haunt us, should propel us to protect our homes and those who may be called to defend them for us.
Begin with an understanding of the larger context of the land we inhabit. Millions of Californians live in wildland fire zones, spaces that burn, that are supposed to burn. We know this because this is the terrain where fires, however ignited and at whatever intensity, have erupted over time. But also because the native flora is fire-adapted -- chaparral, sage scrub, oak woodlands and savannahs, forest montane are among the ecosystems into which we have settled and which by their very nature can go up in smoke.
I don't really celebrate Christmas, but it came early this year. Two years ago some reprobate stole my ancient Jeep and destroyed it. Since then, I've relied on my fiancee's subcompact to get around. It's perfectly suitable for trips to the grocery store and such, when it's running. But for the past couple of years I haven't had a vehicle capable of driving the dirt roads in Joshua Tree.
This month a friend decided to part with his lovingly maintained if slightly battered 15-year-old pickup, and he sold it to me. His signature on the pink slip was barely dry when I hopped behind the wheel and pointed Old Green in the direction of the National Park next door.
The dirt road ended five miles off the pavement, in a valley ringed by crumbling granite peaks. I got out and stepped into the biting wind. I took only a short walk, really, in the scheme of things. Four miles out and back. But it changed me: a gift befitting the season.
We should have driven south. Or west. End of story.
We should have struck out for airports in Austin, San Antonio, or Midland-Odessa, all of which had escaped the worst effects of the killer ice storm that last late week locked down much of Texas. What we should not have done was to have driven north out of San Angelo on Highway 87, heading for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
Just hours before the powerful winter storm blew down the plains, my inbound flight that Wednesday evening had landed in San Angelo, a mid-sized city set within the rumpled terrain of west Texas and through which the Concho River flows. I was there to speak about the environmental implications of the crippling drought currently wracking the Edwards Plateau and the larger southwest, an irony not lost on the valiant souls who braved sleet and snow to gather within the warm embrace of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts to talk about aridity.
The irony is miscast, though. This storm, which dropped maybe one to two inches of precipitation, will do nothing to replenish the area's diminished aquifers, trickle-thin creeks, and bone-dry reservoirs.
I celebrated my birthday last week, and aside from small gatherings with friends and family, I've made it an annual birthday ritual to try something new or visit a place I've never gone before. I guess I'm at the age where I've outgrown the thrill of getting free or discounted stuff on my own birthday, in favor of taking advantage of the interesting experiences or places I can enjoy for free here in Los Angeles.
I started the festivities two days before by participating in The Great Los Angeles Walk, an annual Saturday-before-Thanksgiving event organized by local blogger Michael Schneider, who co-writes Franklin Avenue with his wife Maria. This year, in its 8th annual iteration, the walk, starting out some 300 participants strong, made the 18-mile trek from Echo Park to Santa Monica via Sunset Boulevard, Whittier Drive in Beverly Hills, and Wilshire Boulevard to its western terminus overlooking the sea. It was an appropriate jaunt for me, as it passed by my Kaiser Hospital birthplace, among other familiar sights in my life, as well as new discoveries, such as murals in Silver Lake, new development in Hollywood, and a "Kennedy '60" etched onto the pavement by an enthusiastic voter over 50 years ago (and a striking coincidence near the anniversary of the JFK assassination) in pedestrian-deficient Beverly Hills.
We in California typically spend this week trying to get along with our relatives, eating far too much food and watching far too much TV, and occasionally thinking about what parts of our lives we're thankful for.
I have too many Native American friends to get completely behind the Thanksgiving holiday, which probably means I'll never win office in the Coachella Valley.
But as it happens, this is the 1,000th piece I've written for KCET, and so it seems like a good opportunity for reflection on those things in my life, and my work, for which I am grateful. And given the nice round number, I hope you won't mind a bit of self-indulgent sharing of the things I'm grateful for.
I never celebrated my twelfth birthday. As was surely true for others born on November 23, my party was canceled the instant we learned President John F. Kennedy, that boyish, energetic, and very complicated man, had been assassinated in Dallas.
The horrific news arrived while sitting in Mr. B's sixth-grade math class at Middlesex Junior High in Darien, CT. Over the scratchy PA system, our principal announced that the president had been shot, classes were cancelled immediately, and that our regular buses were already lined up out front, waiting to take us home. Usually, Friday afternoon dismissal was a chaotic free-for-all, a surge of thrilled adolescents scrambling for the exits. Not that Friday. We silently shuffled down the stairs, stumbled outside, and stepped up into the yellow buses, their doors snapping shut.
That Kennedy was a transformative figure I had known since he launched his 1960 run for the White House, and I campaigned for him as only an eight-year-old could.
One Saturday that fall, my father took me to a metallic trailer parked in an empty lot adjacent to the local fire station; it was emblazoned with a large banner reading "Independents for Kennedy." Nothing could have been more provocative in a town that had voted straight Republican since the 19th-century, and I recall my father, an old-school southern Democrat, laughing about the provocation. I didn't really understand this, of course, but I have a sharp memory of standing on the trailer's wooden transom, quickly checking to see if anyone was witnessing our social misstep.