I had a friend once who had a running joke he liked to tell. We'd be hiking through some impossibly wild country -- Upstate New York forests grow thick and balky -- and it would be tough going. Sinking ankle-deep in leaf mold, the fungus scent in our lungs and the roots vying to twist our ankles, we'd find the remotest, most inaccessible hill we could. We'd climb it. We'd look out from the summit.
Views are hard-won in that part of the world. A hundred feet of relief and a clear line of sight in more than one direction was a treasure worth any amount of poison ivy. We'd stand there, savoring the view into the next township, and catch our breath. The shackles loosened a bit from around our ankles and our throats. Our spines straightened. My friend Greg would raise an arm. He would point at the horizon like a conquistador, saying "We put the shopping mall there." A flick of his hand. "The gated community will go over there."
It was an unthinkably ridiculous sentiment, an obnoxious thought, and we would laugh. Who could think there was beauty in taking a living stretch of wild earth and subjugating it?
Twenty-first century American aesthetes, that's who.
The Palos Verdes Peninsula not only forms the most distinctive feature of L.A. County's
coastline, but it offers one of the most stunning views in all of California, from cliffs to coves to breathtaking vistas of Santa Catalina Island and the setting sun.
But the inland side of the road possesses its own natural beauty as well. At the extreme southwesternmost point of the city of Los Angeles, in western San Pedro at Paseo Del Mar and the southern end of Western Avenue, lies the White Point Nature Preserve, a 102-acre plot of land that appears as an empty, vacant parcel to the uninitiated, but serves as a quiet, natural respite from the urban world.
The preserve, owned by the City of Los Angeles as a public park and managed by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, is criscrossed by easy hiking trails, popular with locals and their canine companions. But dogs aren't the only animals welcome there. California grey squirrels, lizards, snakes (most of which are harmless), insects, and local and migratory birds call this preserve their home, or at the very least their temporary stopover.
The land on which the preserve sits on has quite a history of its own. For nearly 5,000 years it served as the food gathering grounds for Southern California's native Tongva (a.k.a. Gabrieleño) people, until it became grazing land in the 19th century for Spanish-era Rancho San Pedro and later part of the Sepulveda family's Rancho de los Palos Verdes. Starting in the 1890s, the land supported the abalone fishing industry run primarily by Japanese immigrants, who lived in the surrounding area for half a century, later establishing farms there until their internment at the start of World War II. In the next decade, it became part of the Cold War defense system as the location of the LA-43 Nike anti-aircaft missile launch site (the remnants still visible at the preserve today) until its de-commission in the 1970s.
California and Colorado may be quite different places, but they share this in common: fire.
Each state has experienced massive wildfires across time. Each contains fire-adapted ecosystems. Each has large numbers of people living in fire zones. Each currently is locked into an lengthening fire season and, relatedly, an extended drought. And each therefore goes through the same drill every fire season.
When flames erupt in the Sierra or Rockies, the Coastal or Front Ranges, as the smoke-choking, thunderous roar reminds those downwind of a runaway locomotive, residents who live in its rumbling path flee (if they are smart). Racing to fill the void are the first responders, local and county fire departments, state and federal agencies, brave souls putting themselves into the line of fire to defend the oft-indefensible.
About the politics of fire, however, the Golden State appears to be a good deal more proactive than the Centennial.
Brunch was boisterous. Old friends from San Antonio were in town and we gathered around the dining room table in full view of our sun-drenched backyard, munching an array of spring-fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. The conversation was fast, funny, and convivial, but in a rare, quiet moment one of our Texas guests asked what we had done to the strawberries -- what made them so sweet: sugar? "Nothing added," my wife smiled. "This is how they grow in Southern California."
Like the rest of the residents of the academic arcadia of Claremont, we have been spoiled by the flowering presence of a local strawberry patch; Vargas Farms has long managed the site, slotted on a rectangular set of six acres running parallel to the 210 freeway and framed to the west and north by Towne Avenue and Base Line Road.
I've loved walking by it in the early morning hours of winter, watching the crews build up the beds and lay down the irrigation system, labor overseen by bustling bands of killdeer birds that zigzagged across the fertile land. Their alarm call -- a taut, nasal kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee -- pierced even the rumble-whine of traffic beyond.
None of that energy, human or avian, was on display the other day. Weeds now choke the untended rows, the white pipes and sprinkler heads have vanished, and no killdeer raised their sharp voices. Come spring, we'll have to hunt for a new vendor of that tender, succulent berry.
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's response 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.