Where I'm Reading: Beneath the Sycamores

Books and I have been in conflict this year. I'm losing. Despite various strategies on my part, printed words have rebelled, taking on all sorts of disguises and presenting themselves in dressup where they're not wanted. A page of ordinary type increasingly contains imposters, like wily saboteurs working behind the lines. Ridiculous confusion about the intent of the president or the history citrus culture ensues. The only thing left is the decision when to buy a Kindle or one its look-alikes.

I'm waiting (I tell myself) until the new models come out later this summer. There's always a new model coming out, and I'm good at waiting.

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While I wait and while the weather remains extraordinarily fair in my tract house suburb, I've taken to reading library books under the sycamore trees that punctuate the plaza in front of the city's conference center.

Punctuate is a right, since the sycamore trees are set in wells in the concrete plaza that lets on to a parking lot planted with more sycamore trees bordered by the highway that edges the shopping center. There's a mechanical stream in the plaza that, when switched on, runs over concrete blocks and chuckles through some brick stops. It's not Walden Pond.

But then, Thoreau's deliberate cabin on the northern margin of Walden Pond (actually, a rather large lake) is within walking distance of the Concord Turnpike still and the mainline railroad tracks whose trains Thoreau heard. Thoreau used to walk over to Emerson's house for dinner. Emerson owned the woodlot in which Thoreau built his cabin.

The city's wholly artificial plaza, like Thoreau's pond, has its own nature. A year ago, three hawks hung out in a big Brazilian pepper tree planted in 1958 when Lakewood City Hall opened in the midst of so much optimism (a booming economy) and so much terror (nuclear "mutually assured destruction"). The hawks had a fine time frightening mourning doves and mocking birds as they patrolled from the pepper tree to the farthest sycamore and back. The hawks left and the "threat level" for the bird population dropped to the level maintained by the feral cats.

There are medium-sized butterflies under the sycamores now. Their wings are mostly yellow and edged in black (as near as I can make them out). If I were more a collector of facts, I'd know -- like Thoreau or better, Nabokov -- both the double-barreled scientific name and the common name for these yellow and black butterflies, but I'm not that kind of collector.

The plaza, when the stream is running, has been a good place to read. The shade under the sycamores is even. The sycamore leaves have a translucence in this season that lets through a green luminance. There are some tables with umbrellas and metal chairs that are adequate for a couple of hours of hard sitting.

The afternoons have been warm, but the trees temper the warmth, and there's generally a breeze. The adjacent highway delivers a large watery rumble along with the occasional ambulance howl and Harley-Davidson growl. People occasionally cross the plaza from one civic center building to another. Children let out of martial arts classes horse around the artificial stream. Combat education hasn't taken too much of the kid out of them. A parent pushing a stroller will sometimes take a seat, worn out from strolling perhaps.

The afternoon light on the plaza -- with the green eyeshade effect of the sycamore leaves -- has been an aid to reading. (Last year's hawks were no help at all.) I'll finish another book today, another collection by a dead American essayist. This progress through native belles lettres may be a valediction to reading processed wood products; I'm not sure.

Next year, when the leaves of the sycamore trees are pale green again, so that the sunlight passing through picks out each thin vein radiating from the leaf stem, I may be in the shade again, this time with an e-reader cranked up to the largest type size. The mourning doves, with their fatal attraction to the ground, may escape the feral cats. The mocking birds may make it through another summer of West Nile. The yellow butterflies, wings solemnly edged in black, surely will dip and ascend again in the light under the branches.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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