The problem of Los Angeles (a perplexing subset of the everlasting problem of America) is how to make a home here. And here, what we call home is framed in terms of other places - the places beyond the rise of the costal bluffs of the beach towns and past the gridded middle-class suburbs in the valleys of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.Our idea of Los Angeles is haunted by places "out there" - outside the margins of the familiar, where the local qualities of light, air, noontime temperature, and nighttime dark often suggest unease. This is part of the hallucinatory quality of living here - that so much of L.A. is so very alike, but each of us living here will project so much desperation into someone else's ordinariness.
Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem wrote of the alien place that "lies only an hour east of Los Angeles . . . a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is a bad month for the wind . . . It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, whenever the wind blows."
That desolated wind is always blowing, in the imagination of this city, in the dry places that are a short freeway ride to new subdivisions. Out there (an eastward arc from Lancaster to Llano), the wind would carry a Didionesque scream over mesas, arroyos, and sand dunes endlessly. This is our secret fear in Los Angeles: No one would take any notice.
In Reconstructing Los Angeles: A Journey to the Antelope Valley and Beyond, Deanne Stillman and Mark Lamonica do take notice and show how that regard changes almost everything in our assumptions about Los Angeles.
Stillman and Lamonica journey through a harsher Los Angeles: sun-struck by long summers, cold in the few weeks of winter, dry except when a day or two of sudden rain pushes over the mountains to make the swales and the foothill meadows bloom fiercely the following spring. The true desert is a mirror image of the false semi-tropics of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, but not any less the complementary other half of Los Angeles.
Who would think that that much of what passes for history in Los Angeles is actually the history of its desert backyard? Passage through it broke and made men; life in it burdened and liberated some women (think of Mary Austin); today's forgetfulness about it leaves an essential part of our story missing. Stillman and Lamonica remember. Above all, they remember that Los Angeles should be experienced as an entire landscape - not a collection of disconnected exceptions, not a cinematic montage of locales. Whole landscapes, properly understood, are whole stories, too. And their wholeness has a saving capacity, whatever your choice of faith.
Stillman's stories are cautionary. "By the year 2050," she notes, "the population of Southern California will reach 31.6 million." How will the latest seekers in the desert remake the dreamscape of Los Angeles?
The distillation of this question is the Antelope Valley east of Los Angeles. It's L.A.'s own boom town, army camp, high-tech business incubator, drug lab, and spiritual retreat. The valley had a population of 30,000 in 1970. In 2007, it was 400,000. It was on its way to one million by 2020 before the mortgage crisis of 2008.
The valley leads now in foreclosures, as well as in squatters holing up in abandoned houses and the spectacle of suburban lawns turning to tumbleweeds. The valley has seen this kind of boom and bust before. The utopian colony of Llano del Rio slowly imploded in the 1920s while a fascinated Aldus Huxley watched. And TV pitchmen hawked unimproved desert lots to gullible retirees in the 1960s to leave behind whole cities of empty lots.
Like the iconic Joshua tree and the yucca moth that is its sole pollinator, the mutualism between dreamers and those who sell dreams is an essential part of the valley's ecology. The Joshua tree is threatened by climate change, so dependant is it on the specifics of rainfall and moon rise. And today's dreamers in the high desert are equally threatened.
The Antelope Valley has a Janus-like quality, looking backward into our past and forward to an uncertain future.