The other day I sat down with Jonathan Gold, L.A. Times restaurant critic; Jared Farmer, author of books about the landscapes of the West, and Jon Christensen, environmental writer and editor of Boom: A Journal of California. We met at Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach on a hill that overlooks wetlands drained for oil production in the 1920s, tracts of suburban homes from the 1960s, and the congested ribbon of the Pacific Coast Highway.
We discussed the nature of Nature in Los Angeles in the midst of four acres of gardens that had been laid out in the first half of the 20th century by some of America's greatest landscapers: the Olmsted brothers, Paul J. Howard, William Hertrich, Florence Yoch, and Allen Chickering.
The temptation might be to consider the rancho and its gardens as an island of domesticated nature under siege by anti-nature.
I don't see it that way. From my perspective, Nature is pervasive, present everywhere, and intimate.
The conversation at the Rancho circled this notion of Nature's ubiquity and intimacy, grounded from time to time by Jonathan Gold's eloquent recollection of meals in Los Angeles and the larger meanings those meals can have.
For Gold, eating across the ethnic and social divides of Los Angeles can lead us to "be less afraid of [our] neighbors."
Cooking almost always improves raw nature (Gold thinks we have some of the best produce in the nation), but improvement has a conflicted history in California. As Farmer noted in a pre-conversation talk, migrants in the 19th century improved the unfamiliar landscapes of California in the 19th century in hopes of recreating the familiar wooded hills and river valleys east of the Appalachian Mountains.
In the process, California's possessors "emparadised" the state with more trees than California had, it seems, since the end of the last Ice Age.
That kind of improvement wasn't a paradise for all Californians. The busy settlers performed a miracle -- they turned the Golden State green -- but in the process they committed ecocide against native fish, amphibians, mammals, and migratory birds. They drained the Central Valley, redirected the hydrology of the Sierras, and turned the marshes and vernal pools of Los Angeles County into marketable real estate.
That real estate has lately become a kind of savannah -- a place of glades (front and back lawns) interrupted by woodland and scrub (street trees and gardens) with an abundance of food sources (unpicked fruit, small domestic animals).
The savannah of the suburbs is being repopulated today by native raccoons, coyotes, and even mountain lions. Nature has made an end-run around what we imagined Nature to be.
Improvement's unintended consequences puzzled me and my co-moderator Claudia Jurmain, the Rancho's Director of Special Projects and Publications. I wondered if charismatic mega-projects -- like efforts to restore the Los Angeles River -- would have unpredictable outcomes needing more even improvement in an endless cycle of ambition and regret.
Christensen countered with another question, "Who said there would any guarantees?"
This is the burden of placing us in the midst of Nature -- once there, we cannot be taken out of it.
With care, the nature of our place might be gardended into complicity with our desires. It would no longer be lonely, sublime wilderness. It still wouldn't be what we would desire Nature to be, but some hybrid of it and us.
The notion that Nature should be (or can be) our own weedy garden remains controversial among some environmentalists. The pioneering environmental activist Howard Zahniser said, speaking of wild places, that "we should be guardians, not gardeners."
Both Farmer and Christensen have a more nuanced, contemporary view of the human/Nature interface.
That interface is everywhere, from the locally foraged greens on the "locavore" menu to the Sequoias struggling though the current drought. We don't know -- and what our conversation at the Rancho could not resolve -- the level at which our interaction with Nature might be sustainable.
Mark Miodownik, writing in his book "Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World," argues that concrete, glass, textiles, and metal -- the stuff of the misnamed unnatural world -- do not just display our technology and culture; these things are part of us. "We invented them, he said, "and in turn they make us who we are."
There must be a way of reconciling a view of Nature that includes concrete and steel and coyotes and pine trees. Claudia Jurmain insisted that a new mythology of the Californian landscape needs to be woven from the raw and manmade stuff of our place to make that reconciliation possible.
Better myths but necessary to bind us to a willing, disciplined reciprocity with Nature.
Myths will figure into the last of the 2014 "Conversations in Place" on Sunday, November 9 under the heading "New Narratives and New Narrators of Southern California."
The conversationalists will be Lisa See, acclaimed novelist who has interpreted events in China and the United States through the medium of her Chinese American family; Andrew Bowers, former NPR White House correspondent and NPR bureau chief and now executive producer of Slate's award-winning podcasts; and David Kipen, founder of Libros Schmibros, a free lending library in Boyle Heights, book critic, and former director of reading initiatives at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Tickets may be purchased online here or by calling Rancho Los Alamitos at 562-431-3541.