A series of recent news headlines have reminded us that our city—often associated with brown skies, high-speed pavement, and its concrete river—still maintains an intimate relationship with nature.
Throughout the summer, spooked residents of Burbank and Glendale reported at least five mountain lion sightings. "I have a 4-year-old daughter and 10-year-old girl," one man told the Los Angeles Times. "I am just seriously scared." Then, on August 30, a cougar sprinting across the 405 freeway in the Santa Monica Mountains was struck and killed by rush hour traffic. Most recently, L.A. County officials struggled with the fate of a pack of coyotes that moved into an abandoned Glendale house.
For those living on the edge between L.A.'s urban sprawl and the surrounding undeveloped mountains, such encounters may be an unavoidable but frightening reminder of wild nature's proximity, like the firestorms that occasionally turn the brown slopes red. For residents of the vast flatlands of L.A., though, these headlines also serve as a reminder of the landscape destroyed by more than 240 years of settlement.
Prior to Spanish colonization, the vast Los Angeles Basin and the nearby inland valleys hosted an expansive prairie ecosystem.
Grasses and wildflowers covered much of the land, interrupted by sycamore-lined arroyos and streams. One of the watercourses, the Los Angeles River, had an outsize influence on the landscape. Issuing from the vast subterranean reservoir of the San Fernando Valley, the river flowed year-round into coastal marshes. Never a broad, placid river like those of the eastern United States, the Los Angeles River's flow often slowed to a trickle. Exceptionally heavy rains, though, would transform the tame river into a raging torrent that could not be trusted to keep to its channel.
In fact, for some time the river did not flow toward its current mouth on San Pedro Bay; instead, it turned west toward Santa Monica Bay after passing what is today downtown Los Angeles. In 1815, the river overflowed its banks and began carving a shortcut to the sea, bringing the river uncomfortably close to the still-fledgling Los Angeles pueblo. The town was forced to abandon its original plaza and construct a new one on higher ground.
Ten years later, the storm-swollen river burst through its banks again, this time sculpting an entirely new channel that headed directly south toward San Pedro Bay, the present location of the river's mouth. Ballona Creek, which today empties into the Pacific Ocean just south of Marina Del Rey, is a remnant of the Los Angeles River's former path.
On the drier grasslands not flooded by the river's flow, herds of pronghorn antelope roamed freely, and holes made by the prairie's many rodent species pockmarked the ground. Condors, eagles, and other birds of prey soared above, sharing the sky with a diverse group of larks, sparrows, and plovers.
At the apex of the food chain stood California's eventual symbolic state animal, the grizzly bear. Unlike the more docile American black bear, the larger grizzly thrived in the flat, open savannas and grasslands of Southern California. Omnivorous, they were especially adept at digging through the ground in search of gophers, weasels, and other subterranean rodents. Grizzlies were so important to the local environment that, until recently, ecologists referred to the dominant Southern California biome as the Broad Sclerophyll-Grizzly Bear Community.
Humans also inhabited the land, of course. The Tongva Indians had occupied the Los Angeles Basin and its adjacent valleys for hundreds or even thousands of years. As the Militant Angeleno recently detailed in his blog's Native Week series, dozens of villages dotted the region, supporting a population of five to ten thousand. Although the Tongva did not inflict the kind of environmental trauma that our metropolis does today, they did shape the land over the centuries through brush-clearing fires, hunting, and intensive foraging.
Because the Tongva did not keep written records of their world, the observations of early European explorers and settlers, carefully preserved in libraries and archives, have been an invaluable resource to ecologists like Paula Schiffman who have reconstructed L.A.'s lost landscape. Among the best sources are two early Spanish visitors to the region: Pedro Fages, a soldier who explored the area in 1775; and Pedro Font, a missionary who accompanied Juan Bautista de Anza during his 1775-76 expedition through California.
Font entered the San Gabriel Valley on January 3, 1776, describing the plain as "a country very level on all sides; we found it very green in spots, and the blossoms already bursting forth." Two days later, he made a salad out of a plants he found growing naturally near a spring, one of which he described as celery and the others as "passably good little lettuces."
The next month, Anza's and Font's expedition crossed the Los Angeles River, then known as the Porciuncula: "We crossed the...river, which carries a good amount of water and runs toward the San Pedro bight and spreads out and loses itself upon the plains shortly before reaching the sea. The land was very green and flowery and the route had a few hills and a great deal of miry grounds created by the rains."
Fifty-six years later, the early Anglo settler Hugo Reid described the animal life beneath the grasslands:
Squirrels, rabbits, and gophers were continually scurrying down into their holes, out of harm's way. Indeed, these tiny animals had so honeycombed the surface of the ground as to make it dangerous to ride anywhere off the roadway faster than at a walk. The caravan stretched out in a thin line along a road the surface of which seemed no smoother than the open field. Only in this way was it possible to avoid stumbling, dropping a load, and perhaps breaking a leg.
Only the earliest visitors to the region witnessed L.A.'s indigenous prairie, which was destroyed long before parking lots and subdivisions replaced the region's wild flatlands. As the presence of Europeans grew, invasive Mediterranean species—transported accidentally or intentionally from the Old World—began to supplant the native flora. Horses and longhorn cattle, introduced by Spanish missionaries and allowed to graze freely over the valleys and coastal plain, disrupted the careful balance of the ecosystem. The final end of the prairie could perhaps be dated to the disappearance of its keystone species, the grizzly bear, which Angelenos hunted to local extinction in the 1890s.
Our city's native landscape may be lost today, but reminders of the city's ecological history abound.
Many of the flora and fauna of the Los Angeles prairie have vanished, but some of Southern California's indigenous wildlife have adapted to the new urban ecosystem. Raccoons, skunks, and a host of bird species—joined by non-native species such as rats, eastern fox squirrels, and opossums—have moved from the neighboring chaparral communities of the hillsides into the artificial urban woodland of our modern metropolis.
Although straitjacketed in concrete for much of its route, the Los Angeles River still traces its post-1825 course to San Pedro Bay, its flow augmented by urban runoff. In some segments, pressure from upwelling water made it impossible to pave the river completely; in the Glendale Narrows, for example, cottonwoods spring up from the river's earthen bottom.
Natural history is also embedded in some of our city's place names. Downtown's Aliso Street refers to an ancient, 60-foot-tall sycamore, named El Aliso by early Spanish settlers, where the region's Tongva tribal leaders would once congregate. La Cienega Boulevard recalls the marshes (ciénagas in Spanish) where, as Font saw, the Los Angeles River lost itself before reaching the ocean.