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Emparadised: How We 'Improved' Los Angeles With Trees

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Its critics today imagine Los Angeles to be a place of too much: too much kale, too much sprawl, too much sunshine, too much bared flesh, and far too much phoniness. Its American occupiers in the 19th century thought Los Angeles was a place of not enough.

Specifically, not enough timber. The Los Angeles Plain was wooded when settlers from the East Coast first saw it, but it wasn't exactly forested. Only a few sycamores and cottonwoods edged the more persistent streams.

For the previous 5,000 years, Native Americans had tended scattered groves of oaks on the hillsides above the plain, thinning the oak seedlings with fire to maximize the acorn crop, a staple of the native diet. And despite the 70 years of European colonization that followed, the Los Angeles plain still lacked trees.

As James C. Williams noted in "Energy and the Making of Modern California", the development of Los Angeles didn't have the fuel to run a steam-driven economy until 1892, when Doheny and Canfield brought in the first successful oil well in the Los Angeles City field, setting off both a petroleum boom and an industrial one. It wasn't until the expansion of distribution networks for natural gas and hydroelectricity in the early 20th century that Los Angeles began to overtake Northern California as the state's industrial powerhouse.

Los Angeles at first wasn't as advertised to its Anglo occupiers. Jared Farmer points out in "Trees in Paradise," the "savannah and chaparral puzzled American settlers from eastern climes. They missed the shade, the green, and the chatter of songbirds. Accustomed to bosky abundance -- and habituated to unthrifty wood use -- they desired lumber and firewood, lots of it. Settlers wasted no time 'improving' the scene once the United States seized control of the Far West."

Farmer resurrects an antique word -- emparadise -- to describe what the American settlers did next. The "paradised" Los Angeles with what they thought Los Angeles lacked -- trees for shade, construction lumber, and firewood. Angeleños have been improving the place with trees ever since.

Farmer argues that:

These "improvers" believed they could accomplish good works through tree culture, a nineteenth-century term for a body of practical knowledge that included afforestation, horticulture, and landscaping. American settlers in the Far West wanted to "complete" a land blessed with exceptional sun and soil. By adding drought-tolerant trees from other parts of the world, California horticulturists succeeded in making grasslands wooded. ... Dendrophiles called it "reclaiming" the "wastelands." With imported flora and water, improvers also created shady parks, campuses, and boulevards. They forced grasslands and wetlands to metamorphose into fields, orchards, and garden cities. As a result of rural and urban afforestation, the whole region contains more trees today than at any time since the late Pleistocene.

(Nathan Masters in these pages has told the origin stories of the region's palms, oaks, sycamores, pepper trees, Morton Bay figs, and eucalyptus trees. Jacarandas were one of Huell Howser's topics.)

Improvement had racist and class overtones. The "desolation" of Los Angeles -- that is, a place without enough trees -- had been the fault of primitive Native Americans and indolent mestizo Californios. Planting a tree rooted Anglo wholesomeness in a landscape that its possessors feared was not entirely suited to what William McClung memorably called "the demands of their desire."

In the shade of every tree they planted, the improvers hoped to redeem Los Angeles from its former possessors. Its imperfections were perfected.

That tree also improved you, they thought, at least as much as it improved the landscape. What you nurtured in your garden fed your hunger for an orderly world.

We carry on improving Los Angeles and ourselves, meddling in the landscape, ever anxious to perfect the lacks in what other improvers handed to us. Is it any wonder that I call our place a ruined paradise ... ruined but a paradise still?

Root around in the word "paradise" and you'll find words that describe an enclosed garden, a place planted with trees. That is the Los Angeles plain today.

But improvements are vulnerable. Farmer concludes his history of the iconic trees of California with the observation that:

(C)limate history is not on California's side. Dendrochronologists have compiled a sequoia tree-ring chronology going back nearly four thousand years. According to the growth rings, the period from 1850 to 1950 -- California's first century as an American state -- had the lowest frequency of drought for any hundred-year period in the past two millennia. In other words, American horticulturists got very, very lucky.

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