How Crows Helped Me Fall in Love With Where I Am

My nature and the crow's
My nature and the crow's | Photo: nouspique | Flickr: Creative Commons License
Commencement address delivered to the graduates of the Master's Program in Urban
Sustainability of Antioch University Los Angeles on Sunday, April 28, 2013

It is fitting that we gather here -- in the light and air of Los Angeles and on its good earth -- to commence another starting point in your lives and to celebrate what you have achieved.

Your studies advance each of you into the company of men and women here and throughout the world who have made "sustainability" both an "ethic" for living and the work they intend to do. Hands and hearts joined in work and in belief and beginning here in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is famously a city of new beginnings ... a city of second chances and third and fourth and even more chances. Generations of Angeleños have been fortunate that this place has been so accepting of us and our many beginnings.

The materials of our place at its own beginning in 1781 seemed so meager -- just earth, air, sunlight, and too little water -- but from these simple gifts was assembled a landscape for our lives that has satisfied so many of our desires.

Embedded in that landscape is the paradox* of "nature" here.

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A cynic may object, "There is no nature in Los Angeles." After all, our hills are covered with tract houses. Our rivers are concrete channels. The air overhead is a petrochemical byproduct. The city's water flows from a conspiracy that made the Owens Valley a desert. And pavement marches to the horizon in every direction.

And yet all of this and we, too, are embedded in nature, made out of nature ... not "nature" as an ideal "wilderness" but an intimate "nature" in which I believe we discover what sustains us.

Nearly every day, I walk to my volunteer job over the dead level streets of suburban Lakewood. There are only a few pedestrians. But I'm always accompanied.

My suburban street is a concrete and asphalt fraction of the uniform grid of Los Angeles, but nature is never absent there. Mourning doves, mocking birds, scrub jays, and house sparrows have accompanied my walk for as long as I can remember, either in person or as a fugue of their calls ... song that erupts, repeats overhead, and follows me down my block.

Further down the block, a woodpecker has worked at the bark of a backyard elm for several days this spring. I'd never heard that before. Parakeets flock over my street. They're new immigrants in my neighborhood.

I've seen hawks perched on the branches of the street trees the developers of my suburb planted. 60 years ago. I'm sure the developers didn't expect the hawks. And in recent days, my walk has been punctuated by the warning cries of juvenile crows ugly sounding cries and very ordinary.

The young crows are giving advice to other crows that I'm passing through their nature. Just as the crows are passing through my nature.

My block of tract houses is utterly commonplace but it's also a common ground for the crows and for me where nature at every scale shapes both my behavior and the crows'. For me, the nature that touches my life doesn't reside "out there" in big, charismatic chunks of wilderness.

In my neighborhood and in this tragic and lovely city of Los Angeles, nature is in the shared spaces between us ... in the places between you and me, and between us and the crows ... places where habits of life are shaped by all the patterns in the landscape.

This is nature's city, just as it's yours and mine and the crows'.

Too many of us mistakenly believe that we live in a region without any traces of memory in a city devoid of us and of our ordinariness in a place empty of nature's intimacy. "There once was a perfect Eden," the conventional story of Los Angeles goes, "to which gullible people were lured and then this Edenic Los Angeles declined through a moment of triumphant urbanism to the horrors of suburbanization." And the moral of this story is "people ruin places."

I believe that people and places form each other, the touch of one returning the touch of the other. I believe that places acquire their sacredness through this giving and taking. And with that ever-returning touch, we acquire something equally sacred.

What we acquire of course is a home.

We want to be "at home" in nature and in our relations with one another and in our understanding of the past, but we don't know how.

In the novels and essays of Joan Didion is a fascination with something she called "the unspeakable peril of the everyday" ... the coyote by the backyard pool, the rattlesnake in the baby's playpen, the Santa Ana wind pulling at the patio door.

Given the weight of our anxieties about the perils of the everyday given the burden of our regents about our past the question I strive to answer is "How do we make a home here?"

This is a question for all the figures in our landscape: Anglo, African-American, Latino, Asian, and indigenous peoples all of us in our containers of class and limited imaginations.

When I walk out the front door of my home, I step into a familiar pattern streets, parks, places of worship, schools, and stores. I see the human-scale, porous, and specific landscape into which was poured the ordinariness that has shaped my work, my convictions, and my aspirations.

I enter a nature that breaks through my self-absorption. I cross a grid not just of concrete and asphalt but of stories, too. I renew my "sense of place."

My "sense of place" begins in the belief that each of us has an inner, imaginative landscape compounded of memory and longing that seeks to be connected to an outer landscape that includes the crows and the hawks all of nature as well as my neighbors and all that we've made together.

I believe that possessing a "sense of place" is, like a "sense of self," part of the equipment of a conscious mind. And I believe that "home" whatever "home" is to you is where such a "sense of place" abides.

Some Angeleños are finding their "sense of place" in the most unlikely of places. Downtown for one, where the inhuman "City of Quartz" described by historian Mike Davis is acquiring a human (if gentrified) face.

Or consider the "places of memory" that the Trust for Public Land has created in Maywood, Bell, and Paramount. Their industrial brownfields have been remade as parks.

Or consider the many forms of "environmental justice" at work, challenging the institutions of dominance with what is local, specific, communal, sensible, and even humble.

The Los Angeles River is another place where a "sense of place" is being remade. The river is where the city's story almost comes full circle -- from wilderness to industrial wasteland to its restoration to us and to the city's nature.

The slow greening of the Los Angeles River is a sobering demonstration of the limits of environmental action. But, it's also a powerful demonstration of a fragmented city pulling itself together.

We think of civic life here and we yearn for accountability, respect, and decency.

We think of our own history and we desire remembrance, not amnesia.

We think of our neighborhoods and we want burdens shared not callous indifference.

Instead of betrayal and cynicism, we yearn for a healthy ecology of hope.

There are no perfect solutions to these desires only approximations in the form of a more "sustainable city."

For me, a sustainable city is one that meets human needs and the needs of the environment in ways that are just, economically efficient, grounded in our history, and based on the best available science without compromising either the welfare or the dreams of future generations.

We do not have the city we yearn for. That work is unfinished and left for you to begin.

We have incomparable beaches and mountains, but they're separated from urban neighborhoods by a transit system that is still inadequate.

Fresh and healthy food is not in the hands of those who are hungry.

The air is cleaner, but not clean enough.

The city of Los Angeles imports water at significant environmental cost and flushes treated wastewater out to sea, along with nearly all the runoff from winter rains.

Justice to the environment and to our communities seems so clear that we could grasp it, yet justice is too often beyond our reach.

These contradictions can be made right.

If we're to make a sustainable Los Angeles within your lifetimes, you will have to connect the nature we've got with the home we've made.

It will take the initiative of city councils to create more parks, with the goal of putting recreational open space no more than a half-mile walk from every home.

It will require showing skeptical NIMBYs that higher-density "infill housing" merits their support.

It will require greater flexibility from community stakeholders and better land use coordination.

It will require the work of your hearts and your hands.

I believe that we will find the answers among you and among citizen planners, citizen foresters, and even citizen historians who are willing to be implicated in this city's nature.

The author and environmentalist Barry Lopez considered some years ago what might be needed to make a home here. Lopez asked, "How can we become vulnerable to the place where we are?"

Hunger for memory is one way to become vulnerable. Take delight in your city's stories. Find yourself in its history. Nurture that bit of utopian aspiration from which all things of worth always come. And be brave.

Built-out, maximally diverse, more urban, and more grown up, Los Angeles requires courage to extend one's imagination across its whole, flawed, tragic, sacred, human, and humanizing body.

We can choose to become "vulnerable."

We can choose to acquire a "sense of place."

We can make a home in our ruined paradise.

But how?

It really is a question of falling in love.

It may surprise you to learn that Lopez's meditation on vulnerability wasn't prompted by some threatened piece of California wilderness. The object of his regard was the place where he grew up -- a tract house neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. And Lopez had this amazing insight while contemplating the valley. He wrote . . . "Always when I return, I have found again the ground that propels me past the great temptation of our time to put one's faith in despair."

That spirit impels me forward out of loyalty to my home, to its raucous crows, and to its flawed and wonderful people of whom I do not despair.

What I have been speaking of is the acquisition something more than an idiosyncratic sensibility but a communal achievement that requires something from all of us. I have to call it the making of a "moral imagination" ... an imagination by which we write ourselves into the story of this place, embrace it as a home, and negotiate a way from the purely personal to the public.

Today, Los Angeles is beginning again sustained by the "moral imaginations" of many new actors in our landscape and proving that there is an ecology of hope.

By your academic efforts and with your dreams, you are uniquely suited to cultivate all the possibilities of hope. You know the history of our environmental struggles. You see how neighborhood interests connect to the larger community. Your course work and experience have shown you that you cannot separate the idea of any city from the idea of nature.

And now, at this moment of your new beginning in this city of second and third chances, how will you serve its ecology of hope?

  • Hunger for a home.
  • Long for a "sense of place" predicated on your vulnerability to it.
  • Cling to the familiar things you touch and which reciprocate with their returning touch.
  • Become implicated in the city's history.

And finally, fall in love with where you are.

* I'm indebted to Jenny Price (author of "Flight Maps") for her insights into the nature of "nature" in Los Angeles.

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