Wetlands, Wildflowers, and Lost Los Angeles

Nathan Masters recently posted to these pages a powerful text and narrative account of the wetlands that once lay in a wide southeast-to-northwest band that is overlaid today by miles of tract houses. As does the KCET Departures series on the Los Angeles River (here), Masters highlights the historical instability of the Los Angeles landscape:

In 1825, some combination of torrential flooding and earthquakes shifted the course of the Los Angeles River: while it previously flowed west through what is today the channel of the Ballona Creek, in 1825 it jumped its banks and began flowing south to the San Pedro Bay. The entire Ballona Creek watershed, then, was still adjusting to the reduced water flow when California entered the Union in 1850.

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There would be more flooding in the decades that followed, notably in 1938 when the wide valley between the Baldwin Hills and Beverly Hills became a vast lake. The 1938 flood was an extreme example (and the catastrophe that led to the complete channelization of the Los Angeles River). But until the end of the 19th century, the restless San Gabriel, Santa Ana, and Los Angeles rivers shifted their beds almost every year, sometimes several times in the same season of rain. In the 1870s, the Los Angeles River had no mouth; a third of its length to the ocean was captured by the San Gabriel River.

The dynamics of flooding, fire, drought, contrasting hillside and wetland ecologies, and ultimately the human presence on the Los Angeles plain drove repeated and profound changes in the landscape of which only the most recent are well understood. Even at the level of popular imagination, many of the characteristic features of "natural" Los Angeles - from palm trees to the blond heads of wild oats to the ubiquitous mustard growing through sidewalk cracks - are human-caused intrusions. Even the native California poppy has widened its natural range through deliberate cultivation.

Jennifer Price, best known to readers of these pages as a founder of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers, has written thoughtfully and extensively about what we think of as "nature" in Los Angeles (here: Part 1 and Part 2). What I take from her work as "philosopher of nature" is a brave willingness to demolish artificial distinctions. "Nature" isn't over there (exoticism) or in the past (nostalgia). It's present, insistently in the here and now.

The history of Ballona Creek or the lost wetlands of West Los Angeles ought not to be an occasion for sentimentality in which "lost" is the operative word. The Los Angeles plain has been a site of repeated loss since the arrival of Paleo-Indian migrants sometime around 15,000 years ago. Nature and the human presence - in tandem and in conflict - have been remaking our landscape ever since.

Our burden as dwellers in this place is to understand that complicity, to remember it, and to take mindful action. This ruined paradise is, after all, our home.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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