We all have favourite places, right? I want to share with you one of mine.
It’s 80 km of heavily reinforced concrete. It’s in one of the world’s mega-cities. It’s a convenient place to film car chase scenes, and also a place to horse ride, to wander, kayak, make art, and find space.
It’s the Los Angeles River. A watercourse that has become a surprisingly major feature in the topography of my life.
Over the next many years, I intend to write a lot about this utterly remarkable river. You can read a little of my work by clicking this link.
Here, I wanted to share three reasons I’m head over heels in love with the LA River:
1. It’s a reminder to examine our past to make sense of our present. We can only behave in environmentally responsible ways if we understand the impacts of how we live, if we are able to recognise changes in our environment, and if we are able to have a sense of place that makes caring for the environment worthwhile and meaningful. History has a big role to play. It can bring the river into people’s awareness through stories of times past. The need for this is intensified when those stories no longer speak for themselves, where their more obvious traces have been erased by time and urban development. In places like Los Angeles.
2. It testifies to the tenacity of nature. The moral of this story is that nature pretty much always wins. It may be a slow revitalisation, the wins may be small at first, but the dandelions do grow through the cracks, and the babbling springs did stop the river bed being cemented in places along the river’s course, in spite of the engineers making repeated attempts. In the Los Angeles Times in 1979, for example, readers were regaled with: ‘Sunflowers, cattails, honeysuckle and just plain weeds, their will is to live and their need is to grow. Never mind the concrete. Away with the asphalt. It is the time of survival’ (“Life Flows on Even as Rivers Turn to Concrete,” Los Angeles Times, 26 July 1979).
3. It’s an urban haven. In a big city, finding a quiet place can be mighty hard. Indeed, one clever Australia-based project is devoted to crowd-sourcing knowledge about quiet places in big cities, because our brains and hearts and souls need a little peace sometimes (check it out here). One of the many faces of the Los Angeles River is its serene one – horses clip-clopping along, small rapids rolling over boulders, birds and fish reclaiming their place. The horse and rider in the photo is just fifteen minutes away from that stretch of Hollywood Boulevard where the Oscars happen, where out-of-luck actors don movie star costumes and bail you up for photos, where tourists from everywhere search out their favourite stars on the walk of fame, and where at Grauman’s Chinese you can compare hand and foot sizes with your celebrity idol. The river offers an almost otherworldy solitude, and a connection to nature that is so often unrequited in cities of this scale.
Highly urbanised environments like Los Angeles can be hard to get to know. They can systemically disconnect us from understanding nature. They contain rivers that do not match our storybook images, and can give a false impression of human dominion over nature, although nothing could be further from the truth.
The majestic Los Angeles River, encased in concrete, in the megalopolis of Los Angeles, has been an unexpected point of connection for me with nature, it has redrawn my storybook river images, and has reminded me, beyond any doubt, that nature wins. And so it ought.