I admit that this post is at best indirectly connected to the sorts of things that usually appear here. The poem — a brief ode — is for an esteemed colleague of Environmental Studies on the occasion of his retirement. His work in political theory has, for four decades, improved the ways in which people think about and act on behalf of rivers, woods, mountains …
Mr. Wilson’s Mustaches
While staying near the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which graciously provided hospitality during some of my fieldwork on the L.A. River, I frequently toured the short, shadowy hallways of David Wilson’s “cabinet of wonders.” The museum puts an emphasis on “muse-” in presenting its odd collection of objects and ideas. Calling itself “a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic,” the MJT features “unusual or curious” items from diverse areas of inquiry—music, science, folklore, cat’s cradle artists …
Exhibits, with titles such as “Scrupulous Fidelity” (the astronomical paintings of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot) and “The Lives of Perfect Creatures” (dogs of the Soviet Space program), range from the zoological (stink ants of the Cameroon and Myotis lucifugus, a bat that can fly through walls) to the esoteric (theories and practices of the magnetic arts in the work of 17th century scholar Athanasius Kircher) to the archaeological (treasures from Los Angeles Area Mobile Home and Trailer Parks). A visitor can be thrown off-balance by the juxtaposition of the unbelievably micro with the equally amazing macro. One might, for instance, pause before the FRUIT-STONE CARVING exhibit—a tiny seed, into which is carved “a Flemish landscape” that includes “a bearded man wearing a biretta, a long tunic of classical character, and thick-soled shoes” holding a viol held “between his knees while he tunes one of the strings,” with a menagerie “in the distance” (“including a lion, a bear, an elephant ridden by a monkey, a boar, a dog, a donkey, a stag, a camel, a horse, a bull, a bird, a goat a lynx, and a group of rabbits: the latter under a branch on which sit an owl, another bird and a squirrel”), all of which is on the front of the fruit stone, a seed that’s a half-inch high and less than that wide, while on the back is shown “an unusually grim Crucifixion, with a soldier on horseback, Longinus piercing Christ’s side with a lance, the cross is surmounted by a titulus inscribed INRI.” One might then step around the corner from the tiny encased carving and enter a suite of rooms that contain dazzling exempla from Kirchner’s studies involving lights, mirrors, sound, and sculpture. (All quotations from http://www.mjt.org)
But the exhibit that most haunts my memory has to do with forgetting. “The Delani/Sonnabend Halls” occupy a wing of the museum and are centered on the work of Geoffrey Sonnabend, “an associate professor of neurophysiology at Northwestern University,” and particularly his three-volume Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter. Inspired by the multi-chambered exhibit to further research on the professor, I found Bill Domonkos’s short (6 minutes) film, A Song for Sonnabend—itself a haunting little text making ample use of flowing water.
Gerald Leake’s frontispiece for The Boosters
I finished reading Mark Lee Luther’s The Boosters (1923) the same night I watched John Cassavetes’s film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Novel & movie were separated by more than the half-century between their respective release dates, representing contrasting visions of L.A. as destination, as destiny—but they tell similar stories about the Los Angeles River.
The novel offers a cheery narrative of Bostonian George Hammond, who heads to Los Angeles as a once-capable architect turned dyspeptic business failure. Goaded by his wife Harriet, who has California roots, the family take the train west. Through genial adaptability, considerable luck, the pluck of his children, & the reemergence of his latent talents, George’s fortunes reverse, his digestion is righted, the family flourishes. The L.A. they experience is a land of sunshine, opportunity, romance, & the occasional earthquake; it has hills, beaches, off-shore islands, & oil-fields, but no river worthy of mention.
The film also tells the tale of a man from the East Coast transplanted to the West. Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara), originally from NYC, owns a LA strip club, believes in style, & manages his affairs congenially if not quite successfully. In an early scene, after paying off a gambling debt & knocking back a couple scotch-&-waters, he talks with Eddie, a helpful cab-driver also from NYC, about the old days. Eddie (played by Eddie Shaw), from lower Manhattan, says of former uptowner Cosmo, “At least you had the river, the beautiful river,” & Cosmo smiles as he remembers swimming in the East River. Eddie says he used to go to the Hudson, then after a little more nostalgia, says, “But now were going home.” “Where?” “Your house.” “There’s no river there, Eddie.”
In both tales the river is missing—a superfluity for Hammond’s rise, an absence of fluidity in Vittelli’s fall. Joan Didion wrote that “California is a place in which a boom mentality & a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 174). Here too is where we run out of water.
A Southern California newspaper reports that the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas is 20% of the normal amount for this time of year. Although the southern Sierra are faring slightly better than the northern parts of the range, “The lack of snow in the West continues what was the driest calendar year on record for Los Angeles in 2013, when only 3.60 inches of rain was recorded in the downtown/USC area, breaking the old record of 4.08 inches set in 1953.”
Another California paper adds, “Even more concerning to state water providers is the forecast. On New Year’s Eve, the National Weather Service predicted that California is likely to see below-average rainfall for the entire month of January.” “Streams and rivers across the state are depleted,” says the Sacramento Bee. “According to gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey, only 25 percent of the 215 monitored streams had ‘normal’ water flow as of Friday, and 71 percent were below normal. About 21 percent are at unprecedented lows, a number that has doubled in the past two weeks.”
And I read in this morning’s New York Times of the Colorado River, diminished by 14 years of drought that “will reduce even more the level of Lake Mead, a crucial source of water for cities from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and for millions of acres of farmland.” As one official put it, agencies have continued to plan as if the old normal were still in effect. “There’s always been within the current planning an embedded hope that somehow, things would return to something more like normal.”
Old Normal, whither hast thou gone & why doth thou wither so?
Sources: Grist (1/6/14); San Gabriel Valley Tribune (1/3/14); Sacramento Bee (1/6/14); New York Times 1/6/14)
I was awoken in the middle of the night by someone shaking me.
Or so I thought. It turned out to be violent shivering brought on by a fever. As I tried various modes of dress & undress while the fever broke & fixed itself, thoughts turned to the season — Holiday season, not flu, but actually both, I guess — & especially those movies seen a thousand times in childhood. Visions of Bing Crosby & Rosemary Clooney danced in my head, a gauzy recollection of them singing about counting one’s blessings, so I did: my family, our friends, my work, our home…. These, however, became mixed up with less happy aspects: seeing too little of our speedily growing sons, friends facing great challenges, local national global woes. And this febrile mix of the merry & not-so-merry sent me off thinking about “Happy” again (see the 7 December post) with its uplifting beat & cheery dancers shimmying across sunny L.A.
The feverish mind started in on feverish questions: Would the video be more effective if it weren’t 24 hours of happy? Say, 6 hours of not-so-happy, a few in the haze of afternoon, a bad hour after one of those meetings, a couple more in an insomniac night. What if it were shot on the North Coast instead of the West? (My wife, Good Queen Wenceslhasa, had wondered this as well.) That might temper the glee somewhat: people trying to bust a move in parkas on the thin ice of the Black River, or reservedly tapping the dashboard behind a frosty windshield, or a nondescript character simply hurrying away from the camera over an icy sidewalk, or one long lonesome black-&-white “Stranger Than Paradise” shot of Lake Erie. What if other, less happy parts of Los Angeles had a role?
Which is about when the fever left. What fascinates me about the L.A. River is its made up, messed up, mixed up nature; it is not all sunshine & smiles. SoCal glories converge with ghastliness. At some of the river’s confluences with tributaries, “Happy” merges with “Grim.” Happy is part of What Is, but not all, & at various confluences I discovered this: in exploring the river, I am mostly trying to understand What Is.
Arroyo Seco + L.A. River
Rio Hondo + L.A. River
Compton Creek + L.A. River
The things I do for research.
Pharrell Williams has released what purports to be the world’s first 24-hour music video, which you can view on line by clicking the link below. The video consists of a continuous loop of his 4-minute song “Happy,” with the camera tracking the movements of a number of characters as they dance their way across Los Angeles. You can forward through the loop — & you will likely need to do so after a few minutes — to about 7 a.m., at which point dancers spin-flail-bounce-contort-gesticulate-skip-lipsync-smile their way along the bikepath that runs next to sections of the Los Angeles River. The shots of the river are fleeting but the characters are compelling.
At approximately 7:56 a.m. (PST), a woman manifests her glee on the dry plain of the river in the downtown section, followed at 8 a.m. by Pharrell Williams himself, dancing downriver from 4th Street on the concrete bed, the low-flow channel full, running fast, spilling over in places (though tire-tracks are more widespread than water). He turns & gyrates up the tunnel under the 6th Street Viaduct, & soon dancers & camera-crew leave the river behind.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, I suppose, & “Happy” aims to contribute to the Kettle of Good Cheer. The people & the city are all rather winning & the song is catchy, but I think I went through something like the five stages of grief as I listened & watched: Intrigued, Infected, Irked, Insane, & finally (if intermittently), In-the-Groove. As Elvis Costello said, “C’mon, Get Happy.”
I woke long before the alarm this morning, made coffee & sat sipping it until leaving on a predawn dog-&-cat walk. Rags nosing along the margin of the bikepath behind me, Meme keeping one eye on Rags & the other on everything else, I was enjoying the unseasonably warm breeze & reflecting on recent fieldwork in Los Angeles when I was called to return to my senses.
Out of the darkness, an owl — four crisp hoots, generously spaced — each break of silence a warning that the sun might not rise — night the new day.
Back home, I ate a handful of almonds as I looked out the backdoor. In the dark, prayer flags waving in the wind, & in the glass a dim reflection of a white beard moving, mirroring the flags.
The owl, among its other offices, called to mind a recently published essay, in which I reflect on its kin & the meaning of rivers:
McMillin – Transdisciplinarity 2
Over & out.