The End of the River (continued)   Leave a comment

{1.4} Running 51 miles from concrete headwaters through the heart of the most populous county in the United States and emptying into the Pacific at its engineered mouth, the L.A. River is a study in paradox. Perhaps better than any other stream in the United States, it makes plain that an obtuse question worthy of Heraclitus—When is a river not a river?—is more than a philosophical conundrum. For the ancient Greek thinker, flowing water was an opportunity to consider a fundamental paradox of reality: things constantly change, including human beings, even though forms seem to stay the same: “We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.”[1] Paradox—etymologically, thinking in a manner that moves one beyond convention or orthodoxy—entails an unbelievable or even absurd contradiction that nonetheless affords us a glimpse of something true. The Los Angeles River, by both being a river and by not being a river, poses a host of questions about our understanding of natural phenomena: questions about being and meaning; about what we call “the environment”; political and societal questions; and questions about the ecological and economic future of cities.

Before it was called “river,” even before it was called “río,” the stream and its watershed attracted the attention of various lifeforms, including humans. Hokan-speaking peoples lived near the waters as long as 10,000 years ago, until they were absorbed into or displaced by the Tongva or Kizh (the name is disputed by current descendants) around 1300-1400 years ago. These peoples were renamed the Gabrielenos (or Gabrielinos), which meant “people belonging to the Mission at San Gabriel,” by the Spanish in honor of the religious outpost they had established on Tongva land in 1771. The Tongva are considered to have been relatively well off among native peoples of the greater southwestern region, thanks in no small part to the life and livelihood provided by the river (though they were better known for their skill at navigating the ocean in long canoe-like boats).[2] They settled close to the banks, but not too close, preferring high ground, which early Europeans didn’t quite understand—at first. As do other Southern California streams, the principal waterway of the Los Angeles basin has always had two primary manifestations: “a small, gentle stream flowing through a broad, sandy bed most of the year and a large, turbulent, unpredictable river for a few days every winter,” as Blake Gumprecht described it in his detailed history. The Tongva knew the river when its delta occupied what is now called the Ballona Wetlands (west of downtown L.A. near Santa Monica); before the river was altered by human engineering, its mouth “was in a nearly constant state of flux,” depending on flow and deposits.[3]


{1.5} SWIRL is most commonly activated when a seemingly innocuous riparian oddity suddenly teeters into peril, and while the particular perils of the current situation were unclear, the situation was certainly odd. An elderly couple, the Ølenraps, and Big Boy, their Chihuahua, had vanished from Gilded Shore RV Resort, apparently into the river, with no other trace than the gouge-marks. The ground didn’t slope significantly toward the river, there had been no recorded seismic activity, and there had been little or no rain for months. And then there was the sign, bearing a quotation (from a novel from about ten years ago) with an indefinite allusion to something serpentine and somewhat sinister. That’s where I came in. Taciturn charged me with running down the reference and making as much sense of it as I could.

We met to compare notes at the edge of the Gilded Shore, sharing coffee from Taciturn’s sturdy thermos and looking out on the lapsing river heading out to sea. The resort was packed with fifth-wheels and motorhomes, Winnebagos and Dutchmens, Jaycos and Jamborees. Many of the residents had laid a square yard or two of Astroturf under their retractable awnings and had planted satellite dishes in their gardens. The Gilded, as they called it, was well maintained and quiet most times, with no record of previous disturbances. It seemed obvious that the arrival of the sign and departure of the Ølenraps were linked; how, exactly—or why—was less obvious. Taciturn finished his coffee and pulled out a map from a cylinder attached to his belt. The mobile home in question had been situated in the southwestern corner of the lot, separated by chainlink from a bikepath that runs along a marine biological reserve adjacent to the river. Holding the map, the captain followed the drag-marks due west, over the collapsed fence and across the path, past a lone tree and through the riprap into the river. He stood at the water’s edge and cleared his throat. “Gilded Shore, as you can see, lies pretty much at the end of the river, which is one of the areas I get called to a lot, usually on the opposite bank.” He paused. “What do you know about SWIRL?”

“Only the little you’ve told me—‘strange waters,’ uncanny incidents, appearances and disappearances not easily explained.”

He nodded slowly, several times, then continued. “There are details that I’m not authorized to reveal, even to you as an official consultant, but some of it is pretty well known. The events that get the attention of SWIRL tend to occur in four different parts of the river: the headwaters up in Canoga Park; the confluences, where washes and creeks join the main stream, mostly through San Fernando Valley and a few on down through the city; transition zones, where two types of riverbed meet; and the end here in Long Beach.” He beckoned to me to take one end of a tape-measure he’d produced from his tool belt and gestured toward one end of the drag-marks. After jotting down something in a small notebook, he flicked his wrist and retracted the tape, snapped it into its proper pouch on the belt, and cleared his throat again. I’d forgotten how often his throat needed clearing.

“And of those, the most active are the confluence with the Arroyo Seco, just above Chinatown, and here, the end of the line.” He paused, probably weighing how little he could say while still saying enough. “According to some parties, each of these sites have a special kind of energy. They refer to a confluence, for example, as a ‘navel’ or ‘chakra’ or ‘vortex.’”

The first two terms he said with what on some faces would have resembled a smile; “vortex,” though, clearly made him uncomfortable.

“A kind of portal to the Unknown.”

“The Unknown?” I asked.

“Well, some might say the less known or the differently known; a world that doesn’t correspond with our world, the one we inhabit. A world that science doesn’t easily explain, in which an alternative set of rules seems to operate.”

“A vortex,” I said, curious as to why it troubled him.

“Well, so some say. I prefer ‘rabbit hole.’ I’m dubious of the New Age explanations, and while Command will occasionally bandy about elements of quantum mechanics, the bottom line is that out-of-the-ordinary things happen in otherwise pretty ordinary places and we don’t know why. But Paranormal Firefighters in general and SWIRL in specific aren’t paid to ask why; my superiors tend to go back and forth between pretending there’s nothing there and pretending they’re not investigating possible causes. In the meantime, my job is to limit the damage.”

He gave me several examples of recent instances in which the damage was controlled. Some made a little sense, like using special anchor points in the concrete banks located near “rabbit holes” along the river to rescue pets, property, and citizens from being swept away by whatever forces were in play. Others made no sense at all, like the nature of the mysterious forces and apparent breaks in the space-time continuum, places where light seemed to be swallowed into a void, that sort of thing. I waited for more but the captain shrugged his shoulders and poured more coffee to hold off the morning chill there on the rocks by the river’s edge. After watching a Great Blue Heron stalking along the rim of the marine reserve, Taciturn looked back at Gilded Shore and the sentences that had replaced the missing recreational vehicle. “It could be,” he said, “that the sign has nothing to do with the Jayco or that the Jayco has nothing to do with rabbit holes. That’s more or less where the police left it. The insurance company, as usual, left it as an ‘Act of God.’ God or rabbit hole, that leaves SWIRL to figure out what happened. The universe is transformation, Marcus Aurelius.”

Aha. Taciturn, I began to realize, apparently had developed the peculiar habit of quoting or paraphrasing the old Roman as if in conversation with him. Before I could tease him about it, he pointed to the sign: “What can you tell me about the literary graffiti?”

[1] Heraclitus 35.

[2] See, for example, McCawley (1996), who wrote that the Gabrielino were “revealed by the ethnographic and ethnohistorical records as a people of material wealth and cultural sophistication” (3).

[3] Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River 12 and 19.


Posted February 25, 2016 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

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