As someone who writes often about nature in Los Angeles, I have a few favorite spots where I like to commune with nature here. I'll often head out to Broad Beach in western Malibu--or to the popular Runyon Canyon trail, well-known for dogs and celebrities and bird's-eye views. But some days, I'll drive way down to the L.A. and Long Beach ports on Terminal Island, off the far southern tip of the coast. Here, I can gaze back toward the mountains that shield L.A. from the desert, across our one lucky wedge of America that's been blessed with a Mediterranean climate. Pelicans fly low over the Pacific. Seagulls soar over the railroad tracks and old fish canneries. Scrap metal, lumber, and huge drums of petrochemicals are stacked hundreds of feet high. This 5000-acre manmade island--built out from a small mudflat since the early 1900s--is the busiest container port in the U.S. and ranks third in the world. Here, I can watch the indigenous cranes unload oil from Alaska and coal from the Rockies, and watch electronic waste from across North America head seaward in giant Chinese ships.
And that's not all--far from it. Terminal Island boasts L.A.'s second largest wastewater reclamation plant, which turns sewage into fertilizer. The island's two power plants incinerate garbage to generate electricity. And the new Green Shipping Terminal is an early project in the long-term plans to reduce the diesel fumes that make the port area the single worst source of air pollution in L.A. County.
How can any nature lover ask for more? I can look out across the landscape that L.A. inhabits, while I ponder energy production, water reclamation, and the use of raw natural resources. I can think about waste and pollution as well as the technologies to clean them up. Terminal Island is one of the finest spots I know of to wallow in my connections to nature in L.A.
“In wildness is the preservation of the world”: Thoreau’s most cherished line has long been a mantra for nature writers--and it's emblazoned on the t-shirt I got at my summer camp reunion. But as a "nature writer" (and like many of my brethren, I cringe at a term that's become synonymous with navel-gazing on mountaintops), I've become especially interested in exploring the not-so-wild nature in megalopoli such as New York and Chicago and Pittsburgh--and Los Angeles, which arguably right now is the most exciting place in North America to grapple with our connections to nature. How do we use nature as resources? How do we transform the landscape and its ecosystems--the air, water, plants, animals, land--to live here? How do we do all this for better and worse? How, in sum, do we inhabit nature--and how sustainably?
* * *
Broad Beach is a beauty of an L.A. County beach--a narrow strip of coast with dunes on one end and high cliffs on the other, and with tidepools on the western edge that get especially wondrous during the super-low tides in winter. A mile-long beach lined with private houses (sort of beach cottages on steroids, many of them), it also holds the California state record for the most complaints (to the Coastal Commission) about harassment of public beachgoers. It was here, just last summer, that homeowners bulldozed the public tidelands to build the infamous 8-foot-high berm between the houses and the public beach. The Coastal Commission had them dismantle it, but you can still see a remnant lower berm--and all the kind, gentle "Please Respect Private Property" signs that the homeowners had posted originally atop the barrier they'd built by purloining the public sand.
I come to Broad Beach to see sunsets, and to gaze at the seasonal grays and blues and greens of the sea. I can see dolphins just offshore, and curlews and dowitchers and sanderlings poking in the tidal flats, and dark-orange starfish as wide (nearly) as a kayak. And what a great place to think about who benefits the most, and also the least, from the management of our public lands. And who lives closest to the mountains and the beaches in L.A. And to ask how fairly--and not just sustainably--we inhabit nature in this city.
* * *
I have been told that Los Angeles began in Runyon Canyon, geologically speaking--that it's where the tectonic rumbling started that created the landscape of mountains and flatlands today. Now people stream up the trails in this pocket of the Hollywood Hills after work and on weekends. It's like we're on a mass hegira. Many of us seek relief from the buzzing stress and noise of the beast of the metropolis below. And we come to do what gorgeous wild places, and bird's-eye views atop mountains, do seem to encourage us to do, which is to ponder the meaning of it all.
So I ponder how my connections to a great deal of all the not-so wild nature support my soul-saving hike. The oil and metals in my Toyota allowed me to get here, and come from the earth. The leather in my hiking boots (with thanks to cows) makes the hike an easy dream. My farmer's market apple was grown on a ranch in San Luis Obispo, and traveled to Santa Monica in a petroleum-fueled truck. The city piped the tap water I'm carrying hundreds of miles from northern California. The water is in a bottle that's made with petroleum from, well, God knows where (though I should ideally know), and, once I recycle it, will become, well, I do not know what else (but shouldn't I ideally know?). The neighborhoods surrounding Runyon Canyon Park are decidedly wealthy, and royal battles rage often here over access, parking, and dogs.
In other words, my quiet wilderness walk is enmeshed deeply in how we use natural resources and divide up the landscape--and in how fairly and sustainably we do so. Or in still other words, I love to escape from the city to the wild nature in Runyon Canyon, but I can never escape how I inhabit nature in this city and elsewhere. And why should I want to? And what better spot than the top of the trail in Runyon Canyon to think about how we wish ideally to inhabit nature in L.A.?--where you can stand at L.A.'s geological birthplace and look out over what L.A. has become.
In wildness is the preservation of the world? Well, in nature, many of us have come to believe, lies much of the preservation of Los Angeles--since the quality and equality of life in any city depend so fundamentally on how fairly and sustainably we use and imagine nature. But also, in L.A. lies much of the preservation of nature and wildness--since how we consume and transform nature in the centers of population and economic power such as L.A. now largely determines the fate of ecosystems everywhere, from Venice and Vernon to the most remote glaciers in Antarctica.
So if the dog park in Runyon Canyon is a great place to ponder how, exactly, we inhabit nature in L.A., then it is, I'll venture, an excellent place to think about how we inhabit nature everywhere.