Los Angelenos are an overpopulated, car-embedded society more inclined to hunt and gather golden currants in the aisles of Whole Foods than collect them in Griffith Park. But here's the thing: In Southern California, where the growing season is 12 months, where the climate ranges from snow to surf in the time it takes to watch a movie, where many animals enjoy not having to hibernate the way we enjoy not having to buy snow tires, you can't help having the occasional encounter with Earth's rougher drafts.
Driving west out of the Coachella Valley last weekend, the sky ahead was dark, portentous, promising rain before Banning. Mount San Jacinto was wrapped in a cloud shroud, and a ferocious wind molested the vehicles traveling along I-10 as if it had a personal grudge against the internal combustion engine. The wind farm spanning the I-10 was in full harvest, the rotor blades spinning frenziedly as if applauding the weather drama.
Suddenly, high over the turbines between Mounts San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, a ROYGBIV-colored smile broke against a pissed-off sky, the fattest, longest, most bodacious rainbow I've ever seen. Now I know that whole pot of gold thing is bogus because I saw both ends of the rainbow. Nothing was there except the gold desert earth, and what could be more precious?
"Go Nature!" I said aloud.
Just a couple of days ago, at a dinky 9-hole golf course next to the Santa Monica Airport I was playing in a drizzle. It was swell--no waiting, no pressure, automatic ball-washing... Then, on hole No. 6, the sun came out, and a full rainbow arched over the fairway, the second I'd seen in three days. That never happens. But it did.
Not all such surprises, of course, are welcome. No one welcomes the tree that decimates the Toyota, courtesy of a Santa Ana wind. The divorce between the chimney and the roof, courtesy of a strike-slip earthquake. The abdominal cramps, courtesy of a black widow spider bite. That's life, death and all the stuff in between, and no one escapes these adventures.
For many people, nature is where you go to repair, recharge and relax. Where you take your chances, fishing in a cold mountain stream, scaling a granite wall, doing the New York Times crossword puzzle in the back garden as a hummingbird pokes its proboscis into the petunias. Unless you have been robbed of your senses, Nature will find a way to move you, even just a little.
I follow mom's orders. I go play outside. Sometimes, my playground is the desert. After a wet winter, Anza-Borrego, Joshua Tree, California City or some Mojave/Sonoran neighborhood that looks like the moon in summer tarts up in spring with color so intense you can feel it. Is there a more erotic palette than a beavertail cactus in full bloom? Anything more delicate than the bruise-blue hue of chia? Anything more in love than tiny lavender filaree embracing its sand?
After a wet winter, butter-colored blankets of desert dandelion greet visitors like a cheerleader's smile. Globe mallow hangs from its bushy infrastructure like orange paper lanterns. Even in dry years, when the spring bloom disappoints seekers of abundance, there's plenty of oily-aromaed creosote, yellow brittlebush, Victrola-shaped datura, a/k/a jimson weed a/k/a locoweed a/k/a don't-eat-me. In dry years, you won't see a lot, but you'll see plenty if you look.
Part of plenty out here is plenty of critters. If you're quiet, if you step lightly, you can meet the desert's denizens. They might startle, even scare, you but what's life without the occasional rush of adrenaline that wonders, "Ya think there's cellphone reception out here?"
One year, at the end of a long, hot spring day in the desert tortoise preserve that proved to be too late in the season to meet any of the eponymous residents, I was walking back to the car along a sandy, washboard road. At what sounded like the world's loudest bee buzzing through the sere air, my companion executed the most physics-defying maneuver I've ever seen, a leap both vertical and lateral. Coiled by the road's edge was a baby Mojave green rattlesnake, objecting to the intrusion. I took a picture. It was blurry.
Last spring in White Water Canyon near San Gorgonio, I was finishing a spectacular three-hour hike along an elevated, switched-back mountain trail that had offered crystalline skies, fields of poppies, lupine, coreopsis and panoramic views. Alas, my new hiking boots had fostered a blister the size of a Buick, and I was hurting, grateful to see trail's end about 50 yards farther on. Picking up the pace, I careened around a brittlebush only to come to a heart-stopping halt at the sight of a cinnamon-colored creature who'd gotten there first. The red diamondback rattler, about three-and-half feet long, was stretched out along the high side of the trail, soaking up the sun. She looked at me as if to say, "What?" She didn't coil, didn't move. She was in charge and she knew it.
I could have detoured around the trail's low side, but that meant traversing through high grass and stepping where I couldn't see. Always a bad idea where grumpy, poisonous critters live. I could have stared at Cinnamon for hours, a gorgeous, muscular serpent with the utterly unconcerned demeanor. But my foot throbbed and I was tired. I shifted my weight, cleared my throat. She wiggled almost imperceptibly, her black pinpoint eyes lasering into mine. For 10 or 12 minutes we communed, one of us silently. Finally, she slid under a scraggly bush and up the hill, and I moved on with mixed feelings about having lost my powers of intimidation.
Golf is a stupid game, but it can be a smart way to go out and play with Nature. When the drive slices into the cattails, when the putts decline to cooperate, contemplate the clover. It doesn't matter if you're wrestling with a municipal course hard by the freeway or out on the links lining the ocean. Something cool is living there. Pay attention.
Westchester golf course is so close to LAX you can smell the jet fuel. If you can't play golf, you can play "name that airliner" as it lands on the north runway. If you're playing at dusk and you're lucky, like I was, you can spot the fox that lives near hole No. 14. Westchester has night lights, and although it's dopey for serious golfers, I've played there using glow balls, ridiculously luminated spheres that are to golf as Silly String is to tennis. One night, my companion whacked a drive down the middle on No. 9 and as we walked toward his glowing ball, so did a possessive ground squirrel fixated by the light. He did not respond to foot-stomping or club-waving threats. He refused to leave and we stood there too long, simultaneously amused and annoyed.
Other animal encounters that were worth the lost concentration, the whiffed shot, the lost ball:
- the egret on a Ventura County links course that from a distance appeared to be yanking moss from the marsh but, on closer inspection, was extracting a mouse by its tail. It closed the deal and flew away with the rodent fast in its beak.
- the soccer-ball sized boulder slowly rolling across the fairway on the same course that turned out to be a turtle heading from the adjacent field to the lagoon, and takings its damn sweet time doing it;
- the coyote crossing the green near Moorpark, and the roadrunner on the next hole, racing along the fairway. Where was the Acme truck?
- the bobcat patrolling the periphery of a Riverside County course;
- the fashion-forward lemon-and-chocolate-colored California kingsnake slithering slowly across a Riverside County cart path, moving as if on the runway, as if to be adored;
- crawdads in a greenside creek in Orange County, a crustacean I haven't seen in a venue like that since I was 8;
- a family of top-knotted quail scuttling through the underbrush on a rugged course in north San Diego County;
- a hawk picking at the remains of a duck next to a course lake in Camarillo.
These are not friends you make playing "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3."
Angelenos are an inside-out community. Dining at Topanga's Inn of the Seventh Ray one night, I saw coyotes in the gulch below the patio waiting for scraps. At the Hollywood Hills home of the Australian consulate, we sat in a dining room separated from the pool by sliding-glass doors. Midway through the meal, a raccoon family nosed against the glass, and you just know it wasn't the first time. Once, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a disturbance in the back yard. At four in the morning I was obliged to extract an opossum from the large plastic jug of dog kibble in which it had gotten its head stuck--it was staggering around the yard, banging its jughead against the barbecue and the laundry room door.
Photo: Rock climbers at Joshua Tree
By the time I'd reached the 405 last weekend after my dramatic weather adventure in the desert, the rain had stopped and the freeway was full. A metallic pink Hummer was in the lane to my right, its female driver wearing a pink parka trimmed in fake pink fur.
I was home, in Suburbania, where weeds needed pulling, tulips were breeching the garden soil and it wouldn't be long before lizards would be skittering across the back patio.
Photos: Ellen Alperstein. Click to see larger.