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Labor of laboratory love

Greg Pauly was standing in the urban wilderness section of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum's North Campus talking about the pond behind him. How, when completed, it will provide an aquatic habitat for both pleasure and study of critters such as Polly, the western pond turtle squirming in his left hand.

Pond habitat-NHM.jpg

Suddenly, the museum's head herpetologist was rudely interrupted by the distinctly urban sound of massive vehicular metal colliding with even more massive vehicular metal. The North Campus, 3½ acres of fauna-hosting flora reclaimed from a parking lot, borders unseen-but-busy Exposition Boulevard.

Most of Pauly's audience recoiled at the sickeningly familiar sound of disaster. Not Pauly. As part of a group of museum experts trotted out to introduce the media to the ambitious effort to carve a winsome nature lab out of a concrete urban landscape, he stayed on message. "Understanding the history of Los Angeles is understanding the history of water," he said, and noted that Polly and her ilk are the only fresh water turtles native to L.A. And that you seldom see them anymore, although there are lots of introduced turtle species, such as red-eared sliders. "This display," he said, as Polly poked her pointy snout into the air, "will show the impact of introduced species."

Some observers, demonstrating the journalistic instinct to stick their pointy snouts into any whiff of trouble, checked out the crash scene just beyond the campus' Living Wall. Supporting a planter atop stone and concrete recycled from earlier construction of the museum's north entrance, the wall gets its name from the cracks that serve as a condo complex housing spiders, insects, birds and their warm-blooded neighbors.

On Exposition, a six-car Metro train had plowed into a Honda Civic whose driver reportedly had attempted an ill-advised left turn. The train, on a test run for the soon-to-open Expo Line, bore a bright yellow and black banner ("Safety begins with you"), and was as firmly embedded in the driver's door as were the ground spiders in the Living Wall.

All good scientists have perspective. Greg Pauly is a good scientist. The crash, he noted later, just goes to show you how nature and urban life co-exist everyday, everywhere.

Living Wall-NHM.jpg

That's the purpose of the North Campus, part of the museum's makeover for next year's centennial. In addition to serving as the museum's attractive front yard, the campus, as Karen Wise, vice president of education and exhibits, put it, "is a public field site."

Although the 12 intertwined habitats of the North Campus won't be open until the centennial celebration in June 2013, the get-dirty Home Garden and the raised vegetable planters and flowerful arrays of the 1913 Garden are available for special programs and tutorials.

In their pump-priming remarks, museum suits and the design/construction team talked about how the North Campus turns the institution "inside out," and that, now, the first publicly funded venue of its sort, "begins at the sidewalk." They were partial to terms like "visionary" and "performative landscape features." But it was the museum's "ologists" who reminded everybody why "Watch Mr. Wizard" (well ... everybody who can remember the first manned moon landing) and "Bill Nye the Science Guy" totally rocked.

Entrance-NHM.jpg

In promoting the museum's "show us your bugs" program (and I'm paraphrasing here), Brian Brown, curator of entomology, offered photos of a phorid fly found in Brentwood and a robber fly he found at his house in Monrovia. No one, he said, had ever seen them before. "They're new species?" he was asked. "They're new to science," he replied.

Lila Higgins, manager of the Citizen Science and Live Animal program, showed pictures of a 6mm southern flat coil snail, new to Southern California, that was found in the Living Wall. She reiterated the importance of developing a sense of community that extends beyond Homo sapiens.

"We tend to squash spiders in the bathtub," she said, "but it's only doing a job." Leave spiders alone, she advised, and observe how they control other populations with more unpleasant potential, thereby inviting a smug superiority among those of us who escort spiders out of our houses with the cup-and-paper method instead of sending them to arachnid heaven like most people.

Ornithologist Kimball Garrett pronounced Los Angeles "the birdiest county in the nation." Illustrating the melting-pot nature of our nature, he invited the assembled to peer through a telescope trained on a newly planted coast live oak tree, site of a saggy nest constructed by a tiny bushtit. The bird hails from wooded habitats, but has taken to L.A.'s urban forest like a New Yorker to a taco truck.

Other immigrants such as yellow-chevroned parakeets love their fellow South American immigrant silk floss trees, which proliferate throughout the campus. Garrett described recently watching a native raven chase a non-native yellow budgie in a classic urban ecological adventure.

NHM-opossumwithbaby.jpgAs an LAPD helicopter circled over the urban vehicle adventure, mammalogist Jim Dines talked about how this living laboratory was ideal for studying how DNA evolves in city versus country species of creatures such as squirrels. The museum's camera trap records about 1,500 images a month; many are of nocturnal residents such as raccoons and opossums. But there was a stunning daytime shot, too, of a young Cooper's hawk, rarely seen 'round these parts.

Museums are centers of learning, but not everything is a lesson. Some visitors just want to smell the flowers. Wandering through the North Campus, you don't have to understand the crucial pollinating role of bees to appreciate the artful design of the arbors that support the Lady Banks roses that offer them sustenance. Crafted out of rusting rebar to mimic the trunk and canopy of a palm tree, the arbors line the walkway and were the brainchild of landscape designer Mia Lehrer, who trod the garden path in heels and a hard hat. It was a good look.

Thanks to the designers and the builders and the enablers, the whole campus is a good look, even in its adolescence. Watch this space: in little more than a year, at the boffo centennial celebration, it will be ready for its close-up. At the completion of the media show-and-tell, a museum public relations staffer turned to the ologists and said, "Good job, nerds."

Thanks to the Wizards.

Photos: Natural History Museum

Most of Pauly's audience recoiled at the sickeningly familiar sound of disaster. Not Pauly. As part of a group of museum experts trotted out to introduce the media to the ambitious effort to carve a winsome nature lab out of a concrete urban landscape, he stayed on message. "Understanding the history of Los Angeles is understanding the history of water," he said, and noted that Polly and her ilk are the only fresh water turtles native to L.A. And that you seldom see them anymore, although there are lots of introduced turtle species, like red-eared sliders. "This display," he said, as Polly poked her pointy snout into the air, "will show the impact of introduced species."
Pond habitat-NHM.jpg
Some observers, demonstrating the journalistic instinct to stick their pointy snouts into any whiff of trouble, checked out the crash scene just beyond the campus' Living Wall. Supporting a planter atop stone and concrete recycled from earlier construction of the museum's north entrance, the wall gets its name from the cracks that serve as a condo complex housing spiders, insects, birds and their warm-blooded neighbors.

On Exposition, a six-car Metro train had plowed into a Honda Civic whose driver reportedly had attempted an ill-advised left turn. The train, on a test run for the soon-to-open Expo Line, bore a bright yellow and black banner ("Safety begins with you"), and was as firmly embedded in the driver's door as were the ground spiders in the Living Wall.

All good scientists have perspective. Greg Pauly is a good scientist. The crash, he noted later, just goes to show you how nature and urban life co-exist everyday, everywhere.

That's the purpose of the North Campus, part of the museum's makeover for next year's centennial. In addition to serving as the museum's attractive front yard, the campus, as Karen Wise, vice president of education and exhibits, put it, "is a public field site."

Although the 12 intertwined habitats of the North Campus won't be open until the centennial celebration in June 2013, the get-dirty Home Garden and the raised vegetable planters and flowerful arrays of the 1913 Garden are available for special programs and tutorials.

In their pump-priming remarks, museum suits and the design/construction team talked about how the North Campus turns the institution "inside out," and that, now, the first publicly funded venue of its sort, "begins at the sidewalk." They were partial to terms like "visionary" and "performative landscape features." But it was the museum's "ologists" who reminded everybody why "Watch Mr. Wizard" (well ... everybody who can remember the first manned moon landing) and "Bill Nye the Science Guy" totally rocked.

In promoting the museum's "show us your bugs" program (and I'm paraphrasing here), Brian Brown, curator of entomology, offered photos of a phorid fly found in Brentwood and a robber fly he found at his house in Monrovia. No one, he said, had ever seen them before. "They're new species?" he was asked. "They're new to science," he replied.

Lila Higgins, manager of the Citizen Science and Live Animal program, showed pictures of a 6mm southern flat coil snail, new to Southern California, that was found in the Living Wall. She reiterated the importance of developing a sense of community that extends beyond Homo sapiens.

"We tend to squash spiders in the bathtub," she said, "but it's only doing a job." Leave spiders alone, she advised, and observe how they control other populations with more unpleasant potential, thereby inviting a smug superiority among those of us who escort spiders out of our houses with the cup-and-paper method instead of sending them to arachnid heaven like most people.

Ornithologist Kimball Garrett pronounced Los Angeles "the birdiest county in the nation." Illustrating the melting-pot nature of our nature, he invited the assembled to peer through a telescope trained on a newly planted coast live oak tree, site of a saggy nest constructed by a tiny bushtit. The bird hails from wooded habitats, but has taken to L.A.'s urban forest like a New Yorker to a taco truck.

Other immigrants such as yellow-chevroned parakeets love their fellow South American immigrant silk floss trees, which proliferate throughout the campus. Garrett described recently watching a native raven chase a non-native yellow budgie in a classic urban ecological adventure.

As an LAPD helicopter circled over the urban vehicle adventure, mammalogist Jim Dines talked about how this living laboratory was ideal for studying how DNA evolves in city versus country species of creatures such as squirrels. The museum's camera trap records about 1,500 images a month; many are of nocturnal residents such as raccoons and opossums. But there was a stunning daytime shot, too, of a young Cooper's hawk, rarely seen 'round these parts.

Museums are centers of learning, but not everything is a lesson. Some visitors just want to smell the flowers. Wandering through the North Campus, you don't have to understand the crucial pollinating role of honeybees to appreciate the artful design of the arbors that support the Lady Banks roses that offer them sustenance. Crafted out of rusting rebar to mimic the trunk and canopy of a palm tree, the arbors line the walkway and were the brainchild of landscape designer Mia Lehrer, who trod the garden path in heels and a hard hat. It was a good look.

Thanks to the designers and the builders and the enablers, the whole campus is a good look, even in its adolescence. Watch this space: in little more than a year, at the boffo centennial celebration, it will be ready for its close-up. At the completion of the media show-and-tell, a museum public relations staffer turned to the ologists and said, "Good job, nerds."

Thanks to the Wizards.


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