Jon Christensen writes: Los Angeles is losing one of its fiercest critics and lovers just when we need her most. Emily Green is leaving LA after 17 years, during which she became a crucial, critical, incisive, and insightful voice on the sometimes arcane but always essential subject of water in Southern California and the American West.
Green's writing often has a hard, edgy quality that she picked up while cutting her journalistic teeth in London. After spending 20 years in England early in her career, Green also brought something of an English accent home when she moved back to Southern California, where she was born.
Green moved to West Adams in 1998. She worked for the LA Times for a spell, writing for the magazine and covering science, the environment, and food, before becoming the paper's garden columnist. But she doesn't like to be pigeonholed as a beat writer, and nine years ago she quit, began freelancing, and moved to a place just 10 miles from where the Covina orange groves she grew up in used to be. She found a place with the remnants of an orange grove in the backyard high on the slopes of Altadena, near the steep shoulders of the San Gabriel Mountains. And she planted a garden.
I've long admired Emily's work. Our paths never crossed, but we wrote about some of the same stories over time, and knew many of the same people. We have rarely, if ever, had the same take, but I always thought she got it right. And I hoped that I did too. I met Emily in person after she wrote a withering attack on an optimistic newcomer's take on LA that I wrote for the western regional environmental magazine High Country News. I understood her critical perspective on LA and her skepticism about our political leaders. But I wondered where her love of LA came from. I thought it might be the garden.
So when I learned Emily was moving to Baltimore to be close to her younger brother--who has stayed back East since her family moved to Washington, DC, when she was young--I asked if I could come see the garden before she abandoned it. It was a hot late afternoon in July, but the garden was abuzz with bees, birds, and butterflies among the oranges, plums, peaches, pomegranates, avocados, sunflowers, lavender, sage, mountain mahogany, manzanita, and much more growing in wild profusion.
"It's either food or habitat," she explained. "It has to be good for an animal or me. There's nothing ornamental."
What was once lawn and a concrete patio is now a lush tangle of a garden even when it's hot, dry, and dusty. When rain comes, the gutters around the house direct water to the backyard and barrels that serve as temporary holding tanks fitted with hoses to direct water farther back into the garden for occasional deep watering.
"I have an intense interest in water," Green said. "Always have. I was born to it. When they built dams in the foothills, my grandparents would go the celebrations. It was a big deal when somebody impounded water."
"With my father," she added, "you could stay out all night, do drugs, and get pregnant, but if you left the tap running while brushing your teeth, he'd get mad. It's in my DNA."
At the Times, Green brought native plants and water conservation from the fringes of gardening into the mainstream, a crusade that she continued in her own blog chanceofrain.com and freelance writing. But while there are pockets of good gardening and landscaping, she is deeply dissatisfied with what she sees around LA today.
Water ordinances, despite pleas for conservation during the drought, are still oriented to keeping lawns alive with frequent short periods of watering rather than the more occasional deep water that trees need to survive, she said. And the work that city services do pruning street trees is "heartbreaking," she added. "People who are really smart are doing goofy things" with the rebates they've gotten for tearing out their lawns.
"We have so many landscape reform challenges," she said, "storm water recapture, shade, especially in shade poor communities, taking care of the trees we have. And $450 million has been thrown at landscape reforms in the drought without any thought to trees. LA has a chance not to kill its trees. Almost everything else will bounce back. Trees, not so much."
Green says other western cities, including Albuquerque, Denver, and even Las Vegas have done a much better job of leading change through landscaping in public spaces. "It bothers me in a city that is supposed to be all about design, we completely blew this," she said.
Green traces this failure to the loss of a grand Southern California tradition of horticulture. We have a deep history of horticulture, libraries of books, and a reservoir of expert knowledge in the extension services of universities. "We should have a culture of people who should know how to prune and water, who know their plants." Instead, she added, "We've completely lost horticulture. We've demeaned gardening to mean maintenance."
As we parted, Emily showed me a photograph and a stack of books. The photograph was of Emily and her brother in an orange grove. "It's exactly what I wear now," she laughed about her younger self. "And what I do, in a citrus garden with a dog."
The books were guides to gardening in California and the West, books she's leaving for the people who will be moving into her home and garden. She pressed several into my hands: Conifers of California; Cacti, Agaves, and Yuccas of California and Nevada; Native Plants for California Gardens; and The Dry Gardening Handbook.
This is what Emily Green leaves behind: a beautiful garden, surviving deep into a punishing drought, books full of knowledge old and new, and her own writings.
And that will have to do for now.