The LA River: A cabinet of wonders

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Natural history museums have roots that stretch back more than 500 years to the "Wunderkammern"--the "cabinets of wonder"--of early modern Europe. Here natural and cultural artifacts were arranged, juxtaposed, and sometimes jumbled together in an effort to make sense of the world. The "Wunderkammer" was a device for wonder in the face of the amazing diversity and weirdness of the world, but also for discovery, of the new, the unknown, of patterns, and laws. Science grew up in cabinets of wonder, and, so, arguably, did human understanding of our place in the world, and our sense of responsibility for knowledge, understanding, and care.

Musei_Wormiani_Historia.jpgI've been thinking about this long lineage during a series of conversations on water this summer at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The museum is only 100 years old. It opened on November 6, 1913, the day after the Los Angeles Aqueduct first brought water to the city from Owens Valley. That is no coincidence. Nature and culture are entwined. And water runs through that relationship.

So it is fitting that the Natural History Museum here in LA has "wonder, discovery, and responsibility" at the core of its newly revitalized mission, and that water is at the center of a series of conversations this summer connecting the museum to our community and its watershed. Our watershed extends to the Owens Valley and beyond to the Rocky Mountains--where snowfall turns to runoff in the Colorado River, which is delivered across the southern California desert to LA--and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta--where the State Water Project diverts runoff from the Sierra Nevada south.

Our sense of wonder, discovery and responsibility should extend throughout our watershed. Close to home, the LA River has shown ways that can happen. The river has become a kind of cabinet of wonders for Los Angeles: a site for thinking about and making sense of nature and culture in the city.

justaddwater2.jpgWhen Lewis MacAdams founded Friends of the Los Angeles River, he imagined it as "a 40-year artwork," he said in our public conversation at the Natural History Museum. The river has become a "postmodern sculpture," he added. Its "concrete corset" is broken up by riparian forests that flourish in the soft spots in the river bottom, by the happenings that enliven the river and its banks, such as the live music on Saturday nights at FoLAR's "Frog Spot" in Elysian Valley, and by art, such as "The Unfinished," a new site-specific sculpture by Michael Parker just upriver.

"Play the LA River," a project to bring activities to spots up and down the 51-mile length of the river over the course of a year beginning this fall, recently was awarded a $185,000 grant from ArtPlace America, a collaboration of national foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts to accelerate creative "placemaking." One of the project's creators, Allison Carruth, a professor in the English department and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, said art and artists have played a key role in transforming how the LA River is seen--as a river again, not just a flood control channel.

The river is also habitat for hundreds of species, said Lila Higgins, manager of citizen science and live animals at the Natural History Museum, which has had scientists monitoring the changing nature of the river for decades. Bringing native species back to the river--red-legged frogs, steelhead trout, yellow-billed cuckoos--is an important part of the vision for a revitalized river. But it all starts with bringing people back to the river to play, said Higgins.

unfinished1.jpgThe revitalization of the LA River is now embraced by many different kinds of people, groups, and institutions, from neighborhoods along the river to watershed advocates, environmentalists, businesses, and developers, from city hall to the Army Corps of Engineers and even the president. As MacAdams once wrote in a poem: "We all worship / the river in our own ways, some with stale tortillas / from the Salvation Army, others / with degrees in landscape architecture / from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo."

There is still a lot of wonder and discovery to be had and hard work ahead to figure out what it means to be responsible along the LA River. But it is worth remembering, as we forge ahead, the artful efforts that have changed how we see the river, again, as a river.

Reminder: Our "Just Add Water: The Discussions" series at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County continues this Thursday evening, July 24, with a conversation on "Chinatown, Revisited," with Lauren Bon of Metabolic Studio, Jim McDaniel of the LADWP, Pat Morrison of the LA Times, and artist Rob Reynolds. To RSVP, visit the museum website here. The "Just Add Water" series is presented in conjunction with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA and Boom: A Journal of California.

Image credits: "Musei Wormiani Historia," the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm's cabinet of wonders in Denmark in 1655. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. "Just Add Water: The Discussions" at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Courtesy of Barron Bixler. Lucia at "The Unfinished." Photograph by Jon Christensen.

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