When you think of Los Angeles, the word “nature” comes to mind about as often as the combination of Genghis Khan and the word “delicate.”
LA is one of the world’s great cities, and one of the most artificial. It is all pavement and minimal, parking garage and chain store. I will cede LA no quarter when it comes to magnificence, but when it comes to nature, you’re barking up the wrong stop sign.
Or are you?
There is actually a lot of nature in LA, but like so much else in this sprawling, hazy, energetic city, it is sui generis — in a class of its own. And if you love LA and its artifice and unreality, then you may love its nature, too.
That includes the La Brea Tar Pits, the stuffed animals at the Natural History Museum, the concrete-lined Los Angeles River.
This isn’t nature all cute and cuddly like the nature films show. It is nature covered with graffiti, smelly with escaping gas, and turned into a simulacrum of itself.
But if you are in the right spirit, gravid with irony, there is a lot to love. Like the infamous LA River, a 50-mile-long concrete gutter paralleled by railroad yards, high-tension lines and freeways.
It provided the surreal landscape where giant ants built their nests in “Them!,” the 1954 sci-fi classic about giant ants.
It was also the racetrack for the great chase in “Terminator 2.” It can be seen as an integral part of the anomie in “Repo Man,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Escape From New York.”
It is hard to imagine, but the river is the reason the City of Angels is where it is.
In 1781, the pueblo of “Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula” was founded on the banks of the free-flowing sweet-water river by Spanish settlers moving up from Mexico. That lasted 157 years, until the Army Corps of Engineers, reacting to a series of devastating floods, turned the river into a sluice, beginning in 1938. The river as we know it dates from then.
And what had been a common, nondescript — if pleasant — Western river became an icon for the city.
There are activists trying very hard to return the river to its natural state, and there are a few short sections — called “soft bottomed” — where the river is free from cement. One of the most pleasant borders the eastern edge of Griffith Park, paralleling Interstate 5 and its screaming-banshee traffic.
One has to admire the pluck of such civic-minded groups as Friends of the Los Angeles River, founded in 1986, but one also worries that all over the country, good-intentioned people try to change exactly those things that make their cities unique.
Like the tar pits.
Now part of the city’s Hancock Park, the remaining sticky-holes are surrounded by grass, trees and cute animal statuary. But the heart of the La Brea Tar Pits is the black asphalt, where countless Pleistocene mammals met their gummy end.
The pond at the entrance to the park, with its bronze elephants, is filled with water covered in a film of petroleum. In places a layer of tarry foam collects, and great bubbles of methane blub up like boiling oatmeal, filling the air with stink.
Researchers still are digging prehistoric bones out of the pits. There are more than 100 tar pits in Hancock Park, and Pit 91 is worked every summer, with an observation deck for visitors to watch the volunteers as they scrape goo from their findings.
You can see them below, tarred black and brown, with their shoes glued to the boards thrown across the excavation.
“The stickiness is part of the fun,” one of them says. “We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t enjoy getting sticky.”
The bones dug from the tar are stored and exhibited at the George C. Page Museum on-site, where you can see hundreds of dire wolf skulls, a reconstructed mammoth skeleton and the whole panoply of Cenozoic life from the LA area.
Farther south, you can see more animals at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, one of those old, dusty antiquarian museums with high ceilings and marble floors.
The Hall of North American Mammals is a series of dioramas with the gems of the taxidermic art in situ: There are grizzly bears, bison, elk, weasels and Dahl sheep, all in amazing lifelike poses.
At the other end of the building is the Hall of African Mammals and a giant elephant at the watering hole.
This is show business.
There is also “megamouth,” a 14.5-foot male shark pickled in a bathtub of formaldehyde, which is always a favorite with schoolkids.
Nature lovers often are horrified by Los Angeles. The blue-white haze that leaves Angelenos wheezing and their eyes stinging. The pavement where chaparral should be. The ubiquitous power lines blocking the greenish skies.
But perhaps we simply have the wrong idea about nature.
If you want cute furry animals and fields of wildflowers, you’ve come to the wrong place. Try Maine, at the opposite corner of the continent.
But the Bambi vision is only one version of nature, and it is a conventional version, and LA is anything but conventional.
We should think of nature as anything that reminds us we live on a planet. That includes geology, climate, hydrology.
LA is a city inescapably bound up with the real effects of nature. LA is the city of earthquakes, mudslides, ozone and haze, the city of Santa Ana winds and wildfires, of mountain lions attacking joggers.
Despite its reputation, LA is all nature all the time.
That’s why I love the Baldwin Hills, a geologic bump south of Rodeo Road and north of Slauson Avenue. It is covered with pendulating oil rigs, like giant iron birds dipping their beaks to the ground for worms. Los Angeles is built over several oil fields, and these gritty iron industrial monsters are almost all that is left of what was once LA’s other great moneymaker.
You can see the landscape in the photos of Hollywood from the 1920s: It was a landscape prickly with stickleback oil derricks. It was a hell of industrial devastation.
But the oil under the rocks is also the source of the tar for the tar pits. And the geology that gives the oil also gives us the San Andreas Fault and the frequent earthquakes in the city. Small ones don’t even warrant a mention in the newspaper.
You look at the geology and you see the city built in a basin spreading like spilled ink on every flat surface south of the mountains.
There are the Santa Monica Mountains and Mulholland Drive, with its many turnoffs and vistas — smog depending.
And when the weather is clear enough, you can see the San Gabriel Mountains to the north, with peaks rising as high as Mount Baldy’s 10,064 feet and covered in snow as late as July.
If you take the Angeles Crest Highway north from La Canada Flintridge, you can drive the 20 miles or so to the Mount Wilson Observatory, where so much of the astronomy of the 20th century took place. It is at Mount Wilson that Fred Hubble first discovered the expansion of the universe, that the distance to the stars first was measured accurately, that the new science of astrophysics was developed.
The 100-inch telescope on Mount Wilson was the largest in the world from 1917, when it opened, to 1948, when the 200-inch telescope at Mount Palomar was finished. Some of the most aesthetically satisfying photographs of distant galaxies were taken at Mount Wilson.
If nature is about reminding us we live on a planet, Mount Wilson is a great place to start.
Or you could take a longitudinal section starting in San Pedro at the ocean.
The city begins in the sea, and at the
(1) Cabrillo Marine Aquarium you can see not only tanks of fish and invertebrates, you can walk out into the tide pools at the edge of Point Fermin.
Travel north on Hawthorne Boulevard and it becomes La Brea Avenue and takes you up over the Baldwin Hills, where you see the result of eons of squeezing and distillation on the ancient sea creatures that lived where LA now sits: the pumps that extract the oil from under the ground. The Baldwin Hills also are the home of the
(2) Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, where, in 1963, subsidence caused by the extraction of oil triggered an earthquake that breached the dam of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir and sent about 250 million gallons of water down on the city, destroying 277 homes.
Nature is always an instructive teacher; we are not always such attentive students.
A side trip to the east takes us to the
(3) Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where the exhibits range from pickled fish to dinosaur fossils.
Back on track, headed north, there are the
(4) La Brea Tar Pits in Hancock Park, with its
(5) George C. Page Museum of prehistoric finds, one of the uniquely LA natural landmarks.
Further north, there is LA’s
(6) Griffith Park, with golf courses, riding stables and picnic tables and the famous Griffith Park Observatory and the LA Zoo. The LA River shoulders the edge of the park, with one of its more attractive stretches.
(7) Mulholland Drive heads west atop the Santa Monica Mountains, affording views of Los Angeles to the south and the San Fernando Valley to the north, with frequent vista stops along the way.
If you stop at
(8) Laurel Canyon Park, along Mulholland Drive, you can get out and hike along hillside trails and enjoy all of the other hikers with their dogs. But starting at the park, you also can drive down the little-traveled Laurel Canyon Drive back to Hollywood Boulevard and get an intimate look, among the homes, at the city’s geology.
Take the Glendale Highway north to La Canada Flintridge and visit the beautiful
(9) Descanso Gardens, with its forests of camellias, lush rose plantings, California chaparral section and Japanese Gardens. This is nature the way we usually think of it.
Then continue north on the Angeles Crest Highway for 16 miles to the
(10) Mount Wilson turnoff, and another five miles up mountain roads to the great observatory, where you can look north into the wilderness of the San Gabriel Mountains and contemplate how the city sits at the feet of such glory.
Or you can look south and see the smog.