The delights of urban wilderness

  • Paul Larmer

 

I spent most of my awkward teenaged years sequestered in subdivisions among manicured lawns and black-topped cul-de-sacs. Fortunately, when after-school TV got too boring, I could leave the house and go exploring -- wandering alone through the scruffy patches of woods and fields that edged our orderly neighborhood outside St. Louis, Mo.

I remember the first time I stumbled into a patch of century-old oak trees a few hundred yards beyond the last house. Walking in their mysterious, muted light, I felt immersed in the depths of a green ocean. Lush thickets of wildflowers -- mayapple, dutchman's breeches and trilliums -- sprouted from the soft leaf litter at my feet. Above, from the rustling canopy of the leaves, came the complex strains of an avian concert -- produced by what I later learned was a colorful ensemble of thrushes, vireos, warblers, orioles, woodpeckers, poor-wills and jays.

Though I liked to imagine that my woods went on for miles, and that, like a frontier explorer, I could ramble into their depths until they petered out in the vast light of the Great Plains, I knew that they were just a tiny island, and an unstable one at that; a bulldozer could clear them away for new houses in a matter of days. This knowledge left me sad and angry, but I didn't know what to do about it.

Camron Stone, the main character in Emily Green's cover story, experienced similar feelings a couple of years ago when the Los Angeles County Flood Control District announced its plan to topple the small sanctuary of live oak woods behind his boyhood home. Like all good tales, Stone's quixotic battle to save the oaks starts small and becomes something much bigger: The remnant trees, it turns out, are a window into not only the agency that is frantically trying to find places for the sediment clogging its dams along the San Gabriel Mountains, but also into the unnatural history of the L.A. Basin itself -- a place denuded of its original oak forest and wetlands, and precariously re-engineered to give its 10 million citizens the illusion of control over Nature.

Those of us who live in the Interior West tend to view Los Angeles as a world apart, but there may be no better archetype for our region as a whole. What is the West but an overdeveloped, overpopulated desert civilization that relies on distant, unpredictable waters, and is huddled at the feet of rugged mountains prone to fire and flood? Fortunately, L.A. -- like the rest of the West -- is blessed with people who care about the landscape beyond the houses and highways. They remind us that some of the loveliest -- and most vulnerable -- places are here, just beyond our own backyards.