That was satisfying.
Back in the heatwave of June, I told an acquaintance on the nightclub side of the hill where I lived. Van Nuys is the Devil’s asshole, he announced without hesitation. He was referring to the heat, but his tone suggested something more.
Every kingdom has its Lord, I replied, half-joking.
If not I, what shape would this lord take? Who would be the definitive representation of our sun-splashed, slightly noirish Brigadoon? He might have a weapon protruding from underneath him, like a tail. He might have his fist around a bottle of Jack Daniels, crisp jeans and a gold watch. He would be rusticating in the middle of the day, which is how I found him after I dropped $1100 on maintenance for my trusty Honda CRV, which makes me very much an un-Lordly figure.
Ziggy, on the other hand…he knows who’s the boss.
Stoker has no sense of irony, and zero pity. If you want a portrait of dominion, look no further.
Lords, all of them. I welcome submissions and nominations.
Wait. There was an actual lake there? There was waterskiing? I can’t find it on Google Maps. When did that go away?
There were bathing beauties? And trout fishing? Who took that way from us?
Hansen Dam was erected in 1949 as a flood control mechanism. By flood, it was intended to retain not only water, but sediment, giant boulders, chunks of trees, automobiles, houses, and everything else that came tumbling out of the mountains after a storm.
In layman terms it was built to be a giant garbage pail. Slowly, inexorably, over the decades the pail filled in until the “lake” was reduced to a depth of several feet.
The original body of water, not unlike the Salton Sea, was an accident of construction, as burrow pits for obtaining gravel for the retaining wall filled with rainwater. It was expected to last 50 years.
From the Los Angeles Times: “in 1969, Los Angeles County had some of the worst flooding in its history. Two bridges near the dam at Foothill Boulevard and Wentworth Street collapsed and seven homes in Big Tujunga Canyon were washed away….A forest fire and heavy rain in the winter of 1981 and the spring of 1982 brought 5 million to 10 million tons of sediment into the basin and the lake shrank to less than 30 acres, according to Corps documents. That summer the swimming beach was closed because the water had become stagnant and unhealthy.”
As so much of the post-war Valley, Hansen Lake was disposable, built to last a generation. Now it’s a dense thicket of shrubbery concealing horse trails and homeless encampments. Burrow into the depths and one loses all sense of geography and time, like a secret a passage to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
There was an attempt during the seminal year of 1994 to fund a dredging and restoration, but it met with local resistance wary of attracting “outsiders”.
Outsiders = dusky hordes of immigrants who don’t have swimming pools. So, no lake. Short California history lesson: that didn’t stop the dusky hordes.
Today the picnic areas on Sunday are filled to capacity with competing banda troupes, horse dancing charros, smoking grills of barbacoa, and peasant women wandering through the grass picking wild chard.
The top of the dam itself is a popular jogging trail, which was not its original function, either.
Valley 2.0: all will be re-purposed.
Historical photos courtesy of CSUN archives
On this day one year ago, thinking myself very resourceful, I felled the massive, perpetually dying elm tree in my front yard. It took weeks to break the rounds into free firewood, garden plinths, and green bin waste. Then it was gone.
What to do with the newly created void in the yard? Eager for more punishment, I thought: why not move the grapefruit tree there? It’s too close to the house already and will triangulate spatially with the tangerine by the sidewalk and the lime by the driveway. Our yard would have the stamp of design upon it, which it never has. Chez UpintheValley is forever improv, paid for with donkey toil, followed by second thoughts.
So I dug up the grapefruit tree. I cut the root ball down to the size of a large ottoman and rolled the whole thing across the yard, into a waiting hole.
Boy, was it ever unhappy. It shed leaves like the deathly sprig in Waiting for Godot. I told myself, give it a few months and it will put out fresh shoots. It knows I moved it for a reason.
The summer went by, no shoots. I nipped the branches, seeking proof of life. It wasn’t dead. But that’s all I could say for it. Fall passed, then winter. Nothing. Not a solitary green leaf. I watered it slavishly. I squatted in its arthritic shadow as confounded as Vladimir and Estragon.
How is it possible greenery can pop from asphalt in triple-digit heat, without a drop of moisture? How can Tapia palms erupt from weep holes in the sidewalk and refuse to be eradicated, while my grapefruit tree failed to thrive under my care and feeding?
Clearly, that spot in the yard bore a curse. Nothing could thrive there. In a fit of whiny pique, I decided to kill the tree. To teach nature a lesson, and to break the curse, I would offer a ritual sacrifice.
Then the rains came, forestalling my plans. A few warm days and this happened. Hundreds of flowers. Hundreds…each putting forth a bulb of grapefruit.
In my impatience, I assumed the branches would emerge first, and from the branches the flowering of new fruit. But it’s the other way around. Moving the tree made me feel like I was running things, which I wasn’t. I’m just the gardener. Spring makes cosmic insignificance sort of delightful.
Van Nuys, simplified: Nature and utility at war. Beauty is forever encroaching upon blight here.
Inscrutable dogs park their disembodied heads atop concrete block walls and stare at us as we walk past.
Funghi popcorns from tree bark to announce an early spring.
…and people leave their bees nests in a box by the sidewalk.
The bees don’t stay in the box, believe it or not. They move five feet to the utility pole, and begin a new hive. They wiggle furiously into the seams. Unless I’m mistaken, these are honey bees, a diminishing natural resource. Are they queen-less now? Will they survive to re-pollinate the neighborhood, or collapse?
In Van Nuys we say ‘meh’ to nature, and nature ignores our indifference in return.
Not quite, but almost. At the current pace of redevelopment there won’t be a single weedy lot left, not one orphaned tree marooned between apartment buildings, bereft and wishing for the company of crows, the itchy scrape of feral cats.
Sprawl has flipped on its side and moves on a vertical axis now. Down two stories for the parking, then up four for the apartments. Four being the height limit for non-treated wood frame construction in LA. This right here used to be the infamous Voyager Motel, which perished in a “fire” two years ago and is being replaced with a 160-unit building. Either it is going to be steel frame or the right people got greased, because the renderings indicate a structure six stories tall.
Fire makes for a good action movie, loud and beautifully terrifying. People struggling against fire are always heroic. The world as we know it is changed in a matter of hours. Three months after the Wildwood Canyon fire, Trixie and I scampered up the charred hillside…as though crossing a WW I battlefield or post nuclear Japan. You could still smell the ash everywhere.
And yet, already, green shoots sprout cheerful from the cinders, unperturbed by the ruckus, seemingly grateful for Nature’s chastisement: Thank you, ma’am, may I have another?
You want to see nature’s real horror movie? Consider the Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer, now eating the Sweetgum trees in my neighborhood.
This guy. This monster, this Godzilla of the microcosmos, no bigger than a BB pellet, tunnels its way into the trunks of trees, sowing spores. Unlike termites, it doesn’t actually eat the wood, it sows eggs which create larvae, the larvae become a fungus. The fungus devours the tree from the inside. The tree isn’t food. The tree is a host, a womb for the evil grubs to squat in while they make more evil grubs, which apparently have no purpose on this earth but to sow more larvae. Once inside the trunk, they are immune to pesticides. Apparently there is no stopping them. Parasite rex!
Half the sweetgums in our neighborhood we lost this year. Half! A magnificent colonnade rotting from within, branches dropping on cars, tipping like dominos. They won’t be replaced in three months. It’ll take 30 years.
Try to make an action movie about that.
Not the mythical Latino Bigfoot, blood-drinking terrorizer of livestock and desert migrants, just a day laborer submerged beneath an eight foot high bag of leaves.
One wonders: does he believe in the Chupacabra? What keeps him awake at night, besides debts and la Migra?
And the owners of the big homes surrounded by such high walls of foliage they require a small army of laborers to tame and haul away the leaves on their backs, lest the house be devoured by its own landscaping, what keeps them up at night?
Could it be the same thing? If the Trumpacabra has his way, who will pick the socks off the floor, and scrape the poop residue off the porcelain and make the leaves go away? And do it on the cheap? And never talk back…
There’s a scary movie.
Vines poke their tendrils through the soffit vents and under the doorways in the Valley. Spiders and dust slip the gap in the screen. Shade trees drop leaves like drunkards, covering the patio the day after you clean it. Rats chew their way into the walls, bed down in the insulation and gnaw on the ceiling rafters. Ants march across countertops to find the drop of maple syrup you spilled at breakfast. While you watch Game of Thrones nature is forever reaching into your house, reasserting claims.
You hear cat stories from people, how they disappear for a week and then walk back in the door as though nothing happened. That’s never happened to us.
Our deal with Memphis was he was free to wander the neighborhood as long as he reported in by dark. He rusticated under bushes. He slithered over fences and onto neighbors patios. He lolled in the middle of the street, swishing his tail, waiting for cars to come around the corner. He galumphed up and down the block greeting tradesmen and head-butting teenage slackers. The normal rules of cat tragedy were forever in abeyance. A hundred and nine lives he enjoyed. On our return from the evening walk we would hear the tinkle of his collar as he fell into step behind us. Sometimes he took sport in making Mrs. U chase him down, gather him into her arms, and carry him back to the house over her shoulder while he kneaded his claws into her shoulder.
On the second morning after Memphis didn’t report, I woke to Trixie pacing the roof. She stood at parade rest over my bedroom window, alert, staring toward the end of the block, as though sniffing his return.
It was not to be. The urban forest had extracted its claim on our house.