Rethinking Nature Writing (in Los Angeles)


"Is there nature in L.A.?" seems the natural question, and it's the question that Jenny Price is asked whenever she writes about the environment in her hometown. Her answer, in this luminous two-part piece from the recent Believer, is that "L.A. has become the finest place in America to think and write about nature." Whoa there, Jenny: are we talking about the same highway-crossed, brown-skied, apocalypse-prone American megalopolis? It turns out we are, and she's got a point.

Seeing a natural world that is often ignored, threatened, or concealed (consider the just-bulldozed South Central Farm, or the concrete-covered Los Angeles River, which has been all but "lost" by the city), Price shows us another version of L.A., and a new kind of nature writing. She wants to challenge our "American nature story, which seeks salvation in nature Out There but refuses to see how we use and transform nature in the city." It's a valuable exploration, not least because our intuition--fed by local myths from Nathaneal West to Terminator--likes to associate Los Angeles, as the world's urban counter-example, with thick pollution, landslides, earthquakes, wildfires, plagues, killer bees, and other natural abberations. Price notes how the prevalence of these associations ironically serve to obscure our links to nature, and how their intensity helps to minimize our responsibility for it: after all, if L.A. keeps being imagined as the testing ground for the apocalypse, what's the point in caring about its nature to begin with?

If Hollywood, as someone recently described it to me, is greased on social manipulation and ambition, in Price's view, greater Los Angeles has thrived on an ongoing ecological manipulation, in which people smile upon (or mourn) what nature there is (or isn't) while paving over it under a banner of "personal freedom." L.A. suffers, Price writes, from "the larger desire to benefit from the innumerable ties to people and nature that sustain one's life in the city, and yet refuse to make good on those connections." With an eye like L.A.'s excavator extraordinaire, Mike Davis, she writes of a kind of deranged ecology:

This is the land of Prop. 13 and Prop. 187, where affluent Angelenos want the cheapest labor but no social services for the illegal immigrants who do it; and want the economic as well as cultural benefits of an ethnically and racially diverse city, but don't want the diversity in their own neighborhoods; and want private canyons and beaches but expect the public to pay for the inevitable fires and mudslides; and want to commute in fabulously fuel-inefficient cars from enormous houses with forty-three-inch TVs and five bathrooms in remote canyons, but object to smog and traffic and pollution and, above all, to living anywhere near the industry and manufacture that bathroom fixtures, SUVs, and forty-three-inch TVs require...

Price's meditations on the city's lost-and-found nature takes on even more import "because it's a thunderously consequential place to do something about the troubles." Her L.A. story ends, excitingly, with a rediscovery of the L.A. River, which is currently being rehabilitated in parts.

Just as the very question "Is there nature in L.A." starts to become useless, so does a nature writing that sidesteps cities' relationships with nature--that keeps posing the pastoral setting in opposition to the urban one. Such conventional nature writing also sidesteps some of our greatest challenges and speaks to us as if caring about nature and living in cities were separate interests.

I wonder aloud, to some Hollywood producer: maybe Price's essay could work as the treatment for a future blockbuster film. Not a disaster flick but a lyrical piece (think An Inconvenient Truth meets Crash) about the disconnections between city life and natural life, the collisions that ensue, and our attempts to crack through the concrete and make good.

(Photo: Untitled, 2004, by Mark Swope.)