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Eyeless in Bellona
You could tell the Lyft driver, whose dashboard playlist interface was in Greek and who previously had made clear he wasn’t in a chatty mood, was unsure, as was I. It was a few minutes before 7 a.m., still on the dark side, on the morning of the new moon, and the spot I had directed the app to drop me off—the best guess at where I thought I wanted to go—turned out to be right on the side of the highway. An L.A. highway that turned out to have no shoulder, and no sidewalk.
I figured I could figure it out, and confirmed it was as good a place as any. Navigating an edgeland in a city you don’t really know, by returning to a spot you had glimpsed from a taxi, has its improvisational risks. Especially when the spot you want to take a closer look at is a concrete creek in the middle of a major metropolis.
There were no signs that I could see, unless you count the signs of the businesses on the opposite side of the street, the brightest of which advertised Silicon Beach Laser Spine Surgery, which conjured vague images of a David Cronenberg casting call. On the wilder side of the street, there was just brushy ground cover. But almost immediately, I spotted a narrow trail that cut through the brush, the kind of trail that you can’t even be confident is really a trail and not just a small gap between the bushes.
The sense of the street quickly receded, as I stepped onto a more obvious path. One wide enough for a motor vehicle, at least an ATV. You could hear the birds, but couldn’t see them.
The plants were mostly the sort you see near salt water. Not that different from the ones you see nestled in the dunes on the Gulf Coast, but prettier, and a little weirder. The palette a mix of warm weather greens and wintry browns—the few trees young and bare, lots of tall grass gone dormant and collapsed, revealing the bushier plants that blocked your way. It was cold—crazy cold for Southern California, just above freezing, and everything on the edge of frosty.
The trail was muddy. It had been raining in California for a week, maybe more. Headlines full of apocalyptic meteorological neologisms. What exactly is an atmospheric river? Somehow, I had arrived just as the sun came back out, but even that first morning, two days earlier, as I walked across Venice to meet my producer friend, you could see how wet it had been. A few streets still partially flooded, and those groovy California flowers freshly blooming in peoples’ front yards. The only celebrity I saw was Baby Yoda, tied to the cage on the back of a truck, dirty and water logged.
The wetland was hard to find from the path, even though you could tell it was right there. I was a little edgy, not really knowing where I was, or what I would find. I had seen the creek from the car on my way in from the airport, then looked for it on the map later, and seen the expanses of green, and the cartographical designations of wildlife preserves. But when I looked them up, it was hard to tell how open they really were. Or, based on some of the public commentary on the trailfinder sites, how safe. When you go to places like that, especially in the crepuscular hour, you feel a bit like a thief.
As I moved through the marsh, I could feel I had breached an invisible boundary, into the secret space where wild life hides in the interstices of the city. That feeling you get, when you have entered into a zone of more natural order, which feels to your urbanized human sensibility more like disorder—the feeling that you could be both predator and prey, depending on how the hour goes.
I remembered the beached carp we had encountered back home by the river the Monday before, MLK Day, after the caracara and carrion crows flew off. Eyeless and puckered.
Following the sound, I managed to sneak up on the wild geese, tucked there in a marshy redoubt just off the airport flightpath. Apartment blocks and suburban homes cluttered the edge of the hill that hemmed in the floodplain from the south. You could hear the cars in the background behind the mellow honks, and the muted sound of the jets taking off over the Pacific, some turning back toward the continent below, others going all the way to the other side of the ocean. I wondered where these Canada geese had come from, and where they would go next.
There were ducks, too, hard to identify in the dim light. I followed the path along the edge of the marsh, stopping for glimpses of life through the foliage, at a range that did not disturb their refuge. Then the trail led to an entry to a different kind of refuge, for people who find themselves living outside.
I stayed to the edge of that, too, not wanting to walk right into anyone’s private space carved out of the public lands, especially at that early hour. There was a huge expanse I had seen on the maps and wanted to explore, of which the marsh was just a corner. I found an animal trail that went around the camp, and took me onto a public road that divided two sprawling acreages of Angeleno edgelands.
It was a long straight road aimed in the direction of the beach. All the way down along one side, the marsh side, it was lined with recreational vehicles, travel trailers, pickups with camper tops, and tent camps, some of the tents store bought, others shelters improvised from plastic tarps and urban salvage. Boondockers, I guess they call them. Van-dwellers. People who live in their vehicles some or all of the time. The Wikipedia entry on the subject lists some of the famous ones, as if there is no real difference between people who go nomad for fun and people who do it in the absence of other viable options. Captain Kirk. The Alaskan singer-songwriter known as Jewel. I saw no one, and heard no voices. Just the evidence of their habitation.
I crossed the street, clambered over a kind of low levee, and entered a vast open wetland plain. It was only then that I saw the signs designating the zone as an ecological preserve in which entry was prohibited without special permission.
The ground was completely saturated. A boggy marsh thick with ground cover foliage and signs of warm-blooded life. Deer tracks, canine tracks, the prints of larger birds. Snail shells all over, the ones I picked up empty. Some signs of petrochemical extraction. A rusty metal aperture sticking up out of the ground, perhaps ventilating some subterranean store of fuels. Another road cut diagonally through the zone. An old road, elevated on stubby concrete piers. At one point, the ground reached up to the guardrail. I went there, to see if I could get to the road. And I could, but it was too dangerous to use on foot—two lanes, high speed, no shoulder.
I was feeling the cold. I put my bare hands in the pockets of my sweat pants, and took in the dirty beauty of the scene. The light was getting bright, first slice of California sun illuminating the urban edge to the north, the plain I stood in still shadowed by the rise to the south, the frost more visible in the open terrain. A line of telephone poles followed the road, carrying data and power to the subdivisions clustered along the playa. A lone waterbird flew over, silent. It was like the cover of some mid-70s ambient Krautrock album, one of those combos where the names of the artists read like the names of forgotten alchemists. Channeling the sublime tranquility of liminal nature in the aftermath of industrial ruin.
The place was called Ballona, and all I could think of was Bellona—the mysterious city of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, one of those insanely transgressive books masquerading as pulp fiction that I found on the shelves at the shopping mall B. Dalton when I was a boy in the ‘70s, entranced by the cover image of three people standing before ruined skyscrapers beneath an apocalyptic burning sun. A broken city where you can’t really tell if it’s the end of the world, or just another day on Earth.
I ran from there. All the way around the wide acres, as morning came on full strength. I crossed over the concrete creek along the edge of the highway bridge, with no other way to go. On the other side, I found a fence that had been left cracked open, which led to a paved bike trail. And here came the humans, the ones who have proper homes to stay in. People on nice bikes, moving at high speed, past the three cormorants I saw perched on the plastic catchment designed to trap the trash in the river before it finds the sea. The UCLA crew team rowed against the almost non-existent current, first the men, then the women, each accompanied by one of those megaphone barking motorboats.
I ran the dirt trail at the side of the paved one, avoiding the holes of what could have been the burrow entries of field mammals, or of some reptile. I saw mammal tracks, canine, and imagined the coyotes that must prowl that zone.
I covered five miles, navigating my way around the unfenced preserve designated Area B, the fenced in section designated Area A, slightly worried I would end up in Area X. In time I found myself in Marina del Rey, following the bike trail through swaths of Yacht Rock wonderland and low key corporate futurism. And eventually back to Venice, which always feels like some weird time hole stuck at the juncture where 1975 and 1985 intersect over the memory of 1925. At the last canal before the beach, which looked almost like it could have been natural, a lone white egret stood on a promontory of trash, waiting for breakfast to swim up.
On the last breaker before the wall, a man jogged in an outfit that really did look designed for the end of the world: a full body suit of white mylar, with an astronaut backpack and an elaborately paneled and piped helmet that could have protected him at the bottom of the ocean or the surface of an alien planet. Another guy variously led him and followed him, all in black, taking pictures on a nice camera. Brand managing the apocalypse, training for what’s coming, or just two guys out for a good time, I couldn’t tell.
There’s a ton of information out there about Ballona Creek and the Ballona Wetlands, and the Wikipedia entries at those links are as good a place as any to start. The area was owned by Howard Hughes, and its preservation after his death looks to have come about through some hard fighting by committed environmental advocates. It must be incredibly beautiful in spring, especially in a year like this with such a wet winter.
On the subject of atmospheric rivers and other hyperbolic meteorological neologisms, this recent NYT piece talks with leaders in the field about how weather forecasters use the language.
Over at the Houston Chronicle, an interesting report on the increased sightings of coyotes inside the Loop.
For lovers of trailcams, the NYT reported on the crowdsourced camera project underway in Wisconsin, which has captured some amazing shots of different species figuring out how to share the space we leave them.
And for those needing a psychogeography fix, the LRB has some fresh Iain Sinclair, this time underground in the Super-Sewer.
An anniversary, and a new schedule
We’re coming up on the third anniversary of this newsletter that started as a sandbox experiment in what my editor at the time aptly dubbed “dystopian nature writing.” I’ve been amazed and delighted at the response, and also amazed that I have managed to maintain the weekly schedule with only occasional breaks for travel and holidays. As regular readers know, I am working on a book that mines much of the same material. That’s going well, and as I accelerate toward a summer deadline, I am going to dial back on the frequency of my Field Notes installments, probably making it monthly until July or August. If you need a fix on the off weeks, there are 130 other notes in the archives, each one of which has links to works of interest by others.
I also finally joined my friends at Mastodon, after a couple of days this week writing about plants that co-evolved to be eaten by the megafauna after which the decentralized social platform is named. You can find me at email@example.com.
Thanks for reading, and have a great week.