This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.
Sagebrush and Cappuccino is the first book in this series to focus solely on Los Angeles, a city I’m most familiar with as the home of Hollywood and traffic jams. However, David Wicinas shows that there is undoubtedly another side to LA. The book is written as a series of walk, each chapter focusing on one walk. Wicinas’s walks take on mountain passes, beaches, creeks, caves, oak trees, mountain lions, earthquakes and sand dunes. His wanderings are interspersed with cultural and historical information about the people and events that have shaped these places.
Wicinas writes in the present tense: I begin my journey, I empty the sand from my shoes, I arrive at the Santa Rosa Plateau…, giving the feeling that you are being let into a private experience. However, despite this tense, at times Wicinas seems to want to turn his back on the present and return to a time before Los Angeles became the sprawling behemoth it is today. As he writes in the Preface:
To find LA’s last few unspoiled spots, as I did, you must avert your eyes from the graffiti, the smog, the junked cars, the ubiquitous offal of twentieth-century civilization…
Must you? I can understand the impulse to want to ignore the ubiquitous offal, but does it serve nature to ignore it? Richard Mabey takes a very different approach in The Unofficial Countryside:
The last thing I want to do is to excuse the dereliction, the shoddiness and the sheer wastefulness of much of our urban landscape… Discovering that the natural world is indifferent to at least the clutter and ugliness (but not usually the poisons) of our urban environments does not mean that we should be also. We should instead be trying to make our built-up areas more fruitful and life-giving for all their inhabitants… For it is nature’s fight back which is such an inspiration, her dogged and inventive survival in the face of all we deal out.
Wicinas seems to want to erase the city and all marks of our presence on the land. But Mabey’s view seems more practical to me. After all, humans have to live somewhere. If we ignore the dereliction, if we turn away from it, then how can we ever tackle it? Instead, we should be trying to ensure that our cities are more liveable – for humans and nature.
At times Wicinas literally turns away from the human world, as in the chapter when he visits Vasquez Rocks. Wicinas reaches the summit of the highest rock formation in the park where he has views stretching out in all directions. In one direction he can see people visiting a set for a Flintstones film and, beyond that, houses dotting the hills:
That way, I conclude, lies the land of fantasy – Hollywood fantasy and, even worse, real estate fantasy… I choose to look in the other direction, at what I consider the real world… In a few eons those red-tiled roofs – like most other human follies and blights – will pass. The rocks will remain.
But what is that real world to which Wicinas is turning? Is it the world of ocean and rocks and oak trees? Is that the real world? The reality is that he lives in Los Angeles and that much of its natural beauty has been tampered with by humans. Wicinas acknowledges that. He writes about the litter on the beach and the cars that have fallen or been dumped in Topanga Canyon, he writes about the properties he has to trespass on and the sounds of highways that intrude into even the most secluded spots. The city and humans are part of all his walks, making the places he walks less beautiful, perhaps, but also more complex. I find Richard Mabey’s recognition of this complexity far more hopeful. Cities are not going away, so ignoring them won’t help the nature trying to make a living there.
On a few occasions Wicinas writes about wanting to settle down in the places he visits, such as Toponga Canyon:
Although I spend barely forty minutes each day with Toponga… those minutes remind me that in a place like Toponga I might escape the pursuit of filthy lucre. There, I would not have to go blind staring at photons dancing across a computer monitor. I could reverse my muscles’ slow melt into Crisco. Instead, I could enjoy a simpler, more elemental existence…
But how, exactly, would he survive in the canyon? What would he eat or drink? Wicinas freely admits that he is not your archetypal outdoorsman. He gets lost, he hates getting his shoes wet and most of his exercise is done in a gym. Of course, it’s a nice daydream and one I would probably indulge in in too if I drove by Topanga Canyon everyday. But it feels as though Wicinas is being pulled in two directions and he doesn’t seem able to resolve those contradictions. As he writes in the Preface:
Friends tell me I have a split personality; a forest ranger trapped within me constantly struggles for control against a café-hopping boulevardier. I can never decide which is more important: the jolt of a strong cappuccino or the smell of wet sagebrush on a misty morning.
Perhaps Wicinas’s most drastic attempt to get back to something “natural” is in the last chapter, when Wicinas explores the El Segundo sand dunes, one of the only surviving areas of coastal sand dunes for hundreds of miles along the California coast. The 302 acres of dunes sit right next door to Los Angeles International Airport, better known as LAX. The dunes were once the site of 822 family homes with beautiful sea views. But those families were forced to leave their homes when the airport decided it was no longer safe to have planes taking off right over people’s heads. The houses were emptied and bulldozed and the dunes were fenced off. After the house had been bulldozed the dunes were once again threatened, this time by a proposed golf course. Entomologist Rudi Mattoni was bought in to conduct a biological survey of the dunes. His study found that they were home to 25 rare species and the dunes were subsequently protected.
Wicinas meets Adriano Mattoni, Rudi’s son, at the dunes. Mattoni is trying to wind back the clock on the dereliction inflicted on the dunes by the property developers. He wants to restore the natural ecology of the dunes, a process that involves cultivating native plants and ripping out and chain-sawing non-native ones, relocating animals that don’t belong, a dash of herbicide, thousands of dollars and a small army of volunteers (Wicinas is one of those volunteers).
Now, this is a laudable goal and I respect the dedication and effort of Mattoni and his volunteers. After all, the dunes are home to a diverse range of animal, including many that are endangered and/or endemic. But it strikes me that the process of restoring the dunes requires a very heavy human hand and I can’t help but wonder whether further human meddling is really the answer. If herbicides and chain saws, not to mention relocating animals from their homes, are what’s required to resuscitate this ecosystem, then it’s worth asking, to what end? Nature’s? Or is it a way of dealing with our own sense of loss? I’m not saying I support species extinction or the destruction of beautiful and unique ecosystems, I just wonder whether such an extreme level of hand-holding is really the answer.
Wicinas proposes an interesting idea when exploring Vasquez Rocks. He finds a cave that has obviously been the scene of some partying:
I think it’s good that people come up here to party and make love… If doing the wild thing in a wild spot helps people form a bond to the desert, then by all means, everyone, have at it. I know I feel some strong ties to a clearing along the Delaware River and a secluded meadow in New Hampshire. The more human affection for open land, the more secure the fate of that land will be.
It’s certainly the first time I’ve encountered someone advocating for lovemaking in nature as a way of connecting to nature. I won’t pass comment on that here, but I found that last sentence particularly intriguing. Is more human affection for open land the best way to secure its fate?
The chapter on mountain lions brings this question prominently to the fore. Wicinas opens the chapter by recounting the stories of two young children who were mauled and almost killed by mountain lions whilst hiking in Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park. Following these incidents and the ensuing litigation, the County took the decision to ban anyone under 18 years old from visiting the park. Wicinas wonders:
What if parks throughout our nation banned children because the wild lands within posed threats, however remote, to the safety of minors? How would that affect society’s attitudes towards nature? Would my own love of wilderness ever have blossomed if, as a child, I had been banned from America’s parks?
But is it better for nature to allow humans to have access to it? It’s a complex question. I grew up not far from Kinder Scout in the Peak District, which was once the site of a protest for greater access to the countryside. Groups of ramblers trespassed on Kinder Scout and a number of the protesters were arrested, bringing the issue of access to the attention of the public, and eventually leading to legislation that secured the right to roam in the English countryside. The idea of a right to roam is an interesting one – we want to have access to natural beauty, we don’t want to be told, no, this is where your path ends.
Arguably allowing people to have access to nature and the countryside is a good thing. As Wicinas points out, national parks are where many people, especially city dwellers, learn to love nature. I learned to love nature in the Peak District (though I also learnt to love it in the city, in gardens and parks and whilst climbing the tree at the end of my road). But I’m intrigued by the idea of shutting nature areas off from human access.
A good example of this is the Oostvaardersplassen, an area of 22 square miles to the east of Amsterdam. If you ever take the train from Almere to Lelystad then you will pass right by the Oostvaardersplassen. It’s one of my favourite stretches of train line in the Netherlands because the Oostvaardersplassen looks like nowhere else in the Netherlands – it looks more like the Serengeti. There is a visitor’s centre at the site and some trails that the public have access to, but most of the site is closed off.
The idea that the Oostvaardersplassen is closed off and that the Konik horses, Heck cattle, red deer and other animals lead largely undisturbed lives there appeals to my imagination. Just knowing that nature is there, running its own course, is somehow comforting.
And yet – I was also fortunate enough to be able to visit the Oostvaardersplassen and to enter the closed off area. During that visit I came face to face with the Konik horses, an encounter that changed the way I think about wild animals irrevocably. What’s more, there are some who would question how natural the Oostvaardersplassen really is. The site is fenced off, so the animals cannot migrate and predators, such as wolves, can’t easily access it, and it is a polder – a decidedly man made landscape.
Wicinas explores this further as he hikes in the Caspars Wilderness Park. He writes about how attitudes towards mountain lions have evolved over time:
A century ago mountain lions leaned the hard way that man was the dominant predator. Seeking bounties, buckskin-clad hunters scoured the hills for cougars. But by the mid-1970s, state governments stopped paying bounties. Now the only humans scouring the hills are Gore-Tex-clad backpackers seeking solitude.
For a long time cougars were assumed to have an innate fear of humans, but now that they are no longer being hunted by humans, they don’t seem all that afraid. Wicinas sites a number of examples of mountain lions parading in front of humans, including ones that have wandered into human habitations:
In areas where they have not encountered humans acting like the dominant predator, mountain lions may indeed be emboldened. In fact, some cougars now seem to classify us not as a predator but as potential prey.
One woman who was hunted by two mountains lions and spent hours up a tree whilst they stalked below (they eventually left and she was able to escape to safety), said afterwards:
“I used to be pretty much of a bleeding-heart wildlife lover. I feel like at this point if I had to shoot a lion, I would.”
Time spent in nature might increase our love for nature (and therefore our desire and willingness to protect it), but only so long as it doesn’t try to eat us. So what kind of nature do we then end up protecting? And for whom? If we leave nature be, if we give it the space it needs, then we may just wake up one morning to find it slumbering in the dog kennel, having feasted on poor Fluffy.
I may not have always agreed with Wicinas but I liked the fact that Sagebrush and Cappuccino prompted me to think about some interesting questions. Wicinas’s style fell flat for me at times. I felt like he was trying to be funny and it just didn’t resonate with me. His comments about women also irked me and could have happily been edited out. But I still finished this book feeling like I had spent time in LA and that I’d very much like to do it again, for real this time.