by Sue Nelson

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

Here in Echo Park in the original Spanish pueblo, I can see in the distance, dimmed by sunlit haze, evidence of the peculiar twisting and turning of the earth, in the upended, jumbled paleolithic land form of the east west Santa Monica mountains. The grid city of imported wood, steel, stucco, asphalt, concrete squares, oblongs, towers, circles, woven roots and grasses called Los Angeles transformed desert, from rock, from sand. Presiding tender mountain ridges within which water, streams and ancient habitat hide, once ocean bottom, now weathered rocks and pillow lava replicating waves on earth. Called mountains, the Santa Monica’s home to the Gaabrieleno, to the Shoshone and Cumash, an airshed to the region. They are threatened along with the Verdugos and Santa Susanas by massive bulldozing; stiffened with concrete they are to be cut up and made into flatland for speculation and for growth.

From my room with a view I cannot see the stars, nor any native vegetation; the oaks are gone, the native grasses, the sycamores. The LA. river, to my north, over the basalt rock of Echo Park, is channeled in vertical walls. Following floods in 1916, a decision was made to contain potential damage to structures by sending water to the sea. Shortsighted greed lost the opportunity to replenish the now degraded artesian waters and aquifers which sustain wetlands and marshlands. Since then, the streets, the freeways along with sewer pipes and drain pipes collect the rain which, no longer sinking downward, rushes to the beautiful Santa Monica Bay. Once the passageway to whale and dolphin, to seals and swordfish, the sea is thick with a layer of pesticides and toxic chemicals. House and industry, built in the flood plain, are protected. In turn, these inhabitants drink, flush, wash and dump offal and toxics into water, imported from far away in Colorado and Northern California, making green grass lawns and thick green vegetation lining freeways, making highrise bright hard green.

This is my home, a way station for the collection of mortgage interest, payments to the Department of Water and Power, Southern California Gas Company, Pacific Bell and taxes of all kinds. Only the air is free, and is often unbreathable. My home, in the absence of a social polity, is my temporary sanctuary; it is the one space which does not psychologically belong to the other. And from it, from this node in a network of grassroots workers, we challenge the underlying assumptions of growth in the basin. For this, we need a new language and new organizing, which uses old forms in new ways. Developing a community of spirit, we are sometimes able to halt the massive growth machine from obliterating our neighborhoods and our places of work. For instance, we’ve saved eighty thousand acres of native chapparall, coastal sage and rare riparian habitat in the Santa Monicas. It is all under attack.

Over my ridge is Elysian Park. Planted as an English landscape in the 19th century when much of the surrounding land was still desert, the real estate brokers were readying the hills for sale. For thirty years a Citizens’ Committee has stopped one hundred and thirty incursions into the park. This year they want to cover the Elysian Park Reservoir and expand the Los Angeles Police Academy into the park, where homeless live in trees and pee on park rangers. This rock outcrop, once covered with canyon live oak woodland, was decimated by grazing sheep, rock quarries and dumping, now dry brown eucalyptus woodland, an import from Australia. They cut the water away in 1950 when they tore up Chavez Ravine for the Pasadena Freeway, and never gave it back. So there are periodic fires. The Committee has forced them to replace the picnic areas and grass in some areas. Once the backyard of the Spanish Roman city plaited along the diagonal sunline of the mediterranean, the area is like a hole in the L.A. landscape where time has stopped.

Excerpted from Land and the People 1989, a prose-poem delivered at the 1989 U.S. Green Gathering, Eugene, Oregon.

Sue Nelson (1927-2003) was known as “The Mother of the Santa Monica Mountains” for her work leading the effort to create the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, established as the first urban national park in 1978. In 1964, she helped found and later became president of the group Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains, Parks, and Seashore, and she was a major force working on other projects to preserve natural areas and keep out freeways in the Los Angeles area. Additionally, she used her master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA to contribute to many community planning projects. Her papers are held in special collections at California State University, Northridge.

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