Los Angeles Deluge

Part One

You’ve probably heard, or been in, the rain this weekend. After months of no rain, we’ve had a deluge in Los Angeles. In a record low rainfall year – the last I heard was 3″ – we got that much in a 48-hour period. For Southern California, that’s a big deal. Unlike other places I’ve lived where a typical rain storm brings several inches, it can rain for days here  and still add up to a fraction of an inch. Our native plants have evolved to get by on just one wet season per year. Some can practically survive on fog alone.

Our natural systems accommodate the feast-famine cycles of rainfall by remaining fluid themselves. Before cities were built, the entire Los Angeles basin was an alluvial plain. Ribbons of trees and flowering shrubs followed the path of the rain as it fell and traced the shortest distance from the mountains to the sea. In years with more rain, the ribbons would thicken and carve out more room, sometimes altering course altogether. The Los Angeles River once emptied near the mouth of Ballona Creek, at a 90 degree angle from where it now enters the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach.

The famous saying that there are four seasons in California: fire, flood, drought and earthquake is born from fact. Ours is a young, still growing landscape. Our mountains are still rising, and with each quake or storm their crumbling tops move down into the valleys and plains in mudflows and cobble-filled creeks. Droughts parch the trees and shrubs and with any spark fire races up the steep slopes and leaves blackened debris to add to those flows. Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster is the most eloquent description I’ve read about this fluid, beautiful and destructive landscape we keep trying to tame.

For me, the rainfall and its promise of growth mirrors something else in my presence: my youngest child. As droves of rain sheeted off my roof and into my garden yesterday morning, my son emerged from bed, worked his way to the bathroom without a word and took a shower. When the water stopped, I heard the shower curtain roll on its bar followed by the sink faucet opening and the sound of tooth brushing. I listened with interest. This was not the half-hearted brushing of a kid barely following his mom’s plea … this was a voluntary act of self-care. Well over a minute later, my youngest child, almost done with his thirteenth year, re-emerged from the bathroom, re-traced his steps to his bedroom and shut the door. Within minutes, he was dressed and outside in the rain in time to revel in a burst of hail that poured from the sky for a scant minute or two. While going through the motions of adulthood, he still holds onto the wonders of childhood. My youngest will be a teenager in barely a blink.

What does this have to do with the rain? So many things! In one burst of rainfall, the gardens and hillsides of Los Angeles come alive. There is nothing more mighty than natural rainfall to turn on the growth hormones of plants. No amount of irrigation can match it. Same goes for adolescent hormones. My son is in the midst of a magical transformation between childhood and adulthood. If his growth matches his older brother’s, this change in behavior will soon be followed by body hair, facial hair and a half-dozen inches of height. His voice will change as his Adam’s apple grows, and he will inhabit an entirely new presence. The scent of deodorant (and the natural musk it is designed to mask) on teenagers is like my garden after rain.

Cleansed of all impurities, the air is filled with the oily fragrances of sage and rosemary and lavender. My garden is not so different than the chaparral-covered hillsides above the 134 freeway. Their coats of Sages and Artemisia and Grasses flush with color after the rains. The new growth covers the still rising bodies of our adolescent mountains. We brace our homes and buildings to bedrock in the hopes of riding out the big one in one piece. The frequent rumblings from small earthquakes and tumbling rock and debris is an apt metaphor for the seismic systems of our teens. My third child now starts the journey to adulthood. I’m hopeful that the infrastructure of love and life lessons he embarks with will carry him and his siblings forward intact through the tumultuous years ahead of them. 

Part Two

Raising three teenagers is like trying to control nature. It is trying to control nature. Every time one finds comfort with the world around him, another is bursting through a dam of emotional turmoil or angst. The channels we’ve built to control those feelings are often unable to hold them.

I’m still searching for the right infrastructure to help my children manage their emotional and intellectual climates. There is a softer, more holistic approach to shaping our kids than the rigid academic structures we’ve set up in our schools. I have to believe a school system focusing on building our children’s individual strengths would better help them weather the storms of adolescence and adulthood.

Since I’m better educated in our urban and natural systems than our school systems, I compare our choices to a school house versus a tree. And since my children went to LA schools, that school house isn’t a cute little clapboard structure in the middle of the woods. It’s a modular classroom with no windows plopped on a sea of asphalt. And the tree is simply any mature tree to provide the children shade, a little shelter from the rain and infinite materials for imagination and inspiration.

The parallel in city systems is replacing our gray infrastructures:
1. asphalt roads that are comfortable only for car traffic and drain into concrete storm drains that drain directly into our rivers and oceans
2. single-purpose energy systems that rely on vast, fragile wired networks to take energy from huge, environmentally costly power plants to individual homes and businesses in
3. buildings that rely on that power to artificially heat and cool and light and power the occupants

with green infrastructures:
1. roads that are comfortable for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as automobile traffic (and are accompanied by a whole mass transit network) and drain into planted parkways to water a dense network of trees that cool the roads and adjacent buildings, house birds and butterflies, shade pedestrians and bicyclists, slow traffic, and clean the contaminants out of the water before it drains into our rivers and oceans
2. small, local green energy systems powered by wind or water or sun (depending on the local climate) to provide energy to individual homes and business in
3. buildings that are designed to best take advantage of natural light and the sun’s heat and summer breezes to minimize the amount of energy they use and improve the health and happiness of the occupants

A friend of mine spent the day it deluged in L.A. out in the woods learning survival skills. She posted photos of her group in rain jackets, soaked with rain, hiking and finding resources and starting fires. They all looked so happy. My children revel in the rain. Nature schools are gaining ground in Norway and England and Scotland. It gets cold in Norway. It rains a lot in England and Scotland. Why not L.A.?

Getting children out in weather teaches them to adapt to their environment and live humbly, since no one can control nature. Get a child used to the weather, and they might grow up not needing so much energy for heating and cooling their homes. Our school districts are strapped for cash, and looking for ways to integrate sustainability into their buildings. Why not leave out the building altogether and host school under a tree?

Here are a few books that continue to inspire me in this idea:
Cradle to Cradle
Asphalt to Ecosystems
Last Child in the Woods