Twenty-eight feet never looked so small. On our third day in Costa Rica, we went deep sea fishing, me battling my life-long fear of the ocean to spend a day at sea with Jacob and Jasper. The young man who we purchased the tickets from had a shared history on North Carolina’s Outer Banks where Jasper and I had spent our childhood summers. He told of his team’s record-breaking catches while pointing to snapshots of boats at sea. There were a variety, most with large cabins, though it was hard to make out the details.
“That doesn’t look like twenty-eight feet,” Jasper said as the little boat that picked us up on the beach approached one of the dozens of bigger boats waiting for passengers in the cove.
“It could be,” I said, mentally measuring off ten foot increments on the simple fiberglass shell. Once on board, I could see there was no cabin … no bathroom … only four molded fiberglass seats under a tiny square shade. This was it for the next seven hours.
My expectations had been set by my one other experience fishing off-shore. Jasper and Julia and I had gone with our dad and his girlfriend at the time off of Bimini Island in the Bahamas. The boat was tall and elegant, like the girlfriend. Jasper recalled catching a wahoo at the end of the trip. I remembered nothing but rhythmic rocking and staring out over the endless sea. But I’m sure there was a cabin. I’m sure there was a bathroom.
“How’re you doing?” Jasper shouted over the motor a few miles into the trip.
“Good,” I shouted back. “Better than I thought!”
I surprised myself by enjoying being on the water. The sea wasn’t making it easy, either. It was choppy, and the boat bounced up and down over two and three foot swells. The captain expertly aimed the nose into the smoothest path of travel and cut the engine strategically and ever so slightly to minimize the jarring. Despite the rough seas, only a few drops of spray managed to reach us.
I had imagined myself panicking the moment we passed a good swimming distance from shore. But there we were, the mountains faded to light gray silhouettes behind us. I was strangely comforted by the boats steady roar and sea slapping the sides of the boat. Instead of fearing death by drowning or sharks, I was mesmerized by the sun glinting off the waves, the salty air, the glimpse of fish jumping every so often. I turned at a flash of silver to watch a flying fish glide just above the waves for seconds before plopping back into the sea. My breath caught at the wonder of it.
Though I lived just 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean, I hadn’t felt connected to the sea in a long time. Southern California’s Pacific is frigid year-round. Here, in the warm waters along the Costa Rican shore, I felt at home. Like August on the Outer Banks, the ocean here was warm enough to hang out in for hours. Famously big surf brought surfers from around the world to our little Playa Hermosa hotel. We were warned of rough water and rip tides. But the tides were manageable after cutting our teeth in Nags Head’s notorious surf. We swam before breakfast each morning, before sunset each evening, and once or twice in between.
The early mornings were usually calmest, with big perfect waves sliding through a glassy surface under sunrise. By mid-morning, the tides or winds changed to bring rougher waters. Our last two days brought us water calm enough to float in for long periods between each set of three or four big waves. We dove under the rolling whitewater, rode in on smooth faces and relaxed into long back floats on smooth rolling water.
Even though Playa Hermosa was on a different ocean and continent, this beach felt very much like coming home. We slept with our windows open to the salt air and crashing waves. The sounds and scents and humidity took me back to my love of the ocean. A love that outweighed my childish fear of sharks and stingrays.
After one shriek at an imagined black fin, I jumped out of the ocean like the Jesus Christ lizard Jacob told us about.
“And there you are,” Jasper said when I calmed down and rejoined them in the surf. “I just had a flashback to your 7 year old self.”
And yet the ocean calmed me. There, with my brother and my son, I felt connected to love and to place and to time standing still. I felt grounded and nurtured and at peace. I felt a coming together of my childhood self and myself as a grown-up. I felt joy. My return to the sea was also a return to me.
In honor of the five year anniversary of buying my house …
Excerpt from Making Home: from the Sticks to LaLa-Land
Once the wake of my divorce began smoothing out around me, I felt the need to anchor myself. I wanted to settle down. I wanted a home of my own. It had been five years since I had owned a home. When my ex-husband and I moved to Los Angeles in 2003, home prices were just out of reach of our budget. The next five years more than doubled the cost of most homes, making owning a home so unattainable that I schooled myself on the benefits of renting. But, in 2008 that series of unjust banking decisions that compounded to drop mortgage-holders by the hundreds of thousands had plummeted both housing prices and interest rates to the advantage for some of us. I finally qualified to own a home in Los Angeles.
Despite, or perhaps because of, my uncertain employment prospects, I felt owning a home would give me some stability. As it was, if I lost my job I would be dependent on my mom or my sister to house me until I found another job. Rental rates were increasing as quickly as people lost their homes. If I owned a home, I could always rent out all or a portion of it. I would have land to inhabit and a means of making income. I had been in Eagle Rock for three years and I wanted to stay. My boyfriend at the time (R) and I had been living together for almost a year. As much as I wanted to believe our relationship would last, we were anything but certain of our future. So my house search focused on my needs for me and the children, my style … my dreams. Unlike the three places I had owned with my ex, this home would feel like me.
I contacted Chris Furstenberg, the real estate agent who helped Julia and James find their home. Blond-haired and blue-eyed, Chris’s prep school formality was off-set by an occasional sarcastic comment. He helped Julia and James sell their downtown bar retrofit. They, like so many others between 2002 when they bought the place and 2005 when they sold it, doubled their investment. They had spent nearly fifteen years converting raw industrial spaces into habitable live-work studios when they decided to move to a house in Highland Park.
“You want to live in a house?” I had asked, the image of my sculptor sister and her anti-establishment husband striving for the American dream didn’t add up in my mind.
“James wants central heat,” Julia replied, guiltily adding, “and a lawn.”
I raised my eyebrows. “What about your studio space?”
“We’re looking for a house big enough for each of us to have a studio,” she said. I tried to conjure up what that might be, and the resulting image of a 3-bedroom house with a 2-car garage did not match any of the expectations I had for where they might live. Industrial, yes … urban, yes … converted restaurant/bar, yes … single family home with detached garage, not in a million years.
Chris helped them sell their bar-home and take the return to buy their first actual house. At the time, downtown Los Angeles was booming, and home prices everywhere were still rising. Renters in older rent-controlled homes were being displaced by landlords eager to cash in on the ballooning home values, and affordable places to rent were hard to find.
The home Julia and James bought was home to a woman in her 50s and her five children and their two very large dogs. She had lived there for 18 years, despite half the house having no electricity. She had no means to go anywhere else. The closing date came and went, but the renter didn’t move. The seller, seeing housing prices continue to rise, figured if he waited long enough, Julia and James would back out of the contract and he could sell it for more.
After five weeks of living in hotels and taking a national tour of their friends’ guest rooms, Julia and James and Chris knocked on the woman’s door. When she opened the door, Julia showed her a check for $5000.
“Can you be out in a week?” Julia asked.
“Yes,” the woman replied. She was out the next day.
During that long and complicated selling and buying process Chris earned a place on Julia’s “People Worth Recommending” list – a difficult honor to achieve.
I narrowed my search area to the northeast quadrant of Eagle Rock, which was closest to my work and was served by Dahlia Heights Elementary School. Dahlia Heights was a small K-6 school built in the 40s and named after the Dahlia fields that grew at the time. If Levi could go to Dahlia Heights for third grade, he would have only 300 students in his entire school, and likely get more personal attention than he received amid the 1,000 students at Eagle Rock Elementary. Being the highly creative and easily distracted kid that he was, I figured the more help he could get to focus in school, the better. With the kids alternating living with me one week and their dad the next, I had plenty of time to look for houses without getting their hopes up. Chris set up several home visits the next Saturday I had without the kids.
I fell in love with the first home I saw. It was a two-bedroom one-bath bungalow one block south of Colorado Boulevard. Dahlia Heights Elementary was at the other end of the block, separated by a steep two-story tall bump in the road. Trader Joe’s Market was a block away, and at least a dozen restaurants, the public library, and Tritch Hardware – purveyors of traditional home necessities from canning jars to fasteners to step ladders – were all within walking distance. The bus stop on the corner connected to bus stops in Glendale, downtown Los Angeles, and my work in Pasadena.
The house was cute enough. It was a 1923 neo-colonial style bungalow still bearing the original wood clapboards painted white, spared from the common indignity of being smothered in stucco. Two pergolas were tacked onto either side of the tiny front porch to hold vines, giving it a heaviness that didn’t quite fit the house’s dainty footprint. The bottom half of the front façade was unpainted, the clapboards aged as if they had been replaced years ago and then forgotten. It was rough but enough bone structure was there to restore the house’s original charm. The 750-square foot home had a large living room and a kitchen big enough to eat in. In addition to the main house were an open carport, a separate 16-foot by 16-foot playroom, and a long and narrow “hothouse” behind that.
“The deed shows both enclosed structures,” Chris said. “That’s rare. You’ll be in good shape if you ever want to rent one out.” In Los Angeles people often built additions without going through the City’s tiresome and expensive permitting process.
“I might need to,” I said.
The lot was 6800 square feet, sloped from east to west, and was twice as long as it was wide. Four mature trees set the character of the landscape. An enormous Crepe Myrtle in the front yard provided a barrier at the northeast corner where the lot was slightly lower than the street. A Coast Live Oak sat on the southwest corner at the back of the lot, providing shade and beauty though it was not as broad or gnarled as Live Oaks can get. A Navel Orange Tree that must have been as old as the house bore a canopy that was 20 feet tall and nearly as wide, stretching from the house to the playroom 15 feet away. A tall pecan tree, which I couldn’t identify at the time, reached up between the playroom and hothouse. In addition, a scraggly acacia shaded the hothouse’s east side.
A concrete patio created a cozy place between the house and playroom, despite a pretty awful outdoor kitchen backing up to the Orange tree. Otherwise, the landscape was mostly grass with a few concrete pathways running through and some ornamental roses up front.
“The family is here,” Chris told me as we prepared to go inside. “The realtor usually asks them to leave, but they have an event to get to this afternoon and needed to get ready.”
“That’s okay,” I said, though I felt a bit guilty. The house was a short sale, being done by the bank in a last ditch attempt to gain some funds for the property before foreclosing. This family was losing their home.
They were a young couple with two children, and a live-in grandmother. As I toured the house, the mother sat at her vanity in the back bedroom curling her small daughter’s hair. The little girl wore a white satin dress, white tights and white patent leather shoes. The mother was creating a clutch of perfectly formed curls that fell down the girl’s back in a row of ringlets. Her own hair had already been arranged the same way. They were preparing for a Quinceañera.
“Good morning,” I said as I peeked into the master bedroom to get a look. One of the two windows was covered by a large wardrobe, and one wall was painted mustard yellow, the other three maroon. It was dark except the bright glow of a floor lamp surrounding the mother and child.
“Good morning,” the mother replied. “So sorry we are in your way.”
“It’s no problem,” I said, and really it wasn’t.
“This is a nice neighborhood,” she went on. “The people here are very friendly.”
“That’s good to hear,” I said. “Are there lots of children?”
“Not many small children,” she replied. “There are mostly older families whose children have grown and left the house. There are some teenagers … like next door … not really small children on this block. But everyone is very nice.”
“Thank you,” I said, turning to go tour the rest of the house. “Enjoy the party.” The two children shared the front bedroom and the grandmother lived in the playroom out back. The house was neat and clean, but had some obvious structural issues. When I first walked in, I felt dizzy. There was a pretty severe slant from the front door in the center to the back door at the southwest corner of the house. Badly installed windows invited moisture to collect in the front room’s walls, leaving water stains under the sills. The kitchen cabinets had strange 50s style doors on them, with rounded corner cutouts that I thought were kind of cute. Many of the original plastered walls were badly cracked from the house’s uneven settling. And the bathroom had a rotten place in one wall and a dysfunctional layout—when you opened the door to go in, the door covered the toilet and hit the sink.
Walking out the back door and down five crooked concrete steps, Chris glanced along the ground and pointed to a crumbling spot in the foundation.
“Looks like it needs a new foundation,” he said. “It’s the original concrete.” He bent down and poked it with his finger, sending loose a mini avalanche of decaying sandy concrete.
A tacked-on laundry room between the back stoop and the orange tree bore a shed roof slanting toward the house. During rains, all the water that landed on that roof would drain against the house and then onto the ground against the foundation. The saturated soil had sucked in the foundation, and the concrete steps sunk lopsidedly towards it. The back door was cut at the top to fit the warping frame, so that it was over an inch shorter on the side that opened. In the front yard, decades of sediment had washed down the hill to the northeast corner of the house, burying the entire foundation and six inches of the house and clapboards. That corner was sinking too, leaving the whole house bowing from the center outwards.
“Okay,” I said to Chris. “What do you think?” Chris thought for a moment.
“A new foundation … new plumbing … probably new wiring,” said Chris. He looked up at the roof, where asphalt shingles were stacked on top of each other. At least five layers were visible from our vantage point. The shingles formed a wavy looking layer leading up to a roof line with a distinct sag. “And definitely a new roof,” he added. “That thing will pull the house over in the first earthquake that hits.”
Still, I was in love. I loved the location so conveniently placed between Trader Joe’s, the donut shop and a better school for Levi. I loved the large lot and large trees and extra buildings promising options for added living space or rental income. I loved the placement of the house on the west side of the Eagle Rock Valley where it caught ocean breezes making their way from Santa Monica to the San Gabriel Mountains. I loved the kitchen sink facing a window into the back yard where I could watch the kids play past the orange tree. I loved the eclectic homes and gardens all around – many original to the neighborhood, some added on to, and one perfect looking home from the 80s with a manicured lawn that looked as if it forgot it was in Eagle Rock.
And I loved that Orange tree. Its blossoms filled the air with a heavy sweet scent and the promise of fruit. This home had all I could hope for. Everything else was change-able. R could do a lot of the work himself, giving him something concrete to sink his teeth into and saving me money on the construction. Besides, this family was living in it as it was. How bad could it really be?
I made an offer in July. Apparently so did a lot of other people. I didn’t hear back. Weeks went by. I lost hope and kept looking.
Over the next eight months, looked at almost every house I could afford in Eagle Rock. I saw potential in at least a dozen that Chris showed me. The experience was exhausting and emotional. I got an inside look at the devastation the mortgage crisis had on families in our own neighborhood.
A few homes were immaculately kept and fastidiously emptied of all personal belongings, but most were worth an anthropological study of life’s traumas. People took the things that were most important to them and left everything else where it was: faux-wood bookcases from Wal-Mart or Ikea, filing cabinets full of old papers, trash bags full of stuffed animals and clothes and shoes. Many houses went on in a jumble of impromptu additions for tenants or extended family. Too often the entire landscape was covered in concrete, assuring that nothing would grow that might result in maintenance … or shade or sustenance.
One house, tidy but worn on the outside, had discarded furniture strewn about and personal mementos swept into a huge pile in the kitchen. As I stepped over the pile to get to the back door, I looked down to see a photograph of one of Jacob’s classmates and his father – a soft-spoken freelance poet I met while picking up the kids from summer camp. We had talked about letting the children play someday, and he handed me his card, which read Poems4Hire. I hadn’t seen him for a while. The house was in foreclosure. This intimate glimpse of loss was heartbreaking. I felt conflicted by guilt at reaping benefit from others’ misfortunes and fortune that the popped housing bubble had brought prices to just within my reach.
I made serious offers on five more homes. It seemed every house with an ounce of charm was snatched up by someone with a lot of cash or a big enough budget to offer over the asking price. Eagle Rock, with its high quality schools, independently owned businesses and eclectic architecture was sought-after by young families and creative people. I was looking for a deal. I needed to find a home that was either in bad enough shape to dissuade would-be do-it-yourselfers or in some other way undesirable. It wasn’t hard. Many homes we looked at had no obvious potential, or were in terrible locations.
“This is classic dead-end syndrome,” Chris said as R and I stood on the front porch of a vacant house and looked down an alley toward oncoming traffic. This was the third ‘dead-end’ house we had seen in a week. Another house was such a strange maze of additions with no rhyme or reason to any room or interior space. The families most affected by the mortgage crisis were those who probably never should have qualified for a loan in the first place. They, like me, could barely afford to live in Eagle Rock and had landed the problem homes: those at the butt of a dead-end street, or squeezed onto a teeny property, or built into the bottom of a steep and unusable lot. I made an offer on that cute house with no trees that faced directly down the alley –thinking of several ways to fix the bad energy. Someone else got that one too.
I didn’t take the kids to these homes. I wanted to protect them from the ups and downs of having high hopes dashed by a rejected offer. I looked at houses with R or Julia or Tori. They all had different perspectives and favorite styles. Julia coveted a 50s ranch home with aluminum windows, a stone fireplace and a yard that was 90% concrete. It was angular and spare and bold. R liked the boxy Spanish style homes with red tile roofs and white stucco walls. Tori had an eye for the details that made a house charming – curved ceilings, original wood windows and doors, built-in cabinetry. I was drawn to the little farmhouses, neocolonial bungalows with wood siding, front porches and a casual air about them.
Finally a house came up that held a bit of a challenge – a probate sale. It was a home that belonged to an elderly person who died and left a contested will. The family wasn’t in agreement over who should get the proceeds from the house. The house was cute and towards the end of a dead-end street. It had clapboard siding, a small front porch, a beautiful little back house with its own garden and nearly everything on the house was original. Solid foundation, very flat lot, fruit trees, same neighborhood as the first house, and my friends Jim and Phaedra lived on the same street.
“You should write a letter telling the family why you want the house,” Katie said over the fence when I told her about the situation. “That’s what we did to get this house … most families want to know something about who will live in their parents’ or grandparents’ home.”
“Good idea,” I said.
I wrote a letter telling why I wanted to live in Eagle Rock and what I loved about the house. I described my children and their love of playing outdoors, the school I wanted Levi to attend, the gardens I dreamed of growing around the little house. I wrote this with an offer that was low but reasonable. They countered with something just within my reach, and stood firm. It was the first response I had gotten.
I figured if I could rent that back room I could make it work, and accepted. But I was nervous. The house didn’t flow quite like I wanted it to, and I couldn’t figure out how we were going to create enough sleeping room for Grace, Jacob, Levi and my boyfriend’s son when he visited. I wanted each of our children to have at least a little nook they could call their own. The price we had settled on left me no budget to renovate. If I lost my job or got another pay-cut (both getting more likely as the construction industry continued to tank), the only way I could make my mortgage payment would be to move in with my sister and rent out the house. I backed out before I sent the escrow check.
In March, I wondered whether Chris had forgiven me yet, and thought, Whatever happened to that first little house? In the months since I made my first offer, I had driven by a few times and noticed the For Sale sign still standing, though being slowly overtaken by weeds. I checked the listings, and it was still there.
I called Chris. Sure enough, the house was still for sale. Apparently five people had gone into escrow on the house, and then backed out when their inspections revealed how much work had to be done. The bank had dropped the short sale price by $50,000 and was going to consider only one more offer before foreclosing.
I took Grace, Jacob, Levi and Julia to see the house. It was the beginning of March. The Orange tree was full of big ripe oranges and the heavenly scent of orange blossoms preparing next year’s harvest. The boys ran right past the house to the back yard, marveling at the big oak – a perfect climbing tree, and a platform with a plastic corrugated roof that was attached to the pecan tree. It stood 8’ above the ground on four stilts and had no railings. A tree house? Jacob and Levi were sold.
Grace and Julia and I studied the house and playroom for livability and sleeping options. The family had moved out, giving us a better look at the structure. Chris took a marble out of his pocket and placed it in the middle of the house. It rolled into the kitchen, gaining speed as it headed for the back door. The front bedroom was definitely slanting too, and the wall and floor were rotting where they were buried on the outside. One window had a pane broken out and was replaced with plywood. The back bedroom was dark. The dark walls and wardrobe blocking one window made the room feel much smaller without furniture. The kitchen wasn’t as cute as I remembered it. The white tile counters were cracked and chipped. The cabinets were warped and wonky. The living room paint was peeling, revealing gold-flowered wallpaper underneath.
“What do you think?” I asked everyone as we stood in the front yard ready to go.
Grace was doubtful, mostly because she really wanted her own room. Julia, who can pretty much build anything given the right power tools, looked at it and shook her head.
“I think it’s okay Mom,” Jacob said, knowing that’s what I wanted to hear.
“Can we paint it pink?” asked Levi, aiming a stick that he found in the back yard as if it was a rifle and siting one eye down the barrel towards the house. “It would be perfect if it was pink.”
I made my offer. Two weeks later the bank accepted, and I had my very first home of my own.
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.
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?
Think back to your childhood school … what is the first image that pops into your head? I have two distinct memories of elementary school. One is of me swinging next to Katie Coffee on the big metal swing set the day after Jimmy Carter was elected President. The other is of a big maple tree between my third grade classroom building and the street. I am lying on the grass underneath it, flat on my back.
“Look into the branches,” my teacher directed us. “Pay attention to what you see, what you hear, what you feel, and what you smell.”
I watched the leaves move with the breeze, shifting to let different shapes of sky peek through. I felt the cool kiss of wind on my face and inhaled the scent of fresh cut grass. My eyes bathed in greens and golds washed in sunlight. Birds sang. Dampness found its way from the earth through my striped turtleneck to my shoulder blades.
As I searched for words to fill my haiku, I felt differently about the world I thought I knew. This small strip of parkway suddenly became a whole new place. In one simple poetry exercise I found reason to look up into the trees at individual leaves and movement, down through the grass to the small movements of ants and insects, and past the trees to a blue sky full of wispy clouds. I felt the earth cradle me and the breeze bathe me and I sniffed the sweetness around me. I found comfort out there. I found rest. I found peace.
Thirty years later, I moved my own children from the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina, to California so I could study ecological planning and design. They attended four different elementary schools as I transitioned from stay-at-home mom to graduate student to working mom. We moved four times in seven years. Each move, I looked for neighborhoods with excellent schools, and found them. And yet, when we moved to Los Angeles, my children lost one of the most precious and undervalued school resources. They had access to culture, art and history, the vibrancy of life in our eclectic northeast Los Angeles neighborhood. But these things came at a high cost: the lack of a decent school landscape.
This was no small matter for them or me. But it took me longer to appreciate it. My children told me in every way they knew how that their new school wasn’t adequate.
“Where’s the grass?” Jacob asked. We stood in the middle of the asphalt playground at Eagle Rock Elementary School during our tour of their new school. A brand new play structure stood in a pool of rubber surfacing fenced to one corner of the asphalt.
“There’re no real trees,” Grace said. I looked around. There were trees, but I could see what she meant. The trees stood along the outdoor eating shelter in a line. They were nothing more than dried out puffs of pine needles poking out of a sea of asphalt. And they were in the shade of the building … not in the hot part of the playground where shade was so desperately needed. One little arc of matted grass with a stick-like tree in the center was across the yard. It wasn’t inviting. The grass might hold ten kids of they sat very close together. Three or four portable classrooms sat slightly askew from each other mid-way between the main building and the kindergarten classroom on the other side of the grounds. I wondered if there was any grass on the schoolyard before they were put in.
I searched for some redeeming quality to the school grounds. This school had gotten excellent ratings on greatschools.net. The front had been so welcoming. A 20-foot wide lush grassy parkway hosted enormous deodar cedar trees out front, an appropriate entrance to the 1920s art deco building. The grass wrapped around one side of the schoolyard, hosting a walkway that cut through the block to the L-shaped street that led to the public library. Maybe the teachers took their kids out front when they needed to cool down in a bit of nature? I hoped so. I turned to lead the kids back in, and spotted a swish of green past the back pod classroom.
“Oh look,” I said, pointing. “Let’s go see what that is.” We walked to the side of the schoolyard and found a beautiful collection of raised beds filled with flowers, vegetables and grasses in all colors and varieties. Vines climbed up the surrounding chain link fence and a large tree shaded one corner and gave the garden a sheltered, secret feeling. The kids looked longingly inside. I felt a little better. Surely my children would spend some time in this lovely little garden.
Grace attended Eagle Rock Elementary for three years, and Jacob for four. They made a few friends, loved a couple of their teachers, and went on some great field trips: the Autry Museum, Griffith Observatory, the Natural History Museum. They took orchestra there and art class. They went to after school care at the nearby park, which they adored. I volunteered at the school and helped in their classrooms as I had at their first two schools. They had a community there. But they never loved this school. They gave two reasons: the principal and the landscape. But it was the landscape that really mattered.
Their first school was Cornelius Elementary School in North Carolina. It was similar to mine in all the ways that counted. Big trees covered a large play area out front with swings and play equipment and a few shrubs to soften the fence line. Out back, acres of grass stretched away from the building, giving lots of room to run and play games or find a quiet spot to sit with a friend under the trees that ringed the field. Grace and Jacob loved that school deeply, even though Grace was there for just two years and Jacob only for kindergarten.
When we first moved to Southern California, we rented an apartment in Walnut, a bedroom community in the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. The children went to Walnut Elementary School. After the first week of school, I asked the kids what they liked best about their school.
“The grass,” Jacob said. “And that we get to eat lunch outside.” Eating outside was a novelty coming from the east coast.
“The big tree at the back of the field,” Grace said. “Me and my friends sit under it at recess.” The kids adjusted to their new school pretty well. It wasn’t that different than their old school, despite the fact that it was across the country.
Our next move, just 25 miles to Los Angeles, was much harder on the kids. I remained stubbornly optimistic. They never felt the love they had felt for Cornelius or Walnut. They never felt any love for that school. From the beginning when people asked them how their school was, they said, “There’s no grass.”
“Did you get to go in the garden?” I asked the children every week or so when they came home from school.
“Nope,” they said, with more disappointment as the weeks went by. Finally one week they came home and said, “Mom, it’s just for the GATE kids. We don’t get to go in the garden.”
“What are the GATE kids?” I asked.
“Gifted and talented,” Jacob said. I surmised this was the unfortunate term given to the advanced students. My children, who were as brilliant as any of them, were not driven academically. They were curious about their world, and spent hours each day exploring our back yard and playing games they made up themselves. But their desire to do well in school was overridden by other interests: skateboarding, reading, drawing, climbing the trees in the back yard. I blamed it on the rash of senseless worksheets and lack of experiential learning.
The fact that my children, and those average and under-performing students like them, didn’t get to use the school garden, felt deeply wrong. These were the children who needed to interact with nature during the school day. These were the children who most needed the restoration and inspiration provided by nature. Why didn’t this school, one of the highest ranked schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, have outdoor learning opportunities? More importantly, why didn’t this school have a decent landscape?
It turns out, Eagle Rock Elementary School’s landscape was decent … at least in comparison with other LAUSD schools. The junior/senior high school a half mile east has grass on campus. But a jumble of backs of buildings confronted the community rather than a welcoming entry, and the entire perimeter was surrounded by an 8-12’ chain link fence.
“It looks like a prison,” Phaedra said. She and Jim, whose two boys were five and two, were already talking about options other than the public high school for just this reason. In fact, all of the friends I had outside of the children’s school were saying the same thing. And so were many of the parents whose children went to elementary school with mine.
“At least it has grass,” Jacob said when he started seventh grade there. The landscape wasn’t welcoming or warm or beautiful in any way. The entry was hidden around the side of the school and difficult to find. A haphazard collection of portable classrooms behind the chain link fence cluttered up the street frontage along Yosemite Drive, a main street in Eagle Rock. And the parkway along the street was permanently trampled into a matted muddy mess from the thousands of students who walked through it during drop-off and pick-up every day. Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School, opened in 1927 to serve 750 students. The year my children started school there, it housed over 3,000.
Despite very good test scores and high school ratings, my children were not proud of their urban schools. They longed for the schools they attended when they were smaller – unfenced, lush and green and welcoming to the community. They longed for the tree-ringed fields of grass of the suburbs. And though our urban school systems struggle to secure the land they need to build new schools with generous grounds, nowhere are beautiful landscapes needed more than in our cities.
The original kindergarten model taught children the arts, sciences, mathematics and social justice by giving them each a garden to plan, plant and tend. They harvested the food they grew, and gave the extra to people in their community who didn’t have enough. Sometimes we forget the obvious answers to our problems. What about schools without walls at all? If there is anywhere in the US that can be the test bed for garden schools, it is Southern California. There are plenty of stories about the academic success of children who have gardens in their schools, including this one: “Leo Politi Elementary west of downtown wanted only to make a dreary corner of campus more inviting to its 817 students,” Louis Sahagun wrote in his April 2012 Los Angeles Times article. “Workers ripped out 5,000 square feet of concrete and planted native flora. What happened next was unforeseen. The plants attracted insects, which attracted birds, which attracted students, who, fascinated by the nature unfolding before them, learned so much that their test scores in science rose sixfold.”
In my research as a parent or in landscape architecture, I have yet to find a measure of school quality that includes anything about the quality of landscape. Even the most current discussions leave out the element that was most important to me and my children, though they do acknowledge that measuring by test scores and reputation alone has driven a deeper wedge in school quality: (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/10/30/10schneider.h33.html ). In my work programming school grounds I’ve come across recommendations for square feet of play area needed per number of students, but many school programming plans will accommodate more students in less space by providing staggered lunch and recess times. Too often, our urban schools are losing ground(s) rather than gaining them with portable classrooms and asphalt covering anything that might have once grown. And from the front, fences and barricades now pose prison-like facades where grand entries and beautiful streetscapes once beckoned.
It is the school grounds that first greet our children and their families and invite them in from the community. It is on the schoolyard that our children learn how to socialize with their peers and find respite or not from their school work. It is on the schoolyard that children meander and gather before school, run around at recess and lunch or hang out with their friends after school as they get older.It is through views of schoolyards with trees and nature where children and teachers can find solace and respite during the day to better cope with the stress of work and learning. Our children’s time in school can be scary and overwhelming or happy and full of wonder. We need to begin valuing the school landscape as one of the most important indicators of our children’s outlook and outcome. We need to place as much, if not more, value on these landscapes as we do on the buildings themselves. Think back to that first childhood image of school. What was yours? Is the memory of a landscape or a building? Or something else entirely? I’d like to know.
Please leave me a comment, and I’ll compile the results and revisit the topic soon.
Last year I toured several environmentally focused schools to learn how innovative programs are addressing Nature Deficit Disorder: the growing issue of children (and adults) lacking enough access to nature and its restorative qualities. At one of the public elementary schools, remade with native gardens, fruit orchards and vegetable gardens, I sat in on an outdoor classroom session while the children learned about seasons. They were in second grade.
“What is spring?” the teacher asked. She held a stack of illustrations on her lap, ready to hold them up as the children correctly described the seasons. The children were fidgeting in their seats, and looking out into the garden that surrounded us.
“Flowers!” A child called out. It was September, and flowering vines, leafy greens and fruit trees filled the garden. The sun warmed our backs and butterflies floated around us dreamily.
“That’s right,” the teacher responded, and held up an image of spring flowers with birds and bright green leaves.
“What is summer?” she asked, putting the card down.
“Hot!” another child called out.
“Yes, it’s hot in summer isn’t it?” the teacher went on. She collected a few more words from the children like green, and sun, and swimming … things that are familiar to all of us in the summer. “How about fall? What is fall?”
The children thought about it for a bit, looking around at each other.
“Flowers!” one called out.
“That’s spring,” said the teacher. “What is fall?” She looked around at the children, willing them to think about crisp fall leaves in myriad colors. They sat staring into the garden, full of fruits and vegetables and flowers. This was fall in Los Angeles. Another season of growth with blooming sages, sweet lettuces and fruiting trees. My own garden was still waiting for the winter rains to freshen it up a bit after summer’s long, dry death march on the grasses and perennials. California gets its nickname “The Golden State” for the golden hillsides of summer – another anomaly according to our preconceived notions of seasons. Summer should be lush green grasses and thick-leaved trees as it was in the hot and humid Midwest and Southeast where I grew up.
The teacher seemed to be looking for that fall stereotype that must have been written into textbooks back east: crisp, colorful leaves and the coolness that comes with October in New York or Ohio or Minnesota. And yet, seasons across the Southwest and much of the South are so different. Winter in the Sonora Desert is marked by rains that bring a flush of bright green growth and brilliant colored flowers. Winter in Los Angeles is barely discernible at times, especially in neighborhoods where clipped hedges and evergreen trees prevail. When I asked my twelve-year-old when he learned about seasons in school, he said, “I never did … and I’m still confused about them.”
“Really?” I asked. “Why?”
“Because we don’t really have seasons in Los Angeles. It just gets a little colder and a little warmer.” His answer surprised me, because he is my nature-loving science guy. He spends hours outside each week hunting for snakes and lizards and interesting bugs, and tells me about what he observed outdoors. I figured he, of any child, could mete out an understanding of our seasons.
I spent this Christmas in Idaho with my 16-year-old, my sister and my mom. We flew into Spokane and were met by a near whiteout. As we headed east on the freeway traffic got slower and slower with the thickening snow and ice on the asphalt. Big flakes rushed into our windshield, giving us the white winter I have longed for since moving to Los Angeles ten years ago. We spent five days of bliss in our winter wonderland, tromping through inches of crusty snow and marveling at our frozen breath before heading inside to warm ourselves by the fire. Ah, winter!
When I flew back to Los Angeles on Christmas Day, I was greeted by 80 degree temperatures and my Orange Tree heavy with fruit. I spent the next day weeding, since the winter rains had encouraged unwanted annual grasses to sprout amidst the yarrow blossoms and greening buckwheat branches. Winter days in Los Angeles sometimes felt like spring or summer or fall. And summer sometimes feels like winter. When I first moved to Los Angeles in June of 2003, my sixteen year old was just six years old. He spent the first six weeks of summer staring up at me in disappointment at the gray mist that had earned the term “June Gloom.” I had promised him the eternal sunshine that Southern California was famous for, not knowing that we would leave the two-month deluge of that North Carolina spring to enter the famously un-sunny summer of Los Angeles.
How many of our children are confused by the seasons we teach them in school? What better way to teach children about weather and seasons and climate than to send them outside into natural schoolyards or parks and let them record their own observations over time? This could give them the opportunity to explore and appreciate the feel and scent and sounds of the seasons while giving us a place by place accounting of the local weather. We could set up a national or international database for schoolchildren to record their observations of the temperature and the local ecology: what plants were blooming or dormant, what birds and creatures did they see, what colors were the leaves, how much snow or rain clouds or smoke or dust was in the air? For 114 years, Audobon has conducted an Annual Christmas Bird Count, the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world. Why not a Student Season Survey for students to record their daily observations of the seasons?
There is a unifying theme of winter. In Idaho and So Cal, New York and Ohio, Tucson and North Carolina, long nights infringe on our lives and darken our waking hours and moods. Winter work days end after dark here, albeit a couple hours later than the 3:30 sunsets in northern Idaho. The winter solstice sends us all searching for light to brighten our spirits as well as our nights. My son lit fire after fire in the Coeur d’Alene cabin’s pot-bellied stove over Christmas. On my return to Los Angeles, I drove my mom and son around Eagle Rock and Highland Park in search of our favorite holiday lights. Whether warm or cold, desert or mountain, northern hemisphere or southern, winter means darkness.
Twenty years after moving to the Appalachians and eighteen years after leaving them, I had the chance to visit for Thanksgiving with my cousins. All the beauty, charm and isolation came rushing back … with none of the loneliness. I recalled the closeness to nature I felt during my two and a half years in Buladean, a tiny hamlet in Mitchell County.
Excerpt from Making Home: from the Sticks to LaLa-Land
What I got in exchange for isolation was nature’s abundant beauty. Perched on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest, we were happy witnesses to many creatures I had never seen before. My grandma Mary had taught me to identify birds during a trip to Florida’s Sanibel Island when I was ten. Since my first exciting sightings of Great Blue Heron, Little Green Heron, Ibis, and Cormorants on that trip, I took mental note of any new bird I saw. The mountains held many. I watched black-capped chickadees flit from branch to branch in their light-hearted manner. Red-headed woodpeckers stopped their rapid-fire beaks periodically to give sideways glances into the holes they made for insects. Tufted titmice graced the porch rails like musical notes—their gray head feathers pulling upward in crescendo.
The most unique animals we saw were a host of Southern flying squirrels which surprised us one night by coming to eat out of a bowl of bird seed we put out on the deck. They came back every night after, and we watched them through the living room’s sliding glass doors. Chipmunk-like but fatter, they held the seeds in both front paws, hunched over them in a ball and looked at us with enormous black eyes. A black stripe ran from each hand down their gray sides, its rippling line straightening out as they skittered across the deck. The black edge was a flap of skin connecting wrist to ankle, which let them glide in a flying manner from tree to tree.
Wooly Worms emerged by the thousands each fall in search of a place to cocoon. They were fluffy brown caterpillars with one thick black stripe through their middle. Each was about two inches long and as fat as my finger. I saw them most often crossing the mountain roads, at least a dozen every hundred feet, and I cringed on my drive to work as many became victims to my commute. The annual Wooly Worm Festival in nearby Banner Elk each October celebrated all things Wooly Worm, complete with wooly worm races and predictions of winter weather based on the thickness of their stripes.
And of course there were deer. Beautiful, bounding white-tailed deer appeared regularly along the sides of the road and down the hill from our house. They stepped out from behind the trees in groups of three or four, and stood as elegantly poised statues when they heard us. Flashes of white preceded the sounds of crushed leaves on every hike we took in those mountains. They were a calming presence.
My favorite sighting was the enormous Pileated Woodpecker. That this bird existed at all surprised me, and I was fascinated to learn it had once been common enough to inspire that famous cartoon chuckler, Woody Woodpecker. Its bold-patterned black and white wingspan flashed through the forest behind the red flame of its feathered head … its striped face and sharp call both majestic and distinct.
The immersion in nature wasn’t all singing birds and chubby flying squirrels and bounding deer. I had too many unnerving incidents with wildlife to count.
We never had the resources to seal the basement and make it truly habitable for guests or ourselves. The downstairs room and bathroom went mostly unused. Once, I braved the basement’s dim light and dank smell to pry off a few warped faux-wood panels. I was unscrewing the switch plates and outlet covers when I took one off to reveal an electrified mouse frozen mid-bite to the wiring.
“Ah!” I blurted, as I jumped back from the wall. My heart pounded and I shivered at the thought of what that mouse had been through. And then, I shuddered at the thought of what the rest of our walls looked like inside.
I left it for days until I could muster the courage to remove the poor thing and put the cover back. I was left unhinged and wholly deterred from refinishing the basement.
I debated with myself the least frightening path to the basement laundry room. The open wooden stairs leading down into the dark from the kitchen were steep enough to cause vertigo, but the route around the outside of the house led me past enormous spiders clinging to the siding around the door frame, freaking me out as I passed through. There were black bears in those mountains, and my ex-husband loved telling stories of his uncles hunting wild boar, side-stepping the charging creatures as they tried to gore the men with large tusks. All of these things haunted my thoughts and kept me from enjoying leisurely hikes outside.
Being out of sight or earshot of our closest neighbors began to weigh on me, and I missed the security I had felt in my houses full of room-mates and having next-door neighbors within earshot. I felt claustrophobic in the little house, completely hemmed in by the wild.