Interacting with wildlife and city life in Los Angeles

 

In the city, you are never in one place at a time; multiple worlds occupy the territory you think of as your own, which you define largely by what you choose not to notice. The corner you stand on waiting for the light to change is entirely different to you, to the potbellied Black businessman at your side, to the cyclist balancing on his pedals at the curb, to the weary bleached blonde woman slumped in the driver’s seat, to the homeless man crouching by his ragged blankets in the shade. I once walked along the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River near Long Beach with a friend of mine, also a photographer, and at one point I stood immediately behind her—she was very short—and shot a photo over her head, of distant freeway ramps looping over the water. Our very similar cameras clicked almost simultaneously. The two pictures were so different when we compared them later (this was in the days of film) that they could have been taken a thousand miles apart. Yet we were close friends who discussed our craft endlessly and had similar artistic philosophies. Even in our own little closed-in world, we were worlds apart.

“Crow Call” is reprinted from Richard Risemberg’s Our Own Day Here: Observations on Community (Crow Tree Publishing, 2014) by permission of the author.

Our Own Day Here: Observations on Community, by Richard Risemberg

Urbanist, cyclist, and lifelong flaneur Richard Risemberg explores the chaos, contradictions, and conviviality of life among the humans in and around big towns and small worldwide. From politics to poetry, from economics to ecology, from horror to humor, he encounters it all as he pedals, strolls, and even sails the cities of his life….

Our Own Day Here is a collection of observations on community, exploring how we get around, get along, and get a living in a world where not only nature but our own human nature are often hidden in plain sight. It is about the sensations of city living, and the relationships of people across time and space.

In this book, Risemberg covers issues of transportation and development, urban wildlife, the accidental poetry of city living, and the discords of politics and plutocracy and the ways in which people of the different urban cultures react to them. He also looks at the often comical contretemps that all of us spark in trying to make sense of life, work, and love in an ever-busier, more intricate, and more interdependent society.

Learn more now.

One recent morning a sudden racket of crows awoke my wife and me just after dawn. We’re used to crow conferences taking place on our roof or in the jacaranda tree across the street, but this time it sounded more like a battle. The calls were harsher and louder, and expressed unmistakable aggression; more crows than usual were participating, and they were swooping in the gulf between our building and the tall brick apartment across from ours in a focused and agitated way. They were evidently upset. As it had been a particularly hot week in Los Angeles, our window was wide open, with a light curtain drawn part way across it—we are on the second floor, and sleep with that window open most of the year. The racket of harsh gullets and the flapping of broad black wings became so intense that I felt as though the crows were about to burst into the room.

As it happens, in a small way I was right. As I finally dragged myself out of bed, I heard a scrabbling sound on the windowsill. I walked carefully around to the window, and there saw a large and somewhat bedraggled crow perched on it, looking casually if alertly into the room. His head seemed to be missing its full complement of feathers, and the area between his shoulder blades—if crows have shoulder blades—looked ragged and showed bits of white down, which surprised me. I assume he was either an outcast or an intruder, and had been the cause and center of all the corvine agitation. So there I was, stark naked, staring at a very large crow on my windowsill an arm’s reach away—or I should say, an arm’s reach plus a little margin, which the crow was careful to maintain when I moved slightly closer.

He kept his distance, but did not fly away. I considered trying to tempt him in, but of course there was no food of any kind in the bedroom. Cleaning up a spot of crow shit would have been a modest cost to pay for having a crow in the house, even if for a while. However, I also worried that perhaps he was sick, though he seemed strong. So we stood there, the crow on the windowsill, and I by the foot of the bed, while I made the usual sort of inane conversation one makes when trying to soothe a nervous animal. I asked my wife to come around so she could see the bird—she was sitting on the far edge of the bed by then—but when she finally did stand up, the crow flew off. The ruckus had died down by then.

In fact, close encounters with wildlife are not uncommon in Los Angeles, despite its present vast and dreary sprawl. I have seen a coyote loping along the flowerbeds of hoity-toity Hancock Park, nearly five miles from the nearest hills; unless it crawled through the stygian darkness of the storm drain system, which is unlikely, the animal would have had to cross several dozen streets, some of them busy nearly 24 hours a day. There are regular reports of coyotes in that neighborhood, which is only a few blocks from my own street in the Miracle Mile, one of the most densely-populated districts in the city. And the Hollywood Hills, which divide the “basin,” or central Los Angeles, from the San Fernando Valley (which is still officially Los Angeles, except in little enclaves where it is not), provide a wildlife corridor that is traveled by deer and cougars as well as coyotes and any number of smaller, cuter beasts. There is a resident cougar in Griffith Park, 4,000 acres very close to Downtown, and others in Will Rogers State Historic Park, on the northwestern extremity of town. Less than a block away from my apartment, a falcon nests at the top of an Art Deco skyscraper on Wilshire Boulevard; I hear his plaintive morning shrieks on days when I step out early, just after dawn. And red-tailed hawks gyre relentlessly in the high air all over L.A., scanning the roofs and yards for unwary squirrels, which also abound.

The flock of crows in my neighborhood, the one that may have been persecuting my acquaintance of the windowsill, is particularly intolerant of hawks: I have often seen three crows escorting an errant hawk away from the territory, one large crow on each wingtip and a third following behind. When they reach a comfortable distance, the crows peel off and flap home. The hawk does not attempt to return. Oddly enough, the crows seem unbothered by the falcon, who is in any case considerably smaller than a hawk.

 

Los Angeles is bisected by a range of hills that is largely though not entirely populated by the rich and reclusive. There are also extensive areas of designated wildland in them, including some, such as Griffith Park and Franklin Canyon, which are quite large. I spent, probably, thousands of hours in Griffith Park as a child and young man, but in later years transferred my allegiance to Franklin Canyon, a smaller but more remote park straddling Beverly Hills and Mulholland Drive, and said to encompass the geographical center of the City of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is an irregularly shaped city, and so its balance point could indeed be close to its border with one of its enclaves, and I have seen the official plaque designating the spot, a few yards to the side of a scruffy footpath not far from the park’s little museum. And while there, with some friends who had bicycled up with me, I heard the footfall of some evidently heavy creature that could, despite the size it would have had to be to make even the soft noise it caused among the underbrush, pass unseen only yards from us. The area was, according to the museum ranger, home to at least two mountain lions, and that is likely what passed in near silence by our chattering crowd. We later that day saw a very large female red-tailed hawk carrying a snake in her talons from tree to tree, and becoming visibly annoyed as one of our party stumbled along far below her trying to record her on a cellphone video.

The approach to Franklin Canyon from below is almost programmatic. First you pass through downtown Beverly Hills, with all the bustle and pretention of that terminally self-conscious little burgh. Then you move up through the neighborhoods where the merely immensely wealthy live, between Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards, after which you cross Sunset into a zone reserved for the obscenely rich, with houses that may be a city block long and which curve to follow the meander of the road. At one point you start up Coldwater Canyon Road but immediately turn off at a very standard-looking neighborhood park, and wind along a narrow canyon through a gantlet of small but expensive mid-century houses, till at last you angle steeply up what is certainly nothing more than a paved firebreak, quite challenging on a bicycle, to a ridge, where everything changes….

Suddenly you are looking over an utterly wild canyon, precipitous falls of chaparral-clad slopes between dry ridges, over which hawks and vultures wheel in watchful silence. A badly-paved road leads you gently into the canyon, past what appears to be an old millhouse on the trickling stream, and then up again to an artificial lake. This lake was once a reservoir but is now maintained primarily as bird habitat, and is teeming with ducks, turtles, and a variety of fish.

A few short trails wander the park—short because the canyon is surrounded by the houses of rich people who are uncomfortable when people who aren’t rich are within eyeshot. Every once in a while a trail will dead-end at a chain-link fence. But once you have learned the layout of the park, you can take some nice walks into quiet side canyons that seem far more remote than they are. One goes to an area I came to call the “Grapevine Grove.” It is less than a quarter-mile from the access road by the lake, and not much farther from the museum, but the path is crowded with dry scrub and occasionally steep, so few visitors find their way there. The trail leads to a narrow canyon where the usual shy little stream trickles modestly around the trunks of some towering eucalyptus trees, an alien species that occurs nowhere else in the park. The ground is moist there, and, perhaps as the result of pips tossed away during some long-ago picnic, numerous grapevines have sprouted and have climbed high into the trees. If the winter has seen rain, they bear sweet small grapes, which you can pluck and eat in the cooling shade. I have taken about a dozen friends and relatives there over the years; everyone immediately hushes their chatter and becomes gently reverential. It’s a small area, not more than you can step across in half a minute or so, but it unfailingly inspires tranquility in even the most fidgety soul. Yet a hundred yards away are overdecorated houses whose denizens skulk in plush leather armchairs while Mercedes-Benzes cool in the attached garage, and just beyond those houses a busy road connects Bev Hills to the Valley. Overhead the ancient vultures circle, sharp-eyed, patient, while the afternoon breeze rises from the ocean to sigh through the fragrant sage. A harmony of contradictions quivers across time and space. We are in the center of Los Angeles.

 

The morning after the encounter with the crow on the windowsill, after ablutions, e-mail, breakfast, and the usual scatter of small motions with which we start our days, I wrapped up a package and set out to walk to the post office a few blocks away. It was around nine o’ clock, three or so hours after the ruckus of angry caws had drawn me from bed. I ambled south past the neighboring apartment building and passed by the parking lot of the shop that occupies the corner of Burnside and Wilshire. This lot is separated from the sidewalk by a low cinderblock wall topped by a metal grill; behind one part of it is an array of plumbing which is itself protected from cars maneuvering into the adjacent parking spot by a metal barrier of black-painted heavy tubing.

Perched on this tubing was the selfsame crow who had called on me earlier. With his odd, plucked head and the white down showing between his shoulders, he could be no other. Of course I stopped and looked at him, and he looked back at me, with the same calm and curious apprehension as before. Once again I muttered what I hoped were reassuring sounds, and once again the crow perched there, to all appearances listening, and certainly watching, evaluating, judging in some way that I couldn’t really understand. Despite the grill between us, he kept his distance, quite precisely. If I moved six inches closer, he moved six inches farther, but no more. Had he once been someone’s pet, escaped or released, and accustomed to human contact but wary, as all animals are, of strangers? Unless he returns and we develop our relationship further, I’ll never be able even to guess. I gazed at him and chattered stupidly; he looked back at me, appraisingly but without much trust. Eventually I took too big a step forward, and off he flew, without a sound except for the flapping of large torn wings.

I went on round the corner and onto busy Wilshire Boulevard, with cars and buses rumbling by and walkers clattering to work in hard-soled shoes. A homeless fellow lay under his gathering of rags by a utility door; the scent of jasmine swelled from a narrow planted strip by an office-supply store, diluting the stink of idling motors; faux-Assyrian faces stared down from the frieze of an Art Deco skyscraper across the street. High above it all, the local falcon screeched from his flagpole on the roof of the office tower. Behind the arrays of windows that stared down at the street, earnest workers turned their backs on the light and began their daily gaze into computer screens. The harmonies of city life resolved themselves into a great blazing brassy chord in the soul, layer after layer of life, each reverberating with the others… and no one noticed.

In the distance, the crows still called, arguing through broad gulfs of sunlight over the street.

 

 

Richard Risemberg was born in Argentina but grew up in Los Angeles, watching his city change from an asphalt-grey banality to a collection of increasingly urban neighborhoods, vibrant with street life, still separated by pockets of sprawl. Visits to Paris, Amsterdam, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Buenos Aires have given him new reference points that reveal the possibilities as well as the problems informing the City of Angels that he loves and so often writes about.

Cover photo by Richard Risemberg.

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