On the Santa Ana winds and catastrophic ecologiesPosted: December 15, 2011
My sleep was fitful during a few stormy nights just a week or so ago, my dreams dark and bizarre. I blame this on the gale force winds that sometimes hit Los Angeles and that did so with even more power and fury than usual this season. Raging until power lines ripped, windows were shattered by flying fences, palm fronds dove like Trojan spears–the Santa Ana’s let Los Angeles residents know, once more, just what meager creatures we all are, how close to disaster our city always sits.
These winds have been blamed for peaks of madness and suicide in the L.A. population. They’ve been linked in odd historical and cosmological trajectories to the worst moments of the city, to the cruelest among its people.
An old tree just down the block, huge (and maybe a cottonwood?), was ripped from the roots and blown over. It crushed two cars and blocked our street for a few days. The wreckage of concrete it left at its base is still marked off by the standard orange cones the city puts out. To say the least, it was an impressive feat of nature that felt, at least in the middle of the night, like a strategic attack.
Didion wrote, “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”* Everyone in Los Angeles seems to know that, more or less. And when we forget, and sometimes even when we don’t, the winds return.
John Fante’s dusty Bunker Hill rooms are covered with the stuff kicked up by just these winds. I sometimes think L.A. noir couldn’t exist without them. The superficial, fame-obsessed, health and fad driven people L.A. residents appear to most to be seems a kind of knee-jerk response built into us by such stark and remarkable chaotic phenomenon. And the other side of Los Angeles, the enormous wealth gap, the wild diversity, the unruly post-modern sprawl–all somewhat less depicted in the larger mediated world–are also in their own way linked to some very contemporary urban relationship with disaster. Or with the disaster that (any Angeleno can tell you, conspiratorial or otherwise) is always already becoming.
I also think: if the weather you get comes only in the form of rupture–‘the big one’ that will come; the huge forest fires, sudden and rageful, that gulp the money and property crawling up the most uninhabitable of hills; the mudslides; and, yes, those dry, hot, whipping winds–you tend to have an odd sense of the natural. Like Hollywood films that come from the usually sunny and temperate climate of Los Angeles, you expect mostly beauty but also (though you expect it in some easily digestible delivery) terror, chaos, destruction. It’s only once in a while, in the not so filmic ‘real life’ the population lives here in the city that nature, uncontrollable and wholly other, wins. We are the very people, after all, who lined our river with concrete.
This antagonistic and asymmetrical stand-off between Angelenos and the habitat they really do call home means everyone wonders (some aloud, some in their dreams) what nature, in the end, will be capable of doing to this city.
Tonight, driving home through Silverlake, through the well-paved and now mostly cleared-of-debris streets, three coyotes ran out of a strip-mall parking lot and passed through the glow of my headlights. They continued quickly up the entirely residential hill toward something. Who knows what? It was a little bit wonderful to see them. It was a little bit sad. It was also a bulky reminder that this ridiculous post-modern sprawl is an ecology. One which might, I sometimes think, only be understood by those sad, strange sufferers of wind-induced madness.
Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem. New York: Penguin Books, 1979. 220-221.