Nature Writing in the US: Part One – gum trees in L.A.

GumLos Angeles is not necessarily the first place that comes to mind for a nature writing tour. Nonetheless, it’s where my American nature writing journey begins.

Flying in, mountains much higher than I remembered pushed through cloud: floating islands lit up by the sort of intense sunrise only seen from above the horizon. Already, it was a city demanding attention.

Once released by US border control – passing the slow moving queue test, fingerprinting(!) and interrogation, including the doubtful “and you make a living as a writer?” (I won’t list that as my profession again) – I headed straight to Santa Monica, a different world to downtown L.A.

Santa Monica reminds me a bit of home. The Pacific Ocean stretches out forever, the beach is long and wide, there’s plenty of open space, and trees: palms, pines, and the sweet smell of eucalyptus… That’s right, big old red and blue gums right along the waterfront. A hundred metres from my hotel I was treading on gumnuts.

I have been here once before: on a stopover heading home from Europe ten years ago. It was here, breakfasting alone in a cafe fronted by palms, and reluctant to return to winter, that I decided to move from Canberra to Brisbane. And Brisbane led to the Sunshine Coast. So there is a connection for me; a certain warm ‘loving life outside’ feeling.gnarly dude

Palisaides Park ribbons along the bluff for a couple of kilometres above the beach from Santa Monica pier to Vicente, sandwiched between Ocean Avenue and the ocean view. Wandering paths, lawns, bench seats, sculptures and sculpted gardens attract the rich and the homeless and everyone in between: walking dogs, doing yoga, skateboarding, talking, (to themselves or others) or just taking in the vista of the ocean, pier, and the hills of Malibu to the south.

The eucalypts were grown here as specimen trees when the park was founded in 1908; the result of an enlightened Park Commissioner stipulating that his salary be spent on park trees. At this time, eucalypyts were being exported all around the world for aboretums, parks and gardens, when they were barely noticed at home. There are apparently 517 individual gum trees in Santa Monica, some of which are now being removed because of the danger presented by dropping limbs. They will be replaced with other, less hazardous, less difficult species.

During my two walks through the park, I saw squirrels, a hummingbird, enormous gulls, and a pair of birds a bit like a robin redbreast, the male’s colouring much stronger than the female’s. There are strelitzias, rock daisies, pandanus, and many other lovely shrubs and flowers I am less familiar with.

secret squirel
The park is also the place for people watching. I saw Arnold ‘The Governator’ Schwarzenegger in my 36 hours here, suggesting star watching could produce good returns. There are all ages and nationalities out enjoying life. Santa Monicans aren’t fiddling with their i-phones, they are out walking and talking with friends. If they are on the phone, they are talking, at length, as they walk. Women all have long hair and two in three people clutch a takeaway coffee cup, at all times of the day – although there is no coffee outlet in the park or even on Ocean Drive. Bad coffee in a polystyrene cup, transported for at least four five hundred metres could not be drinkable. But I knew that about America. After two or three goes I have given up on coffee. There was the cup of froth. The cup of acid. Both light on for taste and quantity. I’m missing my morning  long black in the woods, or a flat white from ‘Sister’ cafe.

The roads are wide, the cars are big but there are trees and parks and lawns and gardens utilising all the spaces in between. I saw men planting flowers in beds beside office buildings, apartments and serivce atations at eight in the morning. Even Third Street Promenade, the popular pedestrian shopping strip, has been taken over by giant topiary dinosaurs.

Despite the take away cups, Santa Monica is green and blue and smells of eucalyptus.

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