Sunday, May 25, 2008

Wild Life

You don't see a lot of wildlife in the desert. Actually, you do, but it's not the cool lions-taking- down-herds-of-wildabeast kinda wildlife. If you read the guides the NPS ranger hands you when you drive through the kiosk to Death Valley or Arches or any of the Southwest National Parks and Monuments, you will be advised to "sit still, and look closely" at the rocks, the flat, empty desert, and wait for the tiny movements to register on your darting retinas.

It's true, the desert has more life than I realized. I am a 'stay on the trail' nazi, and I had the good fortune to learn, in Arches, about the biological crust. To you and me, it's just dirt. Dirt that looks like it's been pattered by rain then dried out. It looks a bit like a confection, frothy and light. It is where algae and little stuff like that thrive, and apparently, like moon soil, will hold a footprint (assuming 1000 more following do not stamp it out) for hundreds of years. In exchange, though, the soil's given up it's life. This gave me license to further nag my hiking companion to stay on the trail, and to turn up my nose at the family who, father, mother, son and son, each wore a few hundred dollars worth of technical hiking gear but did not have the eco-etiquette not to wander off the trail to eat their lunch, amidst the echoing death wails of the invisible algae they imprinted with their Vasques.

Growing up in Los Angeles, wildlife is conveniently sequested in the LA Zoo in Griffith Park. In fact, GP also has what's known as the Old Zoo, a loop of black barred cages, smaller than a cubicle, draconian, short and dank, with tiny holes at the back where lithe animals could shimmy out to their 'backyards' for feeding or a respite from the public eye. Thankfully empty and incredibly eerie, they are artfully decorated by local gang members, and were used by more sophisticated artists in the late 90s for an installation series. The cages allow us to pity our unenlightened forebears, and congratulate ourselves for our humane treatment of animals in modern times.

Driving to Griffith Park for a walk under the eucalyptus, I saw a uniformed man standing streetside. Just standing there. On the sidewalk! As we all know, no one walks in LA, and no one, certainly, has the free time or the shamelessness to just stand there on the street doing nothing(Sidewalks are for homeless people, for god's sake, and even an actor auditioning for the part wouldn't do it on Los Feliz Blvd). A white Ford truck was parked oddly by the large yellow apartment building, and there was a small cage at his feet. Animal Regulation. I tracked the line of his gaze, and saw a really agitated skunk huddling in a corner against the yellow enclosing wall of the apartment building. That is what wildlife becomes in the city. A nuisance, a pest. He didn't stand a chance.

Beyond the park, Griffith or National, the smaller highways overflow with animals. I had actually seen a few deer in my previous 30 years: on my regular Friday hike to Five Points in GP, years ago, before the most recent spate of fires that took out all the flora and probably a share of the fauna, I spooked three deer in the ravine where the fire road banks around to the northeast. A friend of mine lived up in the hills above Burbank in a posh place with a tennis court in a development that butts directly into the dry mustard covered hillside. Driving home late one night, a stately buck caught in the glare of my headlamps turned tail and bashed itself into a chain link fence between two properties. He was darting for the wild hillsides, naturally, and was caught out, trapped into civilization.

If you stop and look closely, you will notice the wild life wherever you are. The great songbirds of the east, I hear, no longer grace the eastern forests. But in the quiet of morning in my poolside Hollywood apartment, a graceful cooing bounces from the cypress trees. I sit still, letting the birdsong and the whir of the pool filter motor have their collision symphony, in those few still moments before the city's life drowns it all out.

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