Valley of Smoke


The name of this post is stolen from Alex MacInnis’ website by the same name:  

His site offers in-depth reporting on various topics (how artists survive, the history of healthcare, how we deal with urban wildlife, among others) against the backdrop of Los Angeles and it’s sorted history. The name “Valley of Smoke” was purportedly given to Los Angeles by the earliest Europeans who landed here and to me it’s beautifully appropriate.

I often think about the imported people, flora and fauna that pushed out the native tribes, plants and animals that thrived here for thousands of years. I like to imagine what the area must have looked like before water was pumped in and lawns and palms became ubiquitous signs of our city. The gargantuan San Gabriel Mountains, just a mile up the road from my house, offer great opportunities for hiking steep trails and looking down and imagining the land without the pavement and buildings that sprawl to the ocean.

Last week I hiked farther up than ever and took the shot above. My friend and I tried to decipher the outcroppings of tall buildings and argued over which were Downtown, Hollywood and Century City. Living here 25 years, I feel I know something about this town, but staring down on it is humbling. So many people. So many cars. So much creativity and talent. So much yoga and meditation. So much smog and smoke.

It was many years of living here before I learned a little about the natives who came first. The Chumash are famous for being a peaceful and prosperous tribe that occupied the central coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles, including the islands off of it. But the Tongva were the people who occupied most of the area we call Los Angeles today, including the San Gabriel Mountains. In fact the Tongva were sometimes known as the Gabrieleno, among other names. Due to the rich land, the ability to fish in canoes fortified with tar from the La Brea Tar Pits and of course the year round mild climate, the Chumash and the Tongva engaged in a vigorous trading economy and enjoyed an abundant lifestyle. The Chumash are known for their prosperity, crafts and art. The Tongva were a much smaller tribe, virtually wiped out by the beginning of the 20th century, so their history is not as well known or documented. But I imagine they were much like the Chumash and enjoyed a similar lifestyle that was easy going and productive.

Like most people, I regret the loss of the native cultures and people that the European invasion brought, but of course I would not be here had things worked out some other way. I take some solace in the idea that the rich culture Los Angeles is famous for bears a distinct similarity to what was here before.

I like this quote from Bruce W. Miller’s book, “Chumash: A Picture of Their World:”

The Chumash were also culturally rich, with their own music, art, astronomy, and mythology. They began making beautiful rock paintings, whose meaning is still in many ways a mystery today. They developed a strong sense of community and self. They endeavored to control their environment and the very contours of the universe.They had a highly developed sense of ritual and spiritual power which was manifested in their daily life. Above all they had a vibrant, bountiful and relatively peaceful existence.

I have loved spending my adult life in L.A. I find the community of artists that flock here to work in the entertainment industry and who are pumped out of the best art schools in the country to be a great one. I have always felt the art world in Los Angeles as a cozy family of players and wannabes who easily share a beer or end up at the same meditation retreat. I love the vibrancy of the artist/design communities that flourish here with relatively low rents that allow people to actually have work space. And I also love the relaxed vibe that is so much a part of this town. Yes it gets tense in rush hour on the freeways, but Angelinos know how to use their New Age know how to decompress and relax better than most. And even though few of us make it there with frequency, we know we can always hit the beach.

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