The Los Angeles River: Where the Microscope Ends

It’s amazing how quickly a place can rise around you and absorb you. Since I last wrote, my world has grown taller, brick by brick, from the vast flatness of Los Angeles as seen from the airplane window to a world of streets and parking lots and palm trees that waft in artificial altitude.

I walk; I ride my bike; the world grows tall. Low bridges shove up into mountain ranges, suspended in the tectonics of habitual sight. Flat water gains texture from the bow of a sailboat. Even the buildings seem to stretch taller, until it is roofs that I see, and not clouds.

I have just now noticed that I have not noticed the sky.

I have lost this view
And rarely have I noticed this

Somehow I have lost that vision of Los Angeles as seen from the plane. I have found dimension in places other than the mountains, and in doing so I have forgotten the mountains themselves. They are backdrops now, cutouts against the sky. We no longer share a world. The worst part is, I do not feel loss.

“Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which of the two has the better view?” Once again, I find myself returning to Victor Hugo’s question.

There are two places where I sit: one is the microscopic world in front me, of one-eighth of a chai tea latte and one-tenth of a blueberry muffin still in its wrapper, in this lovely coffee shop, with the form I forgot to drop off sitting at an angle in my grown-up black purse. There is the street outside, my borrowed car parked out back beside the brick wall. A close, touchable world.

At the Library Coffee House

Then there is the telescopic floodplain between an ocean with a shifting coastline and the mountains with crumbling peaks, peaks that run like a seam along the planet whose surface shifts, unnoticed by the galaxy hanging silently among countless others.

Where is my seat, then: in front of the grainy wood of this coffee-shop table, or amidst the dimension of the universe?

Writing requires thinking in layers. A dozen worlds balance in my mind, each scaled down to its own special truth. This chai tea latte holds a thousand worlds: the bubbles clinging to the rim of the cup, the wonder of taste, the rarity of a consciousness capable of interpreting the wonder of taste, the imperative to use that consciousness to expand beauty; but then why beauty, why not injustice, why not the double reality of this delicious chai latte laced with sugar that I can’t trace in a Styrofoam cup whose future I can’t tell. Why not see need, or loss, or love.

Something must always be forgotten. In life as well as writing, I must force a point of view. I cannot live moment-to-moment in a thousand worlds. I cannot orient my parking spot beneath the daytime constellations, but must line up beside the brick wall out back. And that means sacrificing some truths.

But not all.

I don’t want to forget the mountains. I don’t want to forget the view of Los Angeles from the plane, of a world flat and dry and haunted by its natural past. I don’t want to forget having seen America from the distance of Korea, or Europe, or from the shock of the word “freedom.”

But I also don’t want to forget the minute texture of water as seen from the bow of a sailboat.

Sailing towards Catalina Island

Perhaps it is this need for synthesis that drives me towards the Los Angeles River. I look at the river as I know it and see a single story: the harbor at the river mouth, with delicious ice cream, a view of the Queen Mary, and the boardwalk where earlier today I neglected the form in my adult black purse because I couldn’t find a place to park. That river ends at the bridge, rising up into a concrete display of green lights.

This orca only allows for one view
This orca only allows for one view

But as I was looking for parking earlier, I drove over that bridge and saw a different story. I saw a corridor of cement disappearing into the hazy mountains. I saw the flatness and scale of Los Angeles, just as I had seen from the plane.

I can follow the Los Angeles River on Google maps. I can type up notes on all of its sections: Rio Hondo, Elysian Valley, Big Tujunga Wash, the parts of the river I don’t find on the internet that flow past skid row and the neighborhoods that I have been taught to look past. But what I can’t find is the story of the river itself, from raindrops trickling down the Simi hills, to the lit bridge where those raindrops meet the Pacific Ocean.

I want to exist within the microscopic textures of every stretch of that river, to walk through the intricacies of each community and habitat that exists alongside the water. And I want to put those moments together into their larger narrative.

That is why, this February, a friend and I will gather our bikes and hiking shoes, and will follow the Los Angeles River from the ocean until we find its source.

Starting here
Starting here

This is a big project, and it will require a lot of work. I want to share what we find with as many people as possible, and that means live blogging, photo exhibitions, and a community event. I want us all to understand the story of the river that we share, the river that gathers our microcosms of wooden tables and street signs into one cohesive whole.

And I want you to join us.

In the following months, I will be learning as much as I can about the story of water. I will talk with scientists, stalk sea turtles beneath the power plants, try to understand the dynamics of birds on the Pacific flyway. I will try to find a way to know the communities along the river that I know almost nothing about. And then, in February, I will follow the river and see how all of those stories work together.

Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Sometimes, we don’t have to choose.

Long Beach and Los Angleles Port from above

Have your own views of the Los Angeles River, or tips for what I should explore? Comment Below!

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