The downtown Los Angeles skyline looks more like Blade Runner by the day, a blur of smog and skyscrapers. At night, the city becomes all angles, blinking hotel lights and billboards. Walking downtown late on a Wednesday, a shower of light cut through the dark, and I halted my mad dash to my car. Through a flood of pixels, a travel agency advertised the Mojave Desert on the glass obliques of a hotel. Joshua Tree National Park swam across the ten-foot screen, the trees’ thorny flanks hooked into the sky. I’d just been teaching a youth writing course at the LA Public Library. Immersed in an equation of reading responses and teenage feelings, I had been thinking only of the terror of fighting traffic and what I was going to make for dinner. The image was sleek and clear, and I felt as if I had been teleported directly there. It had a resuscitating quality. I took an unencumbered breath.
One word for my fixation would be “awe,” a shrinking of the self. Beyond that, I felt a sense of relief, from the weight of both modern, networked life and something like environmental remorse. In a world where environmental collapse punctuates our political and social lexicons, it was oddly comforting to think that nature — in the romantic, pastoral sense — still existed, that evidence of it could be delivered on a grand scale in the middle of my urban environment.
Before seeing the ad, I had wanted to go home and erase the day. After, I wanted nothing more than to go to the landscape that the travel agency had so cleverly placed in the midst of urban chaos. The billboard presented an idealized nature unmediated by human intervention that I didn’t know I had been longing for. It didn’t occur to me that I was as much “in nature” inhaling exhaust fumes in downtown LA as anywhere else on Earth.
In my birth city of Houston, nature seems to permeate whether you welcome it in or not. In our house, thunderstorms shoehorned themselves into the kitchen window. Crabgrass unearthed the stone pathway, making it look like an unkempt graveyard. The doors swelled and wouldn’t shut in summer. One night when I was small, I clung to the damp neck of a family friend and watched from the pool as lightning cracked the sky. How strange, I remember thinking, that the natural world can slip its arm so easily into the modern confines of a home.
The Joshua Tree billboard, placed in the midst of urban chaos, presented an idealized nature that I didn’t know I had been longing for
Later moving to the Southwest of England, swaths of land surrounded the dilapidated farmhouse my parents had bought. The house’s lack of amenities — namely electricity — meant that we were outside often. Beyond the idealization of childhood, I remember an everyday joy in my proximity to the landscape. Buttercup fields bronzed the horizon in summer. Forget-me-nots bloomed in spring. Winter froze the moors into silence.
Life in LA seemed to me antithetical to this pastoral upbringing. Having moved here in late childhood, there was always a part of me that felt more from “there” than “here.” I balked at LA’s dry heat and endless freeways. The land seemed flat and visible and terrifyingly mute, a far cry from the places where my bloodlines take route. However, beyond the city’s engineering are the complex environs that host it. LA, contrary to popular belief, is no less “natural” than any other city, constantly negotiating the hydraulics of its own hybridity.
A manmade blip, LA was engineered against its environment. Its water supply comes from Northern California and the Colorado River, while ubiquitous air conditioning tricks the body into forgetting the surrounding climate. Even the city’s iconic palms are imported: In the 18th century, Franciscan monks attempted to build a biblical Paradise by uprooting palms from oases in the Colorado Desert to LA. Trees in Paradise author Jared Farmer describes the urge of early California settlers to “correct” nature by planting trees in the California lowlands. By turning California green and wooded, Farmer writes, the settlers “performed a miracle.”
The crown jewel of LA’s paradoxical relationship with its natural surroundings is Griffith Park, 4,300 acres of wilderness straddled by the 5 and 134 freeways. Journalist Carren Jao described Griffith Park as “the canvas on which many Angelenos have drawn their dreams and aspirations,” and the park has had many uses, reflecting LA’s unique and often violent history. From 1918-1924, part of the park was used as a prison farm. From 1946-1954 it became a POW camp and detention facility, interning a number of Japanese and Italian Americans. During the same period, a piece of the park was allocated for veterans housing. In 1959, the city dumped half of its combustible trash in Griffith Park’s Toyon Canyon. Today, Griffith Park is one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, the site of a number of conservation efforts, though the park’s function as nature escape, recreational area, or developable land remains hotly contested.
By contrast, there is no mistaking the urban context of Grand Park, located in the middle of LA’s newly revamped downtown. This $56 million slab of lawn in the middle of LA’s concrete infrastructure is halved by three city blocks. LA entrepreneur and philanthropist and multi-billionaire Eli Broad criticized the park’s austere aesthetic for showing too much of the hardscape it was carved into. However, there is something refreshing about the honesty of the design. It doesn’t pretend to transport visitors out of the cityscape, it doesn’t pose as nature unmitigated. At night, the fountain’s neon pink glow arcs suggestively toward the city’s emblematic Los Angeles Times Building, while beyond the maze of infrastructure lies the landscape that holds this synthetic city safely in its jaws.
Griffith Park, LA’s prized and ostensibly untouched green space, houses a host of conflicting national and regional histories. The idea of unfettered land risks greening over that history. Grand Park’s aesthetic may not trick us into a pastoral wonderland, but it feels more natural, somehow — an outgrowth of the hybridized landscape.
Lost Connections author Johann Hari cites deprivation from nature as one of the key causes of depression. “Becoming depressed,” he writes, “is a process of becoming a prisoner of your own ego.” Contact with nature, or “the kind of landscape we evolved in,” he says, is paramount to being released from this self-isolation. He identifies this feeling of smallness in the face of the world’s wide and interconnected possibilities as “awe.”
I found the promise of Hari’s awe in that advertised image of Joshua Tree. After I saw the billboard, I called my partner and explained my urge to visit the desert, toggling back and forth between Airbnbs and sending him links as we spoke. We pinned possible routes, consulting with our Google calendars, and booked the trip within an hour.
Grand Park doesn’t pretend to transport visitors out of the LA cityscape, it doesn’t pose as nature unmitigated
Joshua Tree was as awe-striking as its digital surrogate promised. As we hiked through the rocks, evening descended upon us in waves of electric pink, fuchsia, and violent. Stars smeared themselves across the sky in clusters. But we were never far from other people. The desert here is now a place of leisure. After visiting the park, tourists swarm the town in a sea of tie-dye and athleisure wear, ordering oat lattes and vegan BLTs with abandon before strolling through vintage boutiques and wellness stores. Business in Joshua Tree is booming: According to the National Parks Service, tourism in the Joshua Tree area brought in $182,717,500 in 2017. The area is also slowly dying. Researchers have found that Joshua trees are shriveling off due to hotter and drier conditions, and air pollution. Fewer young trees are surviving.
As I picked up coffees before heading out of town, I overheard a woman wrapped in a tribal print shawl look up long enough from her iPhone to exhale in the direction of her friend, “It’s so good to unplug.” On the drive home, as I watched urbanity grow back over the horizon like moss over stone, I continued to mull over this phrase. “Unplugging” — a chance to transcend the too-human, too-networked — is exactly what that digital billboard had promised me as I walked to my car. The idea of “returning” to nature places it in a silo — somewhere we go to, rather than something that is all around us, and on which we remain dependent despite our violent attempts at subjugation.
These grasps at environmental oneness reminded me of my time living in a sustainable student co-op. A crumbling Craftsman, the house looked like the Manson compound belched out a sibling — musty throw pillows, out of tune guitars, the same Cat Stevens song on repeat, and clothing optional at all times. My housemates’ — neo back-to-the-land types — way of communing with nature confused me. They seemed intent on proving their strength against nature, to simulate climbing it (the concept of climbing gyms still baffles me), cycle through it, forage it. Some exercised a peculiar chauvinism of showing off whose self-made, solar-paneled summer house had stood the test of time the best. In other words, they staged the process of barely surviving it.
“You are always embedded in a network, even when you don’t realize it”
These upper-class eco-warriors came back from two-week trips to Chiapas, the favelas of Brazil, or informal settlements in Senegal, and exchanged stories about people they met like party favors. One housemate solemnly relayed to me between bites of vegan pizza the effects of drug trafficking on my mother’s native Colombia as if she and I were personally responsible. After he had finished his lecture, I set down my plate and quietly retreated to my room.
In the dark, the trembling screen of Google Earth allowed me to place before-and-afters of Colombia side-by-side. I dragged my finger across inches that translated into miles of land disemboweled by civil war, cross-referencing them with family photos of places since eroded. I found a quiet comfort in piecing the past together with the future. Though the digital maps didn’t change the reality of environmental degradation, it did undo its instrumentalization as anecdote in the hands of my housemate. With the help of digital tools, I could at the very least assuage these psychological effects of environmental loss.
“You are always embedded in a network, even when you don’t realize it,” Hari reminds us. The nature we engage with is always mediated; beyond pre-packaged getaways, deliberate, critical engagement with nature through digital mediation can provide a more honest reckoning with these relations and their consequences.
“Awe” by definition requires a mix of fear, reverence, and respect. Tethered to our idolatry of nature are our anxieties about what we’ve done to it, and the ways in which we are ultimately dependent on it regardless. In using nature to connect to some nebulous divinity — to get beyond the human — we expose our need to manipulate it to our will.