Ambling down the Venice Beach boardwalk, a cerebral woman in purple sunglasses is discussing the difference between what we see, and how we see.
Some people, for instance, venture to this place to gawk at the urban carnival or to be gawked at. The boardwalk, which isn’t really a boardwalk, of course, but a concrete pathway, provides a portal to much of what is exuberant and weird about urban Southern California: the beautiful and the bizarre, the pumped-up and the down-and-out, the sad and the edgy, the cafe Bohemians and the street hustlers, and the tourists who comment about not being in Kansas anymore.
Others come looking for the opposite: to escape the city, to lie on the sand in the sun, to watch pelicans gun the shallows and to hope to catch sight of dolphins in the waves, to unwind by the timeless metronome of the shore break.
For most of us, the beach is eternally both. The boardwalk demarcates two worlds.
“To the west, that’s what people typically think of as nature,” Jennifer Price is saying. “To the east, that’s what most people think of as nature displaced. It’s the city.”
Without a pause, she adds, “I’d like to rethink that.”
Although the distinction between nature and city, between urban and wild, is “one of the most powerful ideas in American history,” Price sees it as the cause of trouble. Separating ourselves from the natural world is, of course, unnatural. If we insist on regarding urban life as competition with nature, does nature stand much of a chance? Conversely, if we accept the fresh view that our cars and subdivisions and power grids are part of a natural process of human enterprise, won’t we be motivated to make better of it?
A PhD historian, naturalist and writer, Price is a leader among an emerging school of conservationists who want to transform the way that the rest of us comprehend our cities -- to close the gap between the natural world and our world, to alter how we see what we see. For the sake of our cities. For nature’s sake too.
Jenny Price is an explorer. She is in search of “urban nature.” Not just birds or dolphins on the periphery of our experience, but nature’s role in all of urban life, the material and commercial as well as the picturesque. In the 21st century, our cities are the frontiers of nature, if only we can see it that way.
“Imagine this place 3,000 years ago, and the people who lived here.” At the moment, the breeze off the ocean carries a chill. It often does here. She shivers as she points with her chin to circumscribe the terrain she is talking about -- west and east, mountains and high-rises, sand and freeway, seagulls spearing French fries.
Three millenniums ago, she continues, inhabitants of this landscape took their food, built their shelter, fabricated the clothing that protected them against the wind -- all from nature.
“Think about now. We do essentially the same thing. It’s obvious: The fundamental definition of what it is to be human is to use and transform nature to create and sustain life.”
As is her habit, Price pauses to peer at you through her vividly colored glasses. She asks, “Am I making sense?”
The human-nature bond
It’s entirely a matter of perception. Humans are part of nature too, if we allow ourselves to say so. The things that humans produce in their lives, like that plastic bag flattened against a wall along the boardwalk, are therefore as natural as yonder glob of seaweed on the beach. Both arise from the process of transforming matter into something else. “It’s not a question of whether it’s nature,” she says, “but what kind of nature.”
Nature is not just aesthetics but economics too. Logical, yes. But saying it, and really seeing it that way, are different things. In the self-image we have created about our lives, California’s cities are synthetic, artificial places of silicon valleys and silicone mounds. Los Angeles isn’t just apart from nature but contrary to nature. Lawns in the desert.
In 1979, the wilderness writer Edward Abbey described urban California as a “poor, poached, poverty-struck antheap ... not fit for man or his dog.” As Abbey saw it, we’ve made such an abominable mess of our cities that they will eventually consume us and nature will restore itself.
The alternative is to regard our cities as part of nature, and restore balance to them. If they are natural places, then they should be more so. To this end, says Price, “I believe we need to almost completely rethink how we write about nature, and what it means to tell a nature story. If you don’t think you’re connected to nature -- if you don’t think you use nature -- then it’s almost impossible to think about how to use it wisely.”
Four years ago, Price published her doctoral thesis in history from Yale University. It was the inventive book “Flight Maps.” Written for a popular audience, it explored the deep-rooted American consensus that nature is “out there,” not here, not at all.
She inquired into such things as the success of nature as a retail commodity -- the Nature Store and pink flamingos. “It was,” she jokes, “Thoreau goes to the mall.”
Why, she wondered, does our everyday definition of nature sound like an advertising jingle for an SUV -- where the road ends, the world begins? “If you think of nature as the place where you save your soul,” she wrote, “then how to sustain your soul in the life to which you return?”
Give it a decade and the book may prove to be one of those that turned a corner in nature writing. As recently as 1990, you could read all 94 writers and 900 pages collected in the “Norton Book of Nature Writing” and barely comprehend that most people spent most of their lives in cities. Reviews of Price’s work called it “a refreshing change,” “an entirely new direction,” “one of those books that really changes your perspective.”
In the meantime, Price has earned her place as a pathfinder and a sought-out speaker -- a cross-cultural urbanist, naturalist and humanist.
Yet even those who found her first book both singular and entertaining wound up challenging her: OK, but so what?
Price went back to work. She’s pacing the Venice boardwalk these days looking for the words, the ideas, the insight to advance this nascent theory that “urban nature” can be one thing, not always two. She is a research scholar at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. She makes test runs with freelance pieces of social criticism. In her apartment just up from the beach in an old stone building draped in flowers, she is a couple of hard years away from another book, writing on the back of scratch paper and castoff manuscripts. This will be a natural history of Los Angeles. This will be her “so-what book.”
And the so-what is this: If we cannot recognize our part in nature and nature’s part in our lives, we will forget to respect it. And we’ll too seldom enjoy it.
“Planting a tree in your neighborhood is very much connected with deciding what kind of car to drive,” says Price, who drives a decade-old Toyota Corolla. “You cannot expect to preserve wilderness or endangered species unless you think about how to make the places where most people live sustainable.”
Nature in our cities is an idea as old as New York’s Central Park, established 150 years ago to provide families a destination for outings. Also, as historians explain, to offer working-class New Yorkers “a healthy alternative to the saloon.” But our thinking about urban nature didn’t expand much beyond parks, until recently.
The changing tide
Then, in the last dozen or so years, interest in the subject has grown and widened and gained momentum. Academia has opened new lines of inquiry into our detachment from nature, how it came to be and the social consequences. Environmentalists are increasingly pushing for livability in cities. Grass-roots movements have emerged to champion the idea of coexistence with, not dominion over, nature -- seeking the rebirth and greening of eyesores, like the Los Angeles River system.
In August 2001, Price published a guide to the river in the L.A. Weekly. Of the river’s misbegotten history, she wrote: “This act is unparalleled: A major American city redefined its river as infrastructure; decreed that the sole purpose of a river is to control its own floods; and said its river now belongs to the same category as the electrical grid and the freeway system.”
She went on to note, more cheerfully, the changing mood. A vast and probably unstoppable conglomeration of community groups, architects, urban planners, engineers, writers, bureaucrats and politicians is now out to restore the river to something more than a ditch.
“It’s not whether we’re close to nature,” she says. “It’s how.”
She is sitting at a boardwalk coffeehouse now, sipping a soda. This landscape of beach and boardwalk and city-front is perhaps the easiest place of all to make her case. You could find others: the convergence of lawn and wilderness at Griffith Park, the mountainous perimeter on the far side of the megalopolis, parts of the winding river system, or the sprawling estates of the wealthy. The challenge for the new urbanists is to restore that ethic deeper into the crowded city, and root it in daily life, not just weekend excursions. The process begins with awareness.
“This is an incredible place to write and think about nature,” she enthuses. “If you can convince people that L.A. is nature, then you’ve done the job for Chicago and Boston and elsewhere. It’s efficient.”
Price never meant to live in Los Angeles. She is a nature girl of the old-fashioned type. “I used to see myself in a cabin in Alaska or at least in southern Colorado,” she explains. “But I’ve given up guessing about these things. The last place I’d ever thought I’d be is here.”
She grew up in suburbia, outside St. Louis in a community called Clayton, Mo. It was an intellectual upbringing: Price’s mother was a neurobiologist and professional pianist; her father a lawyer. She lost her heart to the Rocky Mountains on summer vacations in the station wagon. She set upon being a writer. She earned a degree at Princeton with a major in biology.
On and off for three years she canoed and trekked into the rain forest of southeast Peru to study the white-winged trumpeter, an undersized crane-like bird. Then, at the end, she harnessed herself in some unfamiliar climbing gear and scampered up a palm tree for a close look into a trumpeter’s nest. She fell three stories to the ground. Surgeons rebuilt her right knee, but she still wears a brace. “Basically, I ruined it.”
What might have been a conventional path for an Ivy League nature writer ended at Yale. Her Walden Pond view of the natural world was upended by this new idea of cities and nature. She was inspired by William Cronon, then a professor at Yale, a MacArthur Fellow, Rhodes Scholar and writer. Among his books is: “Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature.” It took a couple of “tough years” to recalibrate her outlook because that meant, of course, changing her life -- loving what she had despised.
She is 42 now, petite with a peach-fuzz complexion and long, toothy smile. You could imagine her happily chopping firewood outside that Alaska cabin, until she speaks. Then the surroundings fade. Her intellect swallows you up. If she repeats herself and asks, “Am I making sense?” what she means to imply is: “to you?” Does the listener grasp, really, the point when she says, “Using a bottle of shampoo is a connection to nature”?
No, hers is not a Pollyannaish approach. She knows the evil of urban life. She began an op-ed essay for The Times last February this way: “Two years ago, a San Pedro woman who was angry that she had to move out of her daughter’s apartment decided to buy a gun. She easily passed the background check and safety test and purchased a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun. She then shot and killed her daughter and her daughter’s fiance, my brother David.”
Urban nature is about the way we live, our imbalances too. It’s about trying to realize a better way of living. To Jennifer Price, getting right with nature is an argument for social fairness, justice, health, sustainability and our own humanity.
“Just how do we make that bottle of shampoo? South L.A. has 1% of the county’s area and 18% of our toxic air emissions. And the people there enjoy the fewest benefits of nature.”
By her reckoning, nature writing -- environmental writing, if you will -- should not only be about matters closer at hand, but should also include a good many matters that don’t ordinarily fit in the category. So, yes, Los Angeles has plenty of nature to show off. But critics aren’t wrong when they see something unnatural about the way we live.
By the time most of us have reached fourth grade, we can fill in the blanks: spotted owls, green sea turtles, majestic oak trees, toxics in the water -- we understand the dilemma. Forests are in trouble, animals are in trouble, our air and climate and water are in trouble, we are in trouble. Yet, what makes our culture go around? Big, fast, more.
The commonplace word for it is disconnect.
Price’s ambition is to eliminate the prefix.
Her face turned from the bite of the wind, she is walking slowly back to her apartment now. Back to pen and paper. Back to the question: If we can alter how we see our cities, isn’t it natural that we can also transform what we see? “We need meaning in our everyday use of nature,” she says. “We need a literature of meaning.”