Wild at heart

Veronique de Turenne is the book critic for National Public Radio's "Day to Day."

THE Santa Monica Mountains lie like Gulliver amid the scores of suburban Lilliputs that form Los Angeles County. Pinned down by development and penned in by sprawl, they still manage to give our ever-expanding city a fierce and untamed core.

Author Matthew Jaffe and photographer Tom Gamache examine the paradox of this geological marvel in "The Santa Monica Mountains: Range on the Edge," a handsome new book from Angel City Press. They take the only mountain range in North America to bisect a major metropolis and turn it into a character study.

The book begins at the geometric center of Los Angeles, the fabled "point of balance" determined by the late Allan Edwards, an iconoclast docent at Franklin Canyon Park in Beverly Hills. (Edwards balanced a map of Los Angeles on the head of a pin, then placed a homemade plaque in the exact spot in the earth above Franklin Canyon that formed the fulcrum.)

"At the very center of the city, there is still wildness ... where native habitat survives to support abundant animal populations," Jaffe writes of the place where the plaque still stands. "While justly cited as a cautionary tale of overdevelopment, thanks to the Santa Monicas, Los Angeles has perhaps the most untamed acreage of any major world city."

Organized around three routes through the mountains, the book offers up a wealth of information and lore. The "Mulholland Drive" section inspects the fretful marriage between the city's urban border and the mountain range's edge. "Backbone Trail" hikes through the heart of the mountains, where unspoiled waterfalls and abundant wildlife remain. "Pacific Coast Highway" tells the story of Malibu, of Spanish conquest, vanished Indian tribes and the ever-present cycle of wildfire (such as last week's blaze, which destroyed several beachfront homes below Malibu Bluffs Park). It also makes a great point about the iconic highway.

"PCH creates a false divide in the Southern California psyche between the beach and the mountains," Jaffe writes. "But they are in fact inseparable. Take off from Los Angeles International Airport on a flight to Hawaii and look down as the jet follows the coast due west and the highway is reduced to insignificance."

Jaffe drops unusual facts throughout, tidbits that leaven the text when geology, geography or history make for heavy going. For example, Gaspar de Portola gets credit for naming the mountains in honor of St. Monica, the patron saint of alcoholics, abuse victims and wives. Col. Griffith J. Griffith, who donated 3,500 acres for his eponymous park, landed in San Quentin for trying to kill his wife in a Santa Monica hotel. And in 1933, a band of Nazi survivalists living in Rustic Canyon built a power plant and communicated with the fatherland via shortwave radio as they awaited the overthrow of the U.S. government.

Jaffe is clearly a wilderness advocate. He refers to the many mansions that have sprung up along the Malibu coast in the last decade as "[b]alustraded monstrosities where sprinkler systems go full bore right after a spring rain," and sighs at the invasive species so casually planted in the midst of the fragile landscape.

At his best, he's lyrical. "The stream enters the plain from a narrows, where virgin's bower bursts like asterisks from the scrub. A pair of mallards flies into the narrows before settling with a splash into a pool just below an old dam. The encroaching fog sends a tendril of mist along the canyon floor, which moves through the branches and eventually transforms the riparian forest into a black-and-white world of soft-edged silhouettes."

When his prose bogs down, as it sometimes does ("To discuss the Santa Monicas' role as a haven for culture and recreation reflects both the range's appeal as a place to live and the degree to which large portions of the mountains have been settled and urbanized"), the photos race to the rescue.

Rock and water, fen and glen, red-tailed hawks vying for a meal, every imaginable kind of light -- Gamache's lens captures it all. In a particularly stunning shot -- at dawn or dusk, it's hard to tell -- your eye takes in a steeply tilted landscape. There's the gnarled old tree, a frizz of short, dry grass, then the sudden shock of seeing a coyote calmly staring into the lens, into your eyes, bold and not at all afraid.

In the book's coastal section, we see the searing reds and golds of sunset and feel the cool drift of silvery fog. Turn a few pages and the same palette of colors plays out in wind-driven wildfire and pillars of billowing smoke.

A map on the last page is useful, but it leaves you wanting more of them, and with greater detail. An intriguing antique map is reproduced on the book's endpapers, bearing place and road names familiar and long-vanished. You can see the area's historic trails and the flow and mass of the mountains.

"The Santa Monica Mountains" is an ambitious book, as sprawling, quirky and varied as the range itself. More than a coffee table book and just short of a travel guide, it's nothing less than a love letter to the wild heart of Los Angeles. *

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