I don’t know what an entirely random or disinterested walk would be like. However open we are to new things, we all still walk with preconceptions about what’s interesting, what’s good walking territory, about who we want to walk with. Which is perhaps only to say that we have preconceptions about what constitutes a “good walk.” These preconceptions aren’t fixed. If you suddenly develop an interest in the history of brickwork, then all the brickwork you see around you becomes deeply fascinating. If you’re thinking of buying a Ford Escort, suddenly you notice a lot of Ford Escorts. The eye and brain are always selective. We see what we’re predisposed to see.
When you arrive in a new place for the first time you (obviously) tend to notice what’s most obvious. The longer you spend there, the less obvious the “obvious” becomes. When I first arrived in Los Angeles I looked in awe at all the palm trees. I’d stare up at them, try to identify the different kinds, take lots of photographs of them when I went out walking. Of course, most of these trees looked pretty healthy.
As the years have gone, I’ve come to think of the palm tree as just too obvious a signifier of L.A. and Hollywood. I’ve started to think that only an out of towner, a tourist, a rube, would stop and stare at palm trees. I know they’re there, but in some way I’ve stopped seeing them.
And then, a few days ago, I went to meet Glen Rubsamen, an artist and photographer who lives in Rome but was passing through L.A.. He’s doing a book project on the palm trees of Italy, which are rapidly dying out because of the invasion of the red palm weevil, which moves into the palm trees and destroys them on the grand scale. It appears there’s not very much anybody can do about it: in any case the Italian authorities aren’t doing anything at all.
The significance of the Italian palm tree, Glen tells me, is enormously wide ranging and can be traced back through various imperial adventures, from Mussolini all the way to the Roman Empire. Their dying out seems a very bad thing, and it will certainly change the look of much of Italy, and yet palm trees aren’t “natural” to Italy, certainly not native. The landscape will (in any literal sense) be more natural without them.
You can see there are some huge issues at stake here, and I hope I haven’t garbled them too severely. Glen has taken a series of wonderful and uncanny photographs of dead and dying palm trees. There’s one above, and another below. Anyone who lives in Rome inevitably understands the pleasure of ruins, but sickly and decaying trees remain beyond the limits of what most of us consider pleasurable. You really should check out Glen Rubsamen’s work. I’d post more of his images but I wouldn’t want you to think I was filching his work to make my blog look good.
So inevitably I’ve been thinking again about the palm trees of Los Angeles, and seeing them with new eyes. I walked to my meeting with Glen, noticing all the palm trees along the way; the ones in people’s gardens, the ones lining the streets, the ones growing up through the side walk, the ones next to freeway on-ramps, the ones reflected in glass-fronted buildings. I always knew they were there but now I’m predisposed to see them again.
If you’re a Hollywood Walker, the Hollywood sign can operate in much the same way. When you first arrive here you’re always looking out for it, then once you know where it is, you start ignoring it, and then you start not seeing it at all. But coming home from my meeting with Glen, walking along a palm tree lined section of Hollywood Boulevard, I looked up and suddenly saw the sign, framed by a palm tree and beneath it the word “surrender.” Well, surrender has its appeal. There’s every indication that the red palm weevil is heading for L.A., and in the end there may not be a whole lot we can do about it, but I don’t think we should surrender without a fight.