Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label Hollywood sign. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hollywood sign. Show all posts

Friday, July 15, 2011

INVISIBLE PALMS


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.  

Thursday, June 3, 2010

IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD


In general I like to have a destination when I walk, even if it’s only the local book store or supermarket. But since I lead a sedentary life, working at home, once in a while I step outside my front door and simply walk around the neighborhood for half an hour or forty five minutes, for the sake of a break, and in the belief that walking is in itself an inherently good thing.

As I was growing up, whenever my dad or granddad or one of my uncles went out for no apparent reason, my mother or one of the other female relatives would always ask where they were going and why. More often than not, the reply was, “There and back to see how far it is.” This meant, essentially, “Mind your own business.” But it’s a phrase I often find myself using, and in my own case it means that I’m going out walking for the sake of walking.

To some limited extent this is what the psychogeographers mean when they speak of “locomotion without a goal.” I don’t have a route planned, and I don’t have a destination in mind, beyond the fact that sooner rather than later I want to end up back where I started.


I like to say I live on the “lower slopes” of the Hollywood Hills, hilly for sure but not those vertiginous crests and canyons you get up in the heights, and it’s undeniably pleasant, but I’m sure some of my higher altitude neighbors would think I lived in a slum. The houses tend to be quirky because they’ve been shoe-horned into quirky bits of land, and there are all the usual Hollywood Hills features, palm trees, banks of bougainvillea, the occasional and always empty swimming pool, the not quite convincing security signs that say “armed response,” though you wouldn’t want to put them to the test.


Having lived in the same house for seven years or so now, I’ve walked and continue to walk all the streets in the immediate vicinity, but I don’t walk them all “equally.” There are certain streets I walk all the time, certain streets I go along only once in a while. And there are certain streets I walk hardly at all, for perfectly good reasons, because they’re so steep, or because there’s a blind corner and no sidewalk and I don’t want to get run down by some twerp in a Range Rover who’s on his cell phone, wheeling and dealing while he drives. Or because the houses have vicious dogs in their yrads, and OK, the dogs are behind fences or railings but some of these beasts look like they could chew through chain mail. Who needs it? On the other hand, I don’t want to feel I have to avoid certain places in my own neighborhood, so I walk along these dodgy streets once in a while, climbing one in three gradients, risking vehicular death, with Hound of Baskerville-style howls echoing after me.


One of the pleasures of walking the same route regularly is that you observe how things change. You see trees and plants growing, coming into flower, fading, maybe dying. You notice that somebody’s got a new car, a new fence, a new spouse, a new baby. You see that a house is being refurbished, and then you see it go up for sale. And then somebody moves in, then a year later it all happens again.


Of course there are some spots that I always hit, view points, scenic overlooks. One of them looks west over the Hollywood Freeway, toward the ocean, though from that particular place there are mountains blocking the sightline. And sometimes the air itself is a blockage.


Another one looks east, through somebody’s euphorbia and cactus garden to give a hazy view of downtown. From there you also see Western Avenue, running due south, dead straight, as far as the eye can see, further than you’d ever want to walk.

And when I walk with other people, I always take them past the Samuels-Navarro house, designed by Lloyd Wright in 1928, and later owned by Diane Keaton and Christina Ricci, among others. I regard people’s reaction to the house as a kind of a Rorschach test. If they say, “What a great house,” I know they’re part of my tribe. If they say, “What’s that weird ugly monstrosity?” then I know they’re not.


This being the Hollywood Hills I only see a very few fellow, solitary walkers. It’s rare enough that we always nod a kind of greeting but I’ve never had a conversation with any of these people, whereas I chat all the time with people who are out walking their dogs. I learn the names, the ages, the personalities, the frailties, of the dogs, but never anything at all about the owners.

I don’t usually carry my camera with me, because it seems to get in the way, both of walking and observing, but as you see, once in a while I do take it, and sometimes I’m very glad of it, when I see that impossible to repeat moment: a blimp, a deer, an inflatable dinosaur, the smoke from a fire in Griffith Park.


Heraclitus says, and I believe him, that you can’t jump in the same river twice. By that token, I suppose you can’t walk in the same street twice. So I also wonder if you can ever go home twice. Or once. By the time you get home from a walk, home is no longer precisely what it was when you left. While you were out walking, the butterfly of chaos theory flapped its wings; the universe, and your home, will have changed forever. Of course this is no reason not to go walking: since all is flux, the butterfly would have flapped its wings in any case. And for that matter, the very act of going for a walk will (in however slight a way) have changed you too. That’s a very good reason to go walking.