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True nature

Author Jennifer Price hopes city-dwellers will learn to see, to love and to nurture what's wild and wonderful in their midst.

May 31, 2003|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

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.

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