02 Apr FoLAR’s River Reader Book Club
Alright you bird nerds and book worms – we’re all feeling the stress of quarantine and wondering what to make of #SaferAtHome. If you’re anything like us, you’ve considered the resolution to “read more with this additional time”. But read what? With whom? Where do I access new reading materials?!
Friends of the LA River is YOUR friend! We’re catching up on books and more, and are providing this brief rundown of some of our favorite books about the LA River, water in the West, our City’s history, and the broader environmental movement. We all need a break from the current news cycle, and it’s helpful in this time to reflect on the challenges that beckon us to work together as one in the face of inequities and the climate challenge ahead. In the coming weeks we will host a brief discussion on each of the titles, with a few special guests along for the ride.
Be sure to follow us on social media channels, Facebook and Twitter. On Instagram we will be posting a poll to crowdsource which book we can discuss in an online meetup first! For a more family friendly reading activity, check our our Huck & Miguel book club, underway now. FoLAR is hard at work (remotely) to develop engaging online content and opportunities to connect online. Support FoLAR’s online fundraiser today to keep the River Movement in motion.
Cadillac Desert by Mark Reisner
Where better to start than this seminal classic! Reisner’s exhaustive look at water and development in the American West chronicles the actions of the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation as they adopted pro-development policies in the 20th century. Major environmental divisions remain on the topic of damming rivers throughout the west – Cadillac Desert, originally published in 1986, is the perfect starting place for readers interested in how land use facilitates urban sprawl. Great book as well for those familiar with the LA River’s concrete channel but eager to learn more about its place within the broader context of water in the West. This title is available in many places: you can borrow the ebook from the LA Public Library, the Santa Monica Public Library, or Archive.org. Consider supporting local bookstores, like Skylight Books which have a copy for sale. PBS also produced a four hour documentary on Cadillac Desert, which is also worth the watch!
The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth by Blake Gumprecht
Internally at FoLAR we refer to this book as “the Gumprech”, and even more liberally as “the Bible”. Since it was published in 1999 this book meticulously details the history of the LA River and aptly defeats the notion that it’s a mere ditch. The River’s water has been a life-giving force before any settler societies arrived to the LA Basin, and usage of the waterway for potable water, agricultural irrigation, and ultimately flood control are all covered in detail in this local history that touches every Angeleno. FoLAR has used this book to provide a strong foundation for docents who support our events, and continue to point to it for journalists and researchers who contact us with the request to “tell the history of the River.” If you aspire to be a true River Steward to advocate for the future of the River, this is the one-stop-shop for learning major events in the River’s history. Thank you Blake Gumprecht for your work to elevate the Los Angeles River. This title is harder to find than others on the list, although Skylight Books has a copy you won’t regret purchasing. (Also, if you must, it is available online for purchase new and used.)
Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past by Bill Deverell
This incisive local history of how our city came to take its present form and its difficulty in discussing its multicultural past is a master stroke from friend of Friends of the LA River and USC professor Bill Deverell. Deverell labors to elevate overlooked voices and accounts of our civic evolution, which challenges the stories we tell ourselves are “history”. His third essay in the collection, “Remembering a River”, depicts the ever-changing relationship our city and its people have had with its raging seasonal river.
As a grassroots community nonprofit, FoLAR’s role is to mobilize the public to speak on behalf of the River. To do so authentically we tune ourselves to the local communities that know the River’s seasons best and are most invested in it’s vibrant future. Deverell’s essay conveys the importance of local oral history to engineers when they were first mapping the LA River’s floodplain and devising its current concrete channel. This book is available at the LAPL in ebook form, and on JStor (which you can register for a free account, learn more here).
The Control of Nature, by John McPhee
Mankind has long engaged in a contest against the environment. Some of the world’s greatest infrastructure wonders are testaments to human hubris in the face of nature. McPhee – with his brilliant creative nonfiction – tours the battlegrounds of conflict against nature, taking the reader through the swamplands of the bayou, to Icelandic lava flows, before stopping close to home in “Los Angeles Against the Mountains.” All of the essays are engaging and lively, however the final essay set in LA contextualizes the massive, albeit unseen, civic projects nestled in the San Gabriel Mountains and along our waterways to prevent debris flows and mudslides.
Against the current backdrop of climate change exacerbating the intensity of storms, wildfires, and more, McPhee’s book is an illuminating tour of our limited infrastructure to continue to resist nature and powerful meditation on society’s need to live along with nature, and not against it. Support local by purchasing a copy from BookSoup, or borrow from LAPL or Archive.org!
Erosion: Essays of Undoing, by Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams has a gift of delivering books full of poetry, ecology, activism, and personal story. In her 2016 release, Erosion, she addresses the dissolution and degradation of our ecosystems, democracy, and society, while gently reminding us that “we are eroding and evolving, at once…”. This collection of essays provides light in these dark times and reminds us that we are people of the earth. She writes, “soul and soil are not separate. Neither are wind and spirit, nor water and tears.” Like nature, we will go through challenging times but it is our duty to learn from those obstacles to ensure a better and brighter future. This book provides hope and reminds us that change doesn’t require belief, it requires engagement. Read “The Liturgy of Home” one of the essays in this book, published in the LA Times last year. You can borrow this from the LAPL as well.