Daylighting: Consciousness and Streams

The following excerpt was originally posted on Jessica Hall's blog, LA Creek Freak

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Murphy

Last night I had the pleasure of speaking – if briefly – to a gathering of kids and their parents, up at the Audubon Center at Debs Park. My friend Mary Loquvam, director of Los Angeles Audubon, had asked me to make some comments to introduce the short film, Stream Spirit Rising, as part of LA Audubon's summer film series. The courtyard of the Audubon Center was a lovely place to be on a summer night – if you have the opportunity, I recommend you attend one of her offerings.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Murphy

I had balked at Mary's request. Stream Spirit Rising was a community outreach project I organized while at North East Trees, a small, wonderful nonprofit that primarily serves North East Los Angeles, innovating in urban forestry & watershed management while engaging youth. In this project (YouTube link here, segment 1, segment 2), we hosted a "Tales of the Arroyo Night" in which oldtimers told their stories of the Arroyo Seco and the North Branch stream, a tributary that flowed through the heart of Highland Park, outletting into the Arroyo Seco at Sycamore Grove Park. Then, over three weeks we were led by artist Jennifer Murphy in the making of stream spirit masks, creatures of all kinds (swamp monsters, turtles, bear, dragons) that represented the beings dependent upon streams. And finally we walked the old path of the stream (sort of) in a celebratory parade with the masks, the stream spirits rising through the community. Our goal was to inspire the daylighting of the old North Branch, aka Stormdrain 5202.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Murphy

This act of community gathering and celebration was beautiful in and of itself. What has been so difficult for me to forgive, however, was the political dimension. We had taken our interest in daylighting the North Branch to city government. We had heard that there was interest on the County government side to re‐establish a low flow stream where the creek had been, if not completely daylight it. But city government had other ideas, and other interests, to play to. Through back channels, I had heard that the proponents of daylighting (that would be me) were perceived as white and therefore not really representing the interests of the "community." Over the course of several years in different situations, including ones unrelated to the North Branch, I was hearing that a conservation and restoration approach to environmentalism was out of touch with "the community," that it was streams vs. soccer, that we were canyon‐dwelling elitists, etc.

Our children deserve to know their potential, and loving people of all races have something to contribute. This is true when talking about mentors, as well as at the political level.

Photo Courtesy of Esther Valdes Hall
A couple of my aunts, doing what kids do best. Santa Fe River, 1948

As cultural identity and environmental justice have been wound more tightly around each other, the political leadership turned to community leaders with culturally iconic associations to define the movement. In a word, soccer. I don't question the cultural significance of the game, the need for playing fields, the powerful role soccer teams and organizations play in stabilizing community and giving youth meaningful outlets. But when we took that nose‐dive into soccer vs. streams on the North Branch (repeated at North Atwater Park, if briefly) I got really angry. Hanging in the air was this idea that latino kids didn't need, or even like, nature. Cultural pride started to feel like a noose, a limiting self‐concept that was going to trump common sense (kids of all races LOVE to play in streams), science (hydrology and ecology) and watershed planning (multi‐benefit and multi‐functional uses of common lands for stormwater management, water supply, and habitat). Recently, the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder has raised our awareness of the value of nature experiences in play. Exploration, observation, challenging one's environment – things that happen playing in nature – enhance reasoning, discernment, confidence, self‐esteem, and strength. Neurons fire and facilitate brain development. Was it going to take someone who "looked" latino to prove to our political leadership that latino children could enjoy and benefit from nature? I couldn't take it. I have seen the photos of my grandfather with his friends on burro‐laden camping trips, of my grandmother jauntily perched in a tree, tales of my mother and her sisters playing in the Santa Fe River. I had my own experiences as a kid, the best times were spent goofing around in nature, around streams. What's more, I have seen the countless latino families flocking up the the San Gabriel River's East Fork to frolic in the river on a hot summer day. And then I circled back to the ethnic exclusivism of the argument. Uncomfortable to argue that my background entitled me to be heard, and knowing that it wouldn't matter anyway, I took myself out of the fight.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Murphy

Every environmental project has a story about the human dimension that goes beyond the piece of land itself. This is just one layer of the human story of the North Branch. These are old battles now. Today, organizations ‐including soccer clubs – in North East Los Angeles have expanded programs that reach out to youth and provide exposure to the LA River, our water system, the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains. I think we've gotten beyond soccer vs. streams – as to the larger questions of the interplay of ethnicity, race, and politics with environmentalism and our long term planning, I have no idea. But whenever I am asked about Stream Spirit Rising, this is the story that pings around endlessly in my head. As an event, Stream Spirit Rising had a successful sequence of events, yet I felt it as a failure – we didn't daylight the North Branch and I was personally stung by the power of superficial perceptions feeding political prerogatives. It revealed to me that our stagnant human relationships need to be healed more than the stream itself.

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