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Los Angeles Against the Mountains

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Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee writes with a style informed by the journalist he was and the sciences he has explored for The New Yorker magazine for decades. When you read a piece by McPhee, you hear honest echoes of the people and places and concepts he explores.

I just re-read my favorite McPhee bit, Los Angeles Against the Mountains from The Control of Nature. Perhaps because at the time, I lived near those “over-steepened slopes” of the San Gabriel Mountains, I first read this piece with a distinct frisson. McPhee tells of the debris flows, a little-known regional problem.

The source material for a multi-ton flow builds up over decades, and needs specific triggering conditions to mobilize, making this a particular problem in a place where even last week is ancient history. Without realizing the danger, developers, realtors, home buyers, and other new-comers to the area are often led to occupy hazardous properties. The good news, as they say, is that 30, even 50, years may go by without a killer debris flow.

The bad news is that when it does come, you can’t outrun it. And everything it sweeps through is added to the tonnage of the flow: cars, refridgerators, garden sheds, iron gates. Los Angeles has tried to control the flows by trenching debris basins above the built-up areas, and (theoretically, anyway) emptying them periodically so the flows are trapped.

And it would work, too, except that people keep building their houses above the basins. Right in the path of the next debris flow.

McPhee’s own website has bites of reviews, and of course Amazon readers have added their thoughts.

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  • Once again, the over-steepened mountainsides of southern California have slipped in a shower of rain, following a summer marked by hillside brushfires. As McPhee described in Los Angeles Against the Mountains, the fires release waxy creosote from the native shrubbery, creating a surface resistant to wetting. If a summer of fires is followed (even two years later) by a torrential rain, the water shed by the creosote-impregnated soil speeds up, plucking larger and larger chunks of coherent dirt as it rushes downhill.

    Eventually, tons of dirt, mud, boulders and vegetation are moving downhill with the momentum and energy of a speeding train.

    Voila, La Conchita.

  • Shark

    A good tsunami would wash away all of those collapsed mudslides…

    PS: On my Sympathy Scale, rich californians with no sense of geology are just below radical Indonesian Islamic folks who live on islands and don’t know how to swim.

  • Shark – From what I hear, there are lots of really-not-rich folks who live in cheap-ass housing on or near some of these paths. Not just the rich is ignorant, I’m afraid.

    I just heard about this problem recently, though without the science-jargon. During the recent torrential rains, as we saw on television people being swept under mountains of mud, I said to my wife, “That’s why we’re not going to live near hills.”

    She replied, “But that’s where I want to live.”

    I said, “Keep watching the news.”

    I guess there’s a compulsion of some kind. For now, I’m happy to live in an apartment in flat as can be Pasadena.

    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash

  • Dawn

    Shark – are you implying you feel that the tsunami victims aren’t to be sympathized with, or am I confused as to your implication.

    I don’t know about you, but anytime young children are killed, sympathy is a natural byproduct, unless you are a heartless unfeeling cocksucker.

  • Eric Olsen

    there’s always that

  • JR

    …flat as can be Pasadena.

    Uh, not unless you’re talking about Pasadena, Florida. ‘Cause that city at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains could be a lot flatter.

    From what I hear, there are lots of really-not-rich folks who live in cheap-ass housing on or near some of these paths. Not just the rich is ignorant, I’m afraid.

    Indeed. Folks, please, if you are ignorant, don’t live in California; it’s just way too dangerous.

  • Nope — it’s pretty flat, even though we’re near the mountains.

  • Shark

    “…are you implying you feel that the tsunami victims aren’t to be sympathized with, or am I confused as to your implication.”

    re: “cocksuckers” etc…

    If one notes my use of italics, one might also interpret my ‘truism’ as pointing out the abstract, arbitrary nature of the categorizations we use to determine the objects of our ‘compassion’ — and how those arbitrary designations are somewhat meaningless, shifting, relative, tribal, geographic, intellectually prejudiced, and often xenophobic.

    (Are ‘Floridians’ less likely to get donations if they’re perceived as ‘ignoring’ hurricanes? Are tsunami victims less likely to get ‘compassion’ if their government demands American relief workers leave at sundown? Is ‘the world’ going to donate to the ‘rich Americans’ in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona after those states’ recent weather-related tribulations? etc.)

    And although this cocksucker often lives up to that abstract, arbitrary designation (at least figuratively), he usually hates to explain himself, but thanks for asking anyway.

    In the future, I’ll try to keep the bait simple.

  • Dawn

    That’s why “asked” if you were “implying” – I was acknowledging that I could be misunderstanding your whole tone – so if I did, then I guess you personally aren’t a cocksucker, but I assure you people who don’t care about the well being of innocent children, are indeed – cocksuckers.

  • McPhee wrote Los Angeles Against the Mountains in the late 80s, long before the tsunami or the recent slides. His point was not that Californians who buy hillside property are rich or undeserving of compassion (or both), but that they are ignorant of the possibility (the certainty when all parameters are met) of a devastating mudslide.

    Like the holiday-makers and residents in the Indonesian islands, it isn’t their ignorance that deserves compassion, so much as the fact that in this game of roulette with Mother Nature, they bought a bullet.

    The only way to win this game is not to play.
     –War Games