history falling like ash

Driving back from Downtown on Wilshire, I passed through McArthur Park about half past four. Even allowing for what passes as winter light here, there should have been sharp beams of slanting light crossing the park, catching the birds resting in the still lake, people leaning against the worn railings of the park. But instead of that sharp light, there was a sullen, diffuse quality to things.

The reason, clearly enough, is the fires: First the Montecito, north of Santa Barbara, near enough for the news, though far away to be little more than that. But Friday night, fires broke and spread in Sylmar, on the north edge of the San Fernando Valley. Later on yesterday, flames spread on the northeast edge of Orange County, and I now find myself between two burning slopes.

Not literally, of course: Both fires are still far enough way that I've placed them only tenuously in my mind. Sylmar, I've learned, is near where the 5 picks up the 210 and the 405. I've driven that interchange, wound south from the 14 to the 5 to the 405, but I know not a thing about the lives backed up hard against the chapparal slopes. Orange County's fire is even more of a mystery to me. That people live there seems an inescapable fact, but I'm more familiar with neighborhoods of Istanbul or Cairo than I am with the tracts of homes that back onto the slopes off of the 91.

But physically, I am caught between. Or perhaps, more properly, I'm caught below. Jenny's written recently about Carolyn Steedman's Dust, noting:
‘This is what Dust is about: this is what Dust is, what it means and what it is. It is not about rubbish, nor about the discarded; it is not about a surplus, left over from something else; it is not about Waste. Indeed, Dust is the opposite thing to Waste, or at least, the opposite principle to Waste. It is about circularity, the impossibility of things disappearing, or going away, or being gone. Nothing can be destroyed.’

She, of course, is referring to the concept of the narrative, of the inscription of history. But the soil is also a record of history, and can be read both scientifically and culturally to understand our history and the planet’s.
In a talk this afternoon at the LA Public Library, DJ Waldie mentioned in passing that this city has yet to come to terms with its history. And following from that, this is a city that has yet to learn how to live in the present. In some sense, our cultivation of Los Angeles as the city of a future - apocaylptic or utopic - grows out of an inability to deal with the city as it is.

The fires are the city as it is, and perhaps the ash that's spreading over the basin, drifting over parked cars and back lots, settling on window sills and roof tops, leaving the skin dry and slick, thickening our winter light, perhaps this ash is also a reminder that this city is full of people in the present living. That, following Steedman, the irony of talking about Los Angeles as a cultural idea for so long - and so easily - is that in the end there's really a city here.


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