Nature’s Great Comeback: An Underdog Story

During the time of the year I live in Los Angeles, I often run in what’s left of the Ballona Wetlands. The main trail, which snakes along the side of a ridge just above the marsh, is dotted with a series of signs that read, “SENSITIVE HABITAT | PLEASE STAY ON PATH.”

However, looking at my surroundings, I can’t help but think that it may be too late. From where I run, I can see only a narrow strip of wetlands squeezed between this dry hill and an expanse of new development. Local offices for at least one international megacorporation – I’m looking at you, Google – sit just a stone’s throw away from the remaining swamps.

A look at Los Angeles as a whole is not any more encouraging. The city is home to such public parks as Lake Machado, a polluted pond that has become a dumping ground for toxic chemicals yet is somehow still hospitable to invasive water snakes, snapping turtles, and at times, even alligators. Owens Lake, which once served as a major source of water for Los Angeles County, is today the largest source of dust pollution in America. And Los Angeles River, once the source of life for the region’s native Tongva people and its early settlers, is better known as a cement movie backdrop than as a river at all.

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Before I moved to L.A. a few years ago, I knew it as a city of congested highways and smoggy skies. But once I settled in, something surprised me: there is wildlife everywhere here. More animals can be seen within a few miles of my university than perhaps any wilderness area I’ve ever explored. And I’m not talking about squirrels and pigeons. Rabbits and skunks hide in the shrubs, red-tailed hawks, pelicans and wild parakeets fly overhead, and lizards of all sizes sun themselves on rocks and sidewalks. Even native rattlesnakes are still around.

This juxtaposition of wildness in one of America’s largest urban areas is just a snapshot of the everyday war that modern civilization wages with the natural world. And although the current state of most cities may persuade you otherwise, it’s a losing battle for us. In his book “The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman examines a particularly fierce battleground: New York City. Every day in the Big Apple, people work to combat a groundwater problem that is literally bubbling beneath the surface of the city. Prior to urbanization, water on Manhattan Island was absorbed into soil, channeled into streams, or taken up by the roots of the oak and maple trees that covered the region. Today, there are electric pumps keeping hundreds of gallons every minute from overtaking the subways. If those pumps were to fail during a storm, the entire underground system would be flooded within 36 hours.

The power of the natural world seems even more formidable if you consider what would happen to a concrete colossus like New York if humans were to vacate altogether. According to Weisman, tree roots would be tearing apart the sidewalks within five years. In ten years, bear and wolves would be prowling through Central Park. Without protection from wind, fires, flooding, and the endless cycle of cold and heat, most human artifacts – aside from stone buildings and bridges – would be replaced by forest within a century.

If you are skeptical of any of those projections, consider the quick reclamation work nature has done on already-abandoned locations. Detroit, for example, has faced massive depopulation in the last few decades, accelerated by the Great Recession. Below are two pictures of the same suburban street in the Motor City. In the span of a few short years following home foreclosure and abandonment, the elements have clearly retaliated. (More photos of nature’s comeback in Detroit are featured on this site, which has collected a number of such examples using Google Street View.)

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Some modern cities are beginning to take steps to abandon the fight against nature in favor of a mutually benefitting partnership. Las Vegas has implemented strict rules on water consumption, reflecting the reality that Nevada is a desert. Every drop of H2O consumed in Vegas – even toilet water – is treated and put back into the system. Give Los Angeles another few decades and, if plans like the Park 101 and Greenway 2020 have their way, downtown will be a mecca of urban green space.

Nationwide, conservation-minded programs are to thank for an explosion in wildlife population. One article in Time even suggested that there are more deer and mountain lions in North America today than before European settlement. As we are discovering, lifestyles outside of nature’s laws cannot last forever. A city can build and consume all it wants, but it can only be so long before any settlement’s natural circumstances have the final say.

Even international moves are being made to live in closer congruence with the natural order. In an uncharacteristic act of cooperation at the border, the United States and Mexico agreed to open Morelos Dam, which directs the Colorado River’s water into fields of iceburg lettuce and baby spinach. But in mid-May of 2014, for the first time in decades, the Colorado River flowed to the Sea of Cortez. The river’s currents ushered life into a forgotten region that has been parched for years.

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The Los Angeles I run through, where wetlands teeming with herons and frogs thrive alongside busy boulevards, is a glimpse into the city’s future. I believe the L.A. of today is much different than the L.A. of tomorrow. Steps into the city’s greener, more sustainable future are being made every day. Contaminated Lake Machado closed earlier this year for an unprecedented cleanup project. Organizers hope that the lake will be safe for boaters and swimmers by 2017. Just over a year ago, a section of the Los Angeles River opened to the public after decades of restoration, which have made the waterway home to over 200 species of bird.

This progress is absolutely necessary, both for our survival and our own enjoyment. As Henry Thoreau wrote, “Life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness. … We can never have enough of Nature.”

In the game of life, nature will always bat last. It’s up to us to decide whose team we’re on.

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