L.A. Light

Everyone says there are no seasons in L.A. but that’s wrong. L.A. has seasons like everywhere else. It’s just that the change of seasons is more subtle there than in other places. There are the rainy season, on and off, from late November to March; the fierce 90 degree plus heat for a few weeks in September-or sometimes as early as July; the mudslides in February; the brush fires in October; and last but not least, the magnificence of late April and the month of May.

Nor does the sun shine every day of the year in the Southland, as the local TV weathermen call the greater L.A. area. When the Pacific storms sweep in one after another throughout the rainy season, they bring torrential tropical rains that last for one or two or three days without a break, turning side roads into instant lakes and the Santa Monica Bay into a giant sewage tank by flooding out the city’s drainage system. The storms come accompanied by a sort of fog-cloud that races in with great speed and blankets the city, wiping out visibility down to the next-door building, hanging under the palm trees and drifting across the swimming pools, and , as night falls, wrapping streetlights and headlights in wet towels that, together with the soundtrack of dripping roofs and dripping foliage, transform L.A. into the set for one of its own film noirs.

When a storm gathers, and before it breaks, there’s a palpable sense of threat, a sudden silence and an unnatural stillness. The sound of the traffic is muffled. The air you breathe is leaden. The fog fills in the gaps between buildings, blotting out any lights shining from apartment blocks or office towers. This can go on for hours at a time while one waits for the storm to break-for the blow to fall. The steam from the heated swimming pools mingles eerily with the mist. Even the birds seem to quiet their usual screeching and go into hiding in the dark green trees until, when the rain finally comes with a fury, it also comes as a relief, as if nature had awoken with a start from a nightmare or a coma.

The light on those storm nights is a corpse light. It has a distinctive pallor and a subterranean glow, as if the light was coming up out of the earth rather than down through the creeping cloud-fog that turns into a purplish mist when it reaches the level of the rooftops, the telephone wires and the electric cables slung between buildings in the American manner. Storm light in L.A. is the exact opposite of L.A. nights in the spring and summer which are all clear, crisp blackness full of stars above and neon below and in between the wandering lights of helicopters and airliners like burning cigarette ends waved between giant fingers. Although you know it’s night in those balmy months, everything about the city seems open, visible- more visible than by day when the glare hides things- as if the two halves of L.A. were reunited in a single whole- city and sky, earth and the heavens- and the eye was free to move between them one to another and back again, as between two mirror images of one another. As above, so below was a philosophy in Europe 500 years ago: it’s a physical reality in modern-day L.A., the New World turning ideas into geography

On such an open night, the city is a plain of feverishly glittering lights as far as anyone can see. The lights have a trick of seeming to shiver or shimmer as you look at them, the way the tarmac on the freeways can seem to shimmer ahead of you on very hot afternoons. I’ve flown into Los Angeles on nights like that from London or New York or Texas or Salt Lake. Seen from above, the lit-up city is spectacular. The lights form squares and grids of yellow, red, green and white like a permanent fireworks display stretching for a hundred miles in every direction.

Seen from ground level, or from one of L.A.'s many ridges or low hills like the Hollywood Hills, the city looks more like a field of lights, tossing and shaking in an invisible breeze. But this plain is at the same time a dish covered by an upturned bowl of jet-black sky strewn with thousands of stars and a whitely blazing moon.

Just as the night lights in a European city can’t compare with American cities, which literally have power to burn, so European skies can’t compare with the skies in the Western U.S.. Allen Ginsberg’s classic poem ‘Howl’ has a line about Carl Solomon arriving “at the door of my cottage in the Western night” after crossing the continent “dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears”. The mythical night-sea journey made manifest. To me, those lines have always captured the vastness and emptiness of Western skies, partly because of the contrast in scale between the words “cottage” and “night”, partly because of the image of the poet stepping out of his cottage to greet his watery visitor and glancing up at the sky as he does so. In my case, I didn’t step out of a cottage but out of my West Hollywood apartment on to the communal balcony, just to take the air at the end of an evening, just to check the lights. On the best, the most jewel-like of such nights, it felt like stepping on to the floor of a tremendous amphitheatre in which, if I struck exactly the right moment, I might be able to eavesdrop on the long- lost music of the spheres.

That isn’t how people generally think of L.A., I realise, though its uniqueness as a city is not its culture or its architecture or even Hollywood (itself a product of L.A.’s light) but its location and the very direct relationship between nature and human construction you find there- so that L.A. is at once the most artificial and machine-made of urbs and always on the edge of reverting to wilderness. All the kinds of storm and night light I’ve mentioned so far- and I haven’t even included the flaring orange and purple sunsets that turn the evening skies, at certain times of year, into canvases painted by a master-artist- aren’t the kind of light most people associate with L.A. either. They think L.A. means sunshine-and they’re right. Historically, the sun made the city. The semi-tropical, semi-permanent sunshine brought the immigrants from the Midwest and the Plains, fleeing their freezing winters, and it brought the infant movie industry. Sunlight made L.A. and re-makes it again every morning when you wake up not to just another day, a day like the one before, as it so often seems in grey European capitals, but to a genuinely new day- “new” as in original, fresh, never seen before. I’m sure it’s the light rather than, say, the local culture or showbiz mores which convinces so many people they can make a new start in L.A., make a new life, be whoever they want to be, that whatever came before doesn’t count somehow and only the future is real. The fact that this is often a sad and self-destructive illusion doesn’t devalue the impulse that lies behind it. They’ve been blinded by the light.

Anyone who doubts the power of L.A.’s light can judge by its occasional absences- the dull cloud-covered month of June, for example, or the dreary wet that can last for whole weeks in January and February. Without its various sunlights (for there are more than one kind) the city falls apart into a drab, senseless jumble of ugly buildings. There are strips of concrete commercial lots covered in lurid adverts that run for miles and miles in dead straight lines, intersecting with one another; or there are low scrub hills bulldozed and overdeveloped with mismatched houses in twenty different job-lot architectures clinging precariously to the sides of slopes that cut through winding canyons. As a city, L.A. makes a good real estate speculation. Its natural setting is so superior to what men have made of it.

The Pacific Ocean, the basin created by the semi-circling mountains, the flat land divided between city proper and The Valley by the ridge of the Hollywood Hills, the balmy climate and, of course, the light are the real L.A. to a much greater extent than in most cities which have long since obliterated their own landscapes. The best thing the builders of Los Angeles ever did was to add water (and they know it. The most famous figure in the city’s history isn’t an architect or a developer but William Mulholland, the man who brought-or stole- the water for L.A.). Without water, L.A. would be- is- a desert. Add water and it turns into a city full of flowers, lawns, tress, bushes, a lush green place at odds with its image of cars and concrete. L.A. should have been left to its gardeners. Instead, like most of the cities in the Western United States, it was overrun and parcelled out by real estate sharks and speculators so that the city’s man-made fabric has all the shabby semi permanence of a trailer park- full of apartment blocks and multi-million-dollar mansions which are crudely and cheaply constructed, meant to last just long enough to fleece the punters and give their developers time to skip town. L.A. has some fine buildings, but too many are jerry-built as the British used to say. The typical older L.A. apartments, for example, are an assemblage of plasterboard, stucco, shag carpeting and floors that shake even when there isn’t an earthquake. There’s a holiday flavour to them: they’re like the apartments you find in those purpose-built holiday resorts which are only meant to be lived in for a couple of weeks at a time, and then only if you spend most of your days outdoors.

Driving around L.A. you pass the matchwood skeletons of new houses and apartment buildings all the time. They look like those model houses hobbyists build out of matchsticks. Whenever I pass them, I think that L.A. would collapse without its light, be exposed as a Potemkin Village with freeways or as a film set that’s all false fronts with no real buildings behind. The light gives L.A. its substance, its reality.

According to an article on L.A. Light in the ‘New Yorker’, there’s a scientific basis for this impression. Hal Zirin, founder of the solar observatory at Big Bear Lake, north of Los Angeles, said there’s an “incredible stability, (an) uncanny stillness of the air around L.A. It goes back to that business people are always talking about- a desert thrusting up against the ocean, and specifically against the eastern shore or a northern ocean with its cold, clockwise, southward-moving current. And the other crucial element in the mix is these high mountain ranges girdling the basin-so that what happens here is that ocean-cooled air drifts in over the coastal plain and gets trapped beneath the warmer desert air floating in over the mountains to the east. That’s the famous thermal inversion, and the opposite of the usual arrangement where warm surface air progressively cools as it rises., And the atmosphere below the inversion layer is incredibly stable…The stars don’t twinkle in L.A..”

The stable air is the medium for the various forms of sunlight L.A. enjoys. To me, the best L.A. sunshine has a sculptural quality. You’ve never seen objects so clearly or in such three dimensions. This is largely the effect of the shadows: L.A.’s strong sunlight throws strong, defined shadows and more of them than you get anywhere else. Every detail of a building or a tree or a person seems to have its own individual shadow in L.A. This is a light that reveals its own tricks, works from the outside in rather than, as it does in Europe, by effacing itself within the red bricks of a wall or the green of a girl’s dress. Here every object-and the city as a whole- is the creation of light before it’s the creation of anything else. Perhaps I should say the re-creation since the light alters the terms of the original object. You can drive along one of L.A.'s broad boulevards knowing you are surrounded by hideous ugliness yet delighted by the way the sunlight strikes that angle, fills in that shadow, and so on.

Others prefer a second, less obvious kind of L.A. sunlight. Also in the ‘New Yorker’ piece, architect Coy Howard rhapsodised about “the diaphanous soup we live in…It’s not exactly a dramatic light. In fact dramatic is exactly what it’s not…in places where you get a crisp, sharp light with deep clean shadows-which we do get here sometimes-you get confronted with a strong contrasting duality: illumination and opacity. But when you have the kind of veiled light we get here more regularly you become aware of a sort of multiplicity-not illumination so much as luminosity…..things in the light here have a kind of threeness instead of the usual twoness. There’s the thing-the object-and its shadow but then a sense of reflection as well., You know how you can be walking along the beach, let’s say, and you see a seagull walking along ahead of you, and a wave comes in splashing at its feet. At that moment, you’ll see the bird, its shadow and its reflection. Well, there’s something about the environment here-the air, the atmosphere, the light- that makes everything shimmer like that. There’s a kind of glowing thickness to the world-the diaphanous soup I was talking about.”

For all the miracles it can work on concrete and asphalt, L.A.’s sunlight of both kinds keeps its affinity for the natural world. That’s why April and May are the best months, after the rains have swept the air clean of fog and when the spring warmth brings out the plants and flowers. A friend claims the jacaranda trees that bloom in May are the infallible test dividing L.A. natives from the visitors. Visitors mistake the jacarandas for lilac trees because of their smell. There are whole rows of jacarandas all over the basin. Trees like elegant women’s hairstyles with a mauve tint, giving off a fresh, clean-smelling scent. Then there are other smaller trees like Moses’ burning bush that cover themselves in a mass of flame-red flowers, so vibrantly coloured they seem alive and you wouldn’t be surprised if the trees suddenly revealed they were full of scarlet snakes instead of blossoms.

During those two months (and only then) there’s a Mediterranean feel to the city. It’s full of window boxes; geraniums in pots; terracotta urns growing mosses and trailing plants with tiny blue or yellow flowers; beds of busy lizzies in their gaudy tints like a box of children’s paints; dark green glossy ground ivy that invades backyards, front yards, sidewalks, everywhere it’s not cut back; and lines of mighty palms staking out the best addresses in Beverly Hills or standing like lonely sentinels on street corners all over town.

On every block a house or two has chosen to retreat inside its own cocoon of shrubs, bushes, creepers, trees, hedges, flowers and general frondage. Only the brilliant green patches of perfectly kept lawns spoil the Mediterranean fantasy- the Mediterranean doesn’t have water to waste that way. I’ve gone out on a May morning in Los Angeles, parked the car in a side street to run some errand, and found myself walking down a gully of sparkling light bounced off the white stucco walls of the buildings on either side and shimmering (Coy Howard is right) through the palm fronds above my head while the air is warm and mainly silent and the sense of possibility seems limitless.

In other words, I’ve been happy in Los Angeles with that happiness which has nothing to do with personal purposes, personal desires or personal lacks. Then, only a few hours later on the same day, L.A. has driven me nearly mad with isolation and boredom. From what I’ve heard, those see-saw emotions, the swinging between extremes, aren’t just my private experience but a general feeling about L.A. (it’s the only place I’ve lived which the locals regularly refer to as “this town” in a tone of disgust or contempt). It’s a natural reaction to the city’s own built-in contradictions, the way L.A. is at one and the same time a world capital and a hundred square miles of featureless suburbs; a concrete and techno “city of the future” and a place where nature is a part of everyday life as it hasn’t been for centuries in Paris or Rome or New York.

Coyotes scavenge L.A.’s back lots, overturning garbage cans. From time to time, a mountain lion appears in one of the outer suburbs. Throughout the summer, a mocking bird made its perch on the telephone pole behind my apartment. In a frenzy of pleasure at its own song, the bird repeatedly flung itself off the pole but, rather than taking wing, let itself be tossed up by the current, up and round and back again, until it fluttered down once more on to the crossbar like a piece of paper torn up and thrown into the air.

Hummingbirds, nothing but bodies and bills, their wings a bees-wings’ blur, hovered around the trees. A possum snuffled under my bedroom window at night and rooted through the stand of bamboo that separated my building from the one next door. A squirrel with its lean, rodent’s body and sallow yellow-brown colour, scurried to and fro along the electricity cables like a high-wire act, using its tail as a parasol to keep its balance. One day, a terrible squealing chatter made me go to the back door and look out just in time to see a huge bird of prey try to pluck the squirrel off the cable, like snatching a tasty morsel off a lunch counter. But the great bird missed its mark and was forced to flap and fumble its way out between the buildings in an undignified retreat. I don’t know what made it think it could manage such a kill. These birds- condors- usually circulate high above the hills, riding the thermals, their wings outstretched, banking in graceful circles. From that height, the bird must have spotted a flash of movement far below, a shadow must have struck its eye without the bird realising the shadow wasn’t flitting across an empty desert floor but through a tangle of houses, wires, obstacles of every kind. And so the bird dived- tricked, one might say, by L.A.’s light.

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014