Caught by the River

Echo Park

16th September 2018

Jamie Collinson ingratiates himself with the wildlife of LA’s Echo Park.

There’s a line in Paul Theroux’s novella The Vanishing Point that gave me a pleasurable shiver of recognition: ‘He hated fenced parks, which were like cages to him. Forests, yes; hikes, sure.’

I’ve never liked parks much either. They’ve always seemed to be nature in token. A place where urbanites go to sprawl around on hungover Sundays. Where people feed ducks despite signs telling them otherwise, and irksome joggers circulate with proprietary airs. Besieged outposts of genuine, distant nature, tense with the gravitational pull of the glowering tower blocks that surround them.

I preferred not to pretend I wasn’t in the city. To wait until I could have hikes, mountains, vistas. Places with few other people, and a sense that nature was fully in charge.

Regardless of all this, I’ve often found myself in parks. Other people wanted to go to them, and told me I was being silly. I was aware that, for some, they’d provided a revelation of wildness in miniature, of nature prevailing despite everything, and I hoped one day I might experience it for myself. Often, there was simply no better option for a place to take a walk.

It was in this spirit that I began making a daily circuit around Echo Park lake. It’s a quarter of a mile away from the office I work in, and, having decided to walk a minimum of four miles daily, grabbing one or two of them at lunchtime seemed a good opportunity.

Initially, not much changed. The view across the park’s lake to downtown LA – futuristic skyscrapers spearing upwards, framed by the park’s towering palms – had been so often reproduced as to be rendered meaningless. Pedalos drifted on the water, joggers acted like they owned the place. This being Echo Park – ground zero of LA’s fashionable inner east side – the place was crawling with hipsters.

Then I saw an osprey. I’ve written here before of how seeing one on the LA river made me start to fall in love with that place. But the river feels truly wild in places. This was an urban park, surrounded by dense housing, Sunset Boulevard, and a major freeway. The lake is busy with boaters. To see a big, uncommon raptor hunting on it was thrilling.

I began to notice the red-eared slider turtles, which sunned themselves on the pale bricks of the banks, plopping into the water when humans or dogs got too close. Sometimes, their heads would poke out from the lake’s surface, like mired driftwood, only their daubs of bright red giving them away. Currently, the lake is stuffed with them. The adults are the size of dinner plates, and some of their babies are no bigger than my palm. They trail behind their parents, climb up onto their backs, or swim up face to face, as though kissing.

The little pulses of bass that came from the water – like someone playing short, low notes on a tiny tuba – turned out to be coming from bullfrogs. These fat, speckled amphibians like to sit on the wide leaves of the park’s famous lotus flowers, which blossom so thickly in summer that it looks as though you could lie down on them. Before they do, their huge pods, rearing up on thick, triffid-like stems, inspire powerful bouts of trypophobia.

Then I saw a green heron. My Sibley Guide – America’s definitive, beautifully-drawn birding book – lists these as uncommon too. I’d seen them on the river, but not often, and they’d always been very shy. On the lake, they hunted dragonflies close to the banks, catching them with apparent ease, stabbing their necks and bills out to grab them, then chomping the large insects until they were broken enough to be swallowed.

This spring, the park was alive with wildfowl. Canada geese guarded their young beside the paths. I learned to spot juvenile green herons, and for the first time in my life I saw an osprey take a fish. When it had, it thrashed upwards from the water in a shower of blazing, silver droplets, and turned the fish parallel to its body in order to maintain its aerodynamics. The sight put me in an unassailably good mood for the rest of the day.

A few days later, a trio of woke-looking hipsters laughed as their unleashed dog chased goslings into the water. “He’s like, get out of my park, bitch,” one of them said. I failed to say anything, and I hated myself for it. My mood was irredeemably bad for hours.

I really liked this park, I realized. The revelation had finally come. I’d been being a bit silly for all those years.

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