A field guide to love and the Los Angeles River

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With more humans living in cities than any other landscape, and our ecological impacts more cumbersome than any other moment in human history, there is a strong imperative to understand and critique how we relate to nature in urban environments. This thesis takes the contemporary history of one of the planet’s most-recognised damaged places, the concrete-entombed Los Angeles River, and examines it through the lens of love—and more specifically intimacy—to build new understandings of human connections to the environment. Oral history interviews with public officials, campaigners, designers, architects, artists, and community members, along with archival and place-based research, tell stories of deep emotional affinity with a profoundly urban river and attest to the power of regarding cities as legitimately natural landscapes, worthy of our attention and our care. Inspired by the generic conventions of the naturalist’s field guide, the thesis takes three material objects important at the river—water, paint, and weeds—and through them maps a new definition: that intimacy is a state of being sustained, feeling belonging, and paying close attention to places that matter to us. The field guide component of this work is prefaced by a series of grounding chapters that explore the sociodemographic, economic, and cultural characteristics of Los Angeles and her river; constructions of nature and naturalness; the state of environmental history, a subfield that has been criticised for paying insufficient regard to the role of emotions; the particularities of river historiography; and key concepts in the scholarship of sense of place and of the emotions. Contrary to popular and scholarly representations of the river as a forgotten landscape, this research demonstrates that it has long featured significantly in the emotional terrain of people and the city. If a highly altered river, repellent in many ways, has maintained and indeed increased its importance as a place of nature in the city, this thesis offers a new way to think about human connectedness, to the more-than-human world in the Los Angeles River watershed in particular, and in urban life in general. From both there are opportunities for instructive, inspiring, and ecologically responsible engagements with strangely complicated socionatural places, opportunities that merit close and critical attention.
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