Sunday, August 08, 2004

My Mother's Garden

Sunday I sit in my mother’s garden in the hammock underneath a fig tree watching a humming bird flirt around the tangerine tree and thinking about the history of this piece of land a mile north of the LaBrea tar pits. For two thousand years the Tongva Indians (Gabrielino) used this land for hunting, foraging and taking tar from the nearby tar pits. They frequently traveled from their village Yangna by the Los Angeles River downtown to Kuvununga village by the natural springs in West Los Angeles (now University High).

I imagine the first Spanish Sacred Expedition from Baja to Alta California camped by the Los Angeles River downtown on August 3, 1769. Father Juan Crespi, the diarist of the expedition, records that next day they broke camp, crossed the L.A. river, walked through a tangle of wild grapes and roses, and marveled at the black, loamy soil by the river. Marching west, they saw “large marches of a certain substance like pitch” (the LaBrea Tar Pits) boiling and bubbling. When the Spanish established the pueblo of Los Angeles in 1781, the Spanish king, who declared he owned all the land of Alta California, gave out rights to graze cattle and sheep on the lands around my mother’s house to people in the pueblo.

After Mexico got its independence, the Mexican government in 1828 Mexico granted Rancho LaBrea to Antonio Jose Rose Rocha: the land from between Robertson Boulevard on the west to Gower Street and the Cahuenga Pass on the east; and from Wilshire Boulevard on the south all the way to the Hollywood Hills on the north. Antonio Rocha ran cattle on his Rancho LaBrea, but the contract to his land said that inhabitants of Los Angeles pueblo could take out as much brea (tar) for their roofs as they needed from the tar pits. The Mexicans believed in the commons: all the people had rights to certain natural substances as water and tar.

After the Mexican-American war in 1848, Rancho LaBrea was sold several times until Major Henry Hancock got control of most of it, but Senora Perez still stubbornly claimed title in 1873 to 160 acres around Plummer Park until the U.S. government survey of the area when she lost title. In 1874 John Plummer got title to the 160 acres, building his home and farm in West Hollywood. With a couple streams coming down from the hills, acessible water underground, and no frost in these foothills, the area could eaily be farmed. In the next twenty years Major Hancock sold more land, so there were farms growing peas, beans, chiles, fruits and vegetables to be sold downtown in the growing town. Green beans grew particulary well on the farms in west Los Angeles. Lemon and orange orchards dominated in the orange belt of the Inland Empire south of the San Gabriel mountains and, of course, Orange County.

In the Fairfax area, where my mother has lived for the past 50 years, the farms were demolished and covered with houses in the 1920s when her house was built. Oftentimes developers left fruit-bearing trees in the backyards of the new homes in the Westside and the San Fernando Valley. Our neighbor had duplexes like ours and modest houses owned often by carpenters and plumbers, people with steady jobs at the nearby movie studios.

When my family moved into the duplex, I remember in the backyard a grape arbor, two avocado trees, and a tangerine tree. As a wee child I would sit under the grape arbor playing with my doll while my grandmother, who lived next door, had us all harvest grapes and then made grape jam and homemade bread but soon my parents tore down the grape arbor.

We loved the avocados, which dropped to the earth and used to exchange them for apricots from the neighbors across the street that had an apricot tree in their backyard. My parents put in a large swing where two adults could sit and smaller swings and a slide for my brother and me. My parents held birthday parties for me there, with a round of kids gathered around the wooden table. But first one avocado tree died and then the other, so my mother had them torn down, but a fig tree took root, grew ferociously, giving off delicious figs.

After my grandmother had died, my mother rented out the other half of the duplex. One of the tenants, Douglas, started buying flowers—white and yellow roses for the back of the house. My mother got bougainvillea, with bushes of red flowers spilling up the backside of her house and across one of her fences. Doug said it takes ten years to make a garden, and for ten years my mother cultivated hers, with rows of blooming desert succulents along both sides of the house. Doug added a lemon tree and an orange tree to the backyard and a small vegetable plot. The tangerine tree is still there, producing each December a mighty crop of tangerines we harvest, giving out to friends, neighbors and coworkers. I brought a bird feeder to hang in the tangerine tree.

Lawn furniture has come and gone over the years. The current tenants brought in a nicely weathered wooden table with four chairs and a huge hammock which is immensely relaxing to lie in. My mother got herself a new lounge to lie in and a blue fold-up chair is there. I sit here watching two hummingbirds dart around the tangerine tree. The new tenants had their first party in the garden two weeks ago, putting up lanterns, which still hang from the tangerine tree. I think of last January’s ritual of hauling in my friends with fruit pickers to pick the difficult-to-get tangerines high up in the tree and then we went to my mother’s best friend Molly’s house a mile away to pick oranges from her orange tree. For all my life I’ve been part of picking fruit from backyard trees and handing out bags of fruit.

Los Angeles’s urban foresters, Tree People, have been planting trees on streets for years all over Los Angeles, with neighbors getting together to hold a ceremony for their tree planting. But Tree People usually doesn’t plant fruit-bearing trees. Well, why doesn’t Tree People and Sierra Club encourage Angelinos to bring back the backyard orchards and plant sidewalk lines of fruit-bearing trees? Then whole blocks could organize the harvest and distribution from all the trees on their block. An old friend said in the 1930s orange trees lined Hollywood Boulevard so why not again have orange trees on the boulevards? Why can‘t we have a whole city full of avocado, lemon, apricot, orange, walnut and fig trees? Los Angeles already has community gardens so why not community orchards to make this a green, green city?

My brother has just started to grow tomatoes in the garden, and one almost ripe tomato was almost ready to pick. As I head into the house to cook dinner for the family, I think of picking that one red tomato. All the others are green. No, I’ll let it grow a little more. In another week we’ll pick it.


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Wm Bearclaw said...

It's a great slice of personal history . . . I'm pretty sure that I know the Molly (Molly Z.) in the essay. Really enjoyed the piece!

By the way, you have to "moderate" and delete the previous comment, which is sp@m.

-- HMB