The photo on the cover of Michael Kolster’s recently released L.A. River-a view upriver of the East Fourth Street Bridge from the concrete bottom of the channelized L.A. River-is not a pretty one. High-tension electrical lines and towers flank the now concrete river, chain-link fences prevent errant children and others from the dangers of sliding down its banks, weeds sprout from cracks in the concrete, and a sheen of runoff tops what appear to be near-stagnant waters confined to the middle of the channel.
In saying “river,” one must smile. As Kolster’s photographs taken along its 51-mile length testify, this is a river long tamed, a changeling he calls it, an outlier which doesn’t fit the mental image archives we may have of rivers. Most of the year, little water flows. Then again, when it rains hard, it carries so much water it threatens at times to top its banks. Before it was rendered concrete, it did.
Kolster’s black and white photographs-some panoramic-were made using a mid-18th century technique called ambrotype, a wet-plate collodion process which requires the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within the span of about fifteen minutes. It’s cumbersome, he says, requiring lots of water and a portable darkroom housed in his van, yet the images it produces are unique-ghostlike, even dreamy, bearing the idiosyncrasies of the chemical process used to create it. And given the absence of humans in most of the photos, the contrast between the sterile urban infrastructure of the Fourth Street Bridge area or East First Street Bridge and rail yard and more natural settings like the Glendale Narrows and the Elysian Valley is heightened. Human communities crowd the river, yet we see little of them. Images of concrete seem an alien intrusion on the landscape, the bleak urban landscape like the remains of city emptied of its people. Well-intentioned as the channeling may have been, given the damaging periodic floods, it still leaves an ugly mark on the land, like a clearcut woodland or strip-mined Appalachian mountain.
An essay by Los Angeles historian D.J. Waldie reminds one of the human context of the river, the neighborhoods ravaged by periodic and damaging floods which persuaded the Corp of Engineers to transform it to a concrete lined channel after the flood of 1938. It also serves to militate against a manichean view of the denaturation of the river as simply innocent nature versus ruthless government engineers.
Though it concludes the book, I turned to the essay first to allow Waldie’s prose and command of history to provide context. He provides a narrative of human interaction with the river, beginning with the First People through missionaries, Spanish pueblo, frontier settlement, birth of Los Angeles, and finally, after many damaging floods, its channelization by the Corp of Engineers beginning in the mid-1930s. The end result: “Destitute of greenery, sunk in its depressed bed, unavailable as open space behind chain-link fences, the concrete channel exists primarily as a stage for movie car chases.” And while there is a plan for rehabilitation, Los Angeles is growing denser, and thirstier, so how much water will actually flow is unclear-except in floods. Yet, there is some hope. “A future Los Angeles River could become an anti-freeway,” says Waldie, “not dispersing communities but drawing them together.”
Overall, the emotion stirred by slow examination of the photographs on a Sunday afternoon is sadness, as I contemplate what Waldie calls a “terrible beauty,” as I compare this river to one I know best, the San Pedro of southeastern Arizona, the last major, free-flowing undammed river in the American Southwest, particularly the stretch between Tubac and Tumacacori. There is no similarity. One is free; the other, bound. One rural, one urban. The essays by Frank Gohlke on “The Lure of Rivers” and Kolster himself on “Changelings and Outliers: Photographing the L.A. River” do little to remedy my melancholia, even as they give some basis for a promise of change, for the prospect that Angelenos may accommodate themselves to the changing river, the “wild child” of rivers, rather than seek to master it.
Yet a ray of hope is subtly offered by Waldie. As an epigram for the last section of his essay, titled “Michael Kolster’s Photographs,” he includes one sentence that looks to the future: “Yes, we’ll gather at the river.” In an America no longer hymn-literate, most will not recognize it as a bit of Robert Lowry’s 1864 hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River;” even less, its roots in the fantastic imagery of the Bible’s apocryphal last book, Revelation. The quote is from the chorus, which anticipates the Christian hope of restoration and reward.
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.
It would be easy to relegate this historic hymn to 19th century pietism, and yet for those who will believe in a true fairy tale of another time, it also has feet in the present: what will happen when faith is exercised by those who may gather? What kind of substantial healing can occur now by imperfect beings in a bent world?
A lot, said Christian pastor Francis Schaeffer in the late 1960s. “I can say, ‘Yes, the tree is a creation like myself,’ wrote Schaeffer. “But that is not all that is involved. There ought to be a psychological insight as well. Psychologically, I ought to ‘feel’ a relationship to the tree as my fellow-creature.” Thus Schaeffer articulated a kinship with the non-human creation that was, if not radical, one virtually unarticulated in Christianity. Reflecting on his long ocean voyage across the Atlantic to Europe in 1948, he said that “[m]odern man has no real ‘value’ for the ocean. All he has is the most crass form of egoist, pragmatic value of it.”. To think of non-human things as “low,” as having only what value might come from their utility to man, is “an insult to God,” he wrote. “The value of things is not in themselves autonomously, but that God made them - and thus they deserve to be treated with high respect.” He might say the same of this blunted river, shorn of its dignity.
“Yes, we’ll gather at the river.” In the ruined paradise of the L.A. River lies the hope of something new—the already, the soon to be, and the not yet. There might be, as Schaeffer often said, “substantial healing” and the hope of something more.