The Laws of Physics
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By Marc Porter Zasada
HERE IN L.A., we like to violate the laws of physics. On movie screens, our men leap casually from rooftop to rooftop and our women dangle impossibly from mountainsides. On the ground, our glass-covered tinkertoys straddle earthquake faults or hang from restless sandstone cliffs. Every day 17 million people cheerfully water enormous lawns in a land of little water, and drive SUVs in a time of diminishing oil.
Sometimes the laws of physics do try to reassert themselves with slides, floods, or wildfires -- but we whip out our bulldozers, helicopters and insurance policies, and like stubborn Hollywood outlaws, we fight back magnificently.
Still, newcomers often sense something uncertain, even improbable about the megalopolis. Sometimes I think my out-of-town friends consider the city of dreams as itself a kind of stage set in the desert -- as if it could all blow away in a big wind. And every year, someone writes a book to explain the laws of physics to us one more time. This year, Professor Jared Diamond used L.A. as an example in his bestseller, Collapse about the way great civilizations expire. He compares our architects to the ancient Easter Islanders, who constructed those huge stone statues but cut down all their trees and killed off all their wildlife before turning on one another with stone axes; or to the Maya, who created those vast interconnected cities and gaudy temples in the Yucat-n jungle. They were also pretty confident until they built too many housing tracts and minimalls up into their foothills. Then, well, a nasty drought came along...
One Saturday night the Urban Man stayed up late reading Collapse in a dark living room with a ticking clock. Diamond brought up plenty of other issues: loss of fisheries, salinization of the soil, pollution.
But like the Maya, who probably ignored their own professors of doom, I just could not see my civilization as fragile, even at two a.m. And sure enough when I awoke on Sunday morning, a fresh breeze came blowing in off the sea. Out on the 10, I found beautiful women driving in stately rows toward the beach and motorcycles sporting like dolphin between the lanes.
Modern life again seemed grand and muscular.
Finally, in one last effort to take Mr. Diamond-s warning to heart, I turned my car around and headed up into the North Valley where I could actually touch the delicate jugular vein of L.A. I knew I-d find it along the Five, just beside Balboa Boulevard. There a white pipe, 12 feet in diameter, slithers up a hillside into the desert like a tap root. This is the first L.A. Aqueduct, sucking water from Mono Lake and the Owens valley. It has a troubled history, but that-s hardly the point any more.
To get close, I took a service road among other flimsy plumbing of the body politic. Finally, I found a little turnout with an unimpressive fence and a plaque. I didn-t have the courage to hop this fence and touch the pipe, even though I saw no guards. But I did stand and picture the tiny aqueduct twisting 300 miles across a hostile desert to drain the southwest and make our great, sun-drenched grid happen.
And yes, for a moment I really could see L.A. as an uncertain enterprise, a house of cards, or a painted flat held up by a few little pipes and wires, subject to the fluctuations of oil, water and unlimited sprawl. On behalf of the city, I want to tell Professor Diamond that yes, for a moment, the Urban Man almost accepted the laws of physics.
But then I came to my senses, spun my car around, and merged back into the traffic heading for the coast.
Copyright - 2005 Marc Porter Zasada
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