Class Trip to the Ballona Wetlands, and All the Different Ways to See it

Our Nature Writing course took a field trip to the Ballona Wetlands on Saturday. The experience was very familiar to me, only refreshed by our tour guides themselves. Most tours of Ballona, as far as I know, are led by education staff. Ours, however, was hosted by the former and current executive directors of the Friends of Ballona, Lisa Fimiani and Scott Culbertson.

I had met Lisa once over the summer, at a butterfly survey for which I interned. She was exactly how I remembered her: kind, passionate, and well-humored. I had met Scott on the other hand, once for an interview, and once as an intern. His demeanor remained too: outspoken and defensive over his organization.

Friends of Ballona’s butterfly survey on 7/7/21.

I took a lot from this field trip, from the words of our tour guides to the elements of the landscape. On different occasions, I noticed connections in Ballona to Jenny Price’s Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA, specifically through the expressions of others. New birds appeared in the creek, which Lisa called Buffleheads. They were beautiful, white ducks, apparently in-town for the winter. I tried to soak them in from afar, longing for my camera.

It had been about a month since I visited Ballona. For the past semester, I was there daily, photographing its animals and interviewing its walkers. Since then, it’s been hard to find the time to revisit, added to the fact that I no-longer hold exclusive access to its areas. I gazed at the Buffleheads and cormorants, but without my camera, I paid close attention to the tour guides’ communication.

One issue I have found in Ballona, which is very important to myself and others, is the site’s planned restoration. This plan was mentioned throughout the tour, and Scott always made sure to send the message that the restoration is a great thing. I held no quarrel with most of these claims, as his organization backs them up with science. One specific verbiage, however, concerned me. When Scott was discussing the “misinformation” over the wetlands, he instituted that “One headline I had to bury was about restricted access to the wetlands,” explaining further that CDFW has the right to let-in or restrict those who they choose.

This whole place was one big warzone, appealing to those with a stake in it, whether it’s the steady paycheck for their nice, big houses, or the settlement option in suing over a coastal permit. I connected this individual stake in the land to Jenny Price’s Third Way of seeing nature in LA: As the Resources We Use.

Beyond politics, however, I turned my focus to the land. White-tailed kites perched on dead willows, waiting for an unlucky field mouse. Invasive bees searched for their perfect flowers, buzzing around our arms as we followed to the viewing platform. To me, this visit felt like seeing an old friend, who never spoke, but was always around. I knew very few, if any, of my classmates shared this perspective, and I thought of Price’s Fourth Way of Seeing Nature in LA: As Different to Different People.

A photo of a sign in an encampment at the freshwater marsh. There is a wide variety of perspectives in Ballona.

Our professor gave us time to sit and think on the platform, writing our thoughts if any stuck out to us. Even from my two pages of notes, I can’t describe here what I felt when I was there. I was at peace, feeling the soft breeze and looking around for the sparrows, who sang notes in my ears. Their chirps soothed me, but were interrupted here and there, by rageful car horns and frantic sirens.

Sitting on that platform and its man-made bench, next to many of my peers and mentors, I found it harder to focus than ever. I believe that an integral part of immersing yourself in nature, and integral part of self-reflection in general, is isolation. I recalled my favorite memories, from my first visit, with no sense of direction, to one of my last, recording B-Roll of a snowy egret.

Earlier in the walk, we saw a scene straight-out of Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA. Coming back in from our time at the creek, we allowed a man and his chihuahua through the gate. I thought of Zu-Zu, as the man began to worry to Lisa, “There were about 5 coyotes out here…” This way of seeing nature, as wild and dangerous, has always been the most intriguing to me. People exoticize mundane creatures and treat them as enemies, easily forgetting how unnatural our own lives are. 

A wetland, by definition, can be brackish or fresh, lowland or upland, and big or small. All of them, however, are green, wet, and attractive to wildlife. Across all the wetlands I’ve seen, painting color into Vegas’s desert carpet, blending deeply into Kansas’s dense swamps, and sticking up out of urban Los Angeles, there is a noticeable familiarity between them all. I thought of God, and how he seemed to use the same formula for each one, only using slightly different ingredients.

Boy scouts playing at Gloyd Lamb Park, Las Vegas, NV. Growing up here led me to love Ballona.

Many questions circle Ballona. What is being done about encampments? How did the tarps on the mountainside get there, and when are they coming down? Will this restoration plan wipe out bird species? And of course, is this how my tax dollars are being spent? Sitting there, I knew my own main question, with most of them answered already; how will this place look in twenty years?

I’m young, so the climate crisis threatens me. Some people worry for their children, or grandchildren, but I worry for myself. Nightmares of the apocalypse have haunted me since middle school, and I wouldn’t make it if they became a reality. Sea level rise, air pollution, and even longshots, like volcano eruptions, scare me to death. I don’t quiver fearfully in my sleep or worry in my day-to-day life, but I don’t trust this planet’s stability enough to put a child on it.

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