Biblical plagues in LA?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Sep 17 11:30:44 MDT 2002

The Observer, June 6, 1999

Books: In California, you can always come home to a real fire;
Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis 
Picador pounds 18.99, pp484


In Los Angeles, Nature herself resisted European settlement. Her original 
weapon was fire. It was about all that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first 
European to observe the Los Angeles coastline, could see from his ship in 
1542. Thus the Spanish explorer called the area 'Bay of Smoke'. Although 
Cabrillo thought the burning came from Indian campfires, it was probably 
the natural ignition of dry chaparral in the Santa Monica Mountains. As 
Mike Davis meticulously catalogues in Ecology of Fear, the same fires 
regularly burn the wealthy inhabitants of Malibu out of their beach houses.

After the fires came earthquakes. When the Franciscan Padre Junipero Serra 
led the first settlers north from Baja California in 1769, his missionary 
party experienced eight tremors. Serra's companion, Juan Crespi, noted in 
his diary that each quake lasted 'about half as long as an Ave Maria'. 
Nature did not give up with earthquakes. Next came floods, predatory 
animals, pestilential rodents, pneumonic and bubonic plague, drought, 
mudslides, tornadoes and poisonous snakes. The resistance of the indigenous 
Tong-va people, who had adapted to earthquake and fire over centuries, was 
far easier to cope with than the environment. The Spaniards simply 
converted, enslaved and killed them. Nature, however, kept rebelling. 
Killer bees did not come until the twentieth century, from Africa via 
Brazil. Cars produce smog and the Los Angeles basin has a curious natural 
feature that keeps the pollution in the air, especially on hot days. Man's 
domination of the landscape and use of concrete to cover it has not given 
him control of the environment. The earthquakes, the floods and the fires 
continue to take their toll.

When the Spaniards, Mexicans and, later, Anglo-Yankees arrived, the dry 
basin that is Los Angeles was in a relatively quiet phase. The hostility of 
the ground beneath their feet and the heavens above has implanted a strong 
foreboding in the minds of Angelenos, fear that is not paranoia. Davis has 
managed to track down 138 novels and films produced since 1909 on the theme 
of Los Angeles as Armageddon. 'The destruction of London the metropolis 
most persecuted in fiction between 1885 and 1940 was imagined as a 
horrifying spectacle, equivalent to the death of Western civilisation 
itself,' Davis writes. 'The obliteration of Los Angeles, by contrast, is 
often depicted as, or at least secretly experienced as, a victory for 
civilisation.' Los Angeles is where man and environment wage a war that is 
destroying them both.

The settlers and their descendants went about taming the environment with 
warlike ferocity. After ethnically cleansing the natives, they set about 
the extermination of bears, mountain lions, coyotes and wildfowl. The bear 
disappeared, but mountain lions adapted. Most live in the mountains and 
canyons on the metropolitan fringe and occasionally roam into man's realm 
to forage. Los Angeles may be the only city on earth with mountain lion 
victim support groups.

The Bible has fewer plagues than southern California. In 1926, 100 million 
mice overran the town of Taft and its 5,000 human residents. After trying 
mechanical harvesters that choked in mouse flesh, the town advertised for a 
Pied Piper. In a typically Californian response, the government sent one 
Stanley E. Piper to lead a group of Mouse Marines in what Davis calls 'a 
systematic chemical extermination campaign'. Piper failed, but Nature 
delivered Taft three months later with a rodent bacillus that killed them 
all. The infestation was the outcome of the hunting down of the coyotes and 
cougars that fed on mice.

NY Times, Sept. 17, 2002

Up, Down, In and Out in Beverly Hills: Rats

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., Sept. 12 — "Beverly Hills is a nice place to be a 
rat," Ray Honda explained, admiring the cool, verdant landscape of the 
moneyed class, with its fruit trees, bird feeders, swimming pools and 
dog-food bowls. "It's a very good address."

Mr. Honda, a Los Angeles County health inspector whose speech and demeanor 
bring Peter Lorre to mind, was quick to append, "the four-legged kind," 
adding: "More rats than people, probably. And when they get really bad you 
can smell them."

Across Beverly Hills and the other lush corridors of Los Angeles, rats — 
yellow-bellied, pink-tailed, flea-bitten rats — are wriggling through the 
woodwork and rooftops. They have come down from the trees and in from the 
fields, forced into neighborhoods by a strangling drought that has gripped 
the region. They are eating from dog bowls and drinking from swimming pools 
and acting in surly ways not normal to the genus.

How did rodents end up in the lap of luxury? After four consecutive mild 
winters, their population has multiplied, though no study has been 
undertaken to determine exactly how many rats there are in Los Angeles 
County. The rule of thumb is one rat for every human, Mr. Honda said. Add 
in the severe drought and you have rats commuting to the neighborhoods with 
low-hanging fruit, exotic gardens and patios, with their outdoor parties 
and exquisite crumbs.

Take the humiliating case of the well-to-do doctor who recently built 
himself a dream house off Sunset Boulevard.

The doctor was giving a party a few weeks ago when three rats helped 
themselves to the crumbs of his outdoor buffet table. One scurried into the 
postmodern palace through an open door.

If that were not enough, the doctor found five rats swimming in his marble 
pool on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Mr. Honda, the ratologist, was called in for consultation.

"The thing to do is keep the rats out of the house," he told the 
housekeeper. "And keep the bamboo shoots trimmed. They like bamboo shoots."


Louis Proyect

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