Paralleling LA

Seems it never rains in southern California
Seems I've often heard that kind of talk before
It never rains in California, but girl, don't they warn ya?
It pours, man, it pours...
                                1972, Albert Hammond & Mike Hazlewood

Where are we? What culture reigns here? How does location relate to our life and times – to our literature, art, and science?

We have a longitude and a latitude that’s a bit wobbly, courtesy of continental drift, but the mapped position of San Marino is basically 34°7′N latitude and 118°6′W longitude. Because the earth spins one rotation in 24 hours, our longitude has daily impact. But Earth’s tilt and revolution around the sun define latitude as critical to differential warming that determines climate, and place that exposure on a yearly schedule, a schedule shared by people in a narrow band around the globe. Those of us on the 34th Parallel experience the same day – the exact sunrise and sunset, angle of light, and speed at which the earth spins. We lead parallel lives in fundamental ways, while in reality, our days are so astoundingly different.

That difference comes because latitude and longitude do not rule unilaterally. Los Angeles is on the west coast of a large land mass, near an ocean, a huge ocean, a really big ocean. That location gives LA a Mediterranean climate, like the climates of four other regions on Earth. We can’t avoid it. Territories located between 30° and 45° North and South latitudes on the west coast of land masses share similar, predictable climates. Summers are hot and dry, winters are cool and moist; winter rainfall is modest and irregular. California’s Mediterranean climate is specific to our geography, jigsawed between others as predictable, a cool moist coastal climate to the north, subtropical, latitudinal deserts to the south, and rain shadow, high desert to the east.

Botanically, that means plants native to Greece and Italy, such as fig, cork oak, and Italian stone pine, grow well in the other four “Mediterranean” areas – California, Chile, and particular areas in South Africa and Australia. Lifestyle-wise, inhabitants of coastal California would find Santiago, Perth, and Valencia familiar.

Cork oak at The Huntington

Circumstances get more particular. The Los Angeles basin surrounds a south-facing bay, addressing the westward stretching Pacific Ocean. With its back against a wall of mountains to the north and east, the basin marinates in somewhat captive air masses that wash back and forth until some big bluster comes in off the ocean or a Santa Ana storms over the coastal range from interior basins.

Looking down on a fog layer in the Los Angeles Basin from the Angeles Crest Highway

In our LA basin, in the San Gabriel Valley, here at The Huntington, we live with contradictions. Looking at the landscape one knows hard rock erupts, the San Gabriels, the Montebello Hills, Eagle Rock. However, in digging wells we have studied the ground directly below The Huntington, and we know, absolutely, our terrain comprises layers of soils and unconsolidated debris, a geo-lasagna more than 800 feet deep.

People along the California coast expect moderate summer and mild winter temperatures, while those of us who live inland experience differing extremes, from a recent high of 118 °F in July, 2018, to brief nighttime lows of 19 °F. It isn’t North Dakota, but in occasional years, the ground freezes in low spots. There’s more cold above us also, in those hills. From The Huntington, we see regular snowcaps lingering on Mount Baldy, reminding us that life above 4,000 feet holds yet more extremes.

Those temperature ranges, the characteristic rainfall, the topography and soils define the possibilities of life outdoors. On top of that, we have the built landscape and resources marshaled to build life and culture at what we hope is a sustainable level. What do we make of this? How do we manage waste, capture and use water, create livable communities, balancing that with lives of recreation, study, creation, and invention? How well are others doing?

Leaving LA, following the 34th parallel across North America, it’s fun to examine communities along our parallel, our compatriots who are riding the same carousel, experiencing the same day while leading different lives due to climate, geography, ecology, industry, cultural history, and pure chance.

From Google Earth, the 34th Parallel (green arrows) lies just south of the 35th Parallel

Circumstances for our comrades range widely. Riverside and Poston, CA trace the route as we head to Lubbock and Wichita Falls, TX. Then we’re on to Pine Bluff, AK and Tupelo, MS, which are just a bit north of LA. Passing by Cullman, AL, in route to Georgia, the parallel takes us through Alpharetta (in the suburbs of Atlanta) and Athens. From there we cross through the dead center of Columbia, SC – leaving the continent just north of Myrtle Beach, SC and south of Wilmington, NC, on the border between those sister states.

En route, we missed the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Rockies to our North, as well as Big Bend and the New Orleans delta to the south. But we passed through several of the country’s major ecological zones: Mediterranean, high desert, prairie, oak hickory forest in the Ozarks, mixed mesophytic forest of the Southern Appalachians, and finally the Southeastern Coastal Plain.

What different lives we all experience, even with many of the same cultural embellishments (US highways, fast food franchises, big box stores)! At 3,000 feet elevation, Lubbock rides Texas’s high plains. Hometown of Buddy Holly and the site of the National Windmill Museum, Lubbock is also a regional center for higher education. Much of the year, temperatures are similar to ours, but the coldest day on record is -14 F, and rainfall (a little more than ours) is a summer event.

I was just fifteen and out of control lost to James Dean and rock and roll
I knew down deep in my country soul that I had to get away
Hollywood was a lady in red who danced in my dreams as I tossed in bed
I knew I'd wind up in jail or dead if I have to stay
I thought happiness was Lubbock Texas in my rearview mirror
                              Mac Davis, 1980

Heading east, we encounter the influence of the Gulf and monsoons (we call them hurricanes). The same global forces that bring LA its dry Mediterranean climate gift the Eastern US with more abundant rainfall and accompanying humidity.

Positioning China (which has no west coast) over an outline of the US, at the same scale and latitude, we see the positioning of humid and monsoonal (hurricane) zones that predictably impact the southeast coastlines of continents.

Along the Arkansas River, upstream from the Mississippi, Pine Bluff is heavily forested, with over 50 inches of rainfall, fairly evenly distributed through the year. It’s rice, cotton, and timber country. Home of American Artist Larry Alexander, Pine Bluff takes much of its culture from the Mississippi Embayment and delta life.

Larry Alexander, African Mothers

Our Parallel takes us through Mississippi and Alabama, states forcibly emptied of the native Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Creek tribes in order to establish slave-built cotton plantations, to grow crops destined for English mills spawned by the industrial revolution. We pass just south of Oxford, where you’d find ‘Rowan Oak’, William Faulkner’s home, and nearby Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis.

Trailing north of Birmingham, the route clips the edge of Cullman, home of Ave Maria Grotto, a famous miniature landscape that represents the Christian Holy Land (as well as famous associated sites and shrines). Passing through Alabama and Georgia, we find the low hills of the Piedmont and the tail end of the Appalachians, all natively, densely forested.

Headed to the Atlantic Ocean, the journey approaches the blanket of deep sands, the Southeastern Coastal Plain. Columbia, SC sits exactly on the 34th Parallel as well as at the point where the Congaree River passes over the Fall Line – a 900 mile long escarpment where sandy coastal plain overlays Piedmont hard rock. Like many of the South’s most established towns (Richmond, VA; Raleigh, NC; Columbus, GA; Tuscaloosa, AL) Columbia was founded near waterfalls, formed along a river where it passes out of the Piedmont toward the coast. The Fall Line was the end of navigable waters, and a geological feature marked by river rapids and waterfalls that provide power for mills.

Passage ends at the shore between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, an area with significant connection to The Huntington. Botanically, boggy areas in the piney woods are home to the Tipitiwitchit, otherwise known as Venus’s Flytrap – a remarkable star in the Rose Hills Conservatory for Botanical Science. Moreover, the flytrap was a particularly favorite subject for study by Charles Darwin, beautifully summarized in one of his many botanical books – Insectivorous Plants (1875).

Dionaea muscipula, the most wonderful Venus’s Flytrap.

An even stronger connection to The Huntington comes from an entirely different direction. In 1931, Archer Huntington and his sculptress wife Anna Hyatt Huntington, established Brookgreen Garden, on a large coastal property south of Myrtle Beach. As America’s first public sculpture garden, focused originally on work by Anna Hyatt Huntington, Brookgreen actively collects the finest of American sculpture from 1900 to the present.

Anna Hyatt Huntington, whose sculpture, Diana, presides in the Scott Gallery loggia
Diana, Scott Loggia, by Anna Hyatt Huntington

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