I’ve been perched on a hill behind Altadena since sunset, watching the sky claim the scrub. Now canyon flies are swarming to drink my moist breath, so I shift my attention away to the suburban valley that stretches from the base of this hill to the horizon. Its lights waver as if through oily air. They sprout from warm pavement; is it the day’s rising warmth that makes them ripple? More likely the day’s exhaust.
When priests and soldiers came to civilize this land, they enslaved its human residents and set cattle and sheep to grazing the valley before me. The herds nibbled many shrubs bare, but, accustomed to fire, some plants resprouted every winter. In time Mission San Gabriel was divided into private ranchos and its Tongva survivors were pushed out. Land titles kept changing hands, but stretches of the valley saw few humans for two or three decades. Thieves slaughtered cattle for their hides, leaving skinned carcasses where the animals had been grazing. Bobcats and coyotes crept back to clean those bodies, and over the course of thirty years the sun sanctified the naked bones.
Spanish sailors named this land Sabanilla de Oro; they saw a golden altar cloth draped across the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. It was a cloth dyed by poppies. Their successors profaned this valley, but the winter rains kept coming, and every spring, poppies bloomed through the rib cages. The next settlers cleared the land for vineyards and orange groves and olive farms, and later immigrants replanted it with houses and lights: streetlights and headlights, traffic lights and porch lights. Sensing something sacred in the night beyond my house, I grew up bowing to its lights. Tonight I came to the wild hills seeking pure night, but here I am, looking out at the suburbs, out at the lights that flicker not like stars but like thousands of votive candles swaying in a single breeze.
(Historical reference: Zack, Michelle. Altadena: Between Wilderness and City. Altadena: Altadena Historical Society, 2004.)