To the north, the valley rose slowly for miles into the piedmont of the abrupt mountains. In spring, there might still have been vast fields of poppies coloring the distant slopes, but these fields had already begun to give way to streets and houses and small clusters of commercial buildings, and here and there large structures that served as wineries or packing plants for the fruit of the orchards which had displaced still other fields where wildflowers had blossomed a generation earlier.
A few decades previously, there had been nothing in this vast expanse but the old mission and its gardens, with a few adobe houses nearby on smallholdings with private orchards, vineyards and gardens, and the community's outlying grist mill by a stream in a barranca to the north. Scattered at great distances were a handful of ranch houses, but the valley was mostly pasture dotted with thousands of cattle, the monotonous scene broken by occasional oaks and, along the rare streams, a few other varieties of trees. Little more than a half century before that, only the meadows and the native trees spread over all this land, and a few clusters of huts built annually by the native tribes who gathered acorns and other wild plant foods and hunted small game and deer which had abounded here. There were no horses, no pottery, no metal. This land was a remnant of the ancient world, its people's clothing animal skin, their tools stone and wood, their few burdens carried in tightly woven baskets which also, filled with water and heated stones, served to cook their meals.
The boys in this photograph, walking along this country road sometime near the beginning of the twentieth century, dressed though they were in cloth probably woven of southern cotton in northern mills, and which perhaps had been sewn in one of those sweat shops that filled the tall buildings lining the narrow streets of lower Manhattan (though perhaps their mothers had bought whole cloth and cut and sewn these garments on a home machine manufactured in some eastern factory), and despite their ancestry in distant places probably quite unlike this land in either its contemporary or its earlier way, were probably more like unto, than different from, the Spanish speaking boys or their earlier native counterparts who might have trod this spot in decades, or centuries, or millenea past.
The sun feels the same to all boys, though perhaps it is appreciated as a rarer gift in some climes; soil smells of soil, damp or dry, whatever variations of consistency it might possess from place to place; plants are plants, and trees are trees, whether native oak or exotic eucalyptus such as those that line this road; buzzing insects, chirping birds and small beasts, darting lizards or hopping rabbits, are of interest to all boys at large in the bright days of the world. One's dwelling is home, whether built of woven reeds, sun-dried adobe bricks, or rough or finely milled lumber, and its surroundings come to be home as well.
I knew this road in later years when it had become a boulevard filled with cars, lined with substantial commercial buildings, and with a few old houses we thought ancient, though they had not yet been built when this picture was taken. I learned the names of streets which had since this hazy day been plotted and cut and paved and lined with houses occupied by strangers and friends, all fellow citizens of this place. I learned the names of some those who were there, and of some of those who had been there before, who had built the houses and the roads, and planted the utility poles, opened the schools, operated stores or cafes or theatres, sat in classrooms or churches, funded libraries, making all the changes which had been made before I arrived. I learned the names of some of those who had come even earlier, who had brought cattle and horses and divided the open land among themselves.
I learned the darker history of the displacement and destruction of the still earlier population, the remnants of which had been absorbed into the small barrios that were scattered about the sprawling suburbs which I would see from the hillsides where I would sit on mild afternoons, the landscape by then a sea of exotic trees with a few rooftops poking through the green canopy, a few stretches of pavement visible here and there. I would sometimes imagine the open fields of earlier times, the stands of oaks, the shaded streams, the quick deer darting through tall grass, and the poppies glowing gold on the distant piedmont. I would imagine what it must have been like to have been walking, brown and naked, across that landscape, stopping to drink from the stream at the foot of the hills. Imagining these things wasn't difficult, though I was imagining myself one of the by-then nameless mass who had, accumulated through ages, a few at a time, grown as vast in number as the swelling population of the city I knew. The sun feels the same to all boys.
I do not know the names of the boys in this photograph, either, nor any detail of their lives, but as they look out at me, I know them. We are old friends, and citizens of the same place. I know that in their lifetimes, were those of normal length, the landscape in which the camera had caught them would be transformed. I would walk through that changed place, and likely many times would cross paths which they had walked, and which still earlier boys had walked as well. In the normal lifetimes of these two, I would be born, so it is possible that, if they remained in the place, at some time I saw them, middle aged or old men, perhaps working in a shop or riding a bus or repairing a downed telephone line, or mowing their lawns or sitting on the porch of some house I passed on one of my walks. Or perhaps one or both of them moved away, maybe to return in later years and find only hints of the place they had known, or maybe never to return and to carry only a memory of it, as it was. Either way, I recognize them, my peers out of time.
The things of the world are both distractions from ourselves and something which connects us to ourselves. A ladybug on a leaf, light glinting from a passing car, a hawk spiraling upward on unseen heat, the whistle of a distant steam locomotive, the splash of a stone tossed into a stream, are all the same event in that they engage the senses, drawing consciousness out into the world and also making the self aware of its degree of separation from all that is other than itself. There is a constant joining and parting in existence, which is like the breathing of the spirit. There are moments when awareness is caught- a catching of the breath- and that place where the things of the world and the conscious self are each unique and yet both united is revealed. I see these vanished, anonymous boys, arrested in a vanished moment as they walked an unknown direction through a hazy landscape that is both strange and intimately familiar: I catch my breath, and time is gone. There you are!
Garvey Avenue, some eight miles east of downtown Los Angeles, as it appeared ca1900.
(Click image for larger views.)