Friday, September 28, 2012

The Deeper Meaning of the La Brea Tar Pits

Its easy to look at the surface of Los Angeles and miss a lot of, indeed, most of, its nuance and subtlety. To understand this city, you must dig beneath the surface, and when you do, you will probably find petroleum byproducts.

Petroleum is all over Los Angeles, it is at the center of a lot of the secret history of the town. One place to see Los Angeles' relationship to oil, at least symbolically, is at the La Brea Tar Pits.

The La Brea Tar Pits was part of the Rancho La Brea land grant and became Hancock Park in Los Angeles before the turn of the century. The name comes from the Spanish: la brea means "the tar" so "The La Brea Tar Pits" means "The The Tar Tar Pits".

Discovery of fossils happened in 1901 with more formal excavations in 1913-1915. Intermittent excavations have happened since then, most recently in the last few years as they excavated for a new parking facility for LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) but other than that they have been mostly inactive for decades. In these excavations they have found the fossilized remains of bison, mammoth, sloth, bears, lions, tigers, saber-tooth tigers, vultures, eagles, deer, falcons, a huge number of dire wolves and one human, a Chumash lady, killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument and pushed into the pit many thousands of years ago.

Image by Charles Knight for the American Museum of Natural History in NY.

They built a nice museum to hold the remains of the bison, wolves and Chumash lady, the Page Museum, and its the best place I know to buy your Giant Sloth hand puppets. The Chumash lady is no longer on exhibit because the Chumash quite reasonably felt it wasn't very dignified. She is still there if you know where to look, however.

But there is a deeper meaning to the Tar Pits, a darker meaning: one that is not appropriate for the Page Museum.

Some people believe that the La Brea Tar Pits are a metaphor for life in Los Angeles.

To see this, imagine life 10,000 or so years ago. We are in the arid valley that one day will be Los Angeles. It is not a desert but it is very dry.  Arroyo might be the more appropriate term.  There appear to be some pools of water.

Notice the oil wells discreetly in the background of this picture of the Tar Pits

A little deer comes to the edge of what she thinks is a pond to drink. Her mother is nearby. Delicately stepping to the pond, the deer discovers that her foot is stuck in the tar and she can not get out. This is not a pond, of course, this is the La Brea tar pits. She calls for her mother who tries to help her, but in doing so, also gets caught in the tar. All their struggling just makes it worse: they sink deeper into the wretched tar. Now they look closer and see the bodies of other animals that have gotten trapped by the fake pond and who have died and are half-buried in the muck all around them. A dire wolf hears their struggles and comes loping over, sensing an easy dinner. They struggle but they are no match for the vicious dire wolf, but now, ironically the wolf is also caught in the tar and desperately struggles to get free.  A sabre-tooth tiger seeing their dead and rotting bodies comes to scavenge but gets trapped as well. Later the same thing happens to a vulture and other scavengers.

Driven by greed to exploit the innocent victims of a cruel and sticky trap, the opportunistic predators are themselves trapped, and the predators of the predators as well. They become a horrifying, rotting, collage of death, some dying in the act of trying to devour the others and, covered with the filth of petroleum byproducts, they sink into the bottomless pit, forever lost from sight, destroyed by their greed.

Very little has changed in Los Angeles since then.

Revised 1/15/2013
Revised 10/11/2013

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