(originally published in LAWeekly, 9 Jan 02003)
My neighbor Forrest (full no-joke legal name: Forrest Glen Owen) often drops by my place on one of his many walks ’round our Atwater Village neighborhood, usually accompanied by his inquisitive, impatient 11-year-old daughter, Sylvana Elektra. Forrest is one of those guys who likes to make this cruelly alienated city smaller, more human-scale. He’s an urban caretaker, a wandering dot-connector. He advertises himself on his permaculturalist business’s answering machine as “your friendly neighborhood tree surgeon”; he introduces neighbors with shared interests; and he keeps all of us informed about our local environment: e.g., there’s a good bookshelf left out curbside on Edenhurst; that dude on Dover decided against putting in Korean grass for his new lawn ‘cuz it’s too expensive; the fruit on the rose apple tree over on Griffith View Drive is now ripe and the owner said it’s cool if we take some this weekend.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when early one evening Forrest reached into his knapsack and pulled out a small plastic bag of super-red cherry tomatoes.
“Found ’em down at the river,” he said cheerfully. “Want some?”
I washed them off in the kitchen and bit into one.
Delicious, better than any I’d had all summer — and that’s counting the ones I’d been buying at the farmers’ markets on Sundays in Hollywood.
Curious and still a bit disbelieving — tomatoes growing in the concrete-bound L.A. River, just three blocks from my house?!? — I joined Forrest and Sylvana the next day for a dusk-time, fact-finding/vegetable-gathering expedition.
We ventured out on one of the small islands that have built up through the years just a couple of hops beyond the concrete. “Those are raccoon footprints,” Forrest said. “And here’s a cocklebur — that’s the inspiration for Velcro!” Then, amid the brush and the nettles, the frogs and the cattails and the deadly nightshade, Forrest and Sylvana showed me the cherry tomatoes, growing on quite healthy vines.
Well . . . how did they get there? I wondered, paraphrasing the old Talking Heads line. Slipping into the chilly paranoia/goofy wonder of that song’s lyrics, I started to speculate: What was this? A guerrilla gardener at work? A rendezvous point for young vegetarians in love? An answer from a beneficent naiad to a homeless dude’s plea for food? (Quite a few people live near the river and the neighboring 5 freeway.)
I asked Forrest what he thought.
Tomato seeds are hearty, he explained. They survive the digestive systems of the animals that eat them, including, of course, humans. It’s possible they got there via shit in the river, in other words. And tomato seeds, unlike most other seeds, float, which means they often grow wild in rivers. Lots of vegetables grow in the river. He’d seen pumpkins before, and look, there were a few not-quite-ripe squashes growing right there.
Okay, fine, I said, but how did the seeds get into the river in the first place?
“Oh, probably somebody threw away a half-eaten sandwich,” he said, offhand. The topic, plainly, no longer interested him. Sylvana had just spotted what might have been a pair of nesting birds across the water on another island, and Forrest was trying to confirm for himself that they were indeed herons.
“Hey bird!” he yelled. “Show us your neck!”
And — being good neighbors — they did.