This piece is part of Waterfronts, a series of personal essays that engage with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Underwater New York.
I’m waiting inside a trailer-office on a construction site just off Wilshire Boulevard, fiddling with my camera. Los Angeles magazine has sent me to take notes and photos of shoreline fossils discovered here, nine miles from L.A.’s present-day waterfront. Ziploc baggies of dirt cover the little room. They are scattered on the desk, tucked above thick binders lining the bookshelves, in shoeboxes on the floor. The soil differs slightly from sac to sac: grayish and gravely; chocolate-brown and soft; black and shining. Each is marked with the depth at which workers scooped them from the sixty-foot shaft they’re digging outside, destined to become a subway station.
The door to the trailer throttles open. In comes a waft of the 90-degree day, the ratcheting sounds of construction, and then Kim Scott, the paleontologist I’ve been waiting for. She’s lugging a case of plastic water bottles into the trailer. A purple bandana covering her hair is streaked with black, and her eyes are dark with exhaustion. “Hot out there,” she says, tearing open the package. We make quick introductions as she yanks out three bottles and beckons me to the next room, this one with two resin folding tables pushed against each other and a poster that layers out the stratigraphy of the ground below us. I sit as she pulls a large cardboard box out from under the table.
“Why not start with my favorite?” she says. She swigs from her first bottle and then, with a single finger pad, picks out of the box a fossil sand dollar. I gasp at its perfection: it is thin and tiny as a petal, its star-shaped impressions achingly visible. She sets it on the table and I try to capture with my camera the details I suspect will never come through. How she could have spotted this miniature in that cavernous hole outside is unimaginable. Yet that detection is Kim’s job. She is the on-site paleontology monitor. While this station is built, she stands in the rubble, watching for bits of our ancient past. It is a duty mandated by the state, one of a few laws that seek to preserve California’s natural history – an essential practice in the L.A. area, infamous for its tendency to build and rebuild, often at the environment’s expense.
That it is not an easy job is clear simply by looking at Kim, who is already on her second bottle of water. On top of the daily hours she spends staying focused inside a dark, sweaty shaft amidst a gaggle of construction workers, she’s probably spoken to thirty-odd media representatives in the last few days, following her discovery of these early Ice Age fossils. She is remarkably verbal for having such a week, I think. Kim is pointing to the poster on the wall now, talking about all the layers of sediment that came before the fossils: soils, marsh deposits, stream beds, and a thin layer of concrete from a gas station that sat at Wilshire and Curson during the 1930s. “Twenty-two feet down, we hit this intertidal stuff,” she says. “Intertidal: you get a storm, throw a bunch of trees and plant crap into a river, and it goes out to sea.” She extracts a chunk of brittle bark: driftwood. “As you’d see it on the beach today,” she ways. The specimen seems to have been gently flaking. There are bits of it lying in the box, among other pieces of wood and all sizes of pinecones.
Most of these, Kim tells me, have been dated at roughly 300,000 years old. The item that has caught most fire with the media, though, is a two-million-year-old sea lion skull, which Kim was actually filmed discovering. I mention it as I’m photographing the plant matter. She laughs and corrects me: it’s probably just a jaw fragment. She goes back to the first room and returns with a shoebox storing a huge clod of tar-soaked dirt. Again, an untrained eye would never have recognized this as any animal part. But pointing with her pinky finger, Kim shows me the identifiable characteristic: four tiny exposed tooth roots, like super narrow pen caps, which poke through the thick black material. “Definitely pinniped,” she says. “Sea lion, most likely.” She offers it to me to hold, and I nervously accept. It is still warm from the ground, or really from the asphalt that permeates it and seals in heat. There is an oil field about 1500 feet beneath this spot in mid-city, whose contents seep up through fissures and much of the strata above it. That asphalt also infiltrated and preserved these fossils. That was after the jaw got deposited in marine sediments, washed out of that deposit millennia later, rolled down through a stream, hit the beach, got buried alongside newer specimens, and was then spotted in virtual darkness by Kim, thousands of years later . “Sometimes luck plays a role,” she blithely says of this explanation.
Kim’s improbable discoveries are not the only specimens of ancient L.A. life, not by a long shot. The La Brea Tar Pits, famous for its record-setting trove of fossilized late Ice Age animals, is right across the street. But the items Kim is showing me are much older than those, and come from a time when L.A.’s landscape was considerably different. Her evidence tells us that 300,000 years ago and more, the Pacific Ocean lapped up against where Wilshire Boulevard is today. That’s about nine miles from the shoreline now. What we know as the Miracle Mile was home to these animals and plants, to a shoreline ecology. The Santa Monica mountains were forming, the basin on which the city is presently built was rising, and the shoreline was receding west. There would be no humans for another 290,000 years at least, just the sea lions, the sand dollars, the clams, the driftwood, the pines. I am saying the names of each of these creatures to myself as I look at and photograph them. I think I can imagine them as organisms, once alive, maybe laying on the sand or in the surf or falling with the rain. But somehow I find it impossible to picture where we are – Wilshire Boulevard – as anything but as a place for buildings and streets. Or maybe, I think, it’s not exactly the buildings and streets I can’t shake, but the desires that built them. Los Angeles 300,000 years ago was a Los Angeles absent of people and their dreams, which have shaped this place as nowhere else in the world.
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears,” wrote Italo Calvino, “even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” In Los Angeles, that thread of discourse is not even secret. This city wears expressions of longing and fear like so many baubles. Wilshire Boulevard is a document of L.A.’s one-time dreams, where humans tested countless versions of how life here might be better. Here is where native Californians collected sticky asphalt to make better weapons and boats. Further east is a natural wetland, now hemmed in with concrete so that a park could be built. There is a classic 1950s diner now used only for filming, and half a mile of luxe highrises so tall that together they resemble a canyon. There is a department store turned art museum turned film archive, Art Deco masterpieces, and the lot where Donald Trump failed to build the tallest building in the world. Wilshire marks the first iteration of a linear downtown, easier for cars than pedestrians, and where plans for a “subway to the sea” – heralded as a life-changer for landlocked, car-less Angelenos – started and stalled at least twice over two decades. Finally, in this walled-off construction site, the Purple Line is getting its extension – not all the way to the beach, but to neighborhoods that haven’t seen rail transit in a lifetime. Whether its dreams come true remains to be seen. 300,000 years ago, existence was happiness in Los Angeles. Since humans came along, existence has been a mosaic of desires. Wilshire Boulevard is full of attempts at realizing them.
Now Kim is showing me branches from what she says are Monterey cypress. They’re incredibly rare, apparently, as most plant material withers within seconds of exposure to oxygen. They also reveal something about the ancient climate. “It was sort of like it is in Big Sur,” she says. “Cool and misty most of the time, with lots of rain.” She sips on her last water bottle as I shoot the branch, thinking about how its layers of bark, so well preserved, will barely show on the magazine’s website, which is likely where these pictures will end up. “It’s so perfect,” I mumble.
Kim nods and picks up a tiny scallop shell. “We build over so much of our natural resources in Southern California,” she says. “It’s why we have people like me, digging up these adorable things.” She gazes at the scallop with a reverence I hadn’t seen yet from her. I’m having so much trouble doing what I suspect she’s doing: transporting herself to that shoreline absent of dreams, before humans saw Los Angeles and morphed it irreversibly with desires so small-scale and short-term compared to the existence of these fossils. Maybe that’s why I ask if she ever imagines the time and place she’s excavating – in fact, guarding – while she’s down in the shaft. Kim laughs and delivers the pragmatic response of the sweaty, overworked scientist she is. “God, yes,” she says. “This place would be a hell of a lot better if it still had weather like Big Sur.” She squeezes the final drop from her water bottle into her mouth and nods towards the clock. It is telling us our time is up.
Laura Bliss is an essayist and journalist based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Los Angeles magazine, Longreads, Full Stop, and others. A Los Angeles native, this month she starts a writing fellowship with The Atlantic.