The Moving Mountain, or Terrain as Spectacle

[Image: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, via KCET].

Nathan Masters remains one of the more interesting chroniclers of life and landscape in Southern California, as evidenced by his “L.A. as Subject” blog for KCET. I could (and should) just link to all his posts, to be honest—lost hills! buried rivers! conflicting grids!—but last week’s installment, albeit short, was particularly interesting.

“For a few days in late November 1937,” Masters writes, “it was the Southland’s greatest attraction—a landslide in slow motion, 1.5 million tons of an Elysian Park hillside creeping toward the Los Angeles River bed.”

Sensational news reports, printed in papers and broadcast on radio nationwide, described it as a “moving mountain,” and tourists came from afar to witness the geologic curiosity. One Oklahoma City police officer took a leave of absence to watch the slide. Two boys hopped freight trains from New York to see it. Some 10,000 sightseers came by the hour. Spectators pressed against police barricades along Riverside Drive, and enterprising vendors worked the throng like a baseball game, hawking peanuts, popcorn, and soda. Some even sold field glasses.

Even local astronomers showed up, telescopes in tow, in order to study the mobile mass, this blob of geology suddenly making a move into town.

After a catastrophic lurching of the slow-motion mountain, the terrain appeared to come to a standstill. “The next day, an estimated crowd of 500,000 converged on the site, munching on popcorn and hoping the mountain would move again.”

This pent-up dramaturgy of the landscape—the possibility that its newfound agency would continue—crawling, oozing, rolling, forcing its way into public consciousness—remains strong today, even if subsumed into other contexts.

In other words, I’d suggest that many Angelenos are still, in a sense, “munching on popcorn and hoping the [landscape] would move again,” and that this is the dark fascination of seismic instability, of what it means to live in an earthquake zone: that the land itself is active, motivated from within by a kind of a slow-motion sentience, a mineral energy that is as much an invigorating spectacle as it is an existential threat.

Read the rest of Masters’s post over at “L.A. as Subject.”