Reaping Rhythms: LA River’s Invasive Reeds Find an Artistic Purpose

Artist Steve Appleton trims a reed harvested from the Los Angeles River bed. (Photo by Spencer Robins/KCET)

LOS ANGELES – The L.A. River is full of things that, one way or another, people put there – candy wrappers, plastic bags, shopping carts, concrete, clothing, goldfish, pigeons and the giant, invasive arundo donax reeds.

Under his huge straw hat, Steve Appleton chops at a huge dry mat of arundo reeds. Three or four good thwacks, and he’s sheared an eight-foot stalk from the plant’s thick rhizome.

The rhizome, which looks like a giant piece of ginger or an armor-plated potato, is the plant’s root. It spreads underground, sending up tall, green stems like bamboo shoots that form dense stands and account for a lot of the greenery in the soft-bottomed portion of the L.A. River that flows through Elysian Valley. “A lot” because of arundo’s incredibly rapid growth: these stalks can grow between 1.5 and 4 inches a day. “On a hot day I swear you can see them growing,” says Appleton.

Because the reed grows so fast it tends to crowd out other plants, including the native species that are the focus of plans to “restore” the River’s habitat. The invasive plant also takes up space in the River’s channel, which somewhat impairs the River’s capacity to contain floods. This is why the US Army Corps of Engineers has been clearing arundo reeds from the River, using pesticides like Monsanto’s controversial Roundup.

Appleton is here with students from Cal State Northridge to suggest a different approach.

Cal State Northridge students Genevieve Hilburn and Stephen Crews gather arundo to create musical instruments. (Photo by Spencer Robins/KCET)

The shoots they harvest will become flutes, percussion instruments and sculptures, to be used in a performance of original music and dance at CSUN’s all-day festival April 5th. The project, called “Future Currents” and organized by CSUN’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (“The Soraya”), is meant to bring CSUN’s arts students into the conversation around the city’s, county’s and state’s various river “revitalization” projects. In the words of the Soraya’s director Thor Steingraber, the point is to “raise our hand and say the arts have a place at that table.”

The lead artists for the project are Appleton, a sculptor, and choreographer Lynn Neumann. Appleton is a community activist as a well as an artist. He’s lived near the river for 18 years and has played an active role in the planning process for the river’s redevelopment. (He also owns and operates LA River Kayak Safari.) Neumann’s dance work has long been focused on ecological issues; one of her most well-known pieces was a long-term project that helped clean plastic trash off Coney Island beaches. The two artists have been working with CSUN students for months to create dance, music and sculptural pieces for the April 5th performance.

A trellis made out of arundo, an invasive reed species harvested out of the L.A. River. (Photo by Spencer Robins/KCET)

The project’s leaders are careful to say that it doesn’t have an agenda — it doesn’t advance a particular vision for the river’s future. The point is for teachers and students to make art and share it with the public. But part of what the students are learning to do is use this artistic practice to direct the public’s attention in ways that could shape river policy.

That makes them part of a long tradition. Arguably, it’s only because of artists that the idea of “revitalizing” the LA River (or just the idea of the river, period) is in the public consciousness at all. In 1986, Lewis MacAdams and several artist friends cut through a chain-link fence on the river’s edge, walked down the channel, and asked for the river’s permission to “speak for it in the human realm.” MacAdams went on to found Friends of the Los Angeles River, whose “40-year art project” is to draw attention to the possibility of a renewed river. CSUN alum Judith Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles is another model — pedagogical and creative — for “Future Currents”: Baca designed the massive mural, which depicts “the history of ethnic peoples of California from prehistoric times to the 1950s,” and hundreds of young Angelenos painted it. The question is, now that the River is squarely a matter of public and political concern, will artistic projects like these continue to play a role in determining its future?

A drumstick made of arundo gets some percussion practice on a rock. (Photo by Spencer Robins/KCET)

One thing art can do is call attention to material questions about the river that might otherwise pass below public notice. For example: what to do with the rocks? In the fall, Appleton noticed that the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the river’s concrete channel, was removing boulders from it. They didn’t give the public any notice, but Appleton made calls and learned that the rocks were being shipped to a landfill far outside the city. Appleton was shocked — he described himself as “emotionally attached” to the rocks, which he believes were carried into the river by streams flowing from the San Gabriel Mountains. (Locally sourced rocks, in other words.) So, he spent two weeks calling the Mayor’s office, the Army Corps, the firm in charge of designing the G2 parcel — while Neumann considered choreographing a human-chain dance project to remove the rocks by hand. In the end, they convinced the City to ask the Corps to store the rocks at the river-adjacent Taylor Yard instead, where they can be used as landscape when the Yard eventually becomes a park.

Think of it as a pre-art project — gathering material for a future creation. Neumann wants people to think of lots of river issues that way. “There’s gonna be a lot of concrete coming out of that river,” as the city’s revitalization plans go forward. “That’s a usable material! So what happens to it?”

Learn more about the ecosystems in Los Angeles in “Earth Focus” Urban Ark.

The arundo raises other questions, which would have been easy to overlook. One is how to value the plants and animals that live in the river now. Neumann points out that even deciding what to count as native or nonnative in a place as human-impacted as the L.A. river is complex. “At this point, what’s native? How far back do you look?” Arundo is probably destructive enough to other plants that it should be removed, but even so, once a species has been labeled “invasive,” it’s easy to think of it as having no value. In fact, says Steingraber, “arundo is an ancient reed with an ancient purpose”: native to the Mediterranean, it has been used for thousands of years to make wind instruments like the Turkish ney. The ney will be a central part of the Future Currents performance: L.A. musician Danny Shamoun will play ney music alongside original works by CSUN students. By following this kind of tradition, says Neumann, “we’re trying to show that arundo is a very useful material. It might be harmful in this particular environment, but it could be harvested and put to good use.”

The other issue is that thinking of nonnative plants like arundo in purely negative terms could have real, destructive consequences. Valuing only native vegetation has led the Corps to remove successful nonnative habitat in the past, and strictly speaking the Army Corps’ policy is that, for the sake of flood control, “the channel is designed to be maintained free of vegetation.” It’s only due to their “limited funds” that the Corps focuses on removing nonnative plants. But Appleton argues “this whole River movement is based on people’s direct, often surprising experience of the natural environment that’s there. Planning that contemplates removing this habitat” — or that removes arundo using methods with potential environmental side effects — “would run counter to the public will and the original desires of the whole project” of renewing the river.

By contrast, finding value in arundo speaks to another, quieter history. People living along the river in Frogtown (people whose place there might be threatened by the gentrification that river revitalization could bring) have been making use of arundo for years. Several homes there have garden trellises made from the dried-out reed. Harvesting and making makes for a very different kind of relationship with place. Appleton hopes the Future Currents project will encourage more of this intimate, hands-on thinking — that it will “expand the ownership of the river” beyond the planners and help people think of the river “as our own backyard. “Lewis Macadams said the L.A. River was a forty-year art project. We’re trying to keep the project going.”

This story was first published by KCET on March 27, 2019. You can find the original report here.