Saturday, December 12

Gas and glitter

Where in the world can you catch a cab downtown to watch methane gas bubble up from the ground? The answer is Los Angeles. It’s hard to fathom that only ten minutes from Hollywood, natural gas and sticky asphalt are continually seeping from the ground in the La Brea Tar Pits. This amazing phenomenon sits in a park, surrounded by the regular trapping of a major metropolitan city. High rise buildings literally sit across the street from bubbling pools of water, slicked with oil.

These sticky pits were once a death trap for thirsty animals, making them one of the world’s richest sources of perfectly preserved Ice Age fossils. Mammoths, mastodons, dire wolves, saber-tooth cats, sloths, horses and bears are a few of the creatures whose bones have been found here. Not surprisingly, the pools are now fenced off to prevent 21st Century tourists from joining their ranks. However, you’re able to sense the drama that once unfolded here thanks to a life-size display of a Columbian Mammoth family on the edge of the largest pit.

A dramatic sculpture catches the moment a female mammoth become trapped on the edge of the pit. All around the re-enactment sinister methane gas bubbles to the surface, making the tarry water appear to boil. Venture inside the nearby Page Museum and you’ll see a perfectly preserved skeleton of this magnificent creature. This fossil is truly breath-taking. The skeleton literally towers four or five metres above the crowd, with large, curving tusks extending out across the room. These were huge mammals.

Equally impressive is a back-lit display of Dire Wolf skulls. The museum has mounted an entire wall of literally hundreds of skulls in an attempt to capture the communal nature of these extinct creatures. It’s also a dramatic reminder of just how many animals perished here over the centuries. This deadly fate is reinforced again as you exit the museum. On display is a chunk of tar extracted from the surrounding park. It’s a grainy, dull red-grey mass in which dozens and dozens of embedded fossils are piled into a disorderly mass. The sheer volume of bones visible is astonishing.

Outside, you can see Pit 91 which is still being excavated. However, fossil recovery only happens over the Summer months when the sun’s heat naturally softens the tar-soaked ground. A viewing station on the edge of the pit lets people watch excavators at work. It was closed the afternoon I visited.

A short ten-minute walk from the La Brea Tar Pits is Farmers Market. This is one of Los Angeles local institutions although I’m really not sure why. What was once a bustling produce market has been transformed into a city block of cheap food stalls and trinket stands. The food is generally uninspiring, of varying quality and offered up in a slightly shabby location. I was unimpressed on my first visit in 1996 and remain so a decade later. Why this venue endures is beyond me.

One thing has changed since my last visit to Farmer’s Market is the new neighbouring mall complex. The Grove is a slick, artificial streetscape of upmarket shops and departments stores. It’s almost too new and shiny. Currently, its central plaza is decked out with a dazzling Christmas tree, smothered in lights and ornaments. Now, this looks more like your average stereo-typical image of Los Angeles; wealth, glitz and sparkle all ostentatiously on display.

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