Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 20, 2018

It Will Save Your Life. If You Wear It.

Summer is here in the northern hemisphere, and that means it’s time to head for the water. There’s swimming in the local river, lake, ocean or pool, or maybe you’re one to put the boat or canoe in the water and zoom or paddle away.

It’s also time for some people to die needlessly. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death in the world, killing an estimated 360,700 people each year. Everywhere, children are the majority of the victims, and in many parts of the world — including the U.S. — drowning is the leading cause of accidental childhood deaths.

I’ve written about this subject at the start of previous summers, and listed the most important factors that can save swimmers’ lives: learning to swim, erecting barriers to prevent unsupervised access to water, and — especially —careful supervision. Watch the water!

A smaller but still significant number of deaths and emergency room visits come as a result of boating accidents. Responsible boaters understand how to operate their craft, avoid boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and insist that passengers follow basic safety rules.

Does everyone need to do that? What if you were one of the world’s most highly-trained swimmers, aboard a professionally maintained watercraft crewed by some of the most skilled watermen and -women to be found anywhere? You’d relax, right? Let’s head down to the Port of Los Angeles and see.

Coast Guard Brad Nixon 2880 640

That is (I believe I’m correct) a United States Coast Guard (USCG) 45-foot Response Boat Medium (RB-M) heading outbound in the main channel of the port. Here in the Port of LA, the USCG has a wide variety of assignments, including water safety supervision for craft ranging from small personal boats to massive container ships, maintenance of markers and navigation aids, search and rescue, as well as security and law enforcement on the water.

There may not be any people on the planet better trained to deal with ending up in the water than the men and women of the Coast Guard.

Now take a closer look.

CG life vests Brad Nixon 2882 640

Everyone on that boat is wearing an orange life vest. Granted, they’re of a specialized type that allows a great deal of movement, and requires some training to use, so they’re different than life jackets you might have on your own boat. But there is one overriding fact evident in that photograph: They are wearing their life vests.

The vests aren’t hanging on a rail, ready to be worn when needed. The vicissitudes of Coast Guard duty can include some dire circumstances. There is, after all, a weapon mounted in the bow of that boat. They are not on a pleasure cruise. In their line of work, if something bad happens, the time for preparation has passed.

Will you feel like a nerd wearing your life vest in your 16-foot runabout on Lake Willinilli? Will your family and friends consider you the biggest dork in the world when you insist they wear theirs? That’s too bad. You can explain the facts to them, and tell them that you have no intention of having any of them end up in the emergency room or the morgue if something goes wrong. Yes, you’re the canniest, most capable pilot afloat, skillfully navigating rough water, dangerous shoals, shifting currents. But not everyone’s as perfect as you, and if some less qualified boater slams into you and knocks a person in the water, they have a better chance of surviving if they float instead of sinking. A good life jacket can even keep an injured or unconscious person’s head above water until they can be rescued.

Coast Guard regulations require all boats in U.S. waters to have one USCG-approved life jacket aboard for every passenger. That’s easy. Then comes the hard part: No life jacket will save you if you’re in the water and it’s on the boat. Wear it.

Thank you. Have a safe summer. Don’t forget the sunscreen.

Click on this link for the USCG information regarding types of life jackets and their use.

WHO information from this link, retrieved June 19, 2018.

© Brad Nixon 2018.


Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 17, 2018

Ultimate Mission Revival in Los Angeles?

I’ll go out of my way to see interesting buildings. My personal taste runs to modern architecture, but I’ve plenty of time chasing the structures of antiquity, from ruins of ancient Rome, mighty cathedrals or prehistoric stone walls in the desert.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4187 (640x247)

Here in Los Angeles, where we have none of the above, my practice when we venture into any less-than-familiar part of town is to study the respective section of An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, to see if we’ll be passing near any notable buildings. There’s usually something worth seeing, and many of the results have ended up as blog posts here.

A few weeks ago, we were headed to see a movie in the eastern portion of Long Beach, only about a thirty minute drive away, and not completely unknown territory for us. Still, I checked the guide. We’d been to that theater — set in a sprawling shopping mall — a few times before. I’d never noticed a Guidebook listing right next door to the theater. Here’s what Gebhard and Winter had to say about it:

“A wonderful version of California’s Mission Revival.”

Apparently I’d missed an architectural gem. Very well, we’d take a look.

“Mission Revival” imitates the architecture of earliest colonial California, about 1769 – 1833, when the area was first settled by the Spanish. They established 21 Catholic “missions,” which were not only churches for the conversion (read “subjugation”) of the native population, but also served as fortresses, farms, factories, mills and military outposts. Using native stone and adobe brick, the missions varied in details, but had common traits. The Mission San Juan Capistrano is a good example.

Mission Capistrano Brad Nixon 8407 (640x480)

As our own architectural heritage, “Mission Revival” has been an ongoing theme of California architecture, and there are countless government buildings, churches, schools, commercial establishments, residences and restaurants and hotels from kitchiest to ritziest in a dizzying array of Mission Revival adaptations. So, I didn’t know exactly what version to expect, but I knew what sort of ballpark.

What I found was a perfect demonstration of Gebhard and Winter’s approach to architecture. They’re determined to classify everything, and sometimes go to surprising places to find examples. The 470 pages in their guidebook painstakingly parse each one of the thousands of buildings therein, assigning a style to each one. Studying the book, one learns a great deal, for example, about the distinctions between modernist, post-modernist, Bauhaus, International, Brutalist, etc. For the authors, just because a building’s not “significant” in terms of innovative design doesn’t mean it does not signify.

There, facing a large empty swath of asphalt parking lot, I found this building.

El Torito Brad Nixon 2799 640

This is where my authors were being a bit ironic. It’s a theme restaurant, built about 1976-7, about 200 years after those intrepid Conquistadors ventured into savage lands.

El Torito Brad Nixon 2800 640

Yes, it was a Mexican restaurant. Was, because it’s now shuttered … literally. Good thing they had the foresight to equip it with shutters, eh?

El Torito Brad Nixon 1340 640

The restaurant chain, founded in California in 1954, touted itself as “a pioneer in the California full service Mexican casual dining restaurant segment.” It’s been acquired several times and some restaurants still carry the brand, although not at that location. Well, the Spanish had a longer run with their missions, but they’ve changed owners a few times and had their own travails along the way.

Still, it IS Mission Revival. For the student of architecture, it’s a viable case study in how originals “enter the vernacular” and become commonplace, even mundane. Professional architects require a wide vocabulary of styles to meet a client’s call for a building of a particular type. What are the salient traits? What materials? How are doors and windows treated? What about walls, floors, roofs?

Here, for the authors of the Architectural Guide, is Mission Revival as effectively executed for a restaurant as it might be at a grandiose luxury hotel. I simply didn’t expect a 1976 chain restaurant.

It’s Father’s Day. I have the good fortune to look forward to spending it with my father. Among countless other things, I owe my interest in and a good deal of my appreciation and understanding for architecture to him and his formal training in the field, not to mention the years I spend working with him, constructing buildings, for some of which he drew the plans. Thanks, Dad. Not just for architecture, either.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Quotation © David Gebhard and Robert Winter, An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, Gibbs Smith, 2003, p. 110.






Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 14, 2018

Leave No Trace? How Much Is “No?”

A phrase I often cite when writing about hiking or visiting natural and wild places is, “Tread lightly.” An alternative version is, “Leave no trace.” Stating either one, though, provides no specific guidance about compliance, and it’s up to the individual to decide what treading lightly or leaving no trace consists of.

Environment sign Brad Nixon 8748 (640x480)

A degree of common sense goes a long way: Don’t trample on native vegetation, don’t add your name to the prehistoric petroglyph inscriptions on that rock face, and don’t toss your freaking plastic water bottle into the blankety-blank bushes. Really.

The fact that one commonly sees those bits of common sense ignored suggests that such sense is not so common as one might wish.

All of you are travelers, and in one way or another, you enjoy the outdoors. The matter of how lightly we can and should walk is something we should consider. One of the reasons we go into “the outdoors” in the first place is specifically to find “traces” of the full time residents. If we don’t catch sight of an elk, a Pileated Woodpecker or — ahem — a skunk — we might see a footprint, hear that loud hammering bird or, yes, detect the skunk’s unmistakable scent. That assumes we’re paying attention, and that we’re not stomping right on top of the rabbit tracks in the sand or snow.

No animals Marcy Vincent 2010 (640x480)

We, of course, are quite noticeable to the residents as we pass through their territory. We leave highly visible tracks (not to mention trash), we’re uncommonly noisy and I have no doubt we and all that stuff we’re toting emit an extremely pungent odor. Duh. That’s why the non-human animals are so darned hard to spot: They see, hear and smell us coming from a mile away. I assume many of them actually sense us in one way or another, a capacity only the rarest of highly attuned humans might possess.

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 487 lion sign (448x640)

Although we’re animals, thousands of generations of acculturation, adaptation and behavioral adjustment have left us poorly equipped for the trail, backcountry and wilderness. We need to wear all sorts of protective coverings and coatings and carry an endless array of stuff, including food, which we’re poor at finding. If you stick to the trails at your local, state or national park, going out and returning in a few hours, only the most egregious disregard for the environment should have you tossing aside uneaten food, empty wrappers and containers, without dealing with spent fuel containers, broken carabiners or torn ground cloths. Backpackers and campers have more to carry in, more to carry out, more potential waste and trash.

Parks, trails, preserves and seashores inevitably feature signs, at least at the beginning of the trail or beach access, about prohibited behavior, substances and so forth. We don’t always pay heed — part of being human is to consider one’s self an exception. Awareness is still our job.

Redondo Beach warning sign 2 Brad Nixon 640

Leave No

I recently learned something about that phrase, “Leave no trace,” I was unaware of. A blog post by the avid outdoors people and adventurers, The Dihedral, informed me there’s an actual Leave No Trace nonprofit organization (LNT). LNT has articulated a set of seven core principles that “Provide guidance to enjoy our natural world in a sustainable way that avoids human-created impacts.” Here is the simplified list:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

There are specific behaviors within each of the seven principles. For just one example, under “Plan Ahead and Prepare” is “Repackage food to minimize waste.” If you’re not going to eat the entire bag of pretzels, take fewer, and in a container you’ll reuse. Less chance you’ll leave behind some hydrogenated fat-, salt-laden product a deer will eat, along with the packaging. That’s oversimplifying, but it makes sense.

Some of the details do primarily apply to those of you on back country or overnight camping trips, but many of those camping rules are just as appropriate if you’re setting up a family picnic at the state park.

Merely having some rules to consider can make us more mindful of just how we might tread lightly, whether we’re at the local park or venturing into the pure wilderness of Denali. Studying them and considering how to incorporate them into our hikes is productive.

Denali NP Brad Nixon 1969 (640x405)

A Discussion, a Process of Understanding

If you click on that link to The Dihedral’s blog post, you’ll see that they were inviting discussion, and — to provoke reactions — they took rather extreme positions, questioning some of the principles. I believe that’s productive. With tens of millions of human beings streaming into parks, seashores, river valleys, lakes and elsewhere worldwide, we owe it to ourselves to have exactly this discussion: “What trace do we leave?” The Dihedral provoked me to comment, and, ultimately, to write this blog post. Merely posting rules on signs at the parks and trailheads won’t save the wild places of the earth. Steadily, fewer and fewer of them are truly wild. Many more are direly threatened. The Leave No Trace principles are, ultimately, common sense, but they’re finite, specific, doable, and it’s in the doing that the difference will prove out.


When you visit the LNT site, note that there’s a link: “Science Behind the Principles.” LNT cite studies and research underlying and supporting the principles. Admirable. The current administration of the United States Environment Protection Agency is attempting to remove science from the protection of our environment. That’s a battle they’ll ultimately lose, but it’s up to us to carry the torch until they lose a few hundred court cases and then their jobs.

End of the World Brad Nixon 640

Tread Lightly, Leave No Trace

As highly evolved animals, we ought to be able to include a few basic guidelines in our outdoor survival kit.

And it is about survival, make no mistake. Not just ours.

De-Na-Zin boundary Brad Nixon 4347 (640x480)

© Brad Nixon 2018. One photo © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. information retrieved June 13, 2018.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 12, 2018

Helms Bakery: Industrial Scale Streamline Moderne

How does your day begin? Do you walk through an ancient village down toward a sun-kissed harbor and step into the boulangerie for a fresh baguette?

Villefranche Marcy Vincent 1279 (472x640)

Ah, I have. In my world, that’s called “vacation.” It’s the PhotoShop version of real life.

Had you lived in Los Angeles between 1933 and 1969, you might have gotten your bread delivered to the neighborhood by one of these:

Helms Bakery coach Brad Nixon 2676 640

That’s a vintage Helms Bakery “coach.” During those four decades, Helms Bakeries provided much of Los Angeles with bread, cakes, pies, cookies, donuts, brownies and more — about 150 items in all. They baked on an industrial scale, supplying restaurants as well as residents, although their products were never carried in stores. At one time, their fleet of those coaches numbered nearly 500.

Helms Bakery coach Brad Nixon 2677 640

The owner, Paul Helms Sr., declared, “Garbage is delivered in trucks. My bread is delivered in coaches.” The drivers were referred to as “Helmsmen.” The coaches were built by the Divco company.

Helms coaches

All those goodies streamed out of a couple of facilities Helms built and operated, primarily their enormous headquarters in Culver City.

Helms Bakery WS Brad Nixon 2680 640

Designed in Streamline Moderne style by architect E. L. Bruner in 1931, the concrete building still stands, not quite 50 years after Helms stopped baking. In its day, that structure had vast rooms equipped with the machinery for mixing, kneading, proofing, shaping, baking, cooling and packaging the impressive output. It has more than 200,000 square feet under roof.

Helms baking

“By 1965, the bakery consumed 780 train carloads of white and wheat flour on an annual basis. Over 2 million eggs were used in a single month.”*

Despite Helms’ success, which included providing bread on the Apollo 11 moon mission, its business model didn’t match changes in the retail food business. Increasingly, people bought bread and other items at supermarkets, rather than via home delivery, and the fleet of bakery trucks couldn’t continue to cover the growing sprawl of L.A. In 1969, the founder’s son determined to cease operations rather than face unionization. That left the gigantic facility vacant.

The Olympic Baker

Before we get to the building’s present, take a closer look at that sign that towers over Venice Boulevard:

Helms Bakery sign Brad Nixon 2681 640

Hmm. The distinctive rings and the motto of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), “Citius, Altius, Fortius.”

Look, too, at this restored original sign over the present-day main entrance to the building at the northeastern end:

Helms Bakery sign Brad Nixon 2670 640

Other than Disney, Coca-Cola and the National Football League, there may be no fiercer guardians of their name, brand and symbols than the IOC. There, though, was Helms, touting themselves as “Olympic Games Bakers.” Putting together the fact that Helms opened their factory in 1931 and the location — Los Angeles — you’ll correctly deduce that Helms was what today would be called, “The Official Baker of the 1932 Olympic Games,” or a phrase to that effect. Helms also supplied bread to U.S. Olympic teams for the 1948 London and 1952 Helsinki games.

It’s to architect Bruner’s credit that what’s essentially a large, rectangular factory building has some attractive details that put it directly in the mainstream of the Art Deco era.

Helms Bakery Brad Nixon 2672 640

The Building Today

Extremely large industrial structures that outlive their original purpose don’t always prosper. In the case of the Helms Bakery, it’s there by virtue of an ambitious developer who acquired it in 1972, emptied it of its production equipment and established it as a center for furnishings and design. Today, called the Helms Bakery District (there are several structures) it houses a number of stores — some of them quite large — carrying furniture, lamps, housewares, rugs and a wide variety of house-oriented designs.

Helms Bakery Brad Nixon 2673 640

There are also a number of restaurants and even a book store.

There’s not a lot of interior detail to report, although the showrooms are large and open to the roof structure, reflecting the utilitarian nature of the structure; all the decoration was on the exterior. In the pictures of the Helms coach, you can see that model’s surrounded by goods being moved in the store.

The Bakery District is the equivalent of a designs and housewares mall. Calling it a “district” cleverly distinguishes it in a metropolis replete with shopping malls, and associates it with L.A.’s fashion district, jewelry district, etc.

Seeing the Helms Bakery

The building is located at 8800 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, California. Details about the stores, hours and directions are available here at the Helms Bakery District website. While you’re there, click on the “gallery” to see a number of archival photos of the bakery in operation.

There is free parking onsite.

Special Miss Corwin’s Latin I class bonus points if you know the meanings of “Citius, Altius, Fortius.”

The first photo shows Villefranche-sur-Mer, France.

Some photographs of the bakery building in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Archival photos from the Helms Bakery District website,, as well as background information, retrieved June 11, 2018. Other information gleaned from this article in the Los Angeles Times, Jan. 7 1993 and another, Sept. 22 2002, both retrieved June 11, 2018.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 8, 2018

The Hobbit House in Culver City

You may think of my town — Los Angeles — as a bit quirky. We’re often mentioned as one of the western world’s hubs of odd behavior and lifestyles. We have some idiosyncratic architecture, too. Although I write a lot about L.A. architecture, I feel I’ve not been thorough, because the vast majority of my reports about the structures of La La Land have focused on interesting but far-too-staid examples of the craft: post offices, government buildings, museums, libraries and such. Every city has those.

LA Downtown Brad Nixon 5894 (640x480)

Let us go, then, you and I, to Culver City, home of about 40,000 people, ten miles west-southwest of downtown L.A. Founded in 1917, it became a center of the region’s film industry early on, and is still the home of Sony Pictures Entertainment, among others. For your audition to be on “Jeopardy!” you’ll go to Culver City.

Culver City’s a busy place, gentrifying, somewhat groovy if not entirely hip, and the original downtown is being heavily rebuilt, full of shops, restaurants and a few theaters. The older town is still in evidence, but a large number of the original structures from the 1920s and later have given way to new development during my 25 years in L.A., and the trend continues.

It’s somewhat of a surprise, then, to cruise along narrow Dunn Drive, wedged between heavily traveled Venice and Washington Boulevards. Dunn is lined on both sides with four-story condominium buildings, but you’ll encounter not just an original set of bungalows from the 1920s, but remarkable ones.

Garden Court Brad Nixon 2695 640

Officially, those erstwhile elf cottages are known as Garden Court. The style also has an official name: “Storybook architecture.” Drive around L.A. for a while and you’ll encounter more than a few examples of the genre, but Garden Court could stand for all.

Garden Court Brad Nixon 2683 640

There are three buildings at Garden Court, which may have been built as early as 1917 (my sources disagree). In about 1946, an engineer named Lawrence Joseph started remodeling and didn’t stop until 1970.

Garden Court Brad Nixon 2691 640

Mr. Joseph — a sailor as well as engineer and carpenter — reportedly added unique details inside as well, carrying out a nautical theme with plank wood and hardware crafted from boat latches. And then there’s the landscaping:

Garden Court Brad Nixon 2687 640

The pond is home to goldfish and an uncountable number of turtles, which were enjoying the sunny California day in their retreat amidst the metropolis.

Turtles Brad Nixon 2693 640

It almost goes without saying that the compound is commonly referred to as the “Hobbit Houses.”

Garden Court Brad Nixon 2686 640

Nor will it surprise you to learn that Mr. Joseph worked for a time at Disney, prior to serious, big-time aerospace engineering at the legendary Skunk Works.

I don’t think you need much more commentary from me; the place speaks for itself. I regret, for once, that I visited on a brilliantly sunny day, because the harsh backlighting makes it difficult to pick out details of the deeply shaded dark wood exteriors.

Garden Court Brad Nixon 2685 640

I will add that wood shingle roofs aren’t unknown in Los Angeles, and in some portions of the metropolis were the preferred style in days before building codes restricted their use due to the ever-present risk of fire. My own house, built in 1955, originally had a wood shake roof. But few structures boast a roof as enticingly bizarre as Garden Court’s.

Garden Court Brad Nixon 2696 640

Garden Court is an official Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, and has received some protection from the admirable Los Angeles Conservancy. One hopes that with those measures in place, it’ll be there for some time to come.

Visiting Garden Court

Garden Court is at 3819 Dunn Drive, Los Angeles, California.

Bear in mind that these are private residences. One assumes the residents are accustomed to having their homes gawked at and photographed, but beyond the brick wall it’s private property. I’m grateful that the site has been left open to a view from the sidewalk, rather than ensconced behind fencing or hedges, which would tempt the visitor to step across the line just to get a look.

There is a small amount of one hour free street parking on Dunn Street. You might get lucky, but you may need to park along Washington or Venice Blvds., an adjacent side street, or, failing that, in a city parking garage on Watseka St., three blocks northwest.

Take advantage of your visit to walk around Culver City, too. There are some excellent restaurants, often lively with workers breaking for lunch from Sony and a number of smaller studios and creative enterprises that thrive in the area, or the evening pre-theater crowd.

Perhaps L.A.’s most famous storybook house is “The Witch’s House” in Beverly Hills, often included if you take one of those “Homes of the Stars” tours. Click here to read about it.

© Brad Nixon 2018. I’m grateful for information provided by An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, David Gebhard and Robert Winter, Gibbs Smith, 2003, and the Los Angeles Conservancy website, retrieved June 7, 2018.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 6, 2018

No More Words; Action

Today, Tuesday, was the day. We had a special destination, indicated by this sign:

Polling place sign Brad Nixon 640

Inside, this was the business we transacted:

Sample ballot Brad Nixon 640

After millions of words have been printed, posted, shouted and tweeted, WE have something to say.

I voted button Brad Nixon 640

Wish us well. Here’s some music that comes to mind on this occasion.

Tomorrow, there’ll be the results, and millions more words. Tonight, I simply celebrate the act.

Let despots remember the day.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Grateful acknowledgment to the United States Army Field Band and Soldier’s Chorus.

We often walk along Paseo del Mar, which follows the top of the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean. It leads to a city park at Point Fermin, a headland projecting south from the southern California coast. You can spot the old lighthouse on the promontory in this shot:

Pt Fermin Brad Nixon sm 0391

The rocky shore attracts gulls, cormorants and other sea birds, while flights of pelicans soar overhead, riding the updrafts.

Pelican flight Brad Nixon 5794 (640x480)

In the big food chain picture, the sea birds are a link between land and ocean. They fly and breathe air, but live off fish and crustaceans. It’s not only dog eat dog in this world, but bird eat fish. Out there in the water, mammals eat fish and crustaceans, too, including a variety of whales and dolphins, not to mention a direct connection to the land, sea lions, seen here taking a break on a favorite rock at the foot of Point Fermin.

sea lions Brad Nixon 2555 sm

On the land side, the brushy shrubs that cling to the top of the bluffs are full of small birds that eat seeds, nuts and insects. Our local small birds include swallows, bushtits, rock wrens and a variety of sparrows, grosbeaks and finches.

They’re quick, furtive, darting from one branch to the next. They have to be wary, because there’s danger afoot. At least one den of foxes lives right at the tip of Point Fermin near the lighthouse. Coyotes are present here on the peninsula in increasing numbers, and raccoons, opossums and a few other mammals are threats to nests.

But there’s danger above, as well: hawks. Here are a few I’ve seen in the area. If you click on the left-hand one, you’ll see a Red-Tailed Hawk with some less fortunate animal in its talons.

There are falcons, too, including the smallest one in North America, the American Kestrel.

American Kestrel Brad Nixon 8132 (640x480)

That’s its typical hunting pose: perched, scanning the ground for small animals and birds, although it sometimes hunts by hovering.

All to be feared. But one predator always hunts from above, hovering on the ocean wind, watching for birds, almost its sole prey: the Peregrine Falcon. Here’s one I watched recently.

Peregrine hover Brad Nixon 2377 sm

Falco peregrinus is the world’s most widely distributed raptor. A pair of them live at Point Fermin. They’re the fastest of earth’s creatures, and can dive for prey at over 200 mph (320 km/hr). Even ducks and gulls are potential targets for this highly evolved hunter. Watching them plummet is to witness a staggering sight; it’s almost impossible to believe that you’re seeing a living animal move at such terrific velocity.

At this time of year, our local male and female pair are often visible, either zooming along the bluffs at astounding speed or hovering, watching, hunting. They’re busy, because they’re raising the next generation. Just a week ago, they were busy feeding their offspring, which had been three fluffy little chicks tucked into a cleft in the cliffs of Pt. Fermin. Then, a few days ago, we saw all three of the young birds, diving at mind-bending speed, then climbing and hovering nearly motionless in the air, learning to hunt for themselves. Here’s a photo from a year ago of how one looked just as he got ready to fly.

Peregrine falcon Brad Nixon 1551 (640x577)

For the fish, sea birds, sea lions, hawks and falcons, hunting is an intrinsic part of the life cycle, and in the animal kingdom, it serves one purpose: survival.

Believe it or not, despite their astonishing speed and incredible mobility and vision, the Peregrines aren’t at the top of the food chain on the cliff. Large, terrestrial hunters show up, attracted by the falcons.

Photographers Brad Nixon 1 640

They’re not particularly well-adapted for hunting, neither fast or endowed with particularly acute vision, but they have tools (red circles) that extend their reach.

Photographers 4 circle Brad Nixon

They’re packing serious hardware to zoom in on and photograph those compact, fast falcons perched on the cliff or hovering hundreds of feet away.

Some of those large predators are, in fact, professional photographers, working to feed their own offspring, which often gather in collective environments like this one.

School 2 Brad Nixon 640

Easily accessed, not tucked high in a remote cliff or deep in a burrow, such places are increasingly serving as hunting grounds for other members of their own species, equipped with highly specialized tools specifically designed for quickly killing large numbers of their fellow humans. No other species I know of hunts for the sheer perversity of the act. Not like those detestable predators, armed with their horrific weapons.

Nature is cruel? Don’t get me started.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 2, 2018

Nostalgic Encounter with an Old Friend

Nostalgia inheres in the mind, not objects. We may associate nostalgic thoughts with things, but objects, themselves, are mere signifiers. They may remind us of a halcyon day, a significant milestone, a face or voice now lost to us.

Cabinets, attics and drawers everywhere are chock-full of those nostalgia-laden items: pressed flowers, wedding programs, old comic books, grandma’s turkey platter, shells plucked from a seashore, ticket stubs from that major date, like this one, circa 1972.

Front and back of 2 stubs

2 stubs with front and back

Elton John! I wonder what became of the girl I went with to that concert, and if she ever thinks of me? Not certain who paid; $4.50 was a lot of money in those days.

One hangs onto gifts, of course, like this one I’ve written about before:

Housman Brad Nixon

A high school graduation present from Mom and Dad. It’s made the decades-long trek with me, and I treasure it still. Thank you.

A few nostalgic items also have practical uses, like any number of tools I have from my grandfather. They were already on the job when I started working in the family business, and they’re still ready to go, even though they show some wear.

Tools Brad Nixon 2577 640

It’s a mistake to get too attached to too many things. Not only does the need to store them become onerous, associating strong emotions with mere physical objects can get out of hand and become a bit obsessive.

Still, I was brought to a standstill this week, browsing through the basement of an antique store. I saw this.

portable typewriter Brad Nixon 640

For those of you younger than a certain age, that’s a portable typewriter. It produces printed pages, despite the lack of a screen, hard drive or software. Sort of like a printer, only manually driven. It looks to be in pretty good condition. As it happens, that’s the same model in the identical color of blue as the one on which I typed my first-ever high school research paper (thank you, Mrs. Drake), then took with me to college. I can still hear the hum it made sitting on the desk, the sharp sound of the keys striking the platen, the feel of those keys.

No, I wasn’t in the least tempted to buy it. I don’t need it to spark the endlessly spiraling recollections of composing papers for English classes, writing letters home and to friends (we did that sort of thing back then), and a thousand or ten thousand associated memories. I have those memories, including of that girl at the Elton John concert. As it happens, she’s just down the hall, writing, although not on a typewriter. Lucky me.

How about you? Does any machine or piece of technology have nostalgic value for you? Or not? I welcome your comments. And … what about your first typewriter?

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 31, 2018

Inside Compton, California Post Office, WPA, 1935

During the Great Depression of the 1920s and ’30s, with tens of thousands of businesses closed and banks shuttered, jobs were scarce and there was almost no available cash. Everyone struggled to find money for the bare essentials of life. Vast sections of national economies and industries stalled or ceased entirely, worldwide.

However, travel across the United States today, and in nearly every community you’ll find buildings, roads and bridges still in service, products of an enormous construction boom during that era. How could that be, since there was, essentially, no money and few banks that could provide loans of any size? They were built under the auspices of the federal government through an enormous program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Those physical structures are the visible legacy of the WPA, but they weren’t, actually, the point of the exercise. Because the U. S. Treasury was the only viable source of funding for enterprise of any scale in this country, the government used its resources to provide employment, so that there was some stream of cash to allow citizens to live on, and to sustain core needs like food, clothing and shelter. In turn, those projects helped bolster at least some portions of the economic engine, and kept a number of industries operating at a subsistence level.

Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA employed a total of 8.5 million people. They built bridges, schools, courthouses, fire stations, libraries, airports, even theaters and stadiums. I don’t know the number, but there were also a large number of post offices, some of which I’ve written about. Here’s another, in a suburb of Los Angeles: Compton, California:

Compton CA Post Office R Brad Nixon 640

Built in 1935, it’s similar to a few other Los Angeles area post offices, designed in Spanish Revival style to match the southern California architectural tradition.

Compton Post Office Brad Nixon 7089 640

The building adjoins Compton Civic Plaza, built in the 1970s to include Compton City Hall, Compton Public Library, an impressive memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse, the latter visible in this photograph of the post office.

Compton CA Post Office L Brad Nixon 7091 640

The post office is still in operation. Look how that theme of southern California’s Spanish heritage is represented inside.

Compton Post Office interior Brad Nixon 7126 640

Painted murals titled “Old California” surround the post office lobby, created by James Redmond* in 1936.

Compton Post Office mural Brad Nixon 7124 640

One remarkable aspect of the WPA was that it also employed artists, designers, performers and writers through Federal Project Number One. As a result, many WPA structures were decorated with sculpture, mosaics or murals, as is Compton’s:

Compton Post Office mural Brad Nixon 7121 640

The murals depict idealized — or stereotypical — scenes from the Alta California era of Spanish possession, including beneficent friars, shepherds and their flocks, vaqueros on horseback …

Compton Post Office horsemen mural Brad Nixon 7129 640

… There’s one notable-looking cowboy with an impressive set of chaparreras, the leg coverings shortened to “chaps” in English.

Compton Post Office rider mural Brad Nixon 7131 640

On the “stereotypical” side of things, there’s a threat in the underbrush:

Compton Post Office natives mural Brad Nixon 7130 640

While we’re on stereotypes, yes, the murals do portray women:

Compton Post Office women mural Brad Nixon 7133 640

I can’t say to what degree the 80 year-old paint may have faded. The murals are still attractive, reminiscent of the California Impressionist landscapes from earlier in the century.

I’m not a trained critic, but I find the figures absolutely convincing. They have what I simply call, “weight:” those people look like they’re standing, kneeling on the ground or sitting in the saddle; they’re not floating. And they’re working, pointing, posed convincingly.

Mr. Redmond’s cultural perspective hasn’t aged as well as his draftsmanship and brushwork. He’s given us a children’s textbook illustration of the halcyon era of Spanish conquest, “taming” and progress that has defined our civic understanding of California’s heritage from the beginning. The depictions of those figures seem accurate, and I don’t doubt that Mr. Redmond researched the clothing, tools and horse-drawn vehicles: perhaps even the colors. But it’s a one-sided, simplistic view of the European colonization of the New World.

I mean in no way to disparage Mr. Redmond’s work. I was pleased to discover it when I went into the post office, not knowing what I’d see. Artists are products of their culture, after all. It would be unfair to imply that Mr. Redmond (and the sponsors of his work) consciously intended to whitewash a fraught, violent and Eurocentric period of conquest and domination. Instead, I welcome the opportunity both to appreciate the artistry and consider how we think about our history. Nothing is simple.

To see a few more of the murals, visit the useful Living New Deal website at this link.

Visiting the Compton Post Office

The post office is at 101 S Willowbrook Ave., Compton, California, 13 miles due east of Los Angeles International Airport, 14 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. For once, I’m reporting on a location accessible by public transportation in L.A. The Compton station of the L.A. Metro Blue Line train is only steps away. 

The post office is a public building, and patrons are sometimes transacting personal business at the windows, so be circumspect regarding photography, talking and cell phone use.

For my article about the Compton Civic Plaza area and photos of its buildings, click on this link.

*I regret that I have no further substantial information about Mr. Redmond, other than a reference to him as a member of the Art Students League of Los Angeles. I welcome any additional information. Please leave a comment. Thank you.

Photographs of the post office exterior in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 29, 2018

On the Burma Road … Local Nature and History

I trust that somewhere near you is a scene, a park, a path you visit from time to time in different seasons, at different times of day. It might have a spectacular view, beautifully groomed gardens, or simply be a quiet place you consider “yours.” You’re all travelers, and I think that canny travelers know that no matter how many times we go somewhere, there’s always something new to be seen, even if it’s nothing more than how the foliage changes with the year or how a place looks in early morning, contrasted with late afternoon.

The Counselor and I hiked one of our places like that today: Burma Road.

Burma Road Brad Nixon 2495 sm

Once a farm road, Burma Road is actually a continuation of Crenshaw Boulevard, which heads directly south from near downtown Los Angeles, about 25 miles to the north. As you can see, the “road” is a drivable one, although it’s now traveled in vehicles only by park rangers, utility crews and emergency crews, as we saw a few years ago when there was a brush fire in the area:

backcountry fire support Brad Nixon 9037 (640x480)

For the rest of us, it’s a popular hike, a broad, hilly route through coastal sage environment. Here’s the view from near the start of the hike today, high on the headland of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, looking southeast, Burma Road curving below.

Portuguese Bend Reserve Brad Nixon 2497 sm

Burma Road winds 4.7 miles with a 1,000 foot descent to the bluffs at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. We’re headed that way, but we won’t go the entire distance.

Burma Road Brad Nixon 2506 sm

That folded landscape is eroded and collapsed, slowly sliding toward the ocean. Here in late May of a dry year, there are only a few patches of bright green. After last year’s record rainfall in southern California, it would have looked entirely different at this time, carpeted with wildly lush vegetation, including grasses and weeds eight feet high. This year’s browner view, product of much less rainfall, is more typical. We did, however, find a patch of the state flower, the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), strutting its stuff.

Poppies M Vincent 2500 sm

It’s not wild land. It’s a nature preserve, protected now from the development you can see in the distance of the above photo, as well as in this one, shot from farther down the trail, looking southwest.

Portuguese Bend Reserve Brad Nixon 2501 sm

In 1846, when this was Alta California, part of Mexico, the peninsula was included in a land grant, and the then nearly-treeless land was a vast cattle ranch. In the 1880s, part of the United States, the land was leased to farmers of Japanese origin, who successfully introduced dry land farming on much of the peninsula

Now this area is one of a string of nature preserves along the peninsula. This one is Portuguese Bend Reserve, administered by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy. Officially described as “coastal sage habitat,” it’s home to numerous mammals, reptiles and birds, including the threatened California Gnatcatcher and the Cactus Wren. The largest mammal is the coyote, although it has competing predators, including fox and bobcats, not to mention several winged raptors.

There was low cloud over the ocean today, obscuring the view of Santa Catalina Island, visible on clearer days, as in this photograph.

IMG_0188 Santa Catalina Brad Nixon (640x473)

About a dozen trails lead away from Burma Road, threading across the reserve’s canyons and ridges. All are interesting, some a bit more than moderately challenging in places where they encounter the steeper slopes, like this one, Water Tank Trail. Easy to get down, but a stiff climb in summer when the temperature often reaches 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Water Tank trail Brad Nixon 2504 sm

As you can see indicated on this trail sign for Ishibashi Trail, bicycles and equestrians share some of the trails with hikers.

Ishibashi trail Brad Nixon 2505 sm

Some Local History — and Prehistory

There’s more to consider while hiking the reserve than nature, although one could focus entirely on the view, climate, flora and fauna. I started my description of local history with that 1846 land grant, but the peninsula had been home to human beings for at least 5,000 years before the Spanish arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries. Tribes named the Tongva were hunter-gatherers, and lived off fish and shellfish from the shore, as well as wild fruit and nuts collected on land. They had basketmaking and pottery crafts, as well.

Much of the Land Conservancy’s efforts, in addition to preservation, are focused on restoring wild habitat to the reserves, which are heavily overrun with invasive species, exacerbated by the landscaping the tens of thousands of us who live here have introduced. We don’t see the same landscape the Tongvans inhabited.

As students of American history can anticipate, the Tongvans didn’t survive the advent of European settlement. They’re extinct, victims of the same treatment natives received across the continent from invaders with firearms, superior technology, and a radically different view of humankind.

Another group of people now absent from the reserve land are those farmers of Japanese descent who established thriving farms on the steep hillsides you see in the photos.

Portuguese Bend canyon Brad Nixon 2507 sm

Again, students of history will anticipate me. The farmers who leased the land were among the 110,000 or more individuals of Japanese descent ordered to internment camps by Executive Order 9066 in 1942, responding to concern that they represented an internal security threat during WWII, even though 62% of them were U.S. citizens. Most of the farmers never returned.

There were exceptions. About six families returned, including the Ishibashis, whose forebears, brothers Tomesco and Kumekichi Ishibashi, had emigrated from Japan in 1910 and leased land here. Their crops included avocados, poppies, strawberries, carrots, beets and sweet peas. They maintained a roadside produce stand, Annie’s Stand, near Abalone Cove, below the area that’s now the reserve. The Ishibashi family operated their farm until 2012, and their departure signaled the end of that era.

That is why we now hike a trail named Ishibashi.

Nothing is simple. The land remains. Sometimes we save a little of it, although some things are always lost.

What’s your favorite local walk? What stories does it have to tell you? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Ishibashi family farm information from, published 

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