In partnership with LA Nature for All, Earth Share is a series of conversations on IGTV with the goal of sharing knowledge and inspiration with local organizations and individuals caring for the Earth.
Click here to watch the complete first episode featuring Michelle Matthews, Executive Director of Arlington Garden.
ES: What does nature mean to you?
MM: Nature is everywhere!
When I was younger, I thought I had to escape LA to find nature. I moved to the Midwest because I thought I would be closer to nature in Chicago. Although I hated LA when I left, I loved it when I returned! And it took my leaving Los Angeles to understand that nature is everywhere: it’s just been covered up, built over, blown up, or destroyed. And because we are a part of nature, it is our job to help it regenerate, be renewed, and be restored.
ES: Where and what are your earliest memories of nature?
MM: I was born in Iran, and I have seen photos of my family camping on the shores of the Caspian Sea. But what I remember most clearly and fondly is …
Playing in an empty lot when I was around five years old when we lived in San Diego and befriending some sort of bobcat-like cat.
I remember climbing down to the concrete floor of the LA river when I was eight and going to the park near our apartment complex in Mar Vista.
I remember going back and forth between Hawthorne and my high school in Santa Monica that had a beautiful fresh water spring now called Kuruvungna Springs. I really remember the difference between the smell where I lived in Hawthorne and where my friends lived.
The smell of the fall Santa Ana winds! The Northridge earthquake! Those are my earliest, fondest memories of nature in our beautiful city.
ES: Can you tell us about the work that you’re doing now?
MM: I’m the Executive Director of Arlington Garden, and we’re working to transform the urban landscape with healthy gardens that combat climate change and connect people.
ES: How did you become involved with this work?
MM: For most of my professional career, I was a designer for nonprofit organizations. I worked at the ACLU, MOCA and about 20 other non-profits doing freelance work.
I studied history and fine art in undergrad (SMC, UCLA, and SAIC in Chicago) and then again in grad school (USC). My photography from this time was mostly about identity understood through the built environment. The images were of empty lots, empty billboards, and space of transition and transformation.
I first met Betty and Charles McKenney in 2008 when the Boy Scouts were working on the dry river arroyo along Arlington Drive. I ended up quitting my job at MOCA to work with La Loma, the contractor who did the dry-stacked broken concrete and the berms and swales that slow, spread, and sink rainwater. Betty contacted me in 2016 when she found out she had cancer, and I was hired as the second executive director of Arlington Garden in July of 2017.
So my understanding of nature has been through my fragmented geographic family history, growing up in Los Angeles, and observing our city through photography. That’s what led me to Arlington.
ES: Can you talk about the community that you work in and how it supports you and how you support that community?
MM: We are incredibly blessed and grateful to have such a supportive community, including board of directors, volunteers, and staff. Our oldest board member is 90, and the former city manager of Pasadena.
To me, the story of Arlington Garden is so unique because it is a community-built garden. It is a free garden, built on State owned land, and is the result of a unique private/public partnership with the City of Pasadena.
One of the things I’ve said is, “Instead of a freeway we built a garden,” and that is because of the hundreds of people who helped build the garden, and a larger community that advocated against the 710 freeway. I think we support the community, by providing free open space, especially for folks who don’t have access to a private yard or garden. We also serve as a demonstration for what is possible. We support a local ecological community and habitat, so that’s exciting, and a part of why it feels so good to be at the garden!
ES: What is your hope and vision for the future?
MM: That’s a big question, because I have a lot of hope and a big vision!
I hope that Arlington can continue to play a pivotal role in the reintegration of over 558 properties along a five mile corridor into the urban fabric. There’s a real opportunity to improve the quality of life for those along this corridor and do some transformative urban healing, like improving walkability, public safety, more native street trees, and a healthier urban tree canopy.
We have to invest in local climate appropriate gardens. As Vandana Shiva says, everywhere, there should be “Gardens of Diversity.” If you look at Arlington, it is very diverse in both the people who visit and the fauna and flora that we foster.
There should be an Arlington Garden in every community. We have to do the work to repair the deep social inequalities and cultural divisions and environmental degradation. There is an opportunity despite what is happening on a national level to rebuild, renew, and recharge, and use our power and privilege to make a difference at a local level.
My hope and vision for the future is that we have a relationship to the land like we do to our body. Without the body, there is no mind. Without the land and the soil, there is no us. I hope that we can renew our relationship to the land and realize that we are all connected.
ES: What do you recommend people watch or read during this time?
MM: Everyone should watch “I Am Not Your Negro” directed by Raoul Peck, based on a manuscript by James Baldwin, and “Fantastic Fungi” directed by Louis Schwartzberg.