RUNE STONES, STRIP MALLS, AND OUR MOMENT IN TIME
I’m fascinated by the history of civilizations, and the signs and symbols they leave behind. Just turn on the History Channel and watch endless hours of programming deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics, Norse runes, Paleolithic cave paintings, and other mysterious forms of communication that humans left as proof of their existence.
With all the attention given such ancient artifacts, given a sense of perspective one can’t help but realize that these amazing glimpses into previous epochs were no big deal to the people who lived in those times. Cave paintings? Undoubtedly the graffiti of some bored everyman stuck in a cave during a cold spell. Rune stones? The ones that have surfaced tell of general events of the day, the scratched-stone equivalent of a local newspaper. Egyptian artifacts? The Egyptians meant for their dead to stay buried, not looted by thieves and dissected by scientists. The point is, none of these people thought that they were leaving something behind that would be intensely studied by future generations, keen on unlocking the secrets of their society.
With that in mind, I began wondering to myself about the present. We as Americans have been raised at birth to think of ourselves as the center of the universe, but other than a few marble monuments and presidents carved into the side of a mountain, what symbols and signs would we leave for future generations to decipher who we were?
The answer, I came to realize, is that in the last two hundred years or so, most of what we’ve left behind are things made of paper, plastic, wood, and other mediums that will not survive into the future the same way that rune stones and cave paintings have. For instance, McDonald’s restaurants are undoubtedly the most revealing look into American eating habits of the present day, but would any evidence of McDonald’s survive two thousand years? I suppose if you count the Styrofoam containers they used to put McDonald’s hamburgers in back in the 1980's, you’re probably right. The legacy of the McDonald’s brand, however, is a different story. The buildings, advertising, and products themselves are made of stucco, particle board, paper, cardboard, and other things that wouldn’t survive a couple of bad winters, much less a millennium. I’m guessing a thousand years from now some kid will dig up a Happy Meal toy of the Hamburglar in his back yard, and it will be sent to a university for study of its meaning (this assumption based on the hopeful premise that McDonald’s will have disappeared from the planet in a thousand years).
Now that much of our society and human interaction has gone online and digital, the distinction (and the shelf-life) is even greater. Just try reading some of your old floppy disks from 12 years ago, if you can get your monolithic PC to work at all. Undoubtedly much of the written word in the next hundred years will be lost with one nasty solar flare on the electrical grid, gone in one digital blip.
With all that in mind, I began thinking about my surroundings. What was there in my civilization that signified what my culture was about? What symbols were there that I could recognize as signs of my society?
Laugh if you must, but in the midst of this soul-searching, a journey for my own sense of place in history, I believe I have discovered the runes of the San Fernando Valley.
The San Fernando Valley is the sort of place that baffles city planners and is spoken of with disgust by the East Coast effete. It is the great American suburb run amok, expansion that happened so quickly and turbulently that now we are left with an area that would be America’s fourth largest city, if it were to secede from greater Los Angeles. In the Valley’s great area of population, there is no central gathering place, no downtown, no real sense of self—just a hundred little villages from the earlier part of the Twentieth Century that all grew into each other to form one dazzlingly large single-cell organism, like a fungi of unbridled capitalism and humankind.
Across the hill in the greater Los Angeles basin, Hollywood hipsters have the luxury of walking out the front door to find piss-soaked winos in their doorway, or the window broken out in their car, stereo removed. In exchange, they are allowed to live within earshot of the thumping loud dance club down the street. This particular logic might appeal to the displaced East Coaster, but I always felt at home in the middle of Super-suburbia, knowing that if I wanted to go see a show or attend a movie premiere, I just had to drive 15 minutes over the hill. After all the Big City excitement, I could drive back to my quiet little street in the Valley, and if I accidentally forgot to lock my car doors, everything would still be there in the morning. For me, Midwestern transplant that I was, the Valley just made sense, city planners be damned.
The San Fernando Valley was, up until the middle of the last century, a fertile valley for farming and livestock. Huge ranches and orchards took up giant chunks of acreage, with small pockets of civilization popping up around its perimeter (Ventura Boulevard, for example).
The Valley stayed mostly farmland, due to an annoying habit of massively flooding every ten years. Developers waited, drooling uncontrollably, until the city planners devised a solution—to contain the Los Angeles River within a concrete waterslide diverted directly to the Sepulveda Flood Basin in the middle of Valley. The “channelization” project, as implemented by the Federal Army Corps of Engineers, started in 1938 and was finished in 1960.
Once the river had been contained—now a humorous trickle down the middle of a series of cavernous concrete flood channels—the law of supply and demand took over. After World War Two ended, the San Fernando Valley expanded at an incredible rate, bursting from the South end of the Valley to the North, over the years taking over the ranches and Orange groves and putting hundreds of ranch-style homes in their place. Everyone had jobs, everyone had money, and these people needed places to live.
At first glance, it is hard to imagine a place in the United States less suited to societal study than the San Fernando Valley. After all, the Valley is less than a hundred years old, and it’s unremarkable in terms of historical events, architecture, and population makeup. What is there, if anything, that resembles a rune stone, a cave painting, or hieroglyphics?
It took me years to absorb my surroundings in the Valley. The untrained eye would simply dismiss the entirety of the region as generic housing for the masses. In many cases it was, but then I started noticing the symbols. Silly as it may seem, upon closer inspection, these were what I had been looking for—the secret symbols of the San Fernando Valley.
I started seeing them everywhere once I finally noticed them. The most common one was a square or rectangle with branches on each side, framed by a larger square or rectangle. There were variations, dozens and dozens of variations on the same theme.
Once I noticed them, I started photographing them. In the course of two or three years, with a frenzy of real estate “flipping” and remodeling, many of these symbols disappeared, replaced with generic Home Depot windows, made in China by the millions.
I realized, as I watched these things disappear, that the San Fernando Valley symbols were never going to make it to another millennium. These symbols were going to be remodeled into oblivion. I thought about how many rune stones had been repurposed into making buildings or stone walls, and how they used to have so many mummies in Egypt that you could actually buy ground-up mummies to use as paper pulp, brown dye, and a medicinal supplement (true). The whole trick with a society and their symbols is that when that society was active, these things were commonplace. The symbols gain meaning when the society disappears, and there are only a few examples left of their symbols to study.
I began to search to see if the San Fernando Valley’s symbols had any real meaning. After doing a fair amount of research, I couldn’t find any exact corollaries with the Valley symbols. A complete perusal of Symbols.com and SymbolDictionary.com found several close matches, one of which pointed to an ancient chemical symbol for Vitriol, another that revealed an ancient Mariner symbol for a Buddhist temple, and another that indicated the design of an ancient Swedish board game. None of these seemed like the San Fernando Valley homebuilder’s intent.
It’s possible that the design was borrowed from a generic architect’s vision of a Buddhist temple symbol, but in true L.A. fashion the symbols are on houses with an Oriental theme, as well as houses with a Colonial flair, and on houses that look like a 1950’s flying saucer. If there was supposed to be an Asian motif behind the symbol in the first place, these builders apparently didn’t seem to care.
I tend to think that the designs are meant to be Asian, or in that great California way, meant to make you feel an Asian feeling. On the other hand, the only time I've seen something eerily similar was on a trip to England, on a random house outside London.
So, if anything, what do they mean? Perhaps they don’t mean anything. It very well could be that the homebuilders of the 1950’s and 1960’s just needed quickie decorative elements on the outside of the houses they were throwing up in slapdash fashion. Maybe, but the amount of variation and creativity displayed in the many designs suggests there is more to it than that.
I prefer to think that in some “Mad Men” architect’s office fifty years ago, there was an operative of the Illuminati whose mission it was to impart a campaign of secret symbols throughout the Valley. Several hundred years from now, some author will write a ‘Da Vinci Code’-type novel based on the secret symbols of the San Fernando Valley, finally deciphering what these ubiquitous, yet mysterious, symbols were trying to tell us all along.
In the meantime, as I walk these streets (who am I kidding—as I drive these streets), I see them. Hundreds of them, like silent sentinels, guarding their tract houses like ancient lamb’s blood on the door. Whatever they are supposed to mean, these runes of the San Fernando Valley are disappearing with every passing day. I hope to bring attention to them, before they are all gone.
When I saw how quickly the symbols of the Valley were disappearing, I decided that in my own small way, I would help to preserve them. When my garage window became so ravaged by time and sun that it needed replacing, I decided to fill it in with something else--a brand new secret symbol of the San Fernando Valley.
What’s in your Valley? What objects do you walk by every day? I hope that wherever you live, you find something that represents a symbol of your society, no matter how unexplainable and potentially silly they may be. Open your eyes and let the possibilities exist.
Deke Dickerson, Northridge, CA
Below: More examples of the mysterious San Fernando Valley symbols. Do you have more to share? Email the author here.