2016-07-23

Lost Peoples of the Lake

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

I am walking out the door of Room 18, at the Dow Villa Motel in Lone Pine (gateway to Mount Whitney) at around 5:30 am early in July. If there is music to be cued it is Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathrustra: horns, reeds, strings and timpani in full flood as dawn’s first light hits the craggy peaks of the Sierras to the west. The crashing chords and the heart beat percussion (Strauss’ accompaniment to Nietzsche’s enquiry into God, humankind and the natural world) are the exact aural equivalent of the silent sensory palpitations that are occurring somewhere deep within the striatal sub regions of my brain as I focus (blearily) on the magnificence of this primordial scene.

We are not in Upper Ojai anymore, where the pretty wash of first light on the Santa Ynez Mountains impacts me like the breathy trilling of a flute. In the synesthesia induced by this Sierran scene I am hearing the dawn’s light wash over the celestial ramparts as a full symphonic assault, where the reticulated mountain ridges are bleached pale within a triumphal sound scape: the crashing sonic waves resound in my head - signaling the start of another remarkable day on the planet.

We are in Lone Pine to meet up with neighbor Margot and her partner Michael to visit the dust remediation project on Owen’s Lake that Margot and her consulting firm have been working on for the past fifteen years.

It is only in the past one hundred and fifty years that the Owens Valley has existed as a contested landscape. Up until the middle of the nineteenth century a relatively consistent human population had, for many millennia, remained enfolded in its geological, biological and hydrological setting

The level and hence the extent of Owens Lake varied over pre-historic time, but it has slowly shrunk from its post ice-age maximums of 10,000 years ago (which saw it stretch to thirty miles long and up to 250 feet deep) in a process that, through the last millennium, greatly increased its salinity. Through it all, however, it provided a rich and varied lacustrine environment for human, faunal and floral life; but as all of Southern California knows, despite its continuing decline, the Lake's death, when it came, was not natural.

Early in the last century it became a toxic waste land, inimical to all life, spreading poisonous clouds of dust along the wind corridor that lies between the eastern Sierras and the White-Inyo mountains.

The destruction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century pastoral life in the Owens Valley that centered on the lake is often lamented: local farmers are portrayed as victims of urban rapacity. As anyone who has seen the film Chinatown (1974, dir. Roman Polanski) knows, in the great conurbation to the south, water engineers, (most famously Mulholland) inspired by civic boosterism, professional hubris and their implicit partnership with the profiteering of land barons who purchased dry land in the Los Angeles basin in the sure knowledge that it was about to be watered by the California aqueduct, syphoned the lake's last water some two hundred miles to the Los Angeles basin where the artesian wells that sufficed when the city's population was no more than 300,000 had long since run dry. What is entirely lost in this story are the circumstances by which these dispossessed Anglo Americans came to be farmers in the Owens Valley in the first place.

They, and their immediate predecessors, it should be noted, had engineered agricultural diversions in the valley in the late 1800's hastening the shrinkage of the lake to which Mulholland administered the coup de grace in 1913. Eleven years later, the valley floor become a playa, the fate to which other pluvial lakes in the region had long since been consigned.

What then we're the circumstances of the establishment of these American farms in the graben, or geologic ditch (specifically a linear fault bock basin) that runs between the mountain ranges and where the sediment atop the underlying granite is as much as two miles thick?

Benjamin Madley, in his startling new book, An American Genocide, 2016, writes of the extermination of California’s indigenous population between 1846 and 1873: he notes that “Owen’s Valley’s Paiute-Shoshones to the north and Western Shoshones to the south, had very little contact with non-Indians prior to 1861”. He paints an idyllic picture where these native peoples hunted deer, big horn sheep and antelope on the lakeshore and into the mountain hinterlands while trapping rabbits over the russet colored Alabama hills that lie at the foot of the Sierras, or foraged for pine nuts in the cooler alpine altitudes of the Inyo Mountains in the summer. All that changed after 1860 when white ranchers invaded the area and unleashed hundreds of cattle to fatten in the valley for sale to miners who had discovered gold north of Mono Lake and nearby Aurora , Nevada.

The inevitable friction that developed between the indigenous peoples of the area and the newly arrived immigrants quickly devolved into what Madley calls “the well-established California patterns of genocide” whereby mounted vigilantes, supported by the Second California Cavalry, armed with howitzers and muskets, slaughtered hundreds of Valley Indians, destroyed their food stocks and burnt their villages. This first ‘Owen’s Valley War’ culminated in 1863 with the forced removal of upwards of a thousand Indians who were marched over the Sierras to a reservation in Fort Tejon. The survivors of this grim journey were left without adequate food or clothing at the reservation and most attempted to escape despite the threat of being shot for doing so.

Those that managed to return to their homes found a land transformed by cattle ranchers and with their traditional food resources and game animals in short supply. Forced to rely on taking the settlers’ cattle, a second war was precipitated between 1864 and 1865 in which the indigenous peoples of the Valley were hunted to extinction.

This genocide is the patrimony of the ranchers and farmers whose lands were subsequently made worthless by the diversion of the Lake’s remaining water to Los Angeles. They and their descendants have been obliged, for almost a century, to breathe the poisoned, dust laden air that blows off the desiccated Lake bottom: conditions for which the L.A. Department of Water and Power has now been held responsible in suits filed by the EPA and subsequently by the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District. It may not be too fanciful to imagine that this Californian inheritance of a playa that generates toxic winds containing arsenic, boron and other carcinogens, is the dark consequence of some long ago Paiute shamanic curse that might be idiomatically translated as Eat my Dust.

Since the beginning of this century, the efforts of Margot and other Environmental, Engineering and Landscape consultants have been largely successful in remediating the conditions at the Lake, and have made life tolerable for Valley residents. Now, Lake bottom tourism is being encouraged through the building of trails and a central monument designed by Nuvis Landscape Architects.

Our visit was shadowed by the sighting of a lone coyote padding along the salt crust: the traditional Native American trickster is perhaps conjuring further redemption for the Lake. There is no commemoration of the killing fields of Inyo County: surely they bring even greater shame upon this country than, for instance, the nearby WWII era Japanese internment camp of Manzanar and are of at least equal educational potential. The new monument might be more relevant if it referenced the lost peoples of the Lake rather than simulating, in earth and granite cobbles, the waves that animated the vast body of water that once filled the graben. In the Owen’s Valley, there is yet a greater, unacknowledged debt to be paid.

2016-07-11

Time Clock

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Our voyage across pellucid seas, chased by a pod of elegantly arching dolphins, held no hint of the approaching scene. Nor did the Black Rock, at the far eastern end of the island (topped with white gull guano, or Anacapa snow) as we approached our landing, truly portend the world we were about to experience where browns, sepia, black, grey and white would dominate in the form of mature white gulls, their mottled grey fledglings, their straw nests, antic coreopsis stumps, bleached grass, guano splattered stone and deeply weathered russet colored, rock strewn beaches. Unprepared: but once immersed in this alien world the pleasures of its complex visual composition (of a limited spectrum) somehow transcended the prevailing stink of seagull shit and the carnage underfoot of dead fledglings murdered by gulls they had mistakenly taken to be their parents in moments of panicked disorientation - of which careless tourists are a prime cause.

Anacapa rises like a dragon spine out of the ocean, the southern twitch of its tail disappearing in a playful loop (known prosaically, to non-dragonistas as 'the arch'). Spawn of the great Ice Age island of Santarosae, which fragmented into five discrete landmasses after the ice melt deluge of ten thousand years ago, now it is itself composed of three primary islets, home to the largest western gull colony on the planet. Despite diurnal disturbances by dazed tourists (courtesy of Island Packers) the colony is, at this moment, in the final stages of its annual regeneration: anxious gulls (yellow scimitar beaks stuck between beady eyes in ovoid heads atop short necks all wrapped in a white feather hijab) strut menacingly, watchful of their fledgling broods.

It is the 100th Anniversary of the National Parks - at least to the extent of their being sanctified by Congress. By the time the National Park Service took charge in 1917, after the passage of a bill the previous year, there were already seventeen National Parks, the earliest being Yellowstone, established in 1872, while in California, Yosemite and Sequoia date to 1890. In commemoration, the New York Times ran an essay collection recently called My National Park in their Sunday travel section. Cheryl Strayed (Wild, 2012) wrote about buffalo ("their faces primordial; their dark eyes, indecipherable") at the Badlands Park in South Dakota. Other literary luminaries lauded imposingly scenic parks in Maine (Arcadia), Arizona (Grand Canyon), Wyoming (Grand Teton), and Montana (Glacier) - all notable for the dramatically rugged morphological juxtapositions so admired in the mid-nineteenth century and so complicit in the development of a Romantic national mythology based on the religious resonance of wilderness.

My National Park is the Channel Islands: I get to write about an island where there are no mammals save the pinnipeds and where the sea gulls (their faces blank with stupidity; their beady eyes viciously vacant) have no predators - an island where even varmints disdain to live; an island that will slowly disappear, perhaps, as sea levels rise - the dragon drowning incrementally in anthropogenic ice melt. My National Park is a mini-Galapagos where evolution has proceeded independently from the mainland and has thus created a variety of unique animal and plant species; but on Anacapa it is not the variety of life forms that amazes but the stunning profusion of one dominant species and the almost total disregard of the adult gulls for the crocodile of visitors that wander through their breeding grounds. Despite a small collection of partially abandoned Spanish colonial revival buildings on the island, built in the early 1930’s to house a crew of some fifteen or twenty people who maintained the lighthouse perched on the highest point of the easternmost island (whose jobs disappeared into the miasma of automation in the 1960’s), it remains remote, apparently barren and with no permanent human population, rising out of its enormously rich marine environment, as a land that time forgot.

A few days earlier, at home in Upper Ojai, there was a presaging event of beige, blonde, cream and white splashed across my retina. The local rattlesnakes, Crotus oreganus, use their cryptic coloring and skin pattern to disappear into their surroundings where they lay in wait to ambush prey. Lurking beneath the wooden rubbing strip for our steel fire doors, a twelve or fifteen inch youngster blended almost seamlessly with the surrounding gravel and only its slight movement gave me warning as I stepped from the house. Once safely outside, I took a closer look at the pale creature: sepia markings bordered in whitish cream bands undulated on its fresh young skin as it slithered over the gravel. It was, in its uncanny melding with its environment and its minimal earth-toned coloring, a pre-echo of the monochromatic gull families (save for the mature gulls’ red-spotted orange beaks) merging with the island meadows, strewn with cactoidal stumps of giant coreopsis and dried grasses.

On Anacapa, and elsewhere on the Central Coast and its inland valleys, we are experiencing the annual color-shift from predominant green to predominant…….well, no one word describes the sun-bleached meadows and greying coastal sage scrub. As ever, the chaparral remains, at the edge of every pale summer vista, its indomitable presence - eternally green. There remain too, inky ponds of oak shadow spotting blonde hills. That this change in tone and temperature occurs every year does not dull its annual surprise; and if these changes are closely observed, there are revelatory washes of color at the margins: the moment a month ago when the leaves of black sage turned yellowy orange, the etiolated stalks of giant white sage recently turned a vivid purple and there is the maroon-purple pond of Turkish Rugging (Chorizanthe staticoides) I stumble across each June; Tarweed maintains its bright yellow flowers despite the withering heat while the delicate flowers of spring are now mostly gone.

This cycle of the seasons continues to resonate even within a society which runs on linear time; but we are mostly taught to sacrifice the precious moments of the present to future plans or package immediate experiences into memories that themselves are mortgaged to forward planning. The magic of evanescent neurological simulation is transmuted into the dross of ‘experience’. The eternal present, a cyclical mode of time that forever presages the returning – of both our souls and their setting amidst what Abrams calls the ’sensuous terrain’ – is mostly alien to our sense of ourselves; but the overpowering circularity of the changing seasons somehow dents even our well-armored notions of linearity.

The idea that Anacapa exists outside of our quotidian sense of time’s arrow is enormously powerful: that it is indeed forgotten within the prevailing trope of temporal awareness; that it is an island forever in the thrall of circularity, from the gull’s roughly constructed nests of straw to their metronomic return in the spring to breed another generation to drive time’s wheel. Our presence on the island (it was a family outing of Lorrie and me, our two grown sons and Ellen our daughter-in-law) represented, perhaps, a moment out of time: but it was inevitably bound by the chronological strictures of the Island Packer’s timetable.

Our eternal present lasted precisely from 2:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on the first Saturday of July in the year of our Lord, two thousand and sixteen.

2016-06-25

anatomy theater

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

The smoke from the Sherpa Fire daubs the morning sky in playful streaks of apricot and the smell of burnt brush hangs in the air.

There is, in this election year, as two corrupt, compromised and, it must be said, old candidates, the one a vicious neo-Nazi the other an equally vicious neo-liberal - separated in their lack of probity only by their sex - vie for the presidency of the United States: a sense of End Times; a sense of the imperium collapsing in on itself.

The fire is a natural thing although perhaps maliciously caused, the quadrennial obeisance to Democracy a gruesome tic that now consumes the body politic.

The nation is in deep shadow: late in the day, long past its high noon of power, influence and prestige in the world; signs of environmental collapse are all consuming, and writers everywhere compulsively reflect these twin strands of apocalyptic zeitgeist. Your Urbanwildland scribe follows dutifully along. What if the Federal election was about the recovery of this country’s lost connection with the natural world - about the loss of its animistic soul?

It is at this moment that Annie Proulx’s epic novel Barkskins, 2016, has appeared: the New York Times‘s suggests that “This is a jeremiad about the loss of North America’s “monstrous pine finery,” in the author’s resonant phrase, and thus its weird, old pagan soul”. She chooses, as the epigraph to her multi-generational, 736 page book, a passage from the medieval historian Lynn White Jr.’s seminal eco-theological article, The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis, 1967.

“In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”

In the last two pieces I have referenced David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996. He makes the point that since the adoption of an alphabet we, as a species, have become distanced from our environment - now veiled by the abstractions of our written language. Where once the natural world was the co-creator of our reality, and we (in our long ago oral traditions) were fully involved in the unfolding of its sensory information, we now see it encoded in the matrices of text: imprisoned in a human construct of abstract symbols. We have lost, he suggests, the ability to hone our consciousness against the whet stone of the biosphere - we are trapped in an iterative loop of purely human intelligence.

Lynn White takes a narrower view, essentially blaming the teachings of Christianity rather than the development of an alphabet for our abusive behavior towards our world. The two are connected. Abram’s notes that the aleph beth (the first semitic alphabet) was an integral part of the Hebrew religion, where the primacy of text was acknowledged in their appellation as ‘People of the Book’. Christianity, an offshoot of this earlier monotheism, gained institutional support only when it was enshrined in the gospels – where it was made clear that divine grace was dispensed not in this world but in an abstract heavenly realm accessible only in death. A full engagement of life on this planet was made secondary to some future off-world paradise with instructions for its access encoded in the Good Book.

This evening a full moon rises over the east ridge and to the west, three brownish-purple bars streak the sky, watery vapors of dust, debris and smoke from the fire splayed across the flesh of an evening sky like striated bruises.

Annie Proulx writes,

“I am sure that wild natural woodlands are the only true forests. The entire atmosphere — the surrounding air, the intertwined roots, the humble ferns and lichens, insects and diseases, the soil and water, weather. All these parts seem to play together in a kind of wild grand orchestra. A forest living for itself rather than the benefit of humankind.”

The wild, fire-burnt sky that floats over the westerly sea is resonant with the grandly sonorous tones of an oboe.

This country’s overt linkage of Christianity with Republican politics and neoliberal economics was established in the 1950’s under Eisenhower, when our national motto, ‘In God We Trust’ and a new line in the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation under God” were coined (Kevin Cruse, One Nation Under God, 2015). Now Democrats too, are subject to the same conflation of their politics and Christianity. Who will stand, in this country, for the pagan animism that might lead it out of its environmental morass?

For my Father’s Day treat, I was taken to Redcat, the performance space founded by CalArts beneath Disney Hall where we saw the world premiere of an LA Opera production, anatomy theater. Composed by David Lang with a libretto by Lang and Mark Dion, it is set in the early 18th century, and features the hanging of a murderess and her subsequent public dissection, ostensibly conducted for the scientific purpose of discovering where evil might reside, manifested as some deformity in her vital organs. “Where does evil lie” is a recurring refrain and it occurred to me that this enquiry might be directed towards our country’s existential electoral plight.

As we confront our contemporary choice between two white, pasty-faced, cosmetically enhanced cadavers, who will be publically dissected by the press and the citizenry over a long summer and fall before November’s voting, we may all soon harbor such metaphoric imaginings. Splayed on a dissecting table tilted towards the audience, a naked Peabody Southwell, playing dead but occasionally singing, represents the body politic: her bleeding Christian heart, and her viscera (redolent with the stench of politics?) and finally her Lady Liberty parts are extracted from her pale body, Filipino psycho-surgeon style, in a fruitless search for Evil, or more prosaically an answer to ‘where did she/we go wrong?’

David Abram would suggest that human awareness has folded in on itself, and transfixed by technology, we have short circuited the sensory connections that we once made with the earth and have thus denied ourselves the opportunity to be fully human in a world we recognize as much more than human. Annie Proulx echoes Lynn White Jr. in believing that we must come once more to revere not a universal, distant deity but the local gods of place and the spirits and sprites that inhabit the living planet and its earthen mantle. These are meta-prescriptions. Cosmic shifts in consciousness from our current position where the only demand we make of our leaders is that our society is managed to better support our acquisitiveness and that the resulting consumption is more closely aligned to the few or the many depending on our philosophy. But they are also shifts that can be initiated in tiny incremental acts of observation and reverence.

Last night, the full moon’s reflection in the swimming pool (left uncovered to let it cool it down) attracted swarms of white moths (Caenurgina erechtea). Many flew too close to the pool’s lunar illusion: in the early morning its dark water was patterned with drowned moths, their pale wings still stretched in flight.

2016-06-07

Of Alchemy and Earwigs

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

I walk out of the house at first light and the enveloping ridge to the east wraps me in its lithic embrace, enfolds me in its darkling biomass and whispers to me of its ineffable secrets. For a moment, my consciousness is permeable, unguarded and malleable. For a moment, in that early morning, my anthropocentrism is capable of being dented by dawn’s hammer. I am fleetingly aware of a greater consciousness, the etheric charge that flows through the earth and into its every being - modern-day humans mostly excepted.

It is the search for such moments of enfoldment into a greater consciousness, of reconnection with the primordial generative spirit that has brought me, like so many others, to Ojai. Many are not even aware of the deeply mystical vortex that has pulled them into the Valley of the Moon, but once ensconced, begin to experience a slowly emerging but inexorable expansion of consciousness. It is here that we begin to feel a reconnection with the cosmos, a limbic reawakening that echoes with memories of the dream time, when we emerged out of nothingness as flickering points of awareness.

It begins, quite simply, with the place. As David Abram notes in The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996, certain mountains, canyons, streams, boulder–strewn slopes and groves of trees have “a particular…. expressive potency and dynamism with which they present themselves to the senses”. The landscape becomes complicit in our construction of meaning - as an animate partner in our sensory world. Abram suggests that it is both the City (where nature is mostly marginalized by the man-made) and the written word (composed of an entirely abstract alphabet divorced from its originating glyphs that related to the natural world) that has distanced us from our co-creators of reality - other beings, plants, earth forms and hydrological expressions on this planet and the solar system beyond. Words and buildings have overwritten a more fundamental text to which we now have diminishing access. Ojai represents a particularly vibrant portal into this lost world of embodied meaning. It represents a showing forth of the earth.

Within this generalized notion there are exquisite examples. Another morning late in May, as I was picking my way down the steep slope that runs down to Sisar Creek from the mesa which spans eastward (more or less) back to Koenigstein, I saw a yellow Mariposa lily. Pink, lilac and purple spotted varieties abound on the dry hills, but a yellow one is unusual in these parts. On the scramble down, my senses alerted, I noted other springtime flowers nestled into the chaparral undergrowth and at the base of lichened rocks (now arrested in their long-ago journey towards the bottom lands). There was yellow pincushion, deerweed, monkey flower and tarweed, each vibrating spectrally somewhere between yellow and orange to create a golden heralding of summer.

It is fire clearance time on the property: raking, weed-whacking and plain old hand weeding the chaparral margins which run along the driveway as it careens down to the road. Mustard, tocalote, clover, erodium, mallow, rye, broame and oats cleared amidst the favored deerweed, sage brush, tarweed and native bunch grasses. Crows gather as I uncover rotting vegetation beneath which earwigs lurk. Fearless, one oily feathered, carmine gulleted, beady eyed specimen lurks close to me hopping awkwardly over newly raked terrain, occasionally beating its wings half-heartedly to clear rocks and debris. Taking a break, I walk downhill towards some east facing boulders one of which offers a particularly comfortable angle against which to recline. I neglect to mention my intentions to the crow. Slouched against the rock, straw hat pulled low over my eyes I settle in for a few minutes repose. Coming out of the east, flying low over the newly cleared landscape comes my crow heading directly for me. At the last moment, as I throw up my arms to protect my head, it veers south and lands on a rock a few feet away and takes a shit: inter-species communication at its most elemental - an avian showing forth. Appropriately, I have no words.

Attempts to broaden ones community of sensorial correspondents (an effort to enlarge the class of species with which a dialogue can be established and in which intimate knowledge can be mutually embodied) have a long history - mostly disparagingly codified as magic, mysticism or alchemy. It is into this realm that Jessica Cornwell, daughter of our neighbors across the hill, ventures in her celebrated first novel, The Serpent Papers, 2015, and in this realm a place is never, as Abram writes, “ just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there. It is an active participant in those occurrences”. He goes on to suggest that, “the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there.” For Jessica, that place is Barcelona.

Cartheginians established an outpost on the coast of Catalunya half a millennium before Christ, and the city has had many subsequent colonizers in Pheonicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Franks, and finally neighboring Iberians whose leaders outlawed the local language in the interests of establishing the hegemony of Madrid, and of Castilian, over an homogenized Spanish nation whose cultural, economic and political influence is still resisted by many Catalonians. As Cornwell writes, the city has been “Scraped and scraped again. Written and rewritten”. Inserted into this protean city, she spins her many layered tale of esoteric knowledge, codes, secret books, murder, mutilation and the present-day survival of the horrors of the Inquisition and its concomitant witch hunting.

Yet at its heart the book deals with the historical search for the relationship between meaning, the written word or glyph (represented here as an ouroboros, a nightingale and a golden moon), the processes of nature and those whose lives are dedicated to the uncovering of shadowy supernatural powers that exist in the liminal space between science and spirituality. In true alchemical tradition there is a sense that time is folding in on itself and the novel successfully creates a palimpsest of history, place and human agency. The nexus that exists between Barcelona and Mallorca and their related esoteric traditions is set against the seemingly more benign folkloric pageantry of Catalunya.

Here in Ojai we have our own esoteric traditions upheld by the Krishnamurti Library, the Krotona Institute, Meditation Mount and the Ojai Foundation all of whose followers, knowingly or not, are dabbling in ancient occult practices. Here, our modern history is underlain by fifteen thousand years of Native American inhabitation whose arcane attempts to harness the power of the universe were practiced locally, most sophisticatedly, by the Chumash ‘Antap (Real Suspense). The secrets of those adepts are now lost, although many in southern California still cling to remnant liturgical aspects of syncretic native American animistic practices, heavily influenced by the showy paraphernalia of the Plains Indians, that emerged along with the Ghost dance towards the end of the nineteenth century. Of the Chumash, lacking a written language (and undoubtedly more thoroughly embedded in what we would now call the bio-diversity of their environment absent the distancing abstractions of the written word) there remains little but faded rock paintings, vestigial spirit paths now claimed as hiking trails, burial poles, and the testimony of the last of their tribe gathered by the early twentieth century ethnographer, J.P. Harrington (Trunk Show).

More commonly, the remaining mystical rituals (founded in south Asian and European traditions) practiced in the valley run the gamut from highly athleticized forms of yoga to a variety of monotheistic liturgies. In between, pantheistic rites are enshrined in the institutions of occult knowledge mentioned above and more generally by anyone who ever sat and watched the pink moment as the setting sun washes the spalled face of the Topatopas in its warm light.

I cling to my own protestant roots and seek direct communion with the chaparral, the crow and even the repellent earwig (Forficula auricularia) absent liturgy, rites or holy books (excepting, perhaps, Milt McAuley’s magisterial Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains, 1996).

2016-05-24

No Planting Plan Required


Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

In the early morning mists, a pale frieze of bunch grasses sweeps along the drive animated, in this still air, only by the swoop of the chip-seal roadway as it parallels the fall line of the seasonal stream at the foot of the east ridge. Beyond, in the weed patches left by a century of intermittent ranching and more recently by the land's development as a rural home site, the alien mustard, tocalote (Centaurae militensis), rye and the interloper broame grasses, together with native deerweed, not yet flowering tar weed and tangles of wild cucumber vines, convolvulus, occasionally a stand of toyon, coyote bush, currant, holly leaf cherry, mountain mahogany and laurel sumac form an arrangement (held together in the grey miasma) redolent of the work of the great Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf.

Amongst Oudolf's startling innovations are his practice of ecologically attuned planting schemes, his championing of perennials, his awareness of a plant's natural life-cycle (and his joy in every phase) such that he believes that "a plant is only worth growing if it also looks good when it's dead" and his celebration of mist as an active collaborator in his garden designs. This latter innovative trait extends to a delight in the frost riming of skeletal plants and their seed heads. These aesthetic predilections are amply demonstrated in his assiduous photographing of his work.

His notion of natural planting - the creation of an apparent structural chaos in his invertebrate planting schemes - is an example of high artifice (or even, perhaps, high art). But for those fortunate enough to live in the southern California biome his aesthetic goals can quite simply be subsumed within the real, existing, chaparral plant community. Early summer mists reliably arrive in May and June and soften the margins of and between the natives and create stunning, Oudolfesque early morning views of the chaparral and its sage-scrub margins. Along any given track there will be, just now, the perennials Lotus scoparius (Deeweed), buckwheat, any or all of the three sages (white, black and purple), ghostly gnaphalias – all in bloom –the shrubby artemesia, yerba santa and sometimes the red blooming heart leafed Penstemon together with annuals such as clarkia, yellow pincushion (Chaenactis glabriuscula), and phacelia. No planting plan required.

As I look into our back yard to the rise beyond the pool, there is a garden that puts the showy naturalism of Dutch New Wave planting to shame: it is composed mostly of drifts of deerweed and bunch grasses, dotted with sculptural chaparral shrubs and straggly clumps of coyote brush; all that is required is weeding – primarily the invasive tocolote and mustards. To the right, as I look towards the spalled face of the Topatopas, a native walnut that has succumbed to the drought provides a rich tangle of bird perches and stands in graphic silhouette against the sky as an explicit homage to Piet, the patron saint of dead biomass.

I first discovered Oudolf around the year 2000 when a panoramic video of his own garden at Hummelo was featured on his site (sadly, it is no longer available) and I was absolutely stunned by the randomly arranged clipped yews set amidst a meadow of perennials and grasses. I seem to remember that there was a swirling mist featured as well. By that time he was well established as a plantsman in northern Europe and enjoyed a growing reputation as a garden designer, but was almost completely unknown in this country. For a while I felt that this explosive, transformative talent was my secret. His commission to plant James Corner’s Highline in New York City changed all that.

The Dutch live in an entirely constructed, managed and un-natural landscape – and it has been that way for a very long time. The last stand of natural forest was felled in the 1860’s. The land has also long been riddled with dykes, drains and sluices in an ongoing attempt to hold back the rising waters of the North Sea. In this environment, the lure of un-reconstructed naturalism is intense and Oudolf’s horticultural stylings (he selectively breeds many of his perennials as well as designing their garden settings) are the outward manifestation of a longing for a reconnection with the natural world.

David Abram, in his The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996, notes that we are embedded in the matrix of earthly life: that is, we are embedded in the biosphere “experienced and lived from within by the intelligent body” and of which we are entirely a part. Our perceptions are transitive: we see objects in the natural world and they see us. What does it mean then, to exist in an entirely humanly constructed version of the natural world? It means, (it seems to me), that we become solipsistic, consumed with ourselves - the world not a rich stream of data constantly challenging our primacy, but a pale reflection of our own anthropocentrism. It means, ultimately, that we become incapable of caring for other beings -other life-forms - because we are surrounded not by self-willed nature but a domesticated landscape that speaks not of the cosmos, but of our own small, self-serving place in it. The pleasures of the garden are then muted by this echoic mechanism; us looking at a ‘natural’ world edited, composed, bred and finally neutered by us.

Many of Americans live in suburban homes surrounded by such botanical ghettos, where well trained plants are sequestered for their sensory delight. Oudolf has taken a step away from this tradition. He demands, in his planting schemes, that we accept the chaos of the natural world and that we take delight in a botanical life cycle where dead flower heads , stalks, and seed heads have intrinsic grace and beauty. He demands too, that we embrace weather as an aesthetic accomplice in our obtaining sensory pleasure from his plantings. Yet there remains an irony in the fact that his gardens remain no more than a simulacrum of wilderness, of wildness, of the chaotic profligacy of the natural world.

He has, in a life lived in the well-ordered, mostly agricultural landscapes of Holland, demanded that we look again at the richness and diversity of plant communities in Europe and in North America (he has a particular passion for the Prairie biome of Ohio) that have, for millennia, developed wayward complexities that are self-sustaining, site specific and possessed of a gravitas entirely lacking in even the finest gardens. Plants in the wild are playing for their very survival, their persistence forever contingent on the quality of soil, the weather and their interaction with the surrounding plant, insect and animal life. Oudolf has gone some way in replicating this intense game of life in his perennial gardens and has, by his acceptance of death and decay within his aesthetic realm, captured some of the spirit of the wild.

Those of us who live at the wildland urban interface can entirely forgo the elaborate conceit of the artificially constructed, sprinklered garden. Yet most choose not to. An Ojai friend explained recently that he had been busy planting a small garden of California natives, expecting, perhaps, to receive my approbation. I did not have the heart to tell him that growing natives is about not planting. It is an entirely extractive process. The soil is brimming with native seeds. Remove the invasives and the locals will inevitably show up.

Practiced assiduously, this will result in a patch of wilderness rich in complexity and capable of an expressive power that extends far beyond the human sphere. Living at the edge of the chaparral wildlands I can experience, as Abrams puts it,

“a vast interpenetrating webwork of perceptions and sensations borne by countless other bodies – supported, that is, not just by ourselves, but by icy streams tumbling down granitic slopes, by owl wings and lichens, and by the unseen, imperturbable wind.”

2016-05-08

Don't Know Much About Geography

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Particle agglomeration refers to the aggregation of elements floating in a colloidal solution. Roderick Frazier Nash, in an epilogue titled Island Civilization to the fifth edition of his Wilderness and the American Mind, 2014, proposes that the planet might usefully undergo such a process wherein the dispersed, but increasingly predominant, detritus of civilization, together with its human creators, be neatly encapsulated into circles of, say, one hundred miles in diameter, and thus isolated from their generative medium - a self-willed or wild Planet.

Such a segregation of humanity and all of its works within its erstwhile edenic environment is necessary, in Nash's judgement, for the survival of a diverse and flourishing world, for we are the cancer cells threatening its consumption. He proposes one-thousand years as a reasonable time scale for this separation of the wild and the not-wild (reminiscent of the social theorist Claude Levi-Strauss' notions of binary structure such as the raw and the cooked) and identifies a number of historical phenomena which have, over time, already demonstrated this process of particle agglomeration. Of local relevance is the Mission system put in place by Franciscan friars as isolated feudal encampments linked by inter-mission Caminos Reales - a system which I have previously characterized as plague blisters of an intensely venal and theocratically totalitarian European civilization suppurating on lands populated by indigenous cultures highly mindful of their envelopment by a self-willed nature.

Hold on: might there be, in these circles of contained civilization some approximate correlation with bio-regions? Nash's concept is, shall we say, highly conceptual: might there not be some relaxation of the platonic purity inherent in the polka-dotting of a wild planet with these fever spots of civilization? Could these 'Islands' conform, not to Euclidean geometry, but to bio-regions where natural resources, industry, agriculture, dense populations and transportation corridors already exist? Have we already, in short, jump-started Nash's millennial Reich?

His idea, of course, is intensely reactionary. It suggests a reversion to insularity, to a doing away with global inter-connectedness and a complete upturning of the contemporary balance between civilization and nature. Wildlife corridors that attempt to patch together the remaining areas of wilderness would be replaced with vestigial civilizational corridors that connect the mosaic of self sufficient, isolated Islands of civilization between which, in Nash's plan, there is no mechanically assisted transportation.

Parag Khanna writes in Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, 2016, "America is reorganizing itself around regional clusters that ignore state and even national boundaries". He goes on to suggest that Western Europe and Asia are already "orienting themselves around robust urban clusters of advanced industry". He invokes Nash's island concept by branding these as 'urban archipelagos' - left unsaid is that these loose aggregations of dense metropolitan mass might float in a sea of wilderness where rural towns and smaller regional centers not explicitly linked to an urban archipelago would atrophy and eventually revert to wildland as, indeed, is beginning to happen now in depopulating areas of Europe.

As I suggested in Don't know much about History, the fiction that is the United States merely awaits a more coherent narrative. Nash and Khanna, amongst others, are opening up the space of future ideas into which a new paradigm for our relationship with the natural world might be realized. Implicit in their shared notion is that there will be a profound political shift in which nation states devolve into cogent, independently organized bio-industrial regions like city states of old. Nash argues for the almost complete isolation of these 'Islands' one to the other. Khanna imagines their being highly connected at a global scale (in other words, an extension of the status quo). I believe a middle ground is plausible (not territory in which I am usually comfortable) where limited civilizational corridors might connect these intensely developed, densely populated and hyper-productive agri-industrial regions utilizing globally regulated air traffic.

Energy production (coal, oil and natural gas) and its transportation has largely shaped the modern age, but we can now foresee that rising sea levels will eliminate the coastal infrastructures that support the global transshipment of these fossil fuels. In their place, bio-fuels, wind, sun and hydro can all be harvested locally within urban archipelagos derived from existing conurbations, bio-regions and transit corridors. There might be then, a future where wildlands can predominate on continental land masses and where the oceans become entirely self-willed - free from maritime traffic (each archipelago being largely self sufficient in material goods, energy and sustenance), un-fished (except by micro-populations of indigenous peoples), subject only to their lunar cycle while absorbing freshets of ice-melt and re-establishing their great littoral domains of salt marsh, wetlands and estuarial ecotones in the abandoned zones of old coastal development. We can thus use the imminent arrival of climate disruption as a spur toward the final achievement of an already clearly emerging clean energy future.

Similarly, we can, as individuals, begin (or continue) to rigorously privilege the produce of our local food sheds, purchase locally fabricated consumer products, spurn meaningless touristic air travel, and practice other small acts of global disconnection. As Daniel Drezner notes in his review of Connectography (NYT, 05-01-2016), "global flows (trade) as a percentage of output have fallen from 53% in 2007 to 39% in 2014 because of the cost of managing complex, lengthy supply chains". In other words, more stuff is staying where it is produced - either close to or within the bio-region of its origin. The future, if it is going to be a green one, is about global disconnection. As Khanna acknowledges, "devolution-aggregation is how the world comes together by falling apart".

Calls for preserving our remaining wildlands are meaningless unless they are accompanied by an encompassing vision of how this might be achieved. Calls for a transition to clean energy are relevant not because such a move will prevent climate disruption (that horse has already left the stable) but because the transshipment of fossil fuels (which have been at the heart of global connectedness at least since the era of coaling stations fueled the British navy in its mission to protect the fragile links of Empire) remains the heart-blood of global flows - and because clean fuels are locally available across the planet and thus facilitate disconnectedness.

Calls for increased engagement with the natural world in the hope of inculcating a concern for its preservation are similarly distorted: they encourage its further exploitation as a recreational resource, increase the building of access routes into wilderness areas and inflame a fascination for it which may result in residential development at the Wildland Urban Interface (guilty as charged!).

Alert readers may note that the call for wildland engagement and the embrace of clean fuel as a supposed antidote to climate disruption represent the twin planks of the venerable Sierra Club's current platform. I attended their Trail Blazers annual dinner in San Francisco as the guest of a board member (and former chair) on Thursday. As they seek continued relevance in the increasingly crowded space of non-profit environmental organizations (Nature Conservancy, Friends of the Earth et al) they might well embrace instead, a call for urban densification and wilderness sanctification - the twin practice prongs of a theory of particle agglomeration that could facilitate the realization of Nash's 'Island Civilization' and the very necessary devolution of the ultimately ungovernable (because of inherent bio-regional conflicts) United States of America.

2016-05-02

Chaparralville

Also at www.urbanwildland.org

There are a few sprigs of Eriodictylon in what I think is called a bud vase - narrow neck bulbous body, clear glass, about ten inches high, provenance unknown, sitting on the kitchen counter. Because of the narrow neck and the sprigs' short stalks they have required a little top up of water the last two mornings; because they are right by the sink where I fill the kettle for my tea, they are the first thing I focus on in the morning. I collected the pale blue blossoming Yerba Santa, Eriodictylon crassifoium, (sometimes called Indian chewing gum) on two successive runs this week: first one flower stuffed in the pocket of my running shorts snatched from a plant somewhere up in La Broche Canyon, where it grows alongside a track from which there are, on a clear day, sweeping views of the Oxnard Plain and beyond to Point Mugu and the ocean; then yesterday, a further two sprigs from a stand of the leathery leafed plant growing in the dry, braided creek beds that serve as overflows for Sisar creek (not required for the past four years and thus fully vegetated).

This little display of a chaparral wild flower gives me sufficient pleasure to fully recompense for any fleeting guilt I might have about snatching these blooms from their parent plants quietly minding their own business in the largely untracked hinterlands of the Topatopa foothills. So, it comes down to this: it's all about me; the chaparral a verdant tableaux from which I may pluck at my pleasure whatever floral bauble (so to speak) strikes my fancy, imprison it (them?) in the none too salubrious environs of my shorts' pocket and thereafter impale their heads on a spike (in a manner of speaking) for my morning's fleeting delectation, my conscience almost entirely untroubled by this flagrant act of anthropocentrism. Why then, dear reader, this barrage of rhetorical exposition?

It's Spring! I'm back blogging after the deaths of two close friends and I am, once again, reporting to you, my imagined audience, about entirely inconsequential minutiae set against sometimes portentous, sometimes mildly philosophical and sometimes, regrettably pompous considerations of our place in the cosmos (all in service, ultimately, to a consideration of my place in Upper Ojai or yours in Woop Woop). It's time to continue building the brand one twelve hundred and fifty word blog piece after another (this is number 230); building a state of mind as a prophylactic: a mildly dystopian antidote to my (our) unthinking acceptance of neo-liberal bondage. Call it urbanwildland, call it Chaparralville.

My not posting in the first three months of the year was also the result of my teaching an on-line seminar for the Viridis Graduate Institute on ecological ethics. The reading, lecture writing, subsequent recording of a forty minute talk and hosting the two hour seminar for ten successive weeks not only reduced the time I had available to devote to Urbanwildland but also, in many ways, supplanted the reason for this blog (see also above), which is to investigate the moral, spiritual, aesthetic, practical and ethical impacts of my relationship with the natural world - specifically as I experience them here, in a particular place. I return to this investigation within a slightly altered context: our house is now augmented by a newly constructed guest house - a small step towards more gracefully accommodating others in the attitude-altering environment of Chaparralville.

Much of whatever foreboding I feel (see 'portentous' above, listed as a brand ingredient), when confronted with evidence of the sixth extinction, weather disrupting climate change, rising sea levels, desertification around the globe and the agricultural, infrastructural and commercial development of the world's remaining wildernesses, is shared by the many. It functions as a leitmotif of our contemporary existence: it is woven into the low level angst that urban dwellers experience when considering the fate of the world. For me, these concerns are exacerbated by the intense pleasure I derive from a surrounding wilderness that I recognize to be representative of other wildernesses under far greater existential threat.

California chaparral has survived at least partly because it is so unassuming, the land so incapable of being harvested for commercial profit (except in the case of oil and real estate) and so indomitable in its resistance to flood, fire and drought. Nevertheless, there are many thousands of acres where it has been bent to the will of successive waves of colonial conquerors and now is under pressure from the expansionary forces of capitalism to which, as the developer of a wildland site for a residence (and now guesthouse) I am a small contributor.

And yet, as Joachim Radkau writes in his new book, The Age of Ecology, 2014, "the Eco-age may be conceived as the New Enlightenment" capable of elucidating the choices available to us and guiding us, against all odds, towards a safe haven where a reasonable and sustainable balance between humankind and the natural environment is achieved. This 'Age of Ecology' can be traced back to Alexander Von Humboldt early in the nineteenth century. Andrea Wulf's popular history, beguilingly titled The Invention of Nature, 2015, weaves the story of the great German polymath, (the Aristotle of his age), together with those of Jefferson, Darwin, and Ernst Haeckel (1834- 1919) who coined the neologism 'Ecology' in 1866.

As Wulf indicates, the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century was founded on the revival of classical thought, Natural Philosophy, and Rationalism, while 'Ecology', in the nineteenth, emerged out of a primordial soup of discoveries and speculations (often sourced from expeditionary travels) by Maupertuis, Lyell, Lamarck, Darwin, Haekell, Agassiz, and, most importantly, Von Humboldt. Meanwhile, in America, as Roderick Nash demonstrates in his Wilderness and the American Mind, 1967, the initial fear and revulsion experienced by the early European settlers towards this country’s wildlands were transformed by Thoreau and John Muir into an attitude that fostered the establishment of the National Parks and the Sierra Club early in the twentieth century. An American environmental movement was then forged from the ideas of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, David Brower (Friends of the Earth) and Dave Foreman (Earth First!); the establishment of Earth Day in 1970, precipitated by a massive oil spill off of the Santa Barbara coast, marked the beginning of a more generalized ‘green’ or ecological awareness.

I am privileged to experience my ‘green’ awareness at ground zero, grubbing in the broken margins of the chaparral, pulling out Tocolote (Centaurea militensis) with my trusty Pulaski. Tocolote is a close relative to the notorious Russian Star Thistle (C. stolstitialis) and marginally less toxic. It has colonized swathes of grass (mostly non-natives) along our driveway that border the dark, green lines of chaparral beyond, where this stable, 30,000 year old plant community continues to resist invasive species – until you mess with it. Having built at the Wildland Urban Interface I am now engaged in trying to mend its native landscape.

In this Age of Ecology, the fragility of our diminishing wildlands demands that they experience a minimum of disturbance - that we establish a kind of cordon sanitaire around them. Or better yet, perhaps, as Roderick Frazier Nash suggests in an epilogue to the fifth edition of his seminal book, that we create human clustering on a global scale, where giant megalopoli, perhaps one hundred miles in diameter, contain (and entrap) all human activity. These points of light would then exist in the dark space of the wildlerness which would exist untrammeled, unexploited, untraveled and forever self-willed. He calls it Island Civilization.

My residential life is lived within the confines of our built structures, a gravel terrace and a pool. Beyond, slowly healing from the disturbance of their creation, and reverting, slowly, to a reasonably pristine state, are the surrounding wildlands. I call it Chaparralville.