2016-08-17

Dog Star Rising

Now also at urbanwildland.org

Oceans of marine layer fog lap at the mountain shore lines of the lower valley and the Oxnard Plain. The cities of Santa Paula and Ojai have disappeared beneath roiling water vapor. Up above the fog line in La Broche Canyon the morning sun has just risen above Santa Paula Ridge illuminating the east facing sandstone escarpment along which I run. To my left, the twisted limbs of Manzanita, tenaciously anchoring themselves in rock fissures, flush red; along the track and at moraine's edge, gnaphalia, dried yucca and the clouds of Acourtia seed atop tobacco brown stalks are sepulchral: a patchwork of the chaparral's ghostly summer shroud.

There is, or at least I imagine there is, a profound stoicism in the chaparral plant community: in the many thousand years old succession of plants, soils and weathering rock, the rains have always come and the plants have endured. The wildlands hereabouts are littered with the woody remnants of shrubs and perennials, of dead sage, artemisia, laurel sumac, and chamise : their armatures dried grey in the sun and waiting, quiet as the grave, for wildfire to return their nutrients to the soil. Fallen oak limbs and split trunks dot the dry land, elephant bones in the chaparral ossuary.

We live in a canyon through which we can reasonably expect fire in our lifetime. Hence the elaborate precautions in the two built structures on our wildland spread made to increase their chances of survival in a bush fire. We expect the fires to return (evidenced in our yard by fire-blackened oak trunks), and we expect, too, the balm of heavy rains. Like most southern Californians, we maintain a level of pragmatic preparedness in the face of natural disasters.

While providing an anthropomorphized example of stoicism, the plant community also serves as example of Aristotelian telos. The philosopher maintained that every living thing, whether plant, animal or human, acted according to its nature and for all these beings that inevitably included living in community with their fellows. Cycles of birth and death, dormancy during drought and revival after rains and fire-scorched earth and subsequent regeneration from within ash enriched soils, are intrinsic to the chaparral plant community and it is these processes which formed the environmental setting for the human groups that lived within it.

For fifteen thousand years, the Chumash and their forbears, such as the people of the Oak Grove Horizon and before them the first Paleo Indians settlers who voyaged down the coastal kelp-road or trudged across the Beringian land bridge valued community as their guarantee of survival in these lands of uncertain rains and randomized fire events. Seeds stored in woven baskets were insurance against a lack of game or a dearth of fresh plants. Equitably shared resources promoted the welfare of all. Like most indigenous peoples, the Chumash sourced all their food, clothing shelter and tools directly from their local environment, and the weather played an integral part in either sustaining or pauperizing their communities. To voluntarily attempt to live outside of the community or to be banished from it was to court death. Survival was a cooperative endeavor. Individuality was of little value, for to consistently express it was life threatening.

Tribal and peasant cultures have always relied on high levels of cooperation, community and shared values (albeit ones sometimes forged in the brutal furnaces of oppression). Elite groups, in turn, shared values based partly on the exploitation of the under-classes. In either case, anomie, Durkheim’s term for societal alienation, was mostly unknown in pre-modern times. The overbearing extremism of the European aristocracy eventually shook loose the elaborate social structures that had arisen out of Feudalism (which exhibited some levels of shared welfare and responsibilities within its hierarchies) and prompted the political revolutions of the late eighteenth century (including ours) as well as the more generalized European liberalizations of 1848.

It was at this historical moment that increased levels of population, food production and industrial infrastructures (all based on new energy inputs derived from fossil fuels) provided a social and financial environment in which individualism began to have value. Voltaire, Locke, Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, amongst others, provided the philosophical underpinnings of this new liberalism. Yet Locke’s notion that humankind should live in a “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions…as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man” runs entirely counter to the lived experience of our species for the roughly two hundred thousand years of its existence prior to this pronouncement.

Liberalism’s intimate connection to new forms of energy production, dependent on exploitation of the planets crust, should come as no surprise. These new values better served those who were beginning to benefit from the shift in the sources of energy wealth. As Ian Morris points out in his recent book, Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, 2014, tribal cultures (such as the Chumash), who made a living foraging or hunting and gathering adopted social structures that were substantially egalitarian: they included strong norms of sharing and exhibited very limited inequalities. The brief interregnum of farming societies (in the long scheme of things), enabled the rise of Aristocracy, because their hierarchies were based on the ownership of land which tends to aggregate into the hands of the few (who then justified their ascendance by linking it with Divine Will). This complex system of values, norms, expectations and cultural patterns that supported the Divine Right of Kings was then systematically undermined by liberal philosophies that privileged the individual and emphasized humankind’s supposed freedoms.

Fossil fuel societies have proved to be highly tolerant of wealth inequalities. Their implicitly technocratic foundations correlate highly with liberal ideologies which foster values such as competition, quantifiability, majoritarian rule and efficiency. As Morris points out, liberal, individualist values have come to define Western ideology (what he elsewhere calls “a pack of lies from which someone benefits”).

Rousseau offered a warning at the birth of modern liberal society, in the late eighteenth century, when he observed that competition would create a society riven with “Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve and fraud”. A hundred years later, Thoreau, a great reader of Jean-Jacques, observed that it was a wise thing to “cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage…” while noting that “the civilized man is a more experienced and wiser savage”, eschewing, by inference, wealth, vanity and culture for the profound pleasures of a primal relationship with the natural world. Now, neoliberalism is a kind of metastasized, cancerous liberalism that feeds on the sugars secreted by the polluting organ of capitalism. Wealth inequality is symptomatic of this condition and leaves (to continue flogging the oncological metaphor) a vast societal sore that is the disaffected middle classes.

Sometimes, there’s really nothing to be done but to take a walk in the chaparral. Even here, your experience may vary. A couple of weeks ago an oil storage tank set deep in sage scrub, exploded about half a mile from our house. A plume of black smoke rose into the still air. Prompt response by the local fire brigades prevented the fire spreading beyond the immediate confines of the pad. The last significant wildfire that began in the area, less than a hundred yards from the entry to what is now our property, occurred in December 1999, raged for five days, involved over 1500 fire fighters, scorched nearly 5,000 acres and threatened multiple structures and two private schools. It was caused by fire crackers stuffed in a mail box. The explosive impact of the oil storage tank was far greater but was thankfully vitiated by the almost total lack of wind. It is ironic that the chaparral landscapes that produce so little that is of material value to modern society conceal, in places, vast reserves of fossil fuel.

At other times, the ‘tonic of wildness’ is more reliable. One recent early morning, looking over the steep, rocky bank of a seasonal stream (dry now for three years) I watched the single panoptic eye of a rabbit crouched in a crevice a few yards away. Shyest of creatures, I have only seen rabbits freeze when a bobcat is stalking them. This animal remained comfortably immobile as my attention was drawn to a fluttering brown bird spiraling up slope from the dry stream bottom. It circled towards me (I remained as still as the rabbit) and alighted on my arm. Feeling a little like my notion of Saint Francis, I looked down on it and took note of its whitish cream breast, orangey brown (rufous) plumage and darker, herringbone patterned tail. Over breakfast, I learnt from Sibley’s Field Guide that my visitor was a Canyon wren (Catherpes mexicanus).

2016-08-04

Atonement

Now also at urbanwildland.org

It is late July and a welcome stasis has descended on the landscape surrounding our house. The bunch grasses move in the merest breath of wind, animating the meadows with waves of bleached straw. Stiff, broom-like stands of Deerweed, mostly a dark reddish orange, punctuate the land, while the dried blossoms of California everlasting appear (to the fancifully inclined) as foam caps on the moving ocean of grasses: through August and September little will change. The weeding work of winter, spring and early summer is rewarded in these months of landscape hibernation.

It is in this pale scene, occasionally interrupted by patches of bare, ochre to reddish soil that young cream and sepia rattlesnakes sidle along, hunting western fence and western whiptail lizards; in other years (but entirely absent at the moment, reflecting the dearth of their prey - tail thumping wood rats) Red Tail hawks shadow the ground from on high, tails flashing their earthen color. More subtly, the homely Towhee reveals, on close observation, a cinnamon colored belly, echoing the tones of the dirt and leaf litter in which it digs for seeds, insects and grubs.

And so, with a few changes in the details but none in sentiment, we can, perhaps, celebrate with Browning that,

“The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d

The Lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in his heaven –

All’s right with the world!”

But this summer, as the grasses bleach out, I am particularly aware that there is a darkness abroad; that the chaparral is missing its California Grizzlies and the trail making, tending and fire managing of Native Americans; that all’s not right in the world; and that this country continues to pay the price for the trauma it has wreaked on the land.

As much as we pretend that we are a Nation founded in religious freedom at Plymouth Rock, in liberty won from our erstwhile colonial overlords and in justice enshrined in the words of our Constitution and its amendments, the reality remains that this is a country forged in the hell-fire of violence. We are a people who created a home based not so much on political, philosophical and religious ideals as on the brutal displacement of an indigenous population and the venal consumption of their land’s natural resources. The continuing denial of our genesis calls into question everything we think we know about ourselves.

The frontier that rolled west in the nineteenth century was the final resolution of a genocidal pogrom that had begun long before the signing of the Declaration of Independence (which proposed a minor rearrangement in the circumstances of European hegemony over the Native peoples of much of North America). In the great sweep of history it is the bloody fact of our killing of the original, in-place, intact, highly diverse, fully sustainable, intellectually adept, and spiritually attuned peoples of this country that is a central theme of the American nightmare.

Welcome to our world.

This is not a world customarily evoked in popular culture, in political rhetoric, in our churches or in our classrooms and yet it is a world reflected every day in the rage, in the violence and in the hate that surrounds us.

Some would call it karma.

Gun control, believing that Black Lives Matter, increased policing, borders walls, extreme vetting of potential migrants, fewer prisons, more prisons, an end to poverty, more jobs, better housing, improved trade policies, peace in the Middle East; none of these things is going to change the multi-generation transmission of America’s original sin. The Nation’s violent conquest is daily played out on our streets, in our government, our homes, our schools, in public places and in foreign lands as a recurring psycho-drama: it explains our metastasizing military; the militarization of our police force, our obscene nuclear arsenal, the 9mm. Glock in your neighbor’s glove-box and the Heckler & Koch HK416 assault rifle at the back of her closet. It explains the true American Exceptionalism - why this is one of the most violent places on the planet. It may even explain why a man soaked in the blood of foreign wars is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is commonplace to ascribe to survivors of an historic genocide a traumatic inheritance, passed along through generations, that results in violence, substance abuse, chronic health issues such as diabetes, and mental health disturbances. While these impacts are routinely observed in American Indian communities, it is less acknowledged that these traumas impact the perpetrators of such genocides and are transmitted along similarly multi-generational lines.

The business of America is business and, in an unbroken line, (with the exception, perhaps, of FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson) our Presidents have consistently privileged the powerful over the common people. Campaign promises may swing from the progressive to the conservative but once in power our leaders are gripped by the disastrous lure of Empire. It is in the conflation of Empire and Capitalism, of Territory and Treasure, that many of this country’s greatest sins have been committed. Both enterprises are built on the backs of the common man and woman and on the despoliation of the places they call home.

The history of the parts of North America which now form the United States is braided with the narrative threads of greed, conquest and subjugation. It is these stories and the trauma created in their unfolding, that are far greater determinants of our national character and disposition than American democracy - originating as a modest conflation of enlightenment philosophy, the governmental structure of the Roman Republic, and a belief in the political and social primacy of the white, land owning male.

The pernicious triangular trade in slaves, raw materials (cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, indigo and rice) and manufactures that linked the continents of Africa, America and Europe for centuries, was the foundation for this country’s wealth long before the great infrastructure projects, mineral extraction and heavy industries of the nineteenth century added to the wealth of the very few. The railways were built on land taken from Native Americans, the mines of Appalachia on lands earlier purloined from its rightful inhabitants, and polluting industries established in the richest biological confluences of land and water. These projects inevitably relied on the exploitation of racially diverse, mostly impoverished, native born, migrant European, Asian, Mexican, and Central American labor.

Having subjugated its native peoples over a period of almost four centuries, and in some areas having committed a thorough-going genocide, in the late nineteenth century this country turned its attention beyond its continental borders (and their few remaining indigenous peoples) and purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867. In 1893, an American led coup resulted in the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. A few years later, the Spanish American War of 1898 expanded the Nation’s Imperium to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. In 1903, the Panama Canal Zone was annexed to the United States. These were the glory days of Empire.

American military adventurism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has continued to project the country's vast resources of troops and military technology in pursuit of American cultural, economic and political hegemony. The toll in foreign death and destruction and the wasting of American lives and treasure is beyond counting. The so-called ‘Good War’ (WWII) was, in reality, an internecine battle with the U.K. to establish global financial dominance (achieved at Bretton Woods in 1944); the D-Day bid to salvage a portion of Europe not saved by the Russian army from Nazi Germany; an attempt to establish the dominance of the U.S.A. across the Pacific and most importantly, inspired by a desire to limit the power of the Soviet Union.

Domestically, the blowback from this American Adventurism, underpinned by dreams of Empire and a Capitalist endgame whereby all the world’s resources are concentrated in the hands of the few, are psychic, psychological, and sociological. We see the resultant pathologies played out in our neighborhoods, on Twitter and Facebook. Externally, blowback is reflected in the increasing levels of terrorist violence directed against the U.S.A. and its neoliberal allies.

This summer, I have dedicated my chaparral experiences to a process of lamentation and regret. Come Thanksgiving, I may be ready for a re-naming ceremony whereby it becomes our Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement.

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.”