Things Fall Apart

In David Foster Wallace's great book, Infinite Jest, Little Brown, New York, 1996, the USA has been transmuted into ONAN - the Organization of North American Nations a post-NAFTA amalgam of America, Canada and Mexico. The great seal features an eagle wearing a sombrero with a maple leaf in its beak.

I am 400 pages into this densely footnoted, 1000 page tome which I have declared as my summer reading. I am acutely aware that Labor Day is less than a month away. But having reached the middle stages of the book it falls open more readily and I can now make good progress before, once again, the actual mechanics of holding the book become difficult. It is a good advertisement for a Kindle, Nook or i-Pad but toting the paperback to a solitary lunch in L.A. or having it lie in the front seat of the car when I am pumping gas has exposed me to members of that fraternity that have either read the book and are devoted to it or are determined to take it up 'when there's time'. There is of course no time like the present, but with a book of this heft, the present takes on historical dimensions.

While the success or failure of the European Community still hangs in the balance, it remains an example of the way that the political and economic arrangements of a continent can change in ways unthinkable half a century before. Although I broached the idea of California Succession to State Senator Shiela Kuhl some years ago at a fund-raiser I did so as a mild provocation rather than any heartfelt political belief (for the record, she was not amused and perhaps detecting my English accent, asked me whether I had ever heard of the Civil War - she turned to another conversation before I had the chance to tell her that not only had I heard of it, I had taught it's complex history to a fair number of this state's impressionable teenagers (California Dreamin' 2010-02-27)).

As a onetime teacher of history and now a reader of it (and occasionally touching on it in this blog), my approach to History is less ideological than it is tempered by a profound belief in discounting the most fervidly held shibboleths of conventional, sentimental wisdom. I am thus receptive to ideas like Wallace's that challenge the apparent immutability of these United States. I have always thought that it might make sense for the Western states, Mexico, British Columbia and Alaska to coalesce as some sort of Pacific Rim political and economic entity.

When entertaining this thought the one thing that gives me pause is the number of military bases there are in Southern California......does the federal government just hand them over to California (as happened when the USSR dissolved and constituent states were presented with nuclear missile bunkers, tank squadrons and airfields) lease them back or, Guantanamo style, retain ownership of the mosaic of defense installations?.

In this reverie I am concerned with avoiding a Fort Sumter-like situation where the Union refused to give up the fort to South Carolina, one of the seven states that originally declared secession. Its subsequent bombardment by the North began the Civil War: I am not so concerned with the ownership of the military hardware, what clouds this daydream is the thought that the vast acreage of defense lands would be threatened in some way. The fact is that the military have, without intention, become one of the great conservators of wildlands in California.

They have been, for instance, vastly more successful than the Coastal Commission in preserving wetlands. Drive by Ballona wetlands on Lincoln in Mar Vista and then Point Mugu on the PCH and you will understand my point. Mugu Lagoon into which the Calleguas creek flows, sits to the north of the one pristine wetland between L.A. and Ventura - protected by the Naval Base at Port Hueneme. The Military are landlords on a grand scale, and lacking the profit motive, are content to let vast areas of land lie fallow in the interest of perimeter security, the occasional 'exercise' or, as at China Lake, just outside of Ridgecrest, a ground zero for short-range missiles.

Earlier in the year, after presenting my new American passport to the phalanx of security at the entry to the Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS), China Lake, I visited the Navy's 1.1 million acres of land in California's upper Mojave Desert. I was headed for the high ground of the Cosos where several canyons run through the north south trending ridge and contain the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the Americas and quite possibly the world. Little Petroglyph canyon is currently the only canyon open to a tour chaperoned by retired rocket scientists - with an interest in archeology. The Rock Art is pristine with none of the graffiti that plagues smaller sites outside of this vast security compound. While sporadically littered with spent rockets the dry lake, mountains and plains are also safe from the maraudings of the 'Green' power industry who see the Mojave as prime solar and geo-thermal pickings.

Britain was forever changed after the Suppression Acts of 1536 and 1539 dissolved hundreds of monasteries, abbeys, and priories and their lands, property and wealth were taken by the crown or sold off to supporters of Henry VIII. In California, the establishment of the Ranchos - political spoils gifted at the discretion of the Mexican government after the banishment of the Franciscans - impacted the dispostion of nature and civilization, the wild and the tamed, in the entire region. With or without the development of an altered political landscape, the military, as one of the largest institutional landowners in the state, is pivotal in any consideration of wildland resources in California.

On Friday, Jodi Kasch, the photographer, came by to take pictures of the house for an article to be published in Ventana magazine in September. It turns out that she had lived for ten years or more on the Flying H ranch which in the 1980's ran on both sides of the 150 west of Happy Valley. Her then husband Taylor Kasch, taught at Happy Valley School and began the theater program there which today thrives under the direction of Scott Campbell.

She told us tales of finding metates and shells on the ranch in what were clearly Chumash village sites. Although the ranch still exists (in 2007 Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marie Shriver made an unsuccessful bid for it) much of the land was sold around the turn of the century and it is now dwarfed by its spawn, Aspen Grove Ranch and Black Mountain Ranch on either side of the 150.

Much of Upper Ojai remains locked in large estate holdings and like the military bases, the size of the acreage contributes to the continuing viability of wildland species and avian predator flyovers. On the south side of the Sulpher Mountain ridge, as it slopes down to the 126 is the Aliso Ranch, the oldest continually operating cattle ranch in Ventura County. William Dewey Hobson began running cattle in Ventura in 1859 and by 1910 the Hobson brothers made Aliso Ranch the headquarters of their operation - which later came to include the Flying H Ranch in Upper Ojai. Today, the Aliso property is lightly ranched and the 7,000 acres of oaks, hills, canyons, and chaparral provide happy hunting grounds for mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and their prey as they roam up and over the ridge into our high valley.

While the greatest threat to California wildlands has historically been commercial and residential real estate development along with the associated infrastructure of roads and power distribution, the enduring economic down turn has eased these pressures. At the same time, the increasing fragility of the State's economic situation, the disfunction of the federal government and the changing demographics of the state make for a political and economic tinderbox. It is in this context that it is useful to consider the fate of the wiildlands in the futures with which we may be presented: while ONAN, CONAN (California Organization of North American Nations - with, inevitably, Schwarzenegger as its first President) or some barbaric fragmentation of central power may await us - what seems certain is,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

From "The Second Coming" W.B. Yeats, 1919

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