Scrim of Mist

In my previous piece, Gaia Nation, I mentioned that

"Northwestern California, ... the coastal strip, valleys and mountains from Petrolia northward and east to Mount Shasta, stand apart from the rest of the state. Here, the intense rainfall and dense coniferous forests generated cultural patterns more in common with the Native traditions of the Pacific Northwest."

What we are talking about here is another confluence of bioregion and Native American cultural area: called the North Coast by the California Biodiversity council, it is no respecter of states or nations and sprawls across the coasts of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. As David M. Buerge writes in Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest: An Introduction,

"This is the world of Raven, powerful and immense, resplendent in sunlight, but more often hidden in mist and shadowed by gigantic forests".

A couple of weeks ago, while spending a weekend with my eldest son Edward in East Vancover, I tromped over the second growth forests of Bowen Island, in Howe sound: I was in the land of potlatches, totem poles and Raven at the southern terminus of the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland, in the Salish Sea.

The skeletal stumps of the old growth cedars - pock marked with spring board notches from which loggers could get above the snow or to a point where the trunk emerges from its basal swelling and is thus easier to fell - lay amongst the lush new growth. Lorrie and I were on the island to visit Jeffray, Daphne and Kamile (Saturday Night Special) who live in one of the original cottages built by George H. Cowan as a summer community on the southeastern part of Bowen Island in the early twentieth century.

Wealthy Vancouver families who summered on the island in Cowan's cottages were fed from his garden, dairy, herd of sheep and chickens while his wife organized bucolic entertainments such as moonlight bathing, picnics and nature-walks amidst the towering coniferous forest and along the rocky shore.

The land at Cowan Point is now mostly in the hands of developers whose bucolic vision goes no further then golf courses; amidst serial bankruptcies, the land has been a hard sell - the middle class, its intended market, having vanished in the interim (Thinking MYA ). Jeffray's place, which he has owned since the 1980's is an oasis that harks back to those earlier halcyon days. He has artfully re-modeled the original log cabin and built decks to take advantage of ocean views. Daphne has created gardens around the house but they are under constant siege from deer. Cultivated land (and a trout pond) quickly give way to the enveloping trees.

On the south west corner of the island a new sub-division of raw land, The Cape on Bowen, is firmly targeted at the super-rich and it was here that we tromped with the selling agent, a friend of Jeffray's.

Featuring fourteen ocean front properties with a public trail cutting through the 10 acre lots, each has a narrow beach or sea-cliff frontage and stretches back into the second growth forest of alder, coast douglas-fir, western hemlock, pine, wester red cedar and sitka spruce with an under story of arbutus, ferns and lichens. It was wet, muddy and slippery. The developer (a consortium backed with Chinese money) has done an exemplary job of building infrastructure - beautifully executed roads, drainage channels, culverts and hydro-seeded grass verges and their intention is to bring underground electricity to each lot. The soil is intensely rocky; the rocks unearthed through the road grading process are all crushed on site into gravel for road base. Such attention to detail marks it as a model for the creation of wildland-urban interface property and puts the low-budget development of the seven lots along Koenigstein Road in Upper Ojai to shame. But this is a development of real scale and vast potential financial reward. At The Cape on Bowen, lots are are projected to sell in the low seven figures, and the entire development, of which the sea-front property is but the first stage, is two-thirds the size of Stanley Park and approaches the size of Sea Ranch, in Sonoma County.

It was the development of Sea Ranch that led, after protests from concerned locals wishing to maintain access to the beach along the miles of Sonoma coastline over which it spreads, to the establishment of the California Coastal Commission. Here landscaping is regulated by a design manual which prohibits perimeter fences and limits non-indigenous plants to screened courtyards. A herd of sheep is used to keep grass cut low to the ground to reduce the threat of fire during the summer months. Architecture is similarly regulated which has resulted in congeries of greying, shed-roofed, cedar shingled wood framed houses that appear to have been shaped by the fierce ocean winds and rise up out of the wind-blown meadows like ancient stelae. It was originally designed by Charles Moore, William Turnbull and the landscape architect Joseph Halprin and it continues to set the standard for sensitive landscape and architectural development in areas of high scenic value. Primal wildland it is not: a century or more of grazing has pushed the red wood forest to the north of Pacific Coast Highway where logging has stripped the woods of their old growth timbers.

Logging began on Bowen Island in the 1890's and now a cemetery of old growth stumps memorializes the aboriginal forest. At The Cape, second and third growth passes for wilderness, and for the moment, it is reasonably convincing. Unlike Sea Ranch, however, no architectural or landscape regulations are planned and with development of up to 16,000 feet of building per lot the development is unlikely to retain intimations of the wildland once the coastal lots are built out.

The Coast Salish did not colonize Bowen: they used it as summer hunting grounds for deer and salmon. On the mainland they built split-plank redwood longhouses that in some cases exceeded the square footage allowed at The Cape on Bowen lots, measuring up to 30,000 square feet. These were not, however, single family dwellings but contained many families allied with a chief, along with their slaves.

Something beats in the dark green world of the Pacific Northwest that is perhaps the heart of Gaia - mother earth - and prompted the native people to respond with imagery that is eerily unique in the strength and fluidity of its line whether carved or painted on redwood. There appears to be absolutely no room for human hesitation or doubt in this graphic communication of spiritual impetus and even when reduced to the size of a smoked salmon box-top has an other-worldly aspect. The people of the mist spread along this 2,000 mile long swathe of dripping forest and rock jumbled ocean's edge were very close to the originating power of the universe. Confronting their art or getting some sense of the natural environment in which they lived, is, for me, a profoundly disturbing experience and marks this bioregion as a kind of area 51, a black site where knowledge beyond the bounds of customary human sentience was transmitted.

Salish longhouses were symbolic representations of this universe - their corner posts serving as the cardinal directions of the world and their rich interior depiction of totemic animals filled that world with stories of its creation, warnings of its dangers and celebrations of its benificence. Rained out for days or weeks at at time the Salish and others along the bioregion found a world of light within their longhouses, darkened though they were by the somber hue of the split sequoia patinated by errant wood smoke.

Theirs was an interior life - spooked by the powerful presence of the giant trees but having ample salmon, bear and deer to hunt as well as plentiful berries and nuts at forest edge - they channelled their art through the thumping rhythms of the universe: for Gaia here is covered by the merest scrim of mist.

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