Cool: Very Cool

The deerweed is aflame. Not literally - it has assumed the ruddy hues of autumn in late July. Like Joseph, and more locally, poison oak, it has a coat of many colors. A few weeks ago it was a bright green carpet and a little before that it was covered in its yellow blossoms; now it is at its most flamboyant - featuring rust, carmine and orange with a faint green under-glow. As the sun rakes across it, morning and evening, it is extraordinary.

When the crew from Ventura County Fire Department Station 20 arrived to do its inspection of our property, Lorrie explained that the bowl that surrounds the pool terrace at the back of our house was covered in deerweed, a plant used by the Chumash to thatch their sweat lodges because, she emphasized, of its fire-resistant properties (Saxon Hall and Edge Times). They signed us off. When I was researching this piece I Googled 'deerweed' and 'sweat lodge' to confirm a source for this information. Inevitably, in the echo-chamber world of Google, my recent Urban Wildland entries were first up followed by....not very much.

As I mentioned in Owlish Avatar, John Peabody Harrington is the only game in town with respect to ethnographic data on the Chumash, so it was a fair bet that he was the source of the information. In the event, I checked with an ink and paper source, Jan Timbrook's Chumash Ethnobotany, essentially a compendium of Harrington's botanical notes, and there, on page 118 was the quote: "ya'i (the Barbareno word for deerweed) was the only plant the Chumash used for thatching sweat-houses, said Fernando Librado, (a Harrington 'consultant') because it was not flammable."

Fernando Librado, born in 1839, was one of Harrington's oldest consultants and may have spoken with surviving elders of his tribe whose memories went back to the eighteenth century, but it is doubtful that he had personal experience of Chumash sweat lodges. Edward S. Curtis, the ethnographer and photographer of native peoples writes, when referring to the Southern Californian Shoshone, that the distinct culture of the Channel Islands and lands to the north was comprised of "the now all but extinct Chumash family", The North American Indian, Vol. 15, Southern California Shoshoneans et al, Whitman Bennett, NY, 1926. Half of Harrington's consultants were dead by the early 1920's, but he produced, right at the beginning of the twentieth century, a large quantity of ethnographic material (Yuccapedia) from sources which, just a few years later, had faded from the scene. Entirely lacking in data and pictorial material, the energetic and inquisitive Curtis thus makes no room for the Chumash in his encyclopedic review of native peoples.

Apart from holding our new slope together - entirely unbidden, for it volunteered for duty amidst the hydro-seeded grasses - deerweed, Lotus scoparius (broom shaped) provides food for hummingbirds, bees, butterfly larvae, and, of course, deer. It also provides cover for bobcats. While traditionally assumed to take up their hunting position on a low promontory or a rock (and I have seen them behave thus) they employ other strategies. A couple of evenings ago we were treated to a little cat and rabbit entertainment. A mature bobcat, variously taking cover in deerweed or bunchgrasses, stalked a rabbit which sat, for the most part, frozen in the middle of the driveway. The rabbit occasionally responded to flanking maneuvers by the cat with a quick scoot to another driveway position where it would again assume the frozen demeanor of a garden ornament. This went on for half an hour or more with the cat eventually losing interest. I wrote of a similar but shorter and less entertaining predator/prey action in Return to Bear Canyon.

The next morning, turning the corner of the house I glimpsed a young bobcat strolling along the pool coping and then bound into the deerweed towards a clump of rocks where late in the winter we had seen several bobkittens playing (Bobcat Magic). This specimen was likely of that litter now grown to juvenile status. As is common with the breed, it was remarkably brazen once it had established what it considered to be a reasonable social space between us - meeting my gaze eyeball to eyeball.

Like Mountain Lions, Bobcats are territorial and solitary. But because their ranges are so small - they are essentially homebodies - their densities are much greater. Male home range sizes average 4900 acres, about seven square miles and female ranges average 2900 acres or about four square miles. As with the lions, female ranges are smaller than male ranges, so a male has access to two or more females in his range with which he can mate.

Home ranges are elliptical in shape and boundaries often follow roads, streams, or other natural contours. Boundaries, as well as range sizes, shift seasonally. For instance, males tend to expand their boundaries during the breeding season in order to maximize the opportunities to find a mate. When rearing young kittens, females often appear to use less area because of the need to tend to their litter. (Bobcat Ecology)

What are we seeing? Certainly a litter of young bobcats, and perhaps the mother. We have seen at least two different adult bobcats recently. One with very exaggerated jail-bird leg striping and the other with a curl at the end of its tail. What is very clear is that statistically, we are far more likely to see a bobcat than a mountain lion, for they outnumber them something like twenty to one.

Similarly outnumbered (by deerweed), but still a mid-summer star, is Tarweed (Deinandra fasciculata),  usually found, here at least, amongst bunchgrasses and favoring areas of winter moisture. It is also a 'broom' plant and was used as such by the Chumash. It also produces black seeds used in a flour or as a pinole. By Harrington's time, Timbrook tells us, this had gone out of favor and it was only tenuously remembered as a foodstuff by his informants. It is worth repeating that Harrington lived at the ragged edge of a distantly practiced culture: those pupporting to represent Chumash culture today do so not as a remembered tradition but as an invented gestalt of pan-American Indian syncretism.

Tarweed blossoms are intensely yellow, the green foliage small and overpowered, visually, by the brightness of the flowers. The blossoms too, are small and achieve their impact by their profusion on a substantially skeletal plant. Dried, the flowers last through the year and retain almost all of their intensity of hue.

Late July in the chaparral: bleached grasses, rusty orange deerweed and the fluorescent yellow of the tarweed. I asked Laurence Nicklin (Return to Bear Canyon) what his favorite time of the year was - he answered spring and fall. He did not ask the question of me: had he done so I might have suggested high-summer: intense color; intense smells; early morning mists and the powerful drone of cicadas at night; my senses aflame. Hot? No, cool. Very cool.

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