The Dance of Time

The Upper Ojai Valley, fringed by the Santa Ynez - Topatopa mountain range (still uplifting at the rate of human finger-nail growth) and defined as an upper valley by the seismic shift impelled by the Santa Ana fault - which runs around the base of Black Mountain at the bottom of The Grade - is a gently rising plateau that exists in the quiet center of a rambunctious geomorphic stage.

The over-folded Topatopas, in which, like Bugarach (Coyote Dream), the oldest rock has risen to the top, are old: Eocene old, their antiquity expressed in the crinkles of enfoldment, the fissures of stress and the spalling of rock faces taken to the point of fracture by the shifting pressures of subterranean continents - plate tectonics. During the Eocene, 56 to 34 MYA, the global system of plates underwent a general reorganisation. The shape of the west coast of the continent we now call North America was forged by this subterranean realignment. The Sespe formation consists predominantly of sandstones and conglomerates laid down in a riverine, shoreline, and floodplain environment between the upper Eocene (around 40 MYA) to the end of the Oligocene Epoch (around 24 MYA) (Wikipedia). Within its anticlines (or simple folds) we now seek oil.

Sulphur Mountain, that other piece of the valley's geomorphic furniture, is a Sespe formation anticline, with its newest rock on top and the oil producing strata within, sometimes accessible by a horizontal tunnel as Josiah Stanford discovered in 1861. Using mostly Chinese labor, tunnels were dug throughout the 1860’s, and crude oil was hauled by horse-drawn wagon to Ventura and shipped to San Francisco for distillation into lamp and lubricating oils. Cloaked in oak meadowland, Sulphur Mountain plays yin to the Topatopas yang where the rugged ridges rise above the relict bigcone Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) and chaparral below and feature sandstones unevenly weathered and fractured in creams, reddish-browns, maroon, and grey-greens.

On the upper valley floor: alluvial fan deposits (Holocene - the current geological era) from mountain canyon streams, with depositions via debris flows, mud-flows or braided stream flows, of poorly bedded sandy clay and gravel. In the foothills: alluvial fan deposits of semi-consolidated, poorly sorted gravel, boulder, sand, silt and clay and this organized in drifts around the pre-existing Coldwater sandstone (late Eocene) composed of akosic sandstone (consisting of grains of feldspar and quartz cemented by a mixture of quartz and clay minerals) with siltstone and shale interbeds. To some this may seem academic. Here in Upper Ojai, we live the reality - geology impacting the location of our houses, septic systems and the nature of the landscape that surrounds us.

After a day of blustery off-shore winds, driving down the north south canyons (astride one of which our house sits) the sun began (as I sat scribbling these thoughts) its descent into the region of wispy cloud blossom massed to the west. Here the sun's intensity is diffused by the water vapor and the dust that is suspended in our shallow atmosphere. It becomes  weak and watery, an elegy for the dying day and the passing of seasons and a presage of winter storms, one of which is promised for the weekend. Later, the evening dissolved into halloween crimsons and oranges as the westering sun hit the red, kodachrome spectrum.

The colors of chaparral are muted at this time of year. The rocks are often sombered too, by the overcast. Looking at Sulphur Mountain through a veil of rain, as I do now, one could be excused for describing the landscape as drab. It occupies a range of greys and greens that sometimes, depending on the luminosity of the skybowl, is barely beyond monochrome. Whatever its hue, it is never less than elemental. Indeed, its somber cloak under leaden skies is particularly effective in transmitting the writhing energy of the lithic mantle. The hills really are alive: but their movements are traced on a geologic timescale.

These notions of the elemental, the chromatic, and the deep, tectonic choreography that instructs the geomorphic furniture that surrounds us are gathered together in a spirit that, I hope, suffuse this blog: of a creative gestalt; or, expressed in the idiom of the day (or is it yesterday?) a mash-up. This is, of course, one of the informing principles of twentieth century art - the aggregation of forms and media. So, as I drag this segue kicking and screaming across the page, it is time to mention Pina Bausch.

While Lorrie and I were in Brooklyn recently, Wim Wender's new film, Pina was showing, for two sold-out performance, at BAM. We missed it, but the film, as devoted fans of both artists, was now firmly on our radar. Serendipitously, we were invited, last week, to the L.A. premiere. It was an opportunity to see fragments of four of her works, 'Sacre du Printemps', 'Cafe Mueller', 'Vollmond' and 'Kontakthof'. Each, as presented by Wim, showcases the Bausch obsessions with color, movement and the elemental.

I see much of the world through the scrim of my favorite ecosystem; through my experience in the urban wildland, and through the formal taxonomies of shape, texture, color and movement. Lacking formal botanical, geological or zoological training I see the world first through my senses and in making 'sense' of these impressions I validate them (or not) with an intellectual structure. Pina Bausch raises this sort of methodology to the level of great art. Her chosen medium is theatrical dance - a medium intrinsically temporal and ultimately evanescent. Wim has enshrined her work in an invigorating 100 minutes of 3-D film which has become, following her death at the start of production, a memorial to her intemperate talent.

Is there a connection between dance and landscape? Absolutely - in its appreciation. As I suggested above, they share many characteristics if approached through the senses. What of narrative you ask? Theater represents a compression of time in which themes are explored that, beyond the proscenium, unfold in a broader temporal landscape (so to speak). The natural world takes its own (sweet) time, but the stories are there, and your humble scribe attempts to reveal these narratives in the compressed format of a 1250 word blog piece - trivial work compared to Pina's one new dance piece a year, but both ultimately spring from the same human urge to elucidate the sublime.


  1. Good blog. As I look out at what surrounds me in Upper Ojai, I always wonder where that strong urge comes from to, as you say, "elucidate the sublime." You didn't tell me what you tried to see at BAM .... Wender's Pina played at the Mill Valley film festival along with my nephew's Smokin' Fish - although not at the same time. My friend who also hugely admires both Pina Bausch and Wim Wenders said it was great.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts....Pina (the movie) played at BAM at the end of October. We ended up seeing it in Westwood with Wim in attendance. It makes a great coda to Pina's career.