2012-11-19

Red, Blue or Green

About a week ago, after a long and very warm fall, winter fell like a hammer. A couple of days later, when the daytime temperature returned to the 80's F. we were able to joke, 'well, that was winter'. Such are the joys (and yuks) of living in southern California. But the fact is, the season has changed - our pool water temperature has slumped to 60 and there's no way it's getting any higher until next April, however many 80 degree days we have over winter - cold nights wipe away the day's injection of solar calories.

Apart from the loss of our swimming privileges, there's not much to dislike about the start of winter in the chaparral. Low to the ground the grasses are sprouting and above, the winds are ruffling dried summer stalks. There has been just enough rain to wipe the grime off of the leaves and the grey green hills have adopted a more emphatic verdure. Now, you'd think, we'd begin to see more wildlife - newly comfortable in meadowlands no longer withering in the heat of summer.

It hasn't turned out that way. No bobcats or foxes and precious few deer; occasionally a distant coyote chorus in the middle of the night but no sightings. We have pursued several explanations. Was it the early summer appearance of a mountain lion? I spoke with Ilona the other day (she and Les are planning to build a 4000 sq. ft. house on a knoll just below Josh and Megan's place (Love comes to Koenigstein)) and she blames the half dozen mules that Josh runs which have stripped the pastures bare on both sides of his property as it spans Koenigstein. Certainly the fencing of the old Lazy Two Ranch (Death Comes to Koenigstein) has impacted the game trails that once ran free over the ridge, but there's still plenty of open land.....I am not convinced. Then, I met Charlotte walking her dogs along Los Osos and she mentioned that the bow hunters at the top of the road (who I had run into early mornings and were, I thought, hunting rabbits) had a permit to hunt deer on the Old County Farm property, now owned by a local family, the Drinkwaters. How many deer, I wonder, do you have to shoot before spooking the entire local population?

In any case, we are now down to a solitary roadrunner (notable amidst more prosaic but always prolific bird-life). Alex and I spotted it again on the west meadow the other day. They are sprightly birds, but are really best in their role as light relief: they don't have the gravitas to perform as the primary wild life attraction as we gaze from our windows. We are searching for more archetypal fauna. Somewhere, in the activities of our local top predators - man and lion - lies, I suspect, the explanation for this apparent faunal desertification. Alex found the hind legs of a fox the other day, stripped clean of meat but with enough mangy fur to afford identification. Mountain lion? Coon hounds? These latter are another peripheral annoyance - they are a pair owned by Peter Jump the entomologist (Alpine Chaparral), that he allows to run free over the chaparral chasing game. Perhaps one day they will meet their match.

This country has just emerged from its quadrennial exercise in considering the merits of two shades of grey: a ritual that involves the highly constrained discussion of doctrinal difference where little of real substance is at stake. Nevertheless, despite the marginal nature of the debate, the country emerges with two populations: the vanquished and the victorious. Traditionally, the beaten side briefly retires to its rural sanctuaries, suburban enclaves or urban salons to ruminate over the unjustness of their recent defeat and plot revenge scenarios. Meanwhile, the real business of the country continues undisturbed within this larger celebration of the exceptionalism of its people, uniquely beneficent governmental structure and the glorification of its militaristic might.

Four years ago, we escaped to this particular world of rusticity for reasons that had almost nothing to do with our preferred shade of grey. Arguably, we have retreated to a sanctuary where majority political opinion runs counter to our own. Many who live and and work here pursue activities within the Urban wildland that are inimical to our largely passive consumption of what we presume are its aesthetic and spiritual qualities. I readily admit to being an urban dilettante operating at the margins of the wildland in ways that probably mystify many of those who are more established residents.

Thus I have found it convenient to center my own validation more on the area's erstwhile indigenous populations than its current inhabitants. I recently found further support for my removal from the fray from an unlikely quarter: seventeenth century China, where many of the country's most celebrated artists withdrew from public life (while the bloody war conducted by the invading Manchu Qing dynasty destroyed the old order of the Ming Empire) and sought solace in nature and reclusion. Some of the work produced by these cosmopolitans in rustic exile is currently on display at The Santa Barbara Museum of Art's exhibit, The Artful Recluse. The exhibition is highlighted by a monumental work of twelve, hanging scrolls from the National Palace Museum, Taiwain titled,  Plants of Virtue and Rocks by Water (Sketching Bamboo) by Shitao (1642–1707). I recommend it.

The exhibit moves to the Asia Society in New York next spring, where the anticipatory blurb reads,

"This is the first exhibition to explore the theme of reclusion in Chinese painting and calligraphy within the broader context of political and social changes during the seventeenth century, a time of rich cultural expression and dramatic political change. The trauma of the Ming dynasty’s collapse...and the Manchu Qing conquest provided an extraordinary context for the creation of historically conscious, often emotionally charged and deeply personal paintings and works of calligraphy. These images, however varied, share an overarching theme of reclusion, a concept of withdrawal and disengagement that has deep and significant roots in China..."

The Qing dynasty was established by the Manchu (Mongolian tribes that had conquered Manchuria in the early middle ages) in 1636, when, allying with rebel Ming generals, they emerged as a major threat to China's rulers. In 1644, the last Ming emperor hanged himself on a hill overlooking his palace. The rebel generals were dispensed with and the Manchus entered Peking and from that time on it was a Manchu emperor who sat on the throne of China until Hsian-T'ung, the last of his dynasty, was forced to abdicate following Sun Yat-sen's republican revolution in 1912.

Mid seventeenth century, China's artists and poets headed for the hills rather than live under a foreign regime. The poetry and painting produced in their rural retreats represented a transcendence of political trauma; their work still resonates with those of us retreating from the clamor of red versus blue. In the green of the urban wildland I have found an inspirational refuge.

Huang Ding (1660-1730), in a poem called Silent Mountains in the Evening writes,

     Passing alone through the empty mountains, caged by evening mist,
     On a special visit to an isolated recluse, examining the lying pines.
     Suddenly, the toils of the dusty world are completely dissolved;
     The single tone of a bell from deep within the verdant cliffs.

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