Real Suspense

The 'antap were complicit in the creation and maintenance of a cosmology in which the Chumash people existed in a planar universe - the middle world - reflected above by the celestial bodies of the heavens and below by an underworld of malevolent beings. It was given to the 'antap, an inter-tribelet intellectual elite, to interpret this layered universe and render prognostications based on their close observance of it.

The middle world was quartered and then quartered again. To the east was Kakunupmawa, home of the sun, to the west was both the land of the dead and the ceremonial alignment of Hutash, the earth. From south to north was considered to be the path of the ancient ones searching for pinyon, mirrored above by the Milky Way. These Before People, journeying towards the land of spirits, traveled a ghost's road in a spectral bisection of the earthly plain. The winds blew across this world in each direction and then, in their fickleness, blew again between each of the cardinal alignments.

At the center of it all was the 'Antap plain - playground of all the powers of the Chumash universe: a fearful place riven by the San Andreas fault and still today, largely uninhabited. The Cuddy Valley, as it is now known, occupies that dead zone between Frazier mountain and Mount Pinos. Here, in the lonely urban wildland enclave of Pinon Pines Estates, an unlikely exurb of Santa Clarita, houses have fallen into foreclosure as high gas prices have destroyed its viability as a commuter hub and real estate values continue to drop after the collapse of the bubble in 2008. As one of Harrington's informants reports, "The wind blows strong there and the earth shakes. If you get in there, you never get out". Another informant, Maria Solares, claimed that it was the most sacred place in Chumash country and that spirits danced at night in the flickering light of their fires. Spanish soldiers from Fort Tejon who went there to fell lumber quickly retreated: these spirits may still spook visitors who mistakenly wander into, or build houses within this ectoplasmic maelstrom.

The 'antap governed the ritual life of native American society as it existed north from Malibu, south from Paso Robles and west of the Central Valley. The 'alchuklash, astronomer priests of the 'antap followed the the sun, moon, stars, constellations and planets and saw them as personified supernatural beings whose behaviors, games and relationships must be swayed by the appropriate ritualistic intercessions otherwise, as Hudson and Underhay note in Crystals in the Sky: An Intellectual Odyssey Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology and Rock Art, 1978,"cosmic equilibrium would be lost and disaster for the entire biotic world would surely follow". This was a heavy responsibility and never more onerous when only the correct observance of Chumash ritual could coax the sun, after its three days of apparent paralysis at the winter solstice, to turn to the north and bring the world back to the warmth and light of spring in its annual re-birth.

Celestial beings mediated Chumash reality from above but they were also twinned with creatures that inhabited the terrestrial plain. The deer was associated with the Milky Way while the spirit of Mars was mirrored in the condor. Wolves, bears, antelope and rabbits all had their astral associations, while the essence of Polaris, the north star, inhered in the coyote and it was thus known as Shnilemun, Sky Coyote. (Today, after a long absence, two of these animals were roaming the meadow below the house: come nightfall their star will appear somewhere above the implacable shadows of the Topatopa ridge-line).

Chumash knowledge and practice were woven in a complex framework within which the local indians conducted their daily lives. Of modern-day America, Jean Beaudrillard wrote,

"Astral America...the direct star-blast from vectors and signals, from the vertical and the spatial...Sideration. Star-blasted, horizontally by the car, altitudinally by the plane, electronically by television, geologically by deserts, stereolyptically by the megolopoloi, transpolitically by the powergame, the power museum that America has become for the whole world".

Never mind what exactly he means, and perhaps it reads better in French, but what he expresses here is his foundational premise that we experience the world through a simulacrum of our own construction. Elsewhere in America, his 1986 ode to the anomie of the United States he writes,

"Everything is destined to reappear as simulation. Landscapes as photography, women as sexual scenario, thoughts as writing, terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television."

The Chumash experienced their world largely as it was reflected in the phenomena of celestial bodies, the agency of spirits that inhabited the flora and fauna of the chaparral and the coastal scrub and the ritual activities orchestrated by the 'antap. Their world, like ours, was mediated. Their points of connection with the physical universe became touchstones in an elaborate liturgy that attempted to neutralize the dark forces of the underworld. Misunderstandings and misconstructions of the universe as it was explicated in the Chumash cosmology could only be rectified by the intercession of a shaman who had the ability to travel directly to, and deal with, elemental, unmediated, sources of power. The Shaman, (like the nuclear physicist and, perhaps, the neurosurgeon), was able to eschew metaphor: the uninitiated could grasp the world's cosmic energy only if it was insulated by mythical elaboration. As T.S. Eliot noted in another context, "Humankind cannot stand very much reality".

The asceticism of the Zen monk enables him to grapple with the nature of being (and becoming) that elude most of us star-blasted souls living within close range of our culture's toxic radiation. The 'antap, too, necessarily stood apart. The priest astronomers, the 'alchuklash, and the shaman magicians within the 'antap were further removed - their direct observation and intercession shaped the rituals scheduled, performed and interpreted by their cult  - which ameliorated other lives lived in this penumbra of tales, association and omen.

Living in nature is no guarantee of enlightenment. Most Chumash and their predecessors, the Before People, (who existed in a world before the acorn was the Indian's food) lived in a simulacrum constructed for them by priests and magicians. Their ability to break through what we might call the fourth wall was highly proscribed. We face similar challenges in accessing unmediated reality. The occasional sighting of a coyote or bobcat, a walk through the heavy scents of the chaparral, the surveying of a reasonably unblemished night sky or awakening to a rosy fingered dawn can sometimes seem to offer special dispensation, a glimpse beyond culture's veil, but we are soon clawed back into Beaudrillard's America, where "the fact of living is not really well attested, but the paradox of this society is that you even cannot die....since you are already dead. This is real suspense".


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