Mission Statement

There are signs everywhere that I am well and truly infected with the zeitgeist - blogging in the main-stream of what is arguably a major tributary to our shared, contemporary world culture. I am concerned with the particularities of place, my place – its landscape, its wildlife and its relevance within its broader bio-region. It is these concerns and my self-characterization as an independent historian, natural historian and speculative environmentalist (who shares his thoughts in essay form) that position me squarely in an increasingly popular genre. I have been reading Robert Macfarlane, a well-known British nature writer and a leading practitioner of said literary niche: I feel affirmed and only a little chagrined that everything I have ever said he has said better.

I suppose it was my father who first introduced me to some of the rituals pertaining to this particular form of creative non-fiction (Knowledge Scrublands). He would quote George Borrow’s minor nineteenth century classic, Lavengro (which I dimly recall sitting within the glass-cased bookshelf) and talk of those, ‘wind on the heath, brother’ types. I knew whom he meant, they wore shorts and carried khaki canvas knapsacks and strode across the Surrey downs. He was secretly one of them, although he wore a tweed suit, swung a cherry walking stick and spurned a back-pack  - often with me, in grey-flannel shorts, in-tow. It is only now, with the help of Mr. Google that I can connect this derisive characterization with a book he loved in which a character declaims that even in sickness and blindness he would cling to life, for when,

"There's the wind on the heath, brother; if I could only feel that, I would gladly live forever”.

Sitting in our back yard this evening, I had a similar thought: will I ever tire of this view? And then, as Lorrie and I enjoyed the deepening colors of the evening - highlighted by the puce clouds in a still bright sky – a tremulous breeze wafted down the canyon and I realized that perhaps this haptic caress was, indeed, all I needed to remain connected to the wildland that surrounds us (well, that and the nocturnal mewling of the bobcats and the hysterical eventide caterwauling of the coyotes).

My father, who I sometimes characterize as the last of the Edwardians (born three years after the end of that brief reign, 1901-1910) was, it now seems, ahead of his time. Robert Macfarlane calls Borrow ‘the most charismatic of modern walker-writers’ who ‘set images loose in the nineteenth century imagination’. He certainly stirred something in my father who in turn, contrived to focus my aesthetic fetishism on the natural world,

“There’s night and day brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?”


Although Macfarlane’s new book, The Old Ways, A Journey on Foot, explores paths in Tibet, Palestine and Spain his home territory is the British Isles - what he calls the archipelago - and thus however intimidated I may be by his being, by Pico Iyer’s account, ‘the most accomplished (and erudite) writer on place to have come along in years’, as long as he stays well clear of the chaparral I can continue in my endeavors with some sense of purpose.

Meanwhile, not a chapter of his goes by without turning my head into a veritable carillon of ringing bells. Take ‘Grave’ in The Wild Places, for instance, where he writes of Burren on the west coast of Ireland, ‘Walking its grey reaches, you find memorials to the dead everywhere: stone circles, dolmens, wedge-tombs, headstones, crosses, burial grounds consecrated and unconsecrated’. And later, ‘At certain times and in certain places….one could see through the present land, the land of the living, backwards into another time, to a ghost landscape, the land of the dead.’

Walking the land this morning I propped up a rusted skeleton of a truck door from the 40’s or 50’s on a rock beneath the canopy of a fire-scarred live-oak, a makeshift memorial to the time when this was still a working ranch. At my childhood home in Surrey, built on land that had been farmed for millennia, and before that, grubbed and hunted across by early man, the earth offered up its past in artifacts like the hubs of old cart wheels, rusted scythe blades, hand forged nails, once, a Roman coin, and much Neolithic detritus such as skin scrapers and hand axes.

Here, across the road, where Bear Creek widens just east of Margot’s house, Scott Titus, who grew up at the Koenigstein/150 junction (in the house where fellow blogger Kit Stolz (A Change in the Wind) and his wife Val now live), tells me that he and his friends would unearth stone tools and debitage (lithic flakes from their manufacture) along its banks. Where once was an Indian village now frolic fuzzy coyote pups who venture forth to gambol along road’s edge and occasionally poke their collective noses up our driveway. These physical manifestations of erstwhile spirit helpers and Datura givers are now multiplying in the wake of a decimating parvo epidemic and preparing to put a serious check on our burgeoning rabbit population.

While the only known grave site in Upper Ojai is adjacent to the Awha’y village, just west and south of here, where lie buried the bones and artifacts of the departed Chumash, every Indian village contained its own burial area with bodies interned alongside tomol planks to enable their voyage to Shimilaqsha, beyond the western shore; their sky-journey marked with feathered and painted spirit poles placed on prominent hilltops. From the eastern reaches of Upper Ojai, perhaps the first such marker was erected on Kahus (Bear Mountain, now called Black Mountain).

No stone circles, dolmens, wedge-tombs, headstones, and crosses, but still this land is memorious (a favorite Macfarlane word!) of its human past - occasionally, hereabouts, rock art; sometimes cave shelters where carbon traces, bones, seeds and fiber betray a long-ago life; or depressions in the land revealed after a fire, that mark a village site - and paths.

Now is the time to explore the Indian spirit, summit and trading trails that start from Point Mugu and head off into the Boney Mountain State Wilderness through blackened land burnt in The Springs Fire which began on May 2, this year. Officially designated number 344, it has 343 predecessors – major fires in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (which more or less overlays the Chumash heartland) dating back to 1925. Despite the lack of Indian burnings over the last couple of centuries, our smoking, barbequing and often just plain malicious society has contrived to replicate the intensity, if not the finesse, of their pyro-activity, and in this case may have again revealed the Chumash way over the mountains towards their inland trading partners and their vision-quest sites in the Simi Valley.

Northwest over the mountains, down through Thousand Oaks, across the 101, onward towards Bell Canyon and then into Santa Susana State Historical Park where Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory now awaits radio-nuclide clean up and ultimate inclusion in the park, (complete with one of the finest remaining Chumash painted caves): here is an urban wildland path waiting to be discovered.

This is not easy country. Vestigial signs of its past are not easily given up. The frenetic human imprint of the last one hundred and fifty years has all but obliterated the previous 10,000 years of human presence. Mature chaparral is almost impenetrable; the trails – where they exist - can be steep and rocky; the suburban sprawl and the Amazonian freeways that service their off-ramp populations obdurately resistant to anything but vehicular passage, yet I have a feeling that George Borrow might have found a way.

If I have learnt anything from Robert Macfarlane it is that arm-chair research only goes so far. The wildland demands a physical engagement and in that effort may be revealed a glimmer of understanding.  On Wordsworthian reflection, that little knowledge may then be expanded in the act of writing.

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