Sex and the City

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

In the scrublands between Sisar Road and the braided, currently dry creek bottoms that cross the Ojai Oil Company leases that back up to Koenigstein, there's a spot where nothing grows. Until now.

Now, it is transformed by an efflorescence.

The flowers are a deep, reddish pink (a more venturesome writer might even suggest heliotrope but I think the tiny blossoms lack sufficient blue to make them a candidate for this description - and as a chaparral denizen such highfalutin, literary color names are inimical to the cultural setting in which this plant community finds itself (see below)). The stalks too, have a reddish cast. They grow low to the ground forming a loosely woven carpet with a pile that is about six inches deep. They are stunningly beautiful: their name is Turkish rugging (Chorizanthe staticoides).

This sandy patch, strewn with small rocks, pebbles, twigs and scat where previously nothing grew, is about twenty five feet in diameter and has revealed itself, for this moment in June, as a plush Fairy circle. Elsewhere along the trails I am revisiting, after almost a month in Europe, acourtia is in bloom. It's pink-purple flower heads are lifted high atop stalks wrapped in ragged, papery leaves. In places where there is an understory of popcorn flowers (now mostly dried and gone to seed) there is this floating field of purple with a low understory of grey fuzz. Between the floral plane and dwarfish thicket floor, the antic acourtia, its foliage susceptible to every passing breeze, undulates like a terrestrial kelp forest.

Higher up in the Topatopa foothills on a switchback canyon trail, passing through early morning sun and then deep shade (where the cliff side plants seem to welcome, as do I, their respite from solar irradiation) I notice the white flowers: white sage barely in bloom, convolvulus, sprinkles of remaining-in-bloom popcorn flower, and yucca. From elsewhere in Ojai, I think of the giant roadside flowers of datura, of the at-our-front door California everlasting and everywhere, the heavily planted Matilija poppy (although there is no sign of it in my chaparral neck of the woods).

Of them all, the yucca stands out: exhibiting its buxom blossoms in a wanton display to lure a pollinating embrace of its blooms from its dedicated moth-toys. In the demure surroundings of the self-effacing chaparral, such brazen floral displays seem oddly out of place. What we notice of flowering plants is most often their means of reproduction - their flowers, their sex organs. Unnervingly, the voluptuous Yucca whipplei stands, in spring, at the very edge of species transgression.

Back in the garden (those areas of the chaparral turned into weedscapes by the soil disturbance of the development process) I have been busy culling the aliens, primarily brassicas and tocolote. The grasses are terminally bleached, but the deer weed and tar weed are in bloom, giving a yellowy-green cast to the meadows; the hills, where the chaparral plant community has remained undisturbed, except by fire, for thirty thousand years, remain largely unchanged from a month ago, although the fruits of the holly leaf cherry are now fully engorged and ready for consumption by the family of foxes that has taken up residence just across the seasonal stream to the east of the house.

In short, I have resumed my Thoreauvian transcendental triathlon of trail-running, weeding and ruminating - an activity first mooted, in slightly different form, by Jay Atkinson of the New York Times. In the week that I have been back these ruminations have sometimes been clouded by the pall that descended over me in Paris, where I spent the last three days of the trip.

Paris began as an Iron-age fishing village founded on the banks of the Seine by Pictish bands of Celts. It was a significant outpost of the Roman Empire after Julius Caesar conquered Paris in 52 B.C. Under Charlemagne, it became a center of learning and by the end of the first millennium it was firmly established as the French capital.

As the power of its Kings increased it remained a seat of theological and secular learning. The Renaissance saw Louis XIII's chief minister Cardinal Richelieu, establish the French Academy and build the Palais Royale and the Luxembourg Palace. In the seventeenth century, the Monarchy supported men of science. The Enlightenment provided an illumination that revealed the threadbare nature of medieval mysticism and thus doomed the power of absolute monarchies (its early supporters had imagined an entirely different outcome: where kings and queens controlled the new sciences to further their hold over their kingdoms). After the Revolution, Napoleon enriched the Louvre (re-purposed in 1793, from Royal palace to museum) with artworks plundered from the countries he and his armies had conquered.

Haussmann's renovation of Paris was a vast nineteenth century public works program commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III which swept away the old medieval city and replaced it with axial avenues, parks and squares. While the plan provided needed light and air and vastly improved sanitation, it was visibly a scheme dedicated to the glorification of the Emperor rather than his people. Now, having uniquely survived the twentieth century's two world wars with nary a scratch, Paris remains a city historically redolent of a great deal of plunder and very little redistribution.

Despotism didn't entirely stop with the demise of aristocratic absolutism. A new kind of tyranny emerged from the Revolution and predictably the response was a military coup. Under the pretext of protecting the Homeland, Napoleon began a world wide campaign aimed at global hegemony. Sound familiar? In Paris, the architectural artifacts of the French saga of Ancien Regime, Directory, Consulate, Empire, Bourbon Restoration, Constitutional Monarchy, the Second Empire (Napoleon III), and the founding of the Third Republic retain their power to chill me to the marrow.

The latest iteration of societal control is now evidenced by a bloated bureaucracy that attempts to fully occupy the vast hulks that loom over the streets of central Paris. The Nazis too, took every advantage of the palatial digs available to them in their conquered city. Now, the Baroque gaucheries and Gothic pinnacles that rise up along the avenues, mansarded with green-grey zinc, or steeple-roofed in lead, still weave their architectonic spell of an authoritarian and spiritual disdain for the sans culotte who beetle along the pavements below.

My longest mile in Paris was the walk between the imposing flanks of first, the Louvre, formerly the palace of the young Louis XV, then the Palais Royale - after Richelieu, home to the Duke of Orleans, regent to the pre-pubescent Sun King and later the official residence of the Bourbons. In 1848, after the Bourbon Restoration, it was looted and trashed by the Parish mob. In 1870, it was fire-bombed by anarchists still acutely aware of the building's status as a symbol of aristocratic oppression. It survived: now, as one moves through central Paris under the dread architectural influence of the first and second estate (the aristocracy and the clergy) one can feel, not unreasonably, a momentary soupçon of regret that the Nazis were unable to follow through on their intention of razing the City before abandoning it to the triumphant American liberation of 1945.

No matter: as the lively bans lieu foment future insurrections (continuing the long tradition of resistance offered up by Parisians to the establishment) and the Financial, High-Tech and Entrepreneurial sectors establish camp in the La Defense district beyond the old city, where the triumph of Capital is announced by gleaming towers of commerce that cluster like giant crepuscular ice shards on the horizon, the irrelevance of Central Paris becomes increasingly apparent - except perhaps as a bizarre chamber of horrors that caters to the blissfully ignorant tribes of global tourists who still gather there.

The great Romantic philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who died on the eve of the Revolution) wrote in his Discourse on Inequality, 1754,

"The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."

We can only hope that the French rule of aristocratic absolutism marked a high-point of such imposture.

It's good to be home where the democracy of the chaparral plant community remains unassailable.

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