There Goes the Neighborhood

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Ojai’s economy relies on tourism, agriculture, oil and the wealth of the retirement and second home communities all of which combine to drive its service and retail businesses. Here on Koenigstein, oil is the dominant economic product with a minor assist from avocado and cattle ranching. Its residential community is comprised of a mix of weekenders, retirees and those who commute to work beyond the Topatopa foothills. Nowhere, along this dead end street, with the possible exception of a single avocado farmer and a part-time cattle rancher are there examples of families living on the economic resources of their land. It is predominantly an urban wildland dormitory sustained by incomes generated beyond Upper Ojai while its indigenous oil wealth flows to widely dispersed workers, management and owners.

Of culture workers there are a couple, evidenced, at least, by the Ojai Artist’s Studio tour, which features two neighbors, the recently widowed fauvist painter Nancy Whitman (R.I.P., John, another Death Comes to Koenigstein) and Shahastra Levy who creates romantically lush landscapes entirely at odds with the harsh realities of our surrounding eco-system.

I have constructed a life and now, at Urbanwildland have worked hard at creating a persona at least partly based on an attachment to the chaparral, but that is a long way from living with the land as an economic resource. I have had the luxury of developing a primarily abstract, intellectual and at moments spiritual connection to the land without actually ever having the need to grub a living from it. I accept that that puts me in a privileged position and one from which it is hard to critique the ways and means of those who have a direct economic interest in this landscape.

Nevertheless, as someone who wishes to use the environment as a cultural artifact, I deplore its exploitation on a purely economic basis. The activities of the rancher, the avocado farmer and most of all of the oil companies that besmirch an erstwhile pristine landscape with their noxious mechanical, arboreal and bovine infrastructures are entirely antithetical to my concern to re-wild this land and make metaphoric hay of its adjacency to the urban technological, economic, legal and political conditions that characterizethe tentacular conurbations that sprawl across southern California and are themselves links in global communications and commodities chains. I accept the urban as urban but dearly wish for the wild to be truly wild (excepting my presence within it as your intrepid correspondent).

These musings are partly prompted by having read The Shepherd’s Life by James Redbanks, 2015, based on the author’s life tending his flock on the rugged uplands (or fells) of Northern England’s Lake District. Redbanks does not altogether ignore the irony that he farms in an area which was ground zero, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, for the cultural construction of its rugged landscapes, lakes and mountains as fodder for the feeding of the Romantic sensibility and that this construction, evidenced by continuing tourism (both by car and fell-walking) far outweighs the value of the rough grazing it affords his sheep. He argues that there is value in his continuance of a traditional way of life that reaches back at least five thousand years, provides his family with a living and some part of the general population with meat: it surely does this, but it is at the cost of continuing a centuries-old mono-culture that has contributed to the reduction of local floral, arboreal and faunal species and that now exacerbates the impacts of climate change.

George Monbiot sums up the impact of sheep on Britain’s marginal uplands as ‘sheepwrecking’ in Feral, Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, 2013. Despite the proclamation, as you enter National Forests, that you are broaching a Land of Many Uses, Monbiot makes the point that most human endeavors, driven by remorseless entropy, tend to devolve into monocultures. National Forests are mostly about protecting the nation’s timber supply; lacking oversight by C-Frog and engaged neighbors, Koenigstein would become an oil super-highway as Mirada opens more wells in the Topatopa foothills on its exploratory drive into the Sespe Wilderness; in Britain, the marginal uplands of Wales, England and Scotland, once mostly lightly grazed common land became, upon their privatization through the lamentable Enclosure movement, intensively farmed by landlord’s hoping to profit from the wool trade. Now, with wool a largely devalued commodity, it is the arcane traditions of sheep breeding, sheep-dog training and the insatiable appetite of up-scale restaurants for English spring lamb that drives the five thousand year tradition that, over the millennia has entirely transformed the uplands forest ecology into a grass monoculture incapable of absorbing winter rains and erased much of the complex web of life these primeval hills once supported.

Wordsworth and John Clare among others, bemoaned the enclosure (and thus taming) of the rough edges of England’s lowland arable land that traditionally remained marginal commons available for coppicing and mixed grazing of pigs, sheep and cattle to the landless local peasantry. The industrial revolution then, as in China now, depopulated the countryside leaving it to capital intensive crop mono-cultures necessary to the feeding of urban populations. Monbiot is careful to exclude these highly productive farm lands from his critique: it is the marginal grazing lands that he sees suffering unnecessarily from the ‘white plague’ and which could be most fruitfully re-wilded.

Now Koenigstein, and more generally Ojai, are on the margins of the Southland’s major oilfields (despite the area’s historical status as the location of California’s first oil well in 1867) and could usefully dedicate its wildlands to its prowling top predator, the mountain lion (reliably reported as currently resident in these parts by two neighbors and filmed on security camera by a third) rather than to the economic advantage, on Koenigstein, of the Price family (as owners of Mirada) and the continuing debasement of the climate through carbon mining and gas flaring.

Monbiot favors the reintroduction of the wolf into Britain’s uplands, a move predictably resisted by farmers but one that could quickly re-balance the wild and the tame and remove, once and for all the plague of sheep that infest the uplands and inhibits their higher value as carbon sinks, rain infiltrators and true wildlands. Similarly, greater State and Federal protection for the range of the Puma concolor, black bear and steelhead trout might reasonably re-establish these chaparral lands as untrammeled wilderness - surely now their highest and best use - unthreatened by oil interests, cattle and agriculture and safe even, for the reintroduction of the Grizzly, that great symbol of California (last sighted in Santa Barbara County in 1924) and of the vitiation of its wild lands.

In creating a redoubt and by re-dedicating the surrounding acreage to its highest purpose, of chaparral, there is an ecotone established at our house on Koenigstein balanced between the wild and the urban: it is here I can practice a dialectic of the tame and the untamed and at this interstice, to paraphrase Marx: live a life that determines my consciousness. It is where, in practical terms, a run in the pre-dawn or a walk in the gloaming requires that one carry an air-horn. It is where I can, in odd moments and in these postings, add value to the neighborhood by honing it as a cultural artifact.

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