Of Alchemy and Earwigs

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

I walk out of the house at first light and the enveloping ridge to the east wraps me in its lithic embrace, enfolds me in its darkling biomass and whispers to me of its ineffable secrets. For a moment, my consciousness is permeable, unguarded and malleable. For a moment, in that early morning, my anthropocentrism is capable of being dented by dawn’s hammer. I am fleetingly aware of a greater consciousness, the etheric charge that flows through the earth and into its every being - modern-day humans mostly excepted.

It is the search for such moments of enfoldment into a greater consciousness, of reconnection with the primordial generative spirit that has brought me, like so many others, to Ojai. Many are not even aware of the deeply mystical vortex that has pulled them into the Valley of the Moon, but once ensconced, begin to experience a slowly emerging but inexorable expansion of consciousness. It is here that we begin to feel a reconnection with the cosmos, a limbic reawakening that echoes with memories of the dream time, when we emerged out of nothingness as flickering points of awareness.

It begins, quite simply, with the place. As David Abram notes in The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996, certain mountains, canyons, streams, boulder–strewn slopes and groves of trees have “a particular…. expressive potency and dynamism with which they present themselves to the senses”. The landscape becomes complicit in our construction of meaning - as an animate partner in our sensory world. Abram suggests that it is both the City (where nature is mostly marginalized by the man-made) and the written word (composed of an entirely abstract alphabet divorced from its originating glyphs that related to the natural world) that has distanced us from our co-creators of reality - other beings, plants, earth forms and hydrological expressions on this planet and the solar system beyond. Words and buildings have overwritten a more fundamental text to which we now have diminishing access. Ojai represents a particularly vibrant portal into this lost world of embodied meaning. It represents a showing forth of the earth.

Within this generalized notion there are exquisite examples. Another morning late in May, as I was picking my way down the steep slope that runs down to Sisar Creek from the mesa which spans eastward (more or less) back to Koenigstein, I saw a yellow Mariposa lily. Pink, lilac and purple spotted varieties abound on the dry hills, but a yellow one is unusual in these parts. On the scramble down, my senses alerted, I noted other springtime flowers nestled into the chaparral undergrowth and at the base of lichened rocks (now arrested in their long-ago journey towards the bottom lands). There was yellow pincushion, deerweed, monkey flower and tarweed, each vibrating spectrally somewhere between yellow and orange to create a golden heralding of summer.

It is fire clearance time on the property: raking, weed-whacking and plain old hand weeding the chaparral margins which run along the driveway as it careens down to the road. Mustard, tocalote, clover, erodium, mallow, rye, broame and oats cleared amidst the favored deerweed, sage brush, tarweed and native bunch grasses. Crows gather as I uncover rotting vegetation beneath which earwigs lurk. Fearless, one oily feathered, carmine gulleted, beady eyed specimen lurks close to me hopping awkwardly over newly raked terrain, occasionally beating its wings half-heartedly to clear rocks and debris. Taking a break, I walk downhill towards some east facing boulders one of which offers a particularly comfortable angle against which to recline. I neglect to mention my intentions to the crow. Slouched against the rock, straw hat pulled low over my eyes I settle in for a few minutes repose. Coming out of the east, flying low over the newly cleared landscape comes my crow heading directly for me. At the last moment, as I throw up my arms to protect my head, it veers south and lands on a rock a few feet away and takes a shit: inter-species communication at its most elemental - an avian showing forth. Appropriately, I have no words.

Attempts to broaden ones community of sensorial correspondents (an effort to enlarge the class of species with which a dialogue can be established and in which intimate knowledge can be mutually embodied) have a long history - mostly disparagingly codified as magic, mysticism or alchemy. It is into this realm that Jessica Cornwell, daughter of our neighbors across the hill, ventures in her celebrated first novel, The Serpent Papers, 2015, and in this realm a place is never, as Abram writes, “ just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there. It is an active participant in those occurrences”. He goes on to suggest that, “the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there.” For Jessica, that place is Barcelona.

Cartheginians established an outpost on the coast of Catalunya half a millennium before Christ, and the city has had many subsequent colonizers in Pheonicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Franks, and finally neighboring Iberians whose leaders outlawed the local language in the interests of establishing the hegemony of Madrid, and of Castilian, over an homogenized Spanish nation whose cultural, economic and political influence is still resisted by many Catalonians. As Cornwell writes, the city has been “Scraped and scraped again. Written and rewritten”. Inserted into this protean city, she spins her many layered tale of esoteric knowledge, codes, secret books, murder, mutilation and the present-day survival of the horrors of the Inquisition and its concomitant witch hunting.

Yet at its heart the book deals with the historical search for the relationship between meaning, the written word or glyph (represented here as an ouroboros, a nightingale and a golden moon), the processes of nature and those whose lives are dedicated to the uncovering of shadowy supernatural powers that exist in the liminal space between science and spirituality. In true alchemical tradition there is a sense that time is folding in on itself and the novel successfully creates a palimpsest of history, place and human agency. The nexus that exists between Barcelona and Mallorca and their related esoteric traditions is set against the seemingly more benign folkloric pageantry of Catalunya.

Here in Ojai we have our own esoteric traditions upheld by the Krishnamurti Library, the Krotona Institute, Meditation Mount and the Ojai Foundation all of whose followers, knowingly or not, are dabbling in ancient occult practices. Here, our modern history is underlain by fifteen thousand years of Native American inhabitation whose arcane attempts to harness the power of the universe were practiced locally, most sophisticatedly, by the Chumash ‘Antap (Real Suspense). The secrets of those adepts are now lost, although many in southern California still cling to remnant liturgical aspects of syncretic native American animistic practices, heavily influenced by the showy paraphernalia of the Plains Indians, that emerged along with the Ghost dance towards the end of the nineteenth century. Of the Chumash, lacking a written language (and undoubtedly more thoroughly embedded in what we would now call the bio-diversity of their environment absent the distancing abstractions of the written word) there remains little but faded rock paintings, vestigial spirit paths now claimed as hiking trails, burial poles, and the testimony of the last of their tribe gathered by the early twentieth century ethnographer, J.P. Harrington (Trunk Show).

More commonly, the remaining mystical rituals (founded in south Asian and European traditions) practiced in the valley run the gamut from highly athleticized forms of yoga to a variety of monotheistic liturgies. In between, pantheistic rites are enshrined in the institutions of occult knowledge mentioned above and more generally by anyone who ever sat and watched the pink moment as the setting sun washes the spalled face of the Topatopas in its warm light.

I cling to my own protestant roots and seek direct communion with the chaparral, the crow and even the repellent earwig (Forficula auricularia) absent liturgy, rites or holy books (excepting, perhaps, Milt McAuley’s magisterial Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains, 1996).

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