Time Clock

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Our voyage across pellucid seas, chased by a pod of elegantly arching dolphins, held no hint of the approaching scene. Nor did the Black Rock, at the far eastern end of the island (topped with white gull guano, or Anacapa snow) as we approached our landing, truly portend the world we were about to experience where browns, sepia, black, grey and white would dominate in the form of mature white gulls, their mottled grey fledglings, their straw nests, antic coreopsis stumps, bleached grass, guano splattered stone and deeply weathered russet colored, rock strewn beaches. Unprepared: but once immersed in this alien world the pleasures of its complex visual composition (of a limited spectrum) somehow transcended the prevailing stink of seagull shit and the carnage underfoot of dead fledglings murdered by gulls they had mistakenly taken to be their parents in moments of panicked disorientation - of which careless tourists are a prime cause.

Anacapa rises like a dragon spine out of the ocean, the southern twitch of its tail disappearing in a playful loop (known prosaically, to non-dragonistas as 'the arch'). Spawn of the great Ice Age island of Santarosae, which fragmented into five discrete landmasses after the ice melt deluge of ten thousand years ago, now it is itself composed of three primary islets, home to the largest western gull colony on the planet. Despite diurnal disturbances by dazed tourists (courtesy of Island Packers) the colony is, at this moment, in the final stages of its annual regeneration: anxious gulls (yellow scimitar beaks stuck between beady eyes in ovoid heads atop short necks all wrapped in a white feather hijab) strut menacingly, watchful of their fledgling broods.

It is the 100th Anniversary of the National Parks - at least to the extent of their being sanctified by Congress. By the time the National Park Service took charge in 1917, after the passage of a bill the previous year, there were already seventeen National Parks, the earliest being Yellowstone, established in 1872, while in California, Yosemite and Sequoia date to 1890. In commemoration, the New York Times ran an essay collection recently called My National Park in their Sunday travel section. Cheryl Strayed (Wild, 2012) wrote about buffalo ("their faces primordial; their dark eyes, indecipherable") at the Badlands Park in South Dakota. Other literary luminaries lauded imposingly scenic parks in Maine (Arcadia), Arizona (Grand Canyon), Wyoming (Grand Teton), and Montana (Glacier) - all notable for the dramatically rugged morphological juxtapositions so admired in the mid-nineteenth century and so complicit in the development of a Romantic national mythology based on the religious resonance of wilderness.

My National Park is the Channel Islands: I get to write about an island where there are no mammals save the pinnipeds and where the sea gulls (their faces blank with stupidity; their beady eyes viciously vacant) have no predators - an island where even varmints disdain to live; an island that will slowly disappear, perhaps, as sea levels rise - the dragon drowning incrementally in anthropogenic ice melt. My National Park is a mini-Galapagos where evolution has proceeded independently from the mainland and has thus created a variety of unique animal and plant species; but on Anacapa it is not the variety of life forms that amazes but the stunning profusion of one dominant species and the almost total disregard of the adult gulls for the crocodile of visitors that wander through their breeding grounds. Despite a small collection of partially abandoned Spanish colonial revival buildings on the island, built in the early 1930’s to house a crew of some fifteen or twenty people who maintained the lighthouse perched on the highest point of the easternmost island (whose jobs disappeared into the miasma of automation in the 1960’s), it remains remote, apparently barren and with no permanent human population, rising out of its enormously rich marine environment, as a land that time forgot.

A few days earlier, at home in Upper Ojai, there was a presaging event of beige, blonde, cream and white splashed across my retina. The local rattlesnakes, Crotus oreganus, use their cryptic coloring and skin pattern to disappear into their surroundings where they lay in wait to ambush prey. Lurking beneath the wooden rubbing strip for our steel fire doors, a twelve or fifteen inch youngster blended almost seamlessly with the surrounding gravel and only its slight movement gave me warning as I stepped from the house. Once safely outside, I took a closer look at the pale creature: sepia markings bordered in whitish cream bands undulated on its fresh young skin as it slithered over the gravel. It was, in its uncanny melding with its environment and its minimal earth-toned coloring, a pre-echo of the monochromatic gull families (save for the mature gulls’ red-spotted orange beaks) merging with the island meadows, strewn with cactoidal stumps of giant coreopsis and dried grasses.

On Anacapa, and elsewhere on the Central Coast and its inland valleys, we are experiencing the annual color-shift from predominant green to predominant…….well, no one word describes the sun-bleached meadows and greying coastal sage scrub. As ever, the chaparral remains, at the edge of every pale summer vista, its indomitable presence - eternally green. There remain too, inky ponds of oak shadow spotting blonde hills. That this change in tone and temperature occurs every year does not dull its annual surprise; and if these changes are closely observed, there are revelatory washes of color at the margins: the moment a month ago when the leaves of black sage turned yellowy orange, the etiolated stalks of giant white sage recently turned a vivid purple and there is the maroon-purple pond of Turkish Rugging (Chorizanthe staticoides) I stumble across each June; Tarweed maintains its bright yellow flowers despite the withering heat while the delicate flowers of spring are now mostly gone.

This cycle of the seasons continues to resonate even within a society which runs on linear time; but we are mostly taught to sacrifice the precious moments of the present to future plans or package immediate experiences into memories that themselves are mortgaged to forward planning. The magic of evanescent neurological simulation is transmuted into the dross of ‘experience’. The eternal present, a cyclical mode of time that forever presages the returning – of both our souls and their setting amidst what Abrams calls the ’sensuous terrain’ – is mostly alien to our sense of ourselves; but the overpowering circularity of the changing seasons somehow dents even our well-armored notions of linearity.

The idea that Anacapa exists outside of our quotidian sense of time’s arrow is enormously powerful: that it is indeed forgotten within the prevailing trope of temporal awareness; that it is an island forever in the thrall of circularity, from the gull’s roughly constructed nests of straw to their metronomic return in the spring to breed another generation to drive time’s wheel. Our presence on the island (it was a family outing of Lorrie and me, our two grown sons and Ellen our daughter-in-law) represented, perhaps, a moment out of time: but it was inevitably bound by the chronological strictures of the Island Packer’s timetable.

Our eternal present lasted precisely from 2:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on the first Saturday of July in the year of our Lord, two thousand and sixteen.

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