Dog Star Rising

Now also at urbanwildland.org

Oceans of marine layer fog lap at the mountain shore lines of the lower valley and the Oxnard Plain. The cities of Santa Paula and Ojai have disappeared beneath roiling water vapor. Up above the fog line in La Broche Canyon the morning sun has just risen above Santa Paula Ridge illuminating the east facing sandstone escarpment along which I run. To my left, the twisted limbs of Manzanita, tenaciously anchoring themselves in rock fissures, flush red; along the track and at moraine's edge, gnaphalia, dried yucca and the clouds of Acourtia seed atop tobacco brown stalks are sepulchral: a patchwork of the chaparral's ghostly summer shroud.

There is, or at least I imagine there is, a profound stoicism in the chaparral plant community: in the many thousand years old succession of plants, soils and weathering rock, the rains have always come and the plants have endured. The wildlands hereabouts are littered with the woody remnants of shrubs and perennials, of dead sage, artemisia, laurel sumac, and chamise : their armatures dried grey in the sun and waiting, quiet as the grave, for wildfire to return their nutrients to the soil. Fallen oak limbs and split trunks dot the dry land, elephant bones in the chaparral ossuary.

We live in a canyon through which we can reasonably expect fire in our lifetime. Hence the elaborate precautions in the two built structures on our wildland spread made to increase their chances of survival in a bush fire. We expect the fires to return (evidenced in our yard by fire-blackened oak trunks), and we expect, too, the balm of heavy rains. Like most southern Californians, we maintain a level of pragmatic preparedness in the face of natural disasters.

While providing an anthropomorphized example of stoicism, the plant community also serves as example of Aristotelian telos. The philosopher maintained that every living thing, whether plant, animal or human, acted according to its nature and for all these beings that inevitably included living in community with their fellows. Cycles of birth and death, dormancy during drought and revival after rains and fire-scorched earth and subsequent regeneration from within ash enriched soils, are intrinsic to the chaparral plant community and it is these processes which formed the environmental setting for the human groups that lived within it.

For fifteen thousand years, the Chumash and their forbears, such as the people of the Oak Grove Horizon and before them the first Paleo Indians settlers who voyaged down the coastal kelp-road or trudged across the Beringian land bridge valued community as their guarantee of survival in these lands of uncertain rains and randomized fire events. Seeds stored in woven baskets were insurance against a lack of game or a dearth of fresh plants. Equitably shared resources promoted the welfare of all. Like most indigenous peoples, the Chumash sourced all their food, clothing shelter and tools directly from their local environment, and the weather played an integral part in either sustaining or pauperizing their communities. To voluntarily attempt to live outside of the community or to be banished from it was to court death. Survival was a cooperative endeavor. Individuality was of little value, for to consistently express it was life threatening.

Tribal and peasant cultures have always relied on high levels of cooperation, community and shared values (albeit ones sometimes forged in the brutal furnaces of oppression). Elite groups, in turn, shared values based partly on the exploitation of the under-classes. In either case, anomie, Durkheim’s term for societal alienation, was mostly unknown in pre-modern times. The overbearing extremism of the European aristocracy eventually shook loose the elaborate social structures that had arisen out of Feudalism (which exhibited some levels of shared welfare and responsibilities within its hierarchies) and prompted the political revolutions of the late eighteenth century (including ours) as well as the more generalized European liberalizations of 1848.

It was at this historical moment that increased levels of population, food production and industrial infrastructures (all based on new energy inputs derived from fossil fuels) provided a social and financial environment in which individualism began to have value. Voltaire, Locke, Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, amongst others, provided the philosophical underpinnings of this new liberalism. Yet Locke’s notion that humankind should live in a “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions…as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man” runs entirely counter to the lived experience of our species for the roughly two hundred thousand years of its existence prior to this pronouncement.

Liberalism’s intimate connection to new forms of energy production, dependent on exploitation of the planets crust, should come as no surprise. These new values better served those who were beginning to benefit from the shift in the sources of energy wealth. As Ian Morris points out in his recent book, Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, 2014, tribal cultures (such as the Chumash), who made a living foraging or hunting and gathering adopted social structures that were substantially egalitarian: they included strong norms of sharing and exhibited very limited inequalities. The brief interregnum of farming societies (in the long scheme of things), enabled the rise of Aristocracy, because their hierarchies were based on the ownership of land which tends to aggregate into the hands of the few (who then justified their ascendance by linking it with Divine Will). This complex system of values, norms, expectations and cultural patterns that supported the Divine Right of Kings was then systematically undermined by liberal philosophies that privileged the individual and emphasized humankind’s supposed freedoms.

Fossil fuel societies have proved to be highly tolerant of wealth inequalities. Their implicitly technocratic foundations correlate highly with liberal ideologies which foster values such as competition, quantifiability, majoritarian rule and efficiency. As Morris points out, liberal, individualist values have come to define Western ideology (what he elsewhere calls “a pack of lies from which someone benefits”).

Rousseau offered a warning at the birth of modern liberal society, in the late eighteenth century, when he observed that competition would create a society riven with “Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve and fraud”. A hundred years later, Thoreau, a great reader of Jean-Jacques, observed that it was a wise thing to “cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage…” while noting that “the civilized man is a more experienced and wiser savage”, eschewing, by inference, wealth, vanity and culture for the profound pleasures of a primal relationship with the natural world. Now, neoliberalism is a kind of metastasized, cancerous liberalism that feeds on the sugars secreted by the polluting organ of capitalism. Wealth inequality is symptomatic of this condition and leaves (to continue flogging the oncological metaphor) a vast societal sore that is the disaffected middle classes.

Sometimes, there’s really nothing to be done but to take a walk in the chaparral. Even here, your experience may vary. A couple of weeks ago an oil storage tank set deep in sage scrub, exploded about half a mile from our house. A plume of black smoke rose into the still air. Prompt response by the local fire brigades prevented the fire spreading beyond the immediate confines of the pad. The last significant wildfire that began in the area, less than a hundred yards from the entry to what is now our property, occurred in December 1999, raged for five days, involved over 1500 fire fighters, scorched nearly 5,000 acres and threatened multiple structures and two private schools. It was caused by fire crackers stuffed in a mail box. The explosive impact of the oil storage tank was far greater but was thankfully vitiated by the almost total lack of wind. It is ironic that the chaparral landscapes that produce so little that is of material value to modern society conceal, in places, vast reserves of fossil fuel.

At other times, the ‘tonic of wildness’ is more reliable. One recent early morning, looking over the steep, rocky bank of a seasonal stream (dry now for three years) I watched the single panoptic eye of a rabbit crouched in a crevice a few yards away. Shyest of creatures, I have only seen rabbits freeze when a bobcat is stalking them. This animal remained comfortably immobile as my attention was drawn to a fluttering brown bird spiraling up slope from the dry stream bottom. It circled towards me (I remained as still as the rabbit) and alighted on my arm. Feeling a little like my notion of Saint Francis, I looked down on it and took note of its whitish cream breast, orangey brown (rufous) plumage and darker, herringbone patterned tail. Over breakfast, I learnt from Sibley’s Field Guide that my visitor was a Canyon wren (Catherpes mexicanus).

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