Between the Mountains and the Sea

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

It is not in the books, by which I mean Milt McCauley’s painstaking catalog called Flowers of the Santa Monica Mountains and Wildflowers of Orange County and the Santa Ana Mountains, by Robert L. Allen and Fred M. Roberts; yet it flourishes in the canyons of the southern California cismontane, in the lands between the mountains and the sea; locally, it grows in the upper reaches of Bear Canyon, along the La Broche Canyon trail and alongside the now dry, spill-over washes of Sisar Creek that run down towards State Highway 150; it has even grown in our neighbor’s yard in a patch of south sloping oak meadowland; but it is a flower, now in pink-purple bloom, for which I know no name. It is, in Hawaiian pidgin, da kine (I’m reading William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life, 2015), a whatchamacallit or as a botanist might gamble, probably a part of the Asteraceae family (just because this is the largest flower family on the planet).

Its foliage is spikey like an artichoke plant and colored a silvery spearmint green. From a base of incised leaves it sends out sprays of stems to which the one inch diameter flowers are closely attached on short stems bracted along their length. Each of the leaves from which the flowers subtend is a single miniature version of the mess of mostly withered foliage closer to the ground. In spring and winter this foliage alone is remarkable, its silvery color unusual amidst the chaparral drab of sandstone, and the mix of golden and chocolaty soils strewn with dead leaves and twigs beneath the leathery, deep rooted chamise, ceonothus, mountain mahogany, scrub oak and red berry; it favors rocky escarpments and dry stream beds but somehow I had never previously seen it in bloom. At this moment in late summer, its pinkish, purplish ray (or ligulate) flowers dotted along its gracefully arching wands are truly startling.

Get close to the ground at this time of year (when removing tumbleweed perhaps) and another startling vision appears: tiny red and black diamond patterned beetles scuttling around in the dry soil. They too, despite a little desultory web research, remain for the moment, nameless. Barely a quarter of an inch long they demand close-up inspection, and such hands and knees investigations reveal black diamonds on red, crisp, deck-of-cards-like graphics genetically painted onto the hardened–for-battle, heraldic wings of the little creatures.

At another scale, but with the same intense graphic quality, our big rock (ours, because we claim it as a profoundly dense moon anchored in frozen orbit, forever mocking the precarious enfoldment of space that is our house) sitting a hundred feet west of the front door, is this evening a black silhouette against a livid blood-orange sky. The composition is completed by a piercing point of light in the pale grey just above the color wash at the horizon: Venus appears, as the sky darkens, laggardly following the sun into the southern hemisphere, somewhere over the raggedy mountains.

These Santa Ynez Mountains are a famously transverse range on a continent characterized by great north-south cordillera – the axial north-south mountain ranges such as the Rockies, the Andes, the Sierras, the Cascades, and the local coastal ranges such as the Santa Monica and San Bernadino Mountains: running parallel to the Pacific shoreline, these ranges shelter vast, biotically productive plains, watered from their slopes. The Ojai Valley, idiosyncratically, is formed between the tail end of the transverse Santa Ynez range and the parallel Sulphur Mountain ridge.

The lower valley is not squarely between the mountains and the sea, as in archetypal cistmontane, but is instead the terminus of a gently sloping flood plain spread beside the Ventura River and its major local tributary, the San Antonio Creek; it is a valley that points towards the ocean. The upper valley is similarly situated although dramatically bifurcated at the Summit where the focus of its rain shed is split between the Ventura and the Santa Clara rivers. On Koenigstein, our oceanic connection is through Santa Paula which stands at the head of the vast Oxnard Plain, and is a city shaped geomorphically by the transverse South Mountain, the Santa Paula Ridge (last gasp of the Santa Ynez Mountains) and the terminus of Sulphur Mountain.

Surface run-off has but this one route to the ocean from our property – down the hill to Sisar Creek thence to Santa Paula Creek where the co-mingled molecules make their way to the Santa Clara Estuary just north of Point Mugu and into the Pacific. We can replicate this route – more or less – by car and be at Point Mugu Beach in about an hour. Alternatively, we can head west on the 150 and follow (again, more or less) Lion Creek, to San Antonio Creek to the Ventura River and thence to its estuary hard by the County Fairgrounds, where, just a little to the north is Emma Wood State Beach bordered by the South Pacific Coast Railroad and the old Pacific Coast Highway (now usurped by the 101); to the south is C street, Ventura’s in-town surf beach where the eleven year old William Finnegan learnt to surf.

A third beach-bound option is to continue west on the 150, and cross over the Ventura River at Baldwin Road rather than parallel it along the 33, and wind through the hills past Lake Casitas and on towards the 101 just shy of Carpinteria where Rincon’s famous point break awaits a few hundred yards to the south. Santa Barbara is another dozen miles to the north and here, at East Beach, just last weekend, I experienced one of those epiphanies that abound in the natural world and which constituted the third in this late summer group of talismanic black-on-red vignettes.

Standing on the sand, late in the afternoon, bemused by the assortment of shorebirds busy on the beach (curlews, sand pipers, plovers and gulls) I was transfixed by a group of perhaps half a dozen ungainly Black Skimmers (Rynchops Niger) lurking on the periphery. Every so often one of their number would wheel into the sky and swoop over the waves bordering the beach and dredge, with the lower half of its beak, through the water - hoping, presumably, to catch small fish. Back on the beach after each brief foray, the bird lost its aerial grace and assumed its earthbound awkwardness. Most remarkable about this strange group was their oversized and mismatched bills, the lower mandibles being noticeably longer than the upper maxillas and the color of their beaks: brilliant red, tipped with black as though they had been dipped in squid ink, or perhaps in the oil that bubbles up in seeps along this coast.

From January 1970 to early in the 2000’s I too lived ‘A Surfing Life’, rarely living far from the beach and almost always aware of the local surf conditions – a pale reflection of William Finnegan’s whole-hearted commitment and performed athletically at far below his level of skill, which was at an almost professional standard. Having started surfing a few days after my twenty second birthday on Manly Beach in Sydney, I suffered through many years of humiliations before achieving a bare proficiency; then, in my fifties, I lost just enough ability for it to become untenable for me to continue this life into the new century. As Finnegan points out, no one who begins surfing much after their fourteenth birthday is ever going to be any good. He continues to surf well into his sixties but must maintain his fitness level by daily swimming a mile in a basement pool in Manhattan, where he now lives.

Much of the allure of surfing is in the close connection to the ocean it affords its participants. Standing on East Beach in Santa Barbara, I felt disconnected from the rhythm of the sea: I had become a bird-watching by-stander. My Chaparral Life, which began with regular early morning runs in Will Rogers State Historical Park on the north western edge of Los Angeles, at just about the time that I abandoned surfing, usurped the primacy of the ocean as the focus of my existence. This life continues in Ojai, where I remain consumed with trying to achieve a plausible connection to the unknowable complexities and visual richness of an alien environment; it is a life spent in pursuit of tapping in to the strange energies that eddy through the chaparral.

It is, of course, not so very different from the life I began, so many years ago, on Manly Beach.

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