Boom and Thump

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

The catalyst for the development of the human species is climate change. Nowhere is this more obvious than amongst the first peoples of California; their arrival by land and sea was predicated on a long retreat from the deep freeze of the north, from northeastern Asia to a potentially warmer continent that spanned the northern and southern hemispheres of the globe. They followed the mega-fauna across the tundra, or chased pinnipeds amidst the kelp on their long coastal voyage, but within a few thousand years they were forced to adapt to the dramatically warming climate of the Holocene when populations of mammoths and elephant seals were both in rapid decline and oaks were replacing the pine forests that had flourished in the Pleistocene.

Up into La Broche Canyon it was possible, this morning, to get above the ocean of fog that had rolled into the valleys overnight. To the west, only the dark, oak-clad ridge of Sulphur Mountain was visible, while to the south the telecommunications, satellite tracking and radar paraphernalia bristled above the fog on Point Mugu Ridge and the jagged peaks of the Boney Mountain State Wilderness appeared as islands in the milk sea. Eastward, into the rising sun, the chaparral clad flanks of Santa Paula Mountain and its foothills were obdurate in the brilliance of the morning.

I was following a trail that was established, perhaps, as an exploratory oil road; was an old trading route between the Chumash villages of ‘Awha’y and Mupu, or was a part of an ancient spirit path that eventually led to a mountain peak. In its current incarnation, it is a little used track (by me, evidence of a lone horse, faint markings of a quad-bike, and recent mountain lion spoor) that ends, inconclusively, just to the west of Santa Paula Canyon. This palimpsest, this overlaying of intentions over time reflected in markings on the land, is but a tiny and almost lost fragment of the human-environmental history of the area that spans 15,000 years - each morning of which fully sentient beings have awoken to subtle or not so subtle changes in the weather.

It must be said, that this morning and every other time I take this particular trail, my HOKA ONE ONE PRO2 Lite’s leave very little in the way of evidence beyond my confirming the pre-existent path through my footfalls limiting new plant life along the single track. Mine is a very faint imprint on the already mostly blank record of human impact in this particular part of the canyon.

The wider (but still local) record of ancient, pre-contact inhabitation is similarly sparse. Through every development of the Indian presence - characterized by the 1984 Chartkoff model as Paleo-Indian (15,000 – 11,000 years ago) with an economy based on mega-fauna; Archaic (11,000 – 4,000) marked by a diffuse economy and the colonization of new ecological niches; and Pacific (4,000 – contact) evidenced by an increasing range of foods - their intimate, immediate and essentially co-dependent relationship with their environment produced little in the way of permanent monuments or even non-degradable artifacts. Archaeologists consequently obsess on enduring items such as chipped stone tools, grinding implements (metates and manos) and pounding tools (mortars and pestles), shell fish-hooks and shell money. Local Indians were basket weavers not potters, their houses fully biodegradable woven rush structures, not adobe brick and their diets were only evidenced in middens by the remains of shellfish, fish and animal bone - not the great quantities of seeds, roots and berries that made up much of their sustenance.

The archaeological record of the ancient coast line has been entirely expunged by post glacial rising sea levels and what is left in the always less inhabited interior seriously devalued by bioturbation (the action of burrowing animals). We are thus confronted with nothing much more than minimally informed conjecture.

The record of climate change is a little more substantial. Every hundred thousand years or so, the planet retreats into the ice. The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) was 21,000 to 18,000 years ago. Sea level was almost 400 feet below current levels, and great sheets of ice covered much of the Sierra and Klamath ranges. At lower elevations vast lakes covered inland areas to the south and east while the present coast line at Ventura was as much as twenty miles further west. The northern Channel Islands were one connected whole. Temperatures were 12-14 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than today and thickly coated mega-fauna, such as sabre-toothed cats, wolves, bears, mastodons, mammoths, deer, elk, big-horned sheep and the ground sloth thrived. They continued to flourish for several thousand years as the Pleistocene gave way to the Holocene inter-glacial and their world slowly warmed.

Around 15,000 years ago, amidst the melting ice, the Paleo-Indian occupation of southern California began. Wielding hafted projectile points that were chipped along their edges to make serrated (or fluted) cutting surfaces, they hunted megafauna for their meat, fat, fur, teeth, tusks, antlers, horns and sinew. The general trend of a warming climate was briefly interrupted by the so-called Younger Dryas which signaled a return to a near glacial climate between 12,900 and 11, 400 years ago and this interregnum may have extended the viability of the large herd and pack animals of the Plesistocene which favored the open tundra.

When the warming trend resumed, however, the megafauna’s vulnerability to a changing ecosystem was quickly established as afforestation began to limit their rangelands. The replacement of patchy conifer forests with dense stands of oaks, the disappearance of pluvial lakes and overhunting by native populations all contributed to the local extinction (paralleled throughout North America) of some 35 genera of the continent’s large animals by 10,000 years ago.

Many local people, it seems, adapted to their new environment by hunting rabbits and deer and developing a millingstone culture where manos and metates rang with the sound of grinding seeds. Others moved into coastal areas where Paleo-Indians, who had arrived via the ’Kelp Road’ (the coastal route from north eastern Asia) some 13,000 years ago (Erlandson), had long established fishing and gathering shellfish as a part of their subsistence – skills now central to their own survival and adopted by this influx of climate refugees. Thus Paleo-environmental change inevitably forced accommodations to an altered resource base and, as Glasgow, Gamble, Perry and Russell point out in California Prehistory, Ed. Terry Jones and Katherine Klar, 2007, these adaptations greatly impacted the cultural evolution of local tribes. Such subsistence models represented a break with the past and allowed for ever larger coastal and near-coastal populations. We can imagine then, that the Ojai valley hosted Indian communities from at least 6,000 years ago subsisting on hunting and trapping and the local superabundance of edible seeds and berries which provided a surplus for the acquisition of fish, shellfish, and pinniped steaks traded from the coast and the Channel Islands.

By about 4,500 years ago, there is evidence of mortars and pestles in the archaeological record, indicating the human utilization of a greater variety of crushable plant foods. A higher frequency of projectile points is also discernable in this era, indicating an increased emphasis on hunting, and this is also suggestive of a gender-based bifurcation of food acquisition. By about 2,000 years ago there is evidence of a switch to pulpy foods such as acorns, islay (the red berries of holly-leafed cherry) and the edible portions of the chaparral yucca, all of which were processed in mortars by the action of a percussive pestle.

After contact, some eighteen hundred years later, William Bryant Logan writes in Oak, the Frame of Civilization, 2005, that “early European travelers came to recognize how close they were to a village by the boom and thump of women driving pestles into mortars to grind acorns into meal”. That sound had hung in the Ojai valley for at least two millennia. For the Chumash (the name archaeologists have given to the dominant group of regional tribes at contact), acorn meal was an essential part of their diet and central to their culture. Its importance was demonstrated in their careful tending of the oak forests that thrived amidst the creeks that threaded through the bottom lands between the Santa Ynez and Sulphur Mountains – the site of present day Ojai and Meiners Oaks.

The East End of Ojai is still watered by a number of tributary streams that flow out of Senior and Horn Canyons and feed into San Antonio Creek whose confluence with the Ventura River, just to the east of Casitas Springs, is marked by a tangle of cottonwoods and sycamores. It was along these streams, in the shade of oaks, that the Chumash congregated in tribelets, essentially extended family groupings, and lived their lives in the valley of the moon. That they pounded acorns into flour is quite certain. Yet evidence of this activity is less than emphatic. Occasionally, there is an ancient oak limb bent unnaturally low to the ground forcibly manipulated to provide an opportunity for woman and children to easily pick the tree’s acorns. This we know was an aspect of Chumash arboriculture, but such trees are rare and slowly disappearing.

Bed rock mortars are sometimes associated with rock art sites in the Sespe Wilderness, but the agricultural clearing in the East End, beginning early in the last century, has obliterated all such evidence, but just recently a friend in the area unearthed a pestle – a smooth cylinder of stone rounded at each end – one of which was distinguished by a pronounced wear edge. This pestle had seen much service, had produced much acorn meal and had resounded, we can presume, with much ‘boom and thump’. As I held it, the realization slowly crept upon me, that for a moment, I had a physical connection to the primal subsistence of a lost people. They had inhabited their immediate environment in ways that fully reflected the productivity of the land and the limiting factors of the climate; they understood the ever evolving dance between the two and made that understanding the basis for an enduring culture.

We have broken this tradition: destroying, in the process, all knowledge of living mindfully on the fruits of the earth. We, in this ignorance, prepare (or not) for the mild vicissitudes of a cyclical drought and the looming horizon of ice-melt and a rising ocean carelessly initiated by one hundred and fifty years of anthropogenic global warming.

The pestle is a totem: an emblem of dietary fortitude in the face of environmental limitations. This particular stone implement has now been re-hidden beneath the roots of an olive tree – ironically, an example of the exogenous biota introduced by conquering Europeans. Holding it, I was offered a glimpse into a world where stone, wood, bone, animal skin, sinew, earth, and cellulose defined the material limits of the universe and where the natural world was composed of a web of intensely intimate relationships with food of which the local Indians were fully a part: it was a glimpse which loomed with both hope and despair.

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