2014-08-18

Tip-toe Through the Killing Fields

On a warm August evening a super-moon had just risen above Sulphur Mountain and the grey and golden grasslands of Happy Valley were framed by the silhouette of the distant Nordhoff range (softened in the gloaming); the Topatopa bluffs (which glowed faintly with the day’s last remaining light) and Sulphur Mountain’s oaks (massed into a dimpled, darkling terrain). Cleared of their native oaks, then later cleared of serried ranks of European walnuts (grafted onto native root-stock), the grasslands now conjured, over their 400 odd acres, a faded pastoral idyll.

 The place resonated: and it was into the unearthly timbre of this dream-like landscape that the audience was pitched as we left the Zalk theater after a stunning performance by Chankethya Chey, late of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

Now resident in the United States (after earning a degree in choreography at UCLA) she appeared as a part of the Ojai Playwrights Conference having work-shopped her piece, My Mother and I with a director and a dramaturge. Over the course of the evening it became clear that the notion of her mother included her birth parent, her dance master (a woman) and her Country. All four dramatis personae survived the rape and murder of the failed Khmer social revolution (and its aftermath) and Kethya’s attempted reckoning is communicated through the stylized gestural language of the Royal Ballet overlain with antic influences of modern and urban dance.

Released into the heady rapture of that summer’s eve, my thoughts immediately turned to the miracle we had witnessed: a classical art-form, preserved and re-energized, that had somehow survived Pol Pot’s program of cultural genocide. The ironies unfolded more slowly.

As Eric Hobsbawm details in The Age of Extremes, A History of the World, 1914-1991, the Khmer Rouge were part of a tide of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutions that swept Africa and Asia in the 1970’s. The U.S defeat in Indochina reinforced the advance of communism and socialist regimes were established in all of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He notes that in the latter case, under the leadership of Pol Pot, there arose “a particularly murderous combination of Paris café Maoism…and the armed backwoods peasantry bent on destroying the degenerate civilization of the cities”.

Pol Pot’s attempt to root out the effete cultural traits of urban intellectual life had a horrendous impact on such institutions as the Royal Ballet where, of the 190 ballet corps and principals, only forty survived. More generally, of Cambodia’s estimated 380,000 artists and intellectuals, just three hundred, by some counts, escaped the genocide. Removed from power after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, the Khmer Rouge, under Chinese and American patronage, lived on in camps along the Thai border and remained a force in Cambodian politics - their flag flew in New York City, as sanctioned representatives of their country to the U.N. - until 1993. Kethya was born in 1985.

Mythology (as limned on the carved surfaces of the great tenth century temple and palace complex of Angkor Wat) attributes the beginnings of Cambodia’s dance tradition to a time when warring gods and demons churned the cosmic ocean, and celestial dancers called apsaras emerged from the froth (Brian Siebert, NYT). In Angkorian culture the human manifestations of these mystical beings became handmaidens to the court of the Empire (802-1431).

Most of the great monuments of the ancient and medieval worlds were built using forced labor. In the twentieth century, the Soviet and Chinese gulags, along with the labor camps of Nazi Germany, supplied much of the human energy required to create massive infrastructure projects. The great temple and palace monuments of Angkor Wat were similarly built by conscripted peasant labor and slaves captured from neighboring territories.

The complex has come to symbolize the country but it also represents the millennium of impoverished serfdom suffered by Cambodia’s peasants up until the declaration of the Republic in 1975. In a fiercely hierarchical society, court dance served the divine aspirations of the ruling family: as a State sponsored cultural expression, an aspect of its mission was to shore up the spurious mystical foundations of princely privilege. It was this privilege, along with the support provided by an urban, educated and cultured upper-middle class, that Pol Pot set out to destroy.

The almost-annihilation of Cambodian classical dance was a profound example of the collateral damage he inflicted on the country’s traditional arts: and it was the ghost of an apsara, nurtured in centuries of aristocratic co-option, that danced with Kethya that balmy August evening, remaining haughtily composed despite the alien influences of the globalized dance stylings with which Kethya surrounded her.

It is, perhaps, a matter for debate as to the extent to which the oppressed can authentically use the tools of an oppressor in their attempted overthrow. Or, as with Kethya, use a language of oppression to critique the history of a revolutionary force intent on that language’s destruction. It’s complicated. But certainly not lacking in irony.

Here in the United States we are long removed from our killing fields and long indoctrinated to ignore their dark shadow. The last vestige of Native resistance to the implacable forces of American imperialism was acted out in dance. As I suggested in Hoop Dreams, the development of the Ghost Dance, a mash-up of the Plains Indian round-dance, spiritual revivalism, end-times prophecy, trance states and incitement to destroy the white race was, as much as anything, a loose aggregation of stress symptoms. The movement originated in areas of profound spiritual and geographic dislocation - the Indian Reservations - where the survivors of the holocaust lived lives that were a macabre caricature of their authentic nomadic being.

James Mooney (1861-1921) was a self-taught ethnographer with the Bureau of American Ethnology from 1885 to 1921. His most notable work was in the study of the Ghost Dance. In 1894 he made a series of recordings of songs associated with the movement. Amidst the scratch and hiss of the recordings, a late nineteenth century American brogue is discernible droning Native American incantations - for these are his renderings of the anthemic Indian chants.

The Ghost Dance was once and forever ended with the killing of Sitting Bull at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. His are renderings after the fact. He sings in remembrance - in the voice of the oppressor.

In whose voice does Chankethya Chey speak?

2014-08-05

Epithalamium (Wedding Song)

Does it mean anything that the buckwheat blossoms have turned the color of dried blood? Or, that the tarweed is thicker than I have ever seen it and is even, in places, out-competing mustard? Or, that vinegar weed (Trichostema lanceolatum) is thick on the cattle pasture just to the east of the giant gorge that splits the old County property at the top of Koenigstein (now owned by the Rainwaters)?

Is there such a thing as a vegetative portent? Is there a mechanism by which the universal mind, human consciousness and plant ecology melds into an oracular medium? Is there, in other words, a payoff in prescience to the attention I lavish on such things?

There are, I suspect, rational reasons for the fact that the mauve Acourtia (A. microcephala) was particularly spectacular this year while the inky, native peony blossoms failed to impress and perhaps, sound meteorological cause for the other extraordinary ecological phenomena referenced above.

But being of a quasi-mystical or poetic frame of mind I want more: I want transcendence – I seek the realm beyond the quotidian. The lives of Ventura’s indigenous people, and perhaps of all the tribes of the Americas, were ruled by portents, signs and omens - the divination of which was entrusted to only the most powerful members of society. Hence the secret society of astronomers (and, I speculate, floromancers and botanomancers), known as the ‘Antap, ruled Chumash society by virtue of their occult knowledge - the prescience granted to them by the stars, flowers and plants.

So, while there is, perhaps, a pre-historical precedent to the notion that the irruption, color and idiosyncratic shape of plant material have meaning beyond the intrinsic ecological circumstances of their being, these days I simply relish the powerful ability of the flowers and shrubs in the chaparral to thrill me aesthetically while reserving the right, as it were, to believe that there are shadowy messages being projected onto the cave wall of my consciousness that I am too obtuse to understand.

Of one thing I am certain: there is a brooding solemnity in the California shrublands on even the sunniest of days. So much portent (of unrevealed import); so much occluded meaning, so many flitting shadows in an incomprehensible chiaroscuro of figure and ground, can be burdensome. A few days in Brooklyn, where the arboreal and floral arrangements that intermittently decorate these brick, stone and concrete lands are clearly empty of all but the most spurious signification, comes as a relief. It is here that I can take the measure of the urban, secure in the knowledge that these once wildlands have been almost totally stripped of their adumbrations.

Back in the day (and here I speak of, say, twelve thousand years ago), the broken lands of Breukelen, were the final resting place, in this part of America, for the great ice floes that had inched down from the north pole during the most recent Ice Age (humanity’s great surge forward being entirely predicated on our occupying a brief, interstitial warm period before the next big freeze inexorably engulfs the planet) and the mild topographical features of the City reflect the dying energy of these gelid earth-movers.

Left, was a littoral riddled with tidal creeks that flowed through swampy marshlands and meadows amidst the pleasant rises now named Vinegar, Cobble, Boerum and Clinton. I am staying in Bococa – which embraces Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens where the Gowanus Canal, the remnant of the many tentacled creek that once bore into the heart of Brookland Parish, lies fetid, a superfund site awaiting reclamation.

There are splinters of waste land that run between canal and the back yard defenses of industrial plants rendered in horizontally laid, graffitied, corrugated roofing, chain link and razor wire. Where once were manufactured gas plants, mills, tanneries, foundries and chemical plants now sit mostly derelict, nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings on brown fields of inestimable value - the mighty industrial city transformed into both a dormitory suburb and a reflection of the finance, advertising, media, real estate, drinking, dining, entertainment and retail power of Manhattan: the marshy lowlands of hardwood groves, grasses, sedges, reeds and forbs reduced to mere slivers - the unaccounted, commercially inconsequential lands between the engineered canal and the platted land; between the brown fields and the glistening, infuscated waters.

But here lies the once and future past: the biotic memory of the last ten thousand years awaiting its recall; and these waste lands spoke to me of their dreams; or, perhaps I dreamt that they spoke. These weedy patches of ground do indeed function as a vegetative portent, amplified by the desperation of their marginalization - whispering of a different future.

In a grey Brooklyn dawn, the morning after son Will’s wedding to Ellen Cantrell, Manhattan loomed across the river, its sky-scrapers wreathed in a light rain: Gehry’s Spruce Street condo tower standing slightly apart, creased like a wrung-out dish towel.

Brooklyn Bridge Park runs along a mile and a half of a defunct cargo shipping and storage facility, the long fingers of the wharves still reaching into the East River, their pier sheds left intact, and wooden piles rising out of the river. It is a park (designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh) that achieves much by doing little. The greenscape is serviceable, providing pleasant havens for city dwellers but invoking almost no wildland frisson. Cleared of cranes and, of course, ships, the park offers unobstructed views across the water. South of the park, in the still functioning Brooklyn docks, beyond Redhook, is the Gowanus estuary.

The 3rd Street draw bridge over the canal was completed in 1905, a time when there was a reasonable expectation that commercial shipping would require clear passage. Today, intrepid kayakers can comfortably pass under the closed bridge and although thoroughly restored in 1985, activation of the bridge’s opening mechanism awaits the dredging equipment which will be necessary to remove and capsulize the heavy metal sludge that sits at the canal’s bottom - a terminally toxic impediment to the revitalization of the waterway as a viable ecosystem,

Meanwhile, alongside the bridge abutments, in caged waste-lands, sugar maple, beech and birch saplings wait patiently. Underneath them, rushes, reeds and invasive grasses constitute a weedy ground cover where Queen Anne’s lace blooms prolifically.

On wedding’s eve, with cumulus building overhead, I gathered armfuls of this filigreed non-native invasive and used it to decorate the tables at Frankies Spuntino, the restaurant where Will and Ellen’s rehearsal dinner was to be held that evening. Locally grown, sustainably foraged (I walked), it stood in for the lush green and cream roses that I had previously eyed at Union Market on Court Street.

The spirit of Gowanus, sachem (head man) of the local Lenape tribe called the Canarsee, would have approved (I hope) of this deeply pragmatic act of choosing the lesser evil: non-native Queen Anne’s lace from his eponymous canal verge over roses from Colombia or Ecuador, where they are grown in large production greenhouses, harvested, sorted, and flown 3,000 odd miles to Brooklyn.

The dried blood of buckwheat blossoms presaged, it now seems, the old brick of Brooklyn: the off-white of fresh blooming California everlasting (that old reliable) was a pre-echo of the blossoming Queen Anne’s lace. Our future worlds are pre-figured by our local environments. Pay attention, be present: portent and circumstance may become fluid and the tyranny of time and space collapse into a delirium of consciousness.

The confluence of a man and a woman, bound by marriage, is similarly mutable.

2014-07-19

Place-World

“Attachments to places may be nothing less than profound”, Keith H. Basso writes in Wisdom Sits in Places, his short monograph on landscape and language among the Western Apache, University of New Mexico Press, 1996. But, as he also notes, our attachment to places remains enigmatic.

I arrived to live in Ojai with my family almost six years ago. We lived in town, on Blanche Street, while our house in Upper Ojai was being built. In May of 2009, we moved into our new residence which was quite deliberately set at the wildland urban interface – the place we were about to call home. A year later I began this blog at least partly because I wanted to both record and nurture my attachment to this particular ecotone: as I had hoped, it has become a way to construct my surroundings, to create bonds to a particular locality and to engage in the process of place-making.

But as followers of this blog will know, I have pursued a parallel bonding experience directly with the land itself – primarily in attempting the restoration of the disturbed areas of our site. My guide in this endeavor has been our neighbor Margot Griswold, a professional landscape restoration ecologist. Under her tutelage, I remain, in keeping with my English heritage, an enthusiastic amateur. We are both engaged in weeding out non-natives on our respective sites and share notes on our battles with mustard, tocalote (Centaurea melitensis) and the noxious star-thistle. I think we are both resigned to the continued existence of erodium (now, after a few warm weeks, fried to a crisp and crunchy underfoot!) and each give a pass to many of the introduced grasses.

At the same time I have tried to locate our property - within the axis that runs between Santa Paula and Ojai; within Ojai’s economic cultural and spiritual sphere of influence and both to the wilderness at its back (Los Padres National Forest) and the Pacific coast to the west. Temporally, I have set the moment of the area’s first human settlement as a baseline in which to situate the land, and have attempted, in these posts, to establish a resonance with its earlier, native inhabitants and a dissonance with their cruel European conquerors (but with whom I accept a modicum of complicity).

Occasionally, there have been notes from abroad, but always now with a firm sense of home, of an anchoring to our house, its site and surrounding landscapes. Edith Wharton, a writer of breathtaking psychological acuity, writes in her 1905 tear-jerker, the ironically titled House Of Mirth, of her heroine’s lack of this geographical grounding, feeling (at the moment of her final peril) “the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years”; and, “the feeling of being rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor tentacles of self could cling….”; of having

“grown up without any one spot on earth being dearer to her than another: there was no center of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others…”.

Wharton piles on in this vein for another paragraph or two, eerily echoing a sense of the moral and spiritual sustenance that connects the Western Apache to their homelands, me to the Topatopa foothills, and all of those favored portions of humanity who have a notion of domestic locus (of home), but that is tragically absent from her heroine’s background.

Place-making is best practiced in one’s youth, but it is a skill, perhaps, that can also remain with us into our dotage. It is, after all, an activity that is embedded in time. Places do not represent unchanging realities. Indeed, the act of paying special attention to a “spot on earth” dearer than others reveals that said spot is in constant flux. To coin a cliché, we never step into the same place twice. As Basso writes, “we may perceive a place afresh, but it resonates with our past knowledge of it”. Place-making involves multiple acts of remembering and imagining that inform each other: it is thus both a discursive and a recursive activity that mostly occurs, in our culture, unconsciously.

By contrast, the Western Apache go to great pains to weave their storied places into a moral universe – to establish ‘grave endearing traditions’ to which they can look for support and guidance. The names they give to these special places, which are often topographically precise, such as Line of White Rocks Extends Up and Out; Whiteness Spreads Out Descending to Water or A Red Ridge with Alder Trees, have tales of human folly, wisdom, grief or happiness (for instance) associated with them and the names become a kind of short-hand for behavioral guidance, especially for the young.

The process of establishing ‘what happened here’, of recording the minutiae of human activity within a limited geographical area, of fabricating a local history has been one of my goals in producing the almost two hundred posts (198…and counting) that make up Urban Wildland. I make no claims, however, for their general usefulness in terms of moral guidance: but given that I privilege my own experiences in telling my tales, they are effective in elaborating a convincing place-world which I  use as a touchstone of my personal psycho-geographic space, or, more prosaically, of my neighborhood and home. Others, meanwhile, may find interest in the baroque tessellations of this fabrication.

Last evening, I continued weeding the north facing slope which acts as an abutment to the portion of Koenigstein Road which was re-routed, a dozen years ago, to short-cut the hairpin meander traveled by the old County road as it skirted one of the more lively seasonal tributaries to Bear Creek. The crimp in this hairpin (the old road still sits in the landscape and is now a part of our property) is marked by Peruvian peppers emerging from the gulch on each side of the road as the stream passes beneath it in a corrugated steel culvert. The two sides of the hairpin splay southward towards the base of this road-triangle formed by the new short-cut. Within it, is a wedge of land along which the stream winds before disappearing into another culvert that passes deep beneath the new road. Block this second culvert and a wet winter would produce a fine pond. The whole construct is warped and there is a twist in the planar surface of the abutment. I know, I get awfully close to its surface as I extract star thistle, tocalote and mustard.

I have just described a place. For five years now, I have weeded that slope and progress –measured by the reduction in non-natives - is slow. But where once was a solid tangle of star-thistle the herbage is now leavened with tarweed, an occasional clump of bunch-grass and a few bushes of Baccharis pilularis (Coyote brush).

By building data about particular local areas, by establishing an experience of them in some informal way, by writing or telling stories for instance, there is a slow accretion of particularity which is at the heart of place-making. I am privileged to be surrounded by chaparral hills, streams and oak meadowlands. I have created places in them, places where time and space have fused in an idiosyncratic personal history. I have worked in these places in ways that enliven my present through their evident reverberations of the past.

Basso writes,

"….for Indians, the past lies embedded in the features of the earth – in canyons and lakes, mountains and arroyos, rocks and vacant fields – which together endow their lives with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the ways they think”.

I aspire to this condition.

2014-07-06

The Children's Crusade

The planet is in the final stages of a mass migration of humanity that was initiated in the mid-seventeenth century. After eons of civilizations based on highly circumscribed agricultural settlements where, for the most part, generations lived and died in geographical stasis, Europeans discovered the New World and then the Antipodes - lands that could be turned to more intensive farming methods and produce substantial new wealth (at the incidental cost of eradicating their native peoples).

Within a hundred years, however, the industrial revolution began to establish the city, for those without substantial land-holdings, as a more reliable source of income. From that point on, millions of people began to be swept up in a global diaspora where the goal was to exchange rural poverty for urban poverty. Now, in the twenty-first century, we are experiencing the final stages in this almost total urbanization of the Earth. People have been, and continue to be, both pushed out of the countryside by the establishment of large scale mechanized farming - that leaves little room for peasant agriculture - and pulled into the city by the lure of a higher standard of living.

In Arrival City, 2010, Doug Saunders documents the role that favelas (self-built shanty towns), squatter enclaves and urban-slums play in succoring the newly arrived, predominantly peasant, populations. In his historical review, he notes that “between 1800 and the First World War, about 50 million Europeans left the continent permanently for a new home…twenty percent of Europeans moved to the Americas, Australia or South Africa”. Half of these migrants ended up in the United States and settled in major cities like New York, Chicago or Toronto. This country, with the Statue of Liberty as its symbol of welcome became, to millions of Northern, then Southern and Eastern Europeans, Arrival Nation. Here, from often squalid urban beginnings, migrants could begin their transformation into the galley-slaves of consumerism – the Great American Middle Class.

Charles Hirschman argues that as the country became successively less anglo-centric (or WASP), it was the children of Eastern and Southern European immigrants, predominantly Catholic or Jewish, who helped pave the way for the New Deal of the 1930s, the Great Society of the 1960s, and the 1965 Immigration Act – political circumstances that would eventually lead to a wave of immigration from Asia and Latin America. Now, as the country heads toward a non-white majority by 2043, it is these new migrants that are poised to change, again, the domestic political balance.

Meanwhile, increased border security, including the infamous wall (where technologies are shared with Israel) has had the unintended consequence of preventing Mexican and Central Americans from returning to their home countries - and thus encouraging them to become permanent settlers in the U.S. The fence is more effective at keeping ‘illegals’ in the country than keeping them out - by raising the difficulty level of entry and denying migrants the easy opportunity of return. For a country founded on immigration, the United States has signally failed to uphold that tradition of welcome and refuge towards their southern neighbors.

Now, a Children’s Crusade is massing on the border established by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848. Like its original, eight hundred years ago, this new crusade is founded on a combination of hope, delusion and tragedy.

Early in 1212, a twelve year old French shepherd boy named Stephen, inspired by a heavenly visitation, began a crusade to win back the Holy Land from infidel Muslims. By the end of June, according to contemporary reports, this child-preacher had gathered 30,000 children at Vendôme, in central France, where they all began their march towards the Mediterranean port city of Marseille. Although many died along the way, the crusade eventually arrived and here, Stephen had prophesied, the seas would part and they could continue their journey on foot; but there was to be no divine work of geo-engineering and the children accepted the offer of two merchants, Hugh the Iron and William the Pig, to transport them across the Mediterranean on their fleet of ships.

Nothing more was heard of them until 1230, when a priest returning from the Middle East told their sorry tale of ship-wreck, enslavement, martyrdom for refusing to accept Islam and, for a lucky few, employment with the governor of Alexandria. (A History of the Crusades, Steven Runciman, 1951).

Ian Gordon reports in the July/August edition of Mother Jones, that 70,000 children, many no older than Stephen the boy-preacher, will arrive unaccompanied at the border this year. Prey to drug-traffickers, sexual predation and physical assault, these children are part of a surge in child-migration fostered by tales of sympathetic treatment by immigration officials, burgeoning drug-violence in their home districts, the underlying surge of the rural poor in search of material advancement in first-world cities, and most prosaically, hunger: Gordon notes that “the cost of tortillas has doubled as corn prices have skyrocketed due to increased American ethanol production and the conversion of farmland to sugarcane and oil palm for biofuel”.

They arrive from Mexico and Central America's Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, hoping to send remittances back home or join a parent no longer able to visit them. While Mexican nationals, whatever their age are turned back immediately (to try again) children from non-contiguous countries can benefit from long judicial reviews of their status and settlement with a relative or an American family while their case is processed. Many successfully disappear into immigrant communities, or eventually receive legal status, and may achieve a level of education, food security and economic prospects that ultimately validates their long and often dangerous migration.

This, indeed, is in the tradition of our Arrival Nation. Although younger perhaps than most, they share in the struggle of arrival which characterizes the history of migration. Their hardships become a part of their arrival mythologies: their struggles transmuted into a determination that their success, and eventually that of their children, can assuage the trauma of their up-rootedness – their deracination.

As a part of the epic transformation of the planet from a rural to an urban way of life this new children’s crusade is also part of a trend which will see, by 2050, according to United Nations projections, a halt in the world’s population growth. Clive Ponting, in his A New History of the World, 2007, writes that it took two billion years for the world’s human population to reach one billion in about 1825, and is projected to increase to nine billion before the trend’s reversal in another thirty five years. The children massed at the border will be instrumental in effecting this epochal shift - unless they are returned home to poor rural communities where birth-rates remain high.

Stephen, shepherd and boy-preacher, stood ready to take his followers, children all, into the heart of an unfathomably alien culture and there convert the infidel to a Europeanized Christianity and return the Holy Lands to their iconic centrality within the Roman Church. The rag-tag assemblage of children massed at our borders is engaged in a very different crusade. They await not the parting of the waters but the melting of the hearts of this Arrival Nation – an atavistic return to the true spirit of this country, tragically first evinced by its native populations who welcomed the white man.

Each successful child migrant, however they establish their new lives, can thus, perhaps, count as a small part of our repayment of the heavy psychic debt we owe to these lands.

2014-06-28

The Great Wet Hope

Perhaps I’ve grown soft. It’s been a while since I have clambered through the more or less virgin chaparral on the east hill that rises up from our seasonal stream bed – which latter defines the edge of the known world in that particular direction. I mean, it’s all very well to admire the ceanothus blooms as they spread like a spring snow over the slope, or watch as creamy chamise blossoms turn the rheumy color of a ripe stilton, but to get down at ground level and crawl up the slope demonstrates just how little I can know from my accustomed, imperious position above it all at the kitchen window.

Make no mistake: my crawling is not affectation. It is quite simply the only way to make it through the tangled branches of mountain mahogany, ceanothus, laurel sumac and poison oak - still all entwined with wild cucumber vines. I found a narrow stream bed that headed directly up-slope and seemed to offer the best route but veering off of it I found a steep clearing to the south and was able to traverse across the slope and found myself just above my goal: an old wolf oak that had seemingly perished over the winter after two years of extreme drought conditions. Looking to the west I could see that the sun had set and the house, which I now looked down upon from this unaccustomed perspective, had a deep bronze cast, the windows bleak voids in the fading light.

Soft? certainly winded and fearful of getting back down without falling through too much P.O. But first, I needed to know whether there were signs of life on the oak whose canopy was a uniform pall of dead leaves. This is an old multi-trunker that has survived its share of fires, and there in its crotch I saw a sprig of green – new growth, and a branch, low down, wrapped in cucumber vine, that was sprouting spring leaves….then, another which also sported new foliage. Satisfied that there was yet life in the old thing, (and, I saw, a sturdy sapling was growing nearby) I rappelled down the slope grabbing any old tree limb that fell to hand and eventually slid down into the dry stream bed below the house.

There’s irony in my privileging Quercus agrifolia over the lowly scrub oak, which is the true denizen of the elfin forest. W.S Head, author of an early chaparral appreciation (1972), classifies the scrub oak as a shrub and of course, Richard Halsey would like to rename our local forests as Shrublands, (Land of Very Few Uses). The stately coast live oak really has no place in chaparral, its home is in oak meadowlands, woodlands like those across the valley, which face north and are sequestered in shade and damp, or at creek’s edge in a riparian habitat. Yon drought stricken specimen had been succored by a chaparral stream bed that has now failed to flow for two years in a row. It stands, moribund, despite the new growth, with its fate dependent on the extent of next winter’s rain.

A few weeks on, and now the chamise blossoms have turned a ginger-brown and are massed as thick veins of copper marbling the chaparral and, at the margins, the pink and white buckwheat blossoms are curdled with rust; in the meantime, I spent five days on a ranch in Wyoming where the heavy winter snows of the cool-phase Pacific Decadal Oscillation (Another.....Beautiful Day) are newly melted and swelling the tumbling creeks that engorge the North Platte River as it winds through southern Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Mountains. Here, just east of the Rocky Mountains there lies verdant high-prairie - the lush antithesis of our desiccated drought-lands.

Our turn will come.

The Guardian breathlessly reported, early in June,

“The global El Niño weather phenomenon, whose impacts cause global famines, floods – and even wars – now has a 90% chance of striking this year, according to the latest forecast… El Niño begins as a giant pool of warm water swelling in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, that sets off a chain reaction of weather events around the world – some devastating and some beneficial.

India is expected to be the first to suffer, with weaker monsoon rains undermining the nation’s fragile food supply, followed by further scorching droughts in Australia and collapsing fisheries off South America. But some regions could benefit, in particular the US, where El Niño is seen as ‘The Great Wet Hope’ whose rains could break the searing drought in the west.”

In Wyoming, in early spring, rivers were running at twice their historic average rate. Only the ravages of the bark beetle cloud this land that flows with milk, honey…..and beef. The lodge pole pines, spruce-fir and aspens, that must have once entirely covered the high ground of the Medicine Bow Mountains have now shrunk to cover less than a quarter of the land and the remaining forests are patch-worked with dying timber: mountain trails are littered with fallen trees and well nigh impassable. It is reported that beetle infestations are on the decline – but this is only because the number of host trees suitable for attack is steadily decreasing every year.

Drought is endemic to Southern California and our forest, the chaparral, is adapted to it and remains healthy. What’s left of the steelhead trout population is hunkered down in perennial pools alongside dry river beds. Some streams still run and wildlife it seems, from my casual observation, is surviving just fine. Foxes have moved into the niche vacated by the parvo-struck coyotes, an occasional bobcat is sighted and just down the road there was another mountain lion sighting. Controversy rages in the pages of The Ojai Valley News as to whether a horse on Fino Ranch, a little west of us in Upper Ojai, was killed by a big cat. Owner says yes, his vet is doubtful. Deer continue to browse contentedly, if with a watchful eye.

 The great wailing and breast-beating over our perceived lack of water is an entirely anthropogenic phenomenon. Exotic trees, agriculture and high population densities (with assumed entitlement to grassy swards and leisurely showers) as well as industrial processing are all uses exposed as inappropriate during these cyclical droughts. It seems, however, as though the proponents of the above will now be vindicated for the next little while by the appearance of the baby Jesus wrapped in a swaddling of storm clouds.

Our shrublands, these lands of very few uses, bar their utility to the Oil industry, their use as exotic background in Hollywood movies, as transportation corridors, military proving grounds and, at their wildland urban interfaces, as residential real-estate have survived the global deforestation pandemic: they produce no commercially viable timber and, once cleared, uncertain rainfall diminishes the land’s value for grazing.

Mostly un-loved, mostly un-seen (except as anodyne background to the tectonic excrescences of contemporary southern Californian culture), sometimes burning, mostly dry, always richly pungent, these lands are, above all, intensely alive, a profound efflorescence of the world soul and supremely adapted for survival.

 But a wet winter wouldn’t hurt…….

2014-05-31

Mojave Road

Like Carey McWilliams, I believe in Californian Exceptionalism (The Great Exception, Carey McWilliams, 1949). The State is exceptional because of its history, natural bounty and geographical situation - but Southern California, in another McWilliamism, is also An Island on the Land (McWilliams, 1946).

Bounded by ocean, mountain and desert this land is discontinuous with the mesic north, with the desiccated and trackless Great Basin to the east (beyond the Colorado River) and with the south by virtue of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The fifth article of this document, which ended the Mexican-American war in 1848, mandated that the boundary line to Mexico should begin on the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Rio Grande, then down the Gila River until its confluence with the Colorado and thence track west to the Pacific.

Neatly girded within these parameters, the region has occasionally chafed against its inclusion within the larger statewide boundaries. Wikipedia notes that there have been at least twenty seven serious proposals to partition the state. The most popular dividing line, historically, has been the Tehachapi Mountains, initially because of the difficulty of traversing the rugged range (eventually achieved by the building of the Ridge Route in 1915 which morphed into U.S. Route 99 and is today Interstate 5). The Pico Act of 1859, which would have created the new southern Californian state of Colorado, passed the state legislature and was approved by the Governor.

Only the Seccession Crisis of 1860 prevented its consideration in the U.S. legislature. Another chunk of not quite so desirable real estate, where the Colorado River has its source, shortly assumed that name in 1876, to become the 38th state. A little over a century later, in 1965, the California state senate again voted to divide California along by then familiar lines but the legislation stalled in the state Assembly.

I am re-visiting this history because a couple of weekends ago I was in the south east corner of the state, with friends Will, Joe and Mike in the Mojave National Preserve, where the Mojave Road and Route 66 played significant roles in the unique development of the southern half of California.

The first night we pulled off the 15 and headed for Owl Canyon campground where the massive batholith that under girds the Mojave emerges, in spectacular fashion, from the hardpan. Bent downward by compression, it has formed a basin in which sedimentary rocks have formed and now under further compression, are themselves deeply folded. It was within this antic moonscape that we enfolded ourselves, lying beneath the night sky on sandy terraces that stepped down to a wash. Only the lights of Barstow’s premium outlet mall, which irradiated the sky with a pale bloom, reduced the septillion stars potentially visible to us to a prosaic 2000 or so.

The next morning we met up with the rock-art crew led by John Bretney who had variously motored up from Orange County and the South Bay, at the Lenwood MacDonald’s. While we toyed with our sausage biscuits and scalding coffee, John laid out the plan for the day.

When humans first arrived in the Mojave (with absolute certainty 12,000 years ago, but perhaps even before then) they found a temperate lacustrine environment with lakes and wetlands interspersed with rich grass lands where mega fauna played (newly interrupted by heavy Clovis points arriving atop crude spears). But within a few millennia the climate became less wet and the lakes began to shrink. Some gauge of this process is evident in the succession of stone fish traps that were built at lake’s edge - horseshoe shaped piles of rock that can still be found on the parched desert floor - reflecting the shrinking shore lines. By this point, perhaps because of over-hunting, the megafauna had long gone. Between 6,000 and 3,000 B.C. desertification accelerated as the climate became still warmer and drier and the land became largely depopulated.

Today’s slightly cooler climate has been in place for some 5,000 years and the characteristic low-land vegetation of creosote bush, Joshua trees, cholla and barrel cactus established. Will and I were excited to spot a lone chia bush on the desert floor lending credence to the notion that this super-food may have fueled the Mojave runners reputed ability to run a hundred miles in a day (Bretney). At higher elevations there is pinon and juniper. All this we observed as our caravan of 4-weel drives and my soft-road Audi careened from rock pile to cave and canyon in search of rock art that is now the only remnant of the spiritual visioning of pre-historic human life in the desert.

We had begun by driving east on California State Route 40 which parallels the Sante Fe Railroad and the old Route 66. All these arteries cross the desert south of the Mojave Road - along which we would later travel - which faithfully tracks the original east-west trading route of the Mojave people and which was first traversed by a European in 1776 when Fr. Francisco Garces made the epic trek from Yuma to the San Gabriel Mission. Fifty years later, Jedediah Smith was the first of a series of mountain men to pioneer this southern route to coastal California.

When Mexico ceded much of the southwest to the U.S after the war, the government initiated exploratory expeditions with a view to developing rail links to these newly acquired territories. While Congress vacillated on the best route, contractors moved ahead to create a wagon trail for the expected hordes of emigrants along this desert track. The U.S. cavalry built Fort Mojave on the banks of the Colorado where 500 troops were stationed. Other forts were established at springs along the route and local Indians banished from this by then vital land-link to the far west.

In 1883, a rail line was finally completed from Needles to Barstow and subsequent wagon and then auto-routes cleaved to the railway rather than the older trail. In 1913, in the dawn of the age of the automobile, this route was confusingly designated as The National Old Trails Road as a link in an ocean-to-ocean highway and in 1926 became a part of Route 66.

Our day proceeded amidst these braided arteries, across a palimpsest where we were seeking pecked and painted images on sandstone, granite or basalt – the faint remains of vibrant pre-historic cultural complexes – and where the ghosts of the Mojave people (and the Kawaiisu, Paiute, Kitanemuk and Serrano), mountain men, the U.S. cavalry, prospectors, homesteaders, cattle ranchers, Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl and carefree Post-WWII Americans getting their kicks on Route 66 still haunt these dusty roads and sandy washes.

Conveniently located between the major populations of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the highest calling of this land of “singing sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, Joshua tree forests, and carpets of wildflowers” is now, according to the National Park Service which administers the Preserve, to provide “serenity and solitude” to tourists “from major metropolitan areas”.

2014-05-08

Ancient Super Seed Secret

In The Three Sages, I wrote about three local salvias –black, white and purple - no mention of chia, Salvia columbariae (the most important sage to the Chumash) the seeds of which are now consumed daily in our breakfast cereal, bread and health drinks. Dr Oz (among others) proclaims it to be an Ancient Super Seed Secret. It was a staple in the diet of many indigenous peoples. Referencing C.L. Bard’s A Contribution to the History of Medicine in Southern California, Southern California Practioner, August 1894, Jan Timbrook notes,

“Perhaps the most widely used phrase in California Ethnobotany is Bard’s assertion that one tablespoon of chia seeds was sufficient to sustain for 24 hours an Indian on a forced march".

More than a century later, the hyperbole continues.

My goal in The Three Sages was partly to raise awareness of this species that thrives on the fringes of the chaparral and to encourage a minimal sage literacy. How then could I ignore columbariae? The simple fact is that until a few days ago I had experienced but a single chia sighting, on Shelf Road, some four years ago (In Search of a Shaman’s Lair). All that changed on a recent hike up Horn Canyon.

Was it a Thacher lacrosse field that lay to my left on the way up to the trail head? Young athletes lounged on the field, their sophisticated ball catchers sprawled around them, mostly unaware that this game had derived from a geographically alien culture (East-coast woodland Indians) and were they to participate in simulacrum of a local indigenous sport then on-line poker would be infinitely more appropriate (the Chumash were gambling-mad). Unless, that is, they were interested in achieving an altered state of consciousness, in which case ultra-marathoning might appeal to these louche wannabe Spartans. Fueled by the ancient super seed, local Indians performed prodigious acts of mind-altering distance-running.

Meanwhile, a young equestrian crossed my path and trotted up a nearby rise. The Spanish, agents of the Indian genocide, had, of course, re-introduced the horse to California in the late eighteenth century after the original Asian immigrants had hunted Equus ferus ferus to extinction at the end of the Ice Age some ten thousand years before.

Best not, perhaps, to trouble these young minds with the difficult paradoxes of pre-history. I passed by, intent on broaching the wildlands that beckoned beyond.

Yellow-gold petals from bush poppies were sprinkled along the trail. The rocky path was shaded by cottonwoods, bays and oaks as it followed Thacher Creek. Horticulturally, it was a quiet beginning: the usual suspects of lupin, mimulus, vetch, blue dicks, eriodictylon, occasionally woolly painbrush and, of course, the bush poppy grew along the clearing in the dominant chamise chaparral.

As I climbed beyond The Pines camp site at 3250 feet, the vegetation grew more interesting – dodder, wooly blue curls, manzanita, bush oaks and then………..chia! It grew, demurely, on either side of the trail amongst the companionable blue blossoms of blue dicks, black sage, and yerba santa: a few florets still clung to the seed heads which, in a week or two, would be ready for harvesting.

I imagined that long ago forbears of these annual plants had been seeded from spillage from burden baskets carried by Chumash women (secured with a tumpline - a broad strap supported by the woman’s brow) as they returned from the legendary chia fields at the foot of the Toptopa range. As M. Kat Anderson explains in Tending the Wild, 2005, Chumash grassland burning practices encouraged the growth of selected seed crops. The cessation of this practice, combined with the inroads made by introduced plant species has caused a drastic decline in the abundance of chia (Timbrook). It is now grown commercially from Kentucky to Argentina, but here in the erstwhile happy gathering grounds of the Chumash, it is increasingly rare - easier to find on supermarket shelves than in the wild.

Thus the commodification of the wildland continues at a cost to the authentic experience. Goji berries promise to provide the longevity of Himalayan Tibetans while chia seeds guarantee the endurance of the Tumarahara and Chumash trail runners (In Search of a Shaman's Lair). Context is everything. I can assure you that your endurance will improve if you regularly climb out of the valley to about 5,000 feet and harvest your breakfast cereal and then carry it back in a Juncus rush burden basket, mix some with a little spring water and knock it back. Similarly, the sparse diet of the traditional Tibetan, with or without goji berries would almost certainly prolong the lives of the WEIRD (Jared Diamond’s acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). Dr. Oz’s medicine show promotes Chia pudding, Click here for the complete recipe, but absent the primitive life-style of the indigenous people your health benefits may vary.

Authenticity in Landscape, Life and (Lacrosse?) is hard won. Edward Abbey, whom I have only recently begun to read, represents someone who, although fundamentally WEIRD (but never Rich and as an Anarchist, questionably Democratic),  possessed an inviolable authenticity. He writes, in Desert Solitaire, 1968, that his aim, as he begins a summer as a park ranger in Moab is to,

“confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock that sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities.”

Farley Mowatt, the Canadian writer whose death at 92 was announced today had a similar ethos: he adopted the diet of the Artic wolves he was studying (eating wood rats and other rodents) in order to understand their true nature. He later fictionalized his researches as Never Cry Wolf, 1963. Peter Matthiessen, who died earlier this year, never wavered from his fierce advocacy of the wildlands and its creatures. His first book, Wildlife in America, 1959, was published three years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and initiated a half century of researching and writing about endangered species. In The Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes, 2001, he writes,

“In this brilliant winter light, against black tree trunks and white snow, the red-crowned crane moves and turns like the quick heart of life, as dark evergreens, in their impenetrable stillness, breathe the imminence of the great mystery looming behind.”

Such lyricism can be the reward for an authentic immersion into the natural world. All I’m saying is a life in Ojai demands an engagement of its wildlands. A friend who lives on a lane off of Thacher Road mentioned that in her ten years of living in Ojai, she had never seen a deer. I suppose it would be possible, immured in Manhattan, to never see a yellow cab. But can either life be considered authentic to the place where it is lived?