2015-04-26

The Village of the Damned

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Awakening on a remote mountain shelf in the Carpathians in 1934, Patrick Leigh Fermor writes, in Between the Woods and the Water, 1986,

“There was no dew; but mist wreathed the clefts and ravines. Faraway spurs rose up, stage-wings only defined by the hair-thin line of their summits against the next vaporous upheaval, each a paler blue as it receded, while the valleys that twisted downhill were dusky with timber."

Sounds like early mornings in Upper Ojai. Missing only are shepherds playing small bone flutes, their wives following in their wake spinning wool between distaff and spindle whom Fermor describes populating these wild reaches of Transylvania; but on cold mornings here in the Upper Valley there is the thrum of wind machines stirring the gelid air and dispelling the icy fingers of Jack Frost as he grabs for the tender citrus; at other times, the creak of pump jacks and the fluttering orange flag that is the nearby gas flare animate the scene. The settings are similar: the ancient human rituals of sheep herding replaced by automatons or, on Wednesdays, when Harrison sends giant trucks that grab our garbage cans and upends them over their gaping maws, before peremptorily setting them down again and departing in search of fresh canned prey - their human operators almost entirely invisible - by a mechanical ballet, staged against the stunning backdrop of chaparral, mountain and sky.

We get by, somehow, without a roster of Arcadian extras to flesh out the bucolic scene. Shakespeare called these all too human bumpkins 'mechanicals'. We have attempted to dispense with flesh and blood in this postindustrial world and the bumpkins exited stage left some time ago; our service workers are made invisible in the interest of creating the flawless, non-human, technological surface that threatens to shrink wrap our existence. Now we see little of our world being made (but suspect that much of it may be happening in the Middle Kingdom) the better to function as creatures of unalloyed desire – units of economic consumption.

In the village of my dreams there are cottages, workshops, crossroads, a church, a farm, stables, a dairy and dark, inscrutable barns. There's a blacksmith at his forge, a farrier, a butcher, a baker at his ovens and a candlestick maker. There’s a thatcher, a brick maker, a carpenter and a tinsmith.

There are shops - a butcher, a green grocer, a grocery store, a bakery, an ironmonger, a toy store, a book store, a stationers, a newsagent (because these reveries are often sourced by memories of England) and a bank. There’s a laundress, a tailor, a tanner and a gunsmith; even a furniture maker, a seamstress, a tailor and a cook. There is a winemaker and a brewer, a schoolteacher and an undertaker; a farmer, a jeweler and a silversmith; a woodcutter and a miller, a stone carver, a cooper and a wheelwright. There are agricultural laborers and ditch diggers - and Gypsies. At the crossroads there is an inn.

There is doctor and a lawyer, even an Indian chief (outside of the tobacconist); a fortune teller and a story teller, a bank teller and a musician, a soldier and an artist, a sign painter, a poet, a dancer and a druggist; a witch and a wizard, a cobbler and a preacher.

At a distance is a benign despot, The Good King.

Just your average chimerical village - where human activities are clearly attached to material benefits, life processes are attended to by living beings, and our nourishment conveyed to us by its farmers and its cooks, its processors and packagers; where the business of survival (of community, of life) is transparent. Where, in the daily round, the moving parts, the actors and the hangers-on, the movers and shakers and the mechanicals, are all on full view. A life where there is clarity of exposition. An existence where we understand the plot: where we know what's going on for chrissakes. We should be so lucky.

It is in our dreams, in our fairy tales, our myths and our imaginations that we seek exegesis: simple explanations for complex operations - or in economic theory. The fairy-tale village may be a construction of our childhood imaginations, built at a time when we remain mostly unaware that a taxman is lurking to enforce the social contract that each and every one of this happy throng (except, perhaps, for the itinerant Gypsies) has made with The Good King. Only later do we realize exactly of what those fairy tales had been grimly hinting – of the menace hiding in the bushes, of a wolf waiting to garnish our hard-won wages.

The Carpathian moment in Paddy Fermor’s sepia-tinted youth existed during the erratic rule of the Rumanian King Carol whose government swung between royal absolutism and an indigenous fascism. A brief alliance with Nazi Germany then led into the long night of Soviet domination, which reached its apogee in the nightmare of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu’s dictatorship which lasted almost a quarter of a century, from 1965 to1989. Through it all, victors plundered the vanquished whether by taxes or privation. Fermor saw an Arcadian idyll which, if it existed at all, was perilously brief and owed much to his own romantic vision when seen at first hand then further mellowed by the years through which his journey was recalled - something like the illusory village that lodged in my own callow imagination and that I now, many decades later, happily visit.

But we need to go back further than an idealized village, that figment from some golden age (reifications of which Fermor wanders through in Eastern Europe), to find The Happiest Place on Earth, in a Magic Kingdom (and that kingdom, of course, was not a kingdom at all), far, far back into time, before a long ago global warming presaged the end of the ice age and of the mega fauna that ranged the open tundra. So far back, that neither is it a village; so far back that this ‘it’, this nirvana, preceded the development of agriculture and of what Kojin Karatani calls “The Sedentary Revolution” (The Structure of World History, 2014).

Karatani makes the point that economic activity began with the pooling of resources within bands of nomadic hunter gatherers who also practiced reciprocal gift giving with outside groups. There was no incentive for nomadic peoples to store food – instead, they moved to an area where fresh supplies could be obtained. Acquisition ran counter to the nomads’ need for mobility and as long as there was room to roam and mega-fauna to hunt there was no reason to settle – where conflict was more likely with outside groups and, within the band, social malcontents could stir resentments; neither was there any desire to reside alongside their dead: far better to bury the departed and move on.

Between ten and fifteen thousand years ago, as the ice was melting, the steppes and prairies began to be forested and the great herds of mastodon, giant bison and other megafauna began to diminish. At the same time, increasing seasonal fluctuations in weather made foraging a less successful year-round activity. Global warming thus generated conditions prejudicial to nomadic hunting and gathering and fishing began to be of increasing importance to humankind’s survival. River bank settlements became proto-villages. Smoked fish created the first opportunity for the stockpiling of food - initiating the long history of resource inequality. Food supplies were soon augmented by the herding of domesticated livestock and the cultivation of crops. Notions of ownership developed that established the rich and the poor, those who had and those who had not.

As the climate warmed and the rivers ran more freely, construction of permanent settlements dependent on agriculture initiated a complex syndrome we know as Civilization - what Jared Diamond characterizes as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” and with it, the degradation of the planet.

Human labor began to be commodified - something bought, sold or stolen. The weak toiled for the strong; leisure for the few replaced leisure for everyone. For the many, it was in Civilization, rather than in Hobbesian Nature, that life became nasty, brutish and short.

Long, long ago, the happiest place had been no-place - where there was little thought of tomorrow and little memory of yesterday. A filmic succession of places, a songline, a journeying embedded within the pulses of the planet as it pursued its irregular orbit around the sun, informed all of human life.

Only the sick and dying were sedentary, confined to one place: the village of the damned.

2015-04-12

Earth Dusted

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for the New Yorker, responded to a question on whether the art world was broken with,

"Franz Kafka once said there is infinite hope, but not for us. I guess that would depend on whether you include yourself in that us or not. There's infinite hope. People get up in the morning and make art, look at art, think about art, and sell it. No, the art world isn't broken".

The world of the Lakota Sioux, indeed of all the Native tribes that once rode over the North American Plains on horses bred from those originally stolen from the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico (who in turn had acquired them from the Spanish at the very end of the sixteenth century) was very thoroughly broken by 1890, when the last of their tribe was massacred by the U.S. cavalry. Examples of the art produced in those two hundred years by this nomadic Plains culture - or rather the housewares, clothing, weapons, tipis and ceremonial costumes, that are now considered as art - is on display at the Museum of Metropolitan Art in New York in a show that originated in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.

The American military, newly practiced at and equipped for industrial scale killing, effectively eliminated Native Americans from the Plains between the end of the Civil War and the close of the nineteenth century. Their art is now enshrined in a bastion of New York's institutional establishment (originally funded by those railway magnates, land barons and nascent industrial magnates whose lust for profit doomed the very existence of its makers), lauded in Paris, and critiqued in the New Yorker (Moving Pictures, Mar 16, 2015). Their lives taken, now their culture is consumed by Western Imperialist, running dog capitalists and fetishized by their cultural storm troops, the art elite.

How else to interpret Schjeldahl's crass dismissal of the Native American genocide with the bland "what ensued is a story of reservations........But there's an ameliorating epilogue of revivals and transformations of Plains heritage"? Huh? Whatever mannerist reflections still bubble up from those genetically related to the people of these once vibrant cultures in no way absolves the epic criminality that attended their original, nineteenth century, pre-meditated destruction.

Karl Ove Knausguaard asks in My Saga, NYT, March 8, 15, "....the Vikings... discovered America, but they left it, almost without a trace. What if Columbus had done the same?" What if, he conjectures, " the Europeans had said simply, "Let's leave the New World in peace, out of respect for the people there and their way of life," what would the continent look like now?"

The answer, of course, is little different from then, if the land and its peoples had truly been left isolated from the rest of the world. As a thought experiment it reveals a deeply disquieting question: the Met warehouses artifacts from dead and dying pre-modern cultures of the world - what, if anything, makes our one global mono-culture of greater value than these myriad expressions of being? In submitting to the urge to expunge the primitive (retaining only the mute testimony of its surviving artifacts) what damage has been done to our psychic karma? How wounded are we, as Americans, by our close temporal, geographic and cultural links to those whose genocidal impulse erased the cultures of the land we know as the United States? Now, our Imperial blood-lust dominates our relationships with other nations of the world - a lust weaponized with the frightening capability of terminating the entirety of Earth's human cultures; leaving perhaps, a few carbonized and radioactive artifacts for alien beings to eventually collect and fetishize.

In California, some history runs a little deeper than it does on the Great Plains. Local Indians were confronted by the colonial power of Spain, manifested in the form of Junipero Serra and his Franciscan brothers, in 1769. The Missions built along El Camino Real were the forward positions of a religious and military coalition whose goal was the subjugation and Christianization of the indigenous people who then, it was thought, would become serfs in a feudal system of estate agriculture. In the event, the Missions became charnal houses - ground zero in the entirely deliberate extermination of indigenous cultures - architecturally expressed in crude renditions of the provincial Spanish style.

The material culture of the local Southern California bands was highly developed in the realms of basketry and canoe construction but was limited in its decorative impact. Clothing was minimal, a buckskin skirt for women and a simple skin blanket for the men. Sea otter furs were highly prized. Sandals of yucca fiber were worn in rough country but otherwise the people went barefoot. California casual has been in style for ten thousand years or more.

This modest level of personal adornment and the typical utilitarian shelters of reed thatch and brush stand in contrast to the elaborately decorated clothing, painted buffalo hide tipis and feathered head dresses of the Plains Indians; but the bands of Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche and Blackfoot, who immediately bedizened their dress with glass beads after contact, had formerly lived modest lives as small scale agriculturalists or hunter gatherers.

It was their acquisition of the horse and their adoption of a nomadic culture centered on the hunting of buffalo that has, ironically now become the standard perception of Indian life. The multi-colored, intricately worked artifacts, the buckskin, feathers and red cloth sashes that characterize this short-lived metamorphosis, and that has so entranced us (and the French), was doomed from the start: Anglo-Americans were determined to take the Natives’ range lands and were simultaneously engaged in the mass slaughter of their primary means of material support, the Buffalo.

California Indians endured a slow death well away from this country’s or the world’s attention. It was not until the conclusion of the Mexican America War in 1848, the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill in the same year, the granting of Statehood, and a little later, the establishment of a rail link across the country that some attention was given to the condition of the Native peoples.

Her report on the appalling conditions of Indians in Southern California ignored by Congress, Helen Hunt Jackson resolved to write a novel dramatizing their plight. Ramona was published in 1884 and was immediately popular but largely misinterpreted as a ‘Romance of the Ranchos’ and spawned a small industry devoted to the romanticization of the Mexican-American Ranchero lifestyle. The impoverished, malnourished and spiritless Indians were no match, in the popular imagination, for the dashing caballeros and senoritas that shared space with them in the novel.

Thus it is that fifteen thousand years of supremely sustainable human habitation, of low-impact, largely peaceable existence and congeries of finely tuned socio-spiritual awareness, have entirely failed to impact the consciousness of their usurpers. For this we should be grateful. The funeral sticks, solstice stones, mano and metate of the Chumash, and before them of the Oak Grove peoples have yet to be collected in global art-world exhibitions. These self-effacing communities of earth-dusted people, clothing, basketry, and thatch, bathed in the warm Californian light and spiritually consoled by an inclusivist pantheism are honored instead by the preservation of their environment – the dour, doughty and drought resistant chaparral: their most un-glamorous companion eco-system, a land that endures so little different from then.

2015-04-02

On the Road

Now also at www.Urbanwildland.org

I woke to the white-noise of a City awakening. It is 4 a.m. in Venice and I feel a mild anxiety slowly filling my consciousness tracking parallel to an awareness that I am not in Ojai anymore…..

It’s salutary to spend time in Los Angeles. How else to confirm the joys of living elsewhere? Yet I carry the stamp of an urban-dweller wherever I rest my head: thus it is entirely apt that this blog is titled UrbanWildland.

I am an outlander, an outlier, an outsider. More urban than wild. But I am at home with myself and at home in the chaparral, that entirely useless, but infinitely valuable eco-system that has never nurtured people – where humankind is intrinsically alien. (The Chumash were careful to situate their villages in areas adjacent to a creek and riparian shade trees or in oak-meadowland). Grizzlies, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, grey foxes, and their animal prey were the mammalian inheritors of this Pleistocene eco-system and all but the grizzly still dominate its dense thickets. In its cleared patches people now farm, build country estates and horse ranches or, mostly hidden from sight, extract its oil. Some, like me, live in isolated houses in the scrub-land with cherished access to the City and relish the frisson of the urban wildland - where our expensively acquired liberal educations allow us to parse the relationship between town and country while avoiding commitment to either sensibility. Mostly, we look at the chaparral as an ancient scenic backdrop to our twenty-first century lives.

My parents were both Londoners evacuated from the city early in WWII and ended up spending the rest of their days in rural Surrey. I was born a few years after they made this move, living in the small villages of Eashing, Witley, Churt, Frensham, Lower Bourne, and then, at age six, moving to a new Council house on a small Estate (or Project, as such congeries of Public Housing are known in the U.S.) in Milford, a village that suffers the indignity of having a Victorian era Gothic revival church as its centerpiece - still considered, in the 1950's, an example of brash modernity compared to churches in surrounding villages that typically date back to Norman or Saxon times.

My parents were neither locals nor did they maintain cultural and economic roots in London, as did those families whose bread winner traveled daily on the British Rail Southern Region line to Waterloo Station. My father briefly commuted to his insurance job in the City from Churt, but quickly tired of this routine and resolved to work locally. By the time we had arrived in Milford, to live in public housing, we had forfeited any pretensions to belonging to the middle class and settled into our lives of alienation, physically within but socially firmly outside of the stock-broker belt and never likely to be considered country folk, certainly not a part of the local gentry nor, with my father employed as a small time insurance agent, ever likely to ascend to the professional classes.

Compounding my estrangement from any comfortable niche within the English class system was the fact that both my parents, but particularly my father, had upper- middle class accents of which my dad was very protective and concerned that his children inherit. After the age of nine I was banned from playing with the local kids for fear that I might pick up a Surrey accent.

A couple of years after leaving High School, in 1967, the inconsistencies in what might be called my class affect (I was the embodiment of false consciousness) were such that leaving England seemed the only reasonable course.

In the spring of 1933, a similarly tumultuous time, and perhaps for some of the same reasons, Patrick Leigh Fermor, at eighteen, left to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. He was an assiduous diarist and eventually turned the material from this epic stroll through Europe between the wars into two books that made his reputation as a writer; a third volume was published posthumously. Although he went on to live an extraordinarily rich life, it was the memories of his walk across a continent that fuelled his literary production into his old age; they remained the well spring of his creative life.

Fermor, who was thrown out of every school he ever attended and never went to a university, acquired great learning at an early age from an adoring mother who was a fashionable haute bohème in London and a famous geologist father resident in India, who introduced young eight year old Paddy to mountain climbing in the Swiss Alps; together they provided enough contacts in Europe's fading aristocracy to assure comfortable lodgings when the boy was not sleeping rough in some remote field or abandoned shepherd’s hut. He also had a weekly stipend of one pound that kept him in food and drink while he was 'On the Road'.

My journey away from England began by hitch-hiking to Dover and boarding a cross channel ferry to Ostend in Belgium. It was the first time I had left Britain. My previous hitch-hiking experience was mostly limited to Gloucestershire where I had briefly attended the Art College in Cheltenham. It was April and I had a kapok filled sleeping bag. As I recall, I slept rough the first night and then hitched to Paris, then on down the N-9 to the French Riviera. My first night in a bed was somewhere in Provence - courtesy of a couple who were on their way to their country house. The next morning I was taken to the appropriate route by the husband in his gull-wing Mercedes. Fermor would have moved in for a week and made life-long friends – my almost complete lack of French, despite studying for five years, limited my entertainment value after the first flush of vagabondish appeal. I was, however, given the address of their son in Nice, who was about my age, and I looked him up upon arrival. A deeply entitled young man, he had little time to waste on a provincial lad from England intent on the romance of travel and totally incapable of sampling the wealthy youth culture of the Riviera. I hitched through the string of glamorous resort towns and headed for Venice, Italy.

Emblematic of a trip that wandered across Asia and then ran out of roads in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), I saw the sinking city only through the haze of Northern Italy’s industrial smog: an early success in avoiding the culturally sanctioned sights, lightly sacrificed for the greater thrill of journeying onward and Eastward.

Now, I find joy in looking north through the foothills to the Topatopas, knowing that onward is a wildland that stretches to Bakersfield and beyond. It is here that I imagine resides the primordial soul of California, nurtured long before people journeyed down the kelp road (in the familiar marine environment that holds constant all the way from the Aleutians), forged in the maelstrom of colliding tectonic plates, pullulating coast lines, disappearing inland seas and finally, grinding mountains of moving ice which, in a warming world, puddled into great rivers, aquifers and lakes.

In my rear view mirror I see the vast conurbation of the southland, from the teeming tenements of Tijuana to the broad coastal plain of Los Angeles, bounded by the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Gabriels, where lives a virulent urban culture that leaks through the canyons and passes, floods the San Fernando valley and is finally sated somewhere just north of Oxnard and the City of Ventura - all woven together with the sinews of a profoundly twentieth century transportation system that found its apotheosis in the freeway.

Somewhere between these hulking mythic realities lies the urban wildland. It is in this precarious interstice that I have found my place.

2015-03-18

Triple Cream

(Now also at www.urbanwildland.org)

With a stiff neck from watching a one hundred and fifty minute film, I walked out of the Riviera Theater in Santa Barbara on the first day of daylight saving to see a viscous twilight settling over the bay. Lights had begun to appear across the darkling plain of downtown and at the shore's edge, a white twig-like line illuminated with strings of light was etched into the bay - Stearns Wharf: reduced by distance and the scattering of light through the dust and pollution of earth's atmosphere to a filament, a tiny scratch on my retinal canvas.

I had, indeed, just seen Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh's grand biopic of the early nineteenth century painter. I was primed - stretched and gessoed - ready to receive the faintest optical stimulations of atmosphere, earth and ocean. What I got, as I blinked into the early evening's light, was a cineramic shot of the edenic, sub-tropical, crepuscular, Southern Californian, Spanish provincial revival, stage-set fantasy that is Santa Barbara seen from the Elysian heights, above the Mission, on Alameda Padre Serra.

The Riviera Theatre is housed in the auditorium of the old Normal School of Manual Arts and Home Economics, built in 1909. The campus later morphed into the original setting for UCSB. Improbably, the Riviera is the one Santa Barbara screen showing independent and foreign movies. The theater still features a heavy beamed mission-style ceiling and amber wall sconces embellished with a gothic ‘R’. Across the street is the newly re-modeled luxury resort El Encanto which utilizes some of the old buildings from the original dormitories for the Normal school.

Turner painted atmospheres of sufficient viscosity to function as dream catchers - he created external matrices tuned to capture inner thoughts or visions that might otherwise never escape the unconscious. His subject matter - from the horror of a burning slave ship to the pathos of an old Napoleonic era ship of the line being towed up the Thames by steam tug or the technological marvels of the day, like steam trains - was enveloped in texture, color and impressionist mood sufficient to stir inchoate emotions from deep within the viewer. He elaborated the captured moment in ways that produce a gestalt of meaning that transcend the prosaic realities of the original scene.

Leigh shows us canvases (prepared by Turner's housekeeper with benefits) painted, smeared, scratched, and smudged so that they reflect those fleeting moments of visual revelation initially caught in the artist's sketch books. The filmmaker's graceful camera and economical script bring Turner, his domestic life and loves, his rancorous dealings with patrons and the stultifying Royal Academy, his professional jealousies and above all, his fascination with the world of the Thames estuary, so fully to life that our own relationship to place, light and our lived lives is ushered into that delirious zone where the prosaic is ennobled both by a soulful beauty and tenebrous meaning.

This morning, before dawn, a half moon hung overhead giving sufficient light for me to move confidently along the trail; wind buffeted the sage and stirred the scents of the chaparral; no birdsong yet, but the tympanic breath of the warm air filled the aural void. Random fronds of chamise whipped in the breeze and brushed against my body: my senses thus engaged, they resonated somewhere deep within me.

The painter’s contemporary, Wordsworth, practiced a similar recollection of fleeting events in tranquility and then a transposition into enduring verse. Both artists were assiduous in broaching the concerns of the day while expanding the consciousness of their audience with bravura renditions of purely visual, often natural, phenomena. It has not entirely escaped my notice that I practice a journeyman version of this device of sugar-coating the pill. The compulsion to concretize the evanescent too, is an enduring artistic compulsion - as is the use of beauty to cloak intellectual constructs and critiques: they are at the heart of the artistic endeavor. But the Romantics, and Turner is surely one such, were also engaged in the practice of drawing back the veil: of revealing the sublime beyond the quotidian surfaces of the world.

At first light, the sky is almost fully illuminated and the sun's impending appearance is heralded by a yellow wash leaking around the back lit silhouette of the Santa Paula ridge. An ocean of fog creeps slowly up the Santa Clara river delta bounded by the headlands of South Mountain and Point Mugu. Here was a Turneresque background in the chaparral: but the master was more than a painter of seascapes, landscapes and atmosphere: he imbued his scenes with social, historical and economic significance. Turner would require a foreground, at the edge of the waves of fog, and extending picture plane left. A native scene: a collection of thatched, beehive shaped huts clustered along the Santa Clara River valley, blue tendrils beginning to coil out of the hut's smoke holes and about them, the first flurry of the mornings activities animating the plain, would have served. His was an imagination, typical of the nineteenth century intellect, that slipped easily into past worlds.

Turner's, proto-impressionist paintings shot his viewers half a century or more into the future enabling them to see the world with something that approached a modern sensibility. He attached emotion to the everyday and wonder to the extraordinary. Karl Ove Knausgaard, that voice of the moment who has elevated the neuroses of the schlub to an art form, writes in My Saga (2015),

"The external has to awaken something within; nothing means anything in itself, it is the resonance it produces, in the soul and in the language, that gives meaning to the thing described."

In the chaparral this week, the externalities stirring my soul are the triple cream blossoms of the native clematis, holly leafed cherry, and elderberry. They have no need of artistic mediation - they speak directly to me. Here in the wildland, the veil may be drawn back, transcending the picture plane, abrogating the word and eschewing the moving image. The prickly, scented, untidy and random profligacy of the dull green fuzz that clings to the earth's crust in Southern California - still, in places, in its primal state - can fully reveal the soulful adumbrations so hard won by the Romantics and now, by the logorrheic Knausgaard. It offers transport to the Universe's infinitude where the romantic spirit may collapse into a vertiginous gyre of the sublime.

2015-03-04

Owl's Head Clover

Also at www.urbanwildland.org

In Brooklyn last weekend, Prospect Park was limned in monochrome only occasionally leavened by a snow plow's colorful livery or a red, yellow, or blue jacket of a runner who had not gotten the memo: black cold weather running gear best complements the snowy wastes of the park. It was a few degrees above freezing and a plow's blade had cleared a dark band of wet asphalt between rippled piles of slush. Across the white meadows and steely grey lakes stood a black filigree of trees that plumed towards a leaden sky. The previous day, half a foot of snow had fallen transforming the park into this visual slurry of white ash and charcoal.

Returning to California, the Jet Blue Airbus 321 takes off and then traces a wide arc out into the Atlantic offering its passengers aerial visions of the snow fringed continent, black and white cornrows of Long Island's Levitt towns, and then the obsidian daggers of industrial jetties carrying oil pipe into the wintry ocean; then, as I watch (now on the seat-back screen's map channel) the blue silhouette that serves as the plane's pixeled icon turn, in the blink of an eye, towards a crude cartographic representation of the white heart of a mostly frozen land, I plunge again into the dense, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, deeply sectarian, tribally costumed and variously be-hatted world of Patrick Leigh Fermor's magisterial travelogue, The Broken Road, (2013).

As a youth, the author walked the length and breadth of pre-WWII Bulgaria, and remembered his journey, with startling clarity, in his old age. I was driven, from Park Slope (and around Grand Army Plaza) then along Eastern Parkway towards Jet Blue's revivification of Saarinen’s spread-winged terminal almost entirely oblivious of the social, ethnic, economic, religious, national, and political enclaves through which I was passing. I glimpsed (and conjectured) along the eight-lane, bifurcated street (and heaven knows, over the continental United States) that there is substantial evidence of our ethnic heterogeneity: yet Levi Strauss' pronouncement in Triste Tropiques (1956) that we are headed for a global mono-culture remains prescient.

On many of Brooklyn's streets, terra-cotta, common brick, yellow brick, brick clinkers, pale rough-cast stone, granite and brownstone alternatively wrap ossified cavities (their interiors often encased in dark woods) that once hosted lively communities of worshippers. This borough is famously replete with churches, most dating back to the former city's days as the most populous in the country. Now these varied ecclesiastical edifices remain as hulks, massively irrelevant carcasses in a world gone secular - where Mammon has established his patriarchal sway, attended by nymphs proffering votives of enabling technology.

Barclays Center - a rusting, Corten-clad Leviathan seemingly hauled up from the Hudson River on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush is a twenty first century corporatized multi-use venue. Here the many arrive to worship their sports stars and, this spring, for instance, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, The Who, Stevie Wonder, and other aging acts still, apparently, of appeal to what, in another borough, is known as the bridge and tunnel crowd; here they are enraptured in a place which once was at the heart of multi-ethnic low and middle income neighborhood. Sometimes known locally as the 'Slug', this facility represents the creeping Manhattanization of Brooklyn, a dilution of ethnic, economic and. cultural diversity before the leveling impact of a global corporate mono-culture. On some nights, streets that once may have seen a multiplicity of headgear are swamped by a sea of black, Chinese made Brooklyn Nets snapback hats - a sign of the wearer's allegiance to a company of tall, ball-bouncing mercenaries: but I suppose that there is also, in that flotilla of brimmed cloche, some of the same exoticism of which Fermor takes note in a Turkish graveyard where stone pillars marked the graves. He writes,

“The lower and older ones, chipped, split, tilted askew and leaning at all angles, were crowned with extravagant carved headgear….They expanded like giant pumpkins and vegetable marrows, intricately pleated round a cone, and sometimes a helmet’s point pricked through the bulbous folds; others were coil upon stone coil of twisted linen; yet others, jutting fluted cylinders adorned with aigrettes. What pashas and agas and beys, what swaggering bimbashis, what miralais with mandarin whiskers, could have worn these portentious headpieces?”

The avowed modernist Ataturk abolished the fez and turban (of which the above lithic draperies are all examples) in 1920. The elaboration within, and multiplicity of, social worlds is a defense against cultural entropy – the process where taste devolves towards what used to be called mass culture.

Complexity empowers the human world. Monoculture destroys vitality and facilitates entropic decay. Mark Fisher points out that “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics” Capitalist Realism (2008).

At the same time, the natural world is increasingly homogenized by the growth of monoculture agriculture, destruction of habitat, the spread of invasive species and by global warming. The bright green weeds of the world are by their very nature, dominator species – bent on global hegemony over the vast variety of the plant kingdom.

Once upon a time, there was a world of plenty and peace. Over this beneficent tranquility ruled the Great Goddess. But it was but a small step to move from Goddess culture to what Riane Eisler calls an 'androcratic' social organization under a patriarchal God where domination of the natural world, women and the physically weak is condoned: where might makes right and where rigid hierarchies of power prevail. We are the heirs to such a world.

Complex communities of varied ethnicity, taste and culture have long been under threat from the dominator ideology of neoliberal capitalism. A desacralized Nature is threatened externally by the plundering of its economic resources and within it, by opportunistic flora and fauna, abetted by deliberate and accidental, humanly engineered migrations that further degrade native ecosystems of their complexity and stability.

Long before the godhead was anthropomorphized, human societies lived in worlds of enchantment where there was a recognition that the infinite energy of the universe existed in all things. Then, the human task was to propitiate all that they touched in supporting their livelihoods and worship all that surrounded them. Then, men and women were equipped with egos that remained subservient to the world soul, and humankind's chthonic unconscious acted like a pervious membrane that allowed for the universe to flow in and human intention to flow out.

Drifts of owl’s head clover are set in a lush backdrop of weeds. The plant's slightly purpley red pin-cushion flower heads rise above a sea of alien grasses, clovers, and the irrepressible erodium. The trails through the chaparral that a couple of weeks ago were rock strewn dirt tracks are now grassy, virid veins that thread through the dull brown green and shadowed wild lands. It has rained again: New York's snow echoed in Ojai by half an inch of warm rain. Imported, European sourced chlorophyll is rampant: there are places that look like gimcrack evocations of the Emerald Isle.

This morning I awoke to the steady drum of rain on our metal roof. At first light I saw the Topatopa bluffs were rimed with snow that clung to ridges spread across the spalled sandstone - the dark rock banded in white. To the east, the Santa Paula ridge was lightly dusted while its conical peak was white with snow. Below, as light began to stream over the upper valley, the chaparral remained its dour, somber self; at its edges, meadows, the bright green of trails, and weedy roadside verges pulsated with a manic vigor.

For a moment, I am transfixed again by the clover, lost in its exuberance and its native beauty. I am enchanted - transported to a more complex time (paradoxically), long, long ago, when magic inhered in the world.

2015-02-11

Blue Dicks

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

Sometimes a Blue Dick is just a Blue Dick. But these native hyacinths, appearing after a storm of ceanothus blossom has blown through the chaparral, are a harbinger of spring. We have arrived at that time of the year, at least in Ojai, when we are again reminded by the creaking of the seasonal gears that all of life is transitory - that nothing lasts forever. The entire planet is date-stamped.

Heading into the holiday season, what passes for our winter – an occasional cold snap or rainy day – held a firm grip on my imagination: Spring was not even the palest glow on the edge of the event-horizon. Six weeks later, I am inclined to believe again in the reliability of the celestial clockwork.

Another spring is also heralded by the sickening candy-pink of prickly phlox flowers, often alongside more demure corn-flower blue solanum and white, wild cucumber blossoms. Crinkly leaves of soap plant are emerging from the hard-pack and goosefoot (Chenopodium californicum) is in full leaf. Poison oak gleams malignantly from its shiny new foliage. The native peonies are almost done, true denizens of the topsy-turvy world of the chaparral where plants flourish in winter and begin to wither and die in spring. High on a hill, California poppies nod toward the south. Owls head clover have appeared in the meadows. Lupins are flowering and blue Ceanothus spinosus, which blooms a few weeks later than the white varieties (whose massed polar clouds are now diminishing), is freshly in evidence.

It’s that time of the year on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills when spring and summer collections are on display in the flagship stores of international brands that the line both sides of the street between Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire; (within too, a courtyard mall that worms its way into a surrounding block and along a street that wriggles through another section in the development parterre).

Just a week ago, walking along these bastions of early twentieth-first century global-consumer capitalism (sound track supplied by Maserati and Lamborghini as their pilots trawled the gold-paved streets) deep in the maw of our profoundly ego-centric culture, I was reminded how different is the experience of living apart from such displays; of how my psyche has been split asunder living in Upper Ojai where the portal that yawns before me leads not towards Ralph Lauren’s new spring/summer collection, but directly into the World Soul.

Lorrie and I were headed to a restaurant to meet friends: Chinese tourists bustled past us clutching their newly bought fashions, equally available in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong - and perhaps other Chinese cities of which I remain unaware; but here at the heart of the American dream, their goods come branded with the unique frisson of having been purchased on Rodeo Drive (on a warm winter’s afternoon). Here too, global brands are richly burnished by the triple imprimaturs of the eponymous Hillbillies’ town, Los Angeles and Southern California. Rodeo Drive represents, for the out-of town, lustful consumer, a quadruple threat.

Cloistered beneath the crumbling face of the Topatopa bluffs, I daily face a similarly multitudinous threat to the erstwhile sanctity of my ego. That’s a good thing. Jung re-established the eternal truth that the earth is more than matter, it is spirit. It is that spirit that now erodes the primacy of my ego, nurtured in some of the most consumer-centric cities in the world – London, Sydney and Los Angeles. Walking down Rodeo Drive represented a mannerist mirror to my past, a ghastly, glittering apparition of the road not taken. For in each city, despite being lured by their urban surfaces polished by desire - by the continuum of fashion-driven development over the ages - I have also found some refuge in more elemental circumstances: the woods and downs of darkest Surrey, the beaches and bush of Sydney’s North Shore and the bay beaches and chaparral edges of Los Angeles. Now in Ojai, I am able to fully allow what Jung called the ‘conditioning of the mind by the earth’.

David Tacey, in Edge of the Sacred – Jung, Psyche, Earth, Daimon Verlag, Zurich, 2009, explains. The history of human spirituality has been divided, he suggests, into two broad streams: the sky-pointers who see the heavens as representing the sacred realm and the earth-pointers who understand that the sacred inheres within the earth. These two distinct spatial heirophanies are represented on the one hand by the major monotheisms and on the other by polytheistic animism. This spatial mapping of the sacred is reflected, in Jungian terms, within the human psyche.

For Jung, the psyche included both conscious and unconscious psychic processes. How the elements, or forces, within these processes are resolved results in individuation. The ego exists at the center of the field of consciousness and stands guard at the border of the inner and outer worlds. The unconscious is the repository for all past and future thoughts and repressed emotions which are not being experienced in the moment. Within the unconscious there resides the shadow, an underworld that aggregates the parts of ourselves we most fear as well as the intelligences that reside in the collective unconscious, or group mind, and ultimately, is attuned to the World Soul. For Jung, it is the shadow to which the earth speaks.

In the global north, at least since the Enlightenment, and arguably since the rise of patriarchy and monotheistic religion, the ego has enlarged its domain within the psyche at the cost of the shadow within the unconscious. Thus the earth has increasingly gone unheard.

The shadow world of the subconscious, what Jung calls the chthonic portion of the psyche, was fed by the ancient religions of pre-modern humanity. Jung notes that ‘dark powers, witches, magicians and spirits’ represented the forces of the earth and these archaic forms held sway over an emasculated ego in primitive humans. But this form of magical thinking was undermined by the rise of science; Jung writes,

“This was the first stage in the despiritualization of the world. One step followed another: already in antiquity the gods were withdrawn from mountains and rivers, from trees and animals”.

Jung posits, in his Terry Lectures from 1940, that the dominant, modern form of thinking leaves us bereft: in a spiritual and emotional wasteland where the earth has become desecrated, desacralized and is plundered to satisfy our gross egotistical desires. Thus he predicts the psychic roots of our growing environmental crisis.

Yet spirit still inheres in the land. The spirit dynamics of the earth can overturn and replace the aspirations of the ego. Material desire can wither and die as connections are made with the natural world. The shadow can rise again and fully inhabit the unconscious creating a base of spiritual profundity that can heal the individual: in society, such a realignment might heal the planet.

Here, where all is sky and bio-mass, damp earth and trickling streams, is a world that calms - a world that subtly shapes one’s psyche. On a meadow, just up the road, blue dicks rise out of the grasslands, or sometimes push out of sun-splashed rocky soil. Violet blue, their flowers are the color of the heavens: but they direct our attention not towards the empyrean, but to the spirit earth, where primordial forces may one day link again with humanity and bring an ecological order to the planet.

For the Chumash, this plant they called Shikh’o’n was a valuable food source. Their bulbs were roasted in communal lily (brodiaea) roasting pits (Timbrook). It was a beloved plant that featured in their tales of Coyote trickery: it was deeply rooted in their magical thinking. It helped sustain, as did all things of the earth, their psychic balance within a world of enchantment. More than a harbinger of spring, it represented a complex spirit essence; it spoke to the deep chthonic streams within Chumash psyche.

This early spring, it spoke to me.

2015-01-31

Candy, Candy

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

In the burgeoning bohemian capital of Ojai (as Architectural Digest gushes in a recent blog piece), we live at the vortex of a luxury market devoted to an ethos of the organic, natural, hand-crafted, and locavore.

There’s no denying the appeal of artisanal foods, small-batch beverages and locally-sourced goods made from natural materials. Yet the market for such products typically exists, in the Global North, in wealthy societies underpinned by an antithetical means of production – corporate capitalism.

How do we live with this paradox?

The prevailing goods and services and means of communication across the planet are the products of advanced technologies that have been created with the deliberate goal of reducing the amount of hands-on labor involved and concentrating the profits of such endeavors into the hands of the few.

This phenomenon was enabled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the development of a highly focused and reductive way of looking at the world known as The Scientific Revolution, and its practical adjunct, The Industrial Revolution. Advances in weaponry, navigational technologies and transportation enabled peoples from countries who first adopted this new outlook to colonize great swathes of the planet and use foreign labor and raw materials to enrich their own societies. Thus we have the familiar tale of modern civilization: a world founded on the twin pillars of rational scientific analysis and greed. It replaced a pre-modern age of manual labor, hand crafts and food and drink that, even if often scarce, were always organic.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, increasing mechanization of large scale agriculture reduced the number of jobs available to rural populations and made available a vast labor pool for the new industries of mass production. A similar process continues to play out in the so-called developing world today. A universe of artisanal production and small, mixed farms of crops and livestock is being replaced by hugely productive, artificially fertilized mono-crop agri-businesses and meat factory farms tied into a global distribution system, enabled by the fossil-fueled internal combustion engine. Displaced rural workers, over the generations, have become fully enmeshed in the modern world, overwhelmingly as passive consumers rather than as active producers.

Yet we continue to crave the organic artisanal foods and hand-crafted goods that once were our birthright and in Ojai and select towns and suburbs throughout California, they are readily available, marketed by an array of local providers. We may even fantasize about a universal reversion to organic farming methods, localized production and hand-made goods: but we are dimly aware that such a transition might entail the destruction of corporate capitalism along with all the financial, health, food, communications, transport, scientific research, education and consumer goods that the system supports. For most people too, their livelihoods (and their ability to purchase artisanal luxuries) depend on the maintenance of that system.

Patti Smith, who played the Granada in Santa Barbara recently, has the answer.

She sang,

I had a dream, Mr. King, if you'll beg my pardon
I was trespassing a sacred garden
And the blossoms fell and they dropped like candy
And the nature cried, "Gandhi, Gandhi"
And the nature cried, "Gandhi, Gandhi"

And then,

Long live revolution and the spinning wheel
Awake, awake is the mighty appeal
Oh, people awake, awake from your slumber
And get 'em with the numbers
Get 'em with the numbers……

The numbers are indeed what it is about: the planet’s ability to support over seven billion people depends on the cruel system of production and reward the powerful have devised over the last half millennium and whose viability is profoundly dependent on the ravaging of the natural world – of trespassing a sacred garden.

This week, the chaparral has also spoken. Ceanothus blossom is dropping like candy. Nothing is as sweet in the local elfin forest as buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus) in bloom. The Santa Ana winds of late January have scattered the tiny white petals across the chaparral trails. On still days the sweet scent hangs in the air: anchored by a dark, honey fragrance freshened by herbaceous sage-like top notes it is redolent of the nose of a vintage Sauterne; of floral candy.

Gandhi used a spinning wheel as a symbol of self-sufficiency: it represented a way to replace industrially produced clothing with self-spun khadi cloth dhotis, lungis, kurtas and sarongs. His was a vision of self-employed small farmers and craftspeople who lived in small villages rather than cities and derived their livings entirely within the local community; governance, to the extent that it was required, would be organized through consensus driven village assemblies.

Gandhi was adamant in his opposition to the centralized, industrialized, and mechanized modes of production that the British had developed and he fully understood the impact of India’s economy becoming subservient to that system. He preached, “Not mass production, but production by the masses”. Transportation in traditional, rural India is by foot, bicycle and ox-cart and Gandhi saw no need for further elaboration. One of the great symbols of Britain’s command and control of the sub-continent was its vast network of railways: Gandhi understood its true significance as a conduit of imperial power.

We are now, ourselves, mostly colonial subjects of multi-national industrial capitalism: a system ultimately upheld by governments, legal frameworks and militarized police forces. Notions of the organic, natural, hand-crafted, and locavore are a subset of broader concepts of sustainability, localism and democracy. Gandhi’s idea of Swadeshi, or home economy, retains its relevance: there can be no genuine embrace of the local without breaking the bonds of a globalized economy.

Our fetishization of organic food, natural fabrics and homewares fits neatly into the prevailing economic model as a high-end, boutique market ultimately sustained by consumers fully embedded within neo-liberal economics and the industrial modes of production, transportation and communication it enables.

If we are to awake from our slumbers and get ‘em with our numbers, it will take a little more commitment than shopping at the farmer’s market, driving a Prius and enjoying device-free home-cooked meals with our families.

Clouds of ceanothus blossom have emerged from the chaparral. Surely, in Ojai, we can hear nature’s cries of “Gandhi, Gandhi”? The blossoms have dropped like candy: it’s time to get our dhoti on.