2015-06-22

Pyramid Power

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

A field of flowers is a powerful thing. Heading up the hill, my vision was filled with the miniature pointillism of the alpine meadow that rose up before me. For a moment, I was lost in the celestial matrix that the tiny flowers described. Asters, phlox, and stonecrop, it seemed, reflected some heavenly order, as though in floral reification of the ancient cabalist's dictum of as above so below.

On this field of flowers there was no sign of its medieval accompaniment, the Unicorn, but once up on the ridge and heading over bitter brush (Purshia tridentata) and sage (Artemesia tridentata), the foundational shrubs of these high prairie grasslands, I saw a female pronghorn antelope and its tiny calf scamper down the track.

Alert Reader, you may have the feeling we're not in California anymore.......

The trails over the 100,000 acre ranch where Lorrie's family holds its annual retreat, are maintained primarily for the benefit of horse and rider. Searching out wildflowers involves both the recurring stench of horse manure and the proliferation of Canadian thistles spread by the horses, for whom the seed head of this noxious weed is a favorite treat.

Buffalo still graze these pastures, but as a domesticated breed rather than the rampaging herds of yesteryear. Cattle have negatively impacted the grasslands because of the constancy of their grazing within fenced boundaries; wild herds of Bison, by contrast, were nomadic over vast areas - grazing, fertilizing and breaking up the soil crust in one area before moving on, and rarely visiting one particular spot more than once in a year. The wild buffalo, despite the density of their herds, tended to have a beneficial impact on the native flora by cropping, enriching the soil and enabling water penetration.

A few short centuries ago, the high prairies were home to vast herds of these animals that, over their entire North American range, may have numbered up to 60 million. Buffalo numbers, swelled by the reduction of the native population (their lone predator) through introduced disease and systematic annihilation, were then brought close to zero after the Civil War in a frenzy of industrial-scale killing by Anglo-American 'sportsmen'.

The horse, closely associated with Plains Indians of the historic era and with ranching (and thus with our notions of the Old West), like the cow, is a non-native species, although it's remote ancestor Eohippusevolved some 50 million years ago in the woodlands of North America. It's extinction on this continent occurred about 10,000 B.C.E. suspiciously close to the arrival of north-eastern Asians bearing Clovis flint points capable of downing the mega-fauna that still roamed the land (despite the stresses of climate change at the end of the Ice Age). The horse, by then of something approaching modern-day size, was collateral damage in this slaughter, but it survived on the steppes of Eurasia and was re-introduced by the Spanish in the sixteenth century to become emblematic of the roaming cowboy lifestyle.

Now, the smaller of the above-mentioned meat bearing ungulates and the horse continue to be both the real and mythic underpinnings of the guest-ranch where the Brown family were quartered early this June in what was once the south west tip of the Archean era Wyoming Craton, formed about 2.5 Billion years ago, and which constituted the initial core of the continental crust of North America.

The passageways, over earth and through sky, in which I journeyed between Upper Ojai and this ancient, seed pearl Craton, were experienced as placeless, dead zones: Sargasso Seas wherein float the hectoring detritus of corporate America. By plane (Boeing 737) and rental car (Hyundai Accent) I voyaged across the heartland wrapped in a civilizational membrane which held me in a state of fecklessness, helpless before the assault of the meretricious and the ribbon-like erasures of Eisenhower’s Interstates: except for a moment when increasing sleepiness forced me to pull off the highway. Escaping the cocoon, I ventured where landscape and memory went unbranded, to a memorial which time had forgot - a memorial to a passageway from the past, the nineteenth century Transcontinental Railway.

Along a mile of dirt road, urged on by signage proclaiming an historic monument, the pyramid that rears up on the featureless plain is almost alien in its red-rock, Martian adumbrations. It retains, in its two-stepped form, an echo of its formal progenitor, the ziggurat. On each of its eastern and western faces, midway on the upper tier, “a shattered visage lies" and thus the monument inevitably (for me) references the collapsed edifice in the boundless desert sands of Egypt, conjured by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poem of 1818, and on which is inscribed,

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

The land in which we voyaged was genuinely “Antique” (Interstate 80 had already broached the mighty Craton) and truly,

"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

What, I wondered, was the source of this double-headed exercise in egregious hubris? Helpful plaques provided by Wyoming State Parks were at hand. Built in the 1880's a few years after the death of both of the Ames brothers whose bullet pocked faces adorn the upper reaches of the pyramid, and designed by the noted architect H.H. Richardson, it was financed by the Union Pacific Railway to restore the reputations of the brothers who, while achieving the goal of building the Transcontinental Railroad (originally at Lincoln's behest), did so while inflating the costs, bribing half of Congress and cheating the taxpayer.

But the relevance of what was intended to be an enduring monument beloved of those who traveled the Transcontinental Railway (it was built close to the high point of the iron road) was cut short In the 1890's when Union Pacific went broke, the railway was re-routed to the south, and the tourist town that had sprung up around the memorial withered and died. The monument itself was thus left in the almost perfect isolation in which I stumbled across it - a memorial to a proto-modern passageway, little more engaging of the world, perhaps, than today's equivalents, but uniquely capable, in the late nineteenth century, of providing a moving platform from which buffalo might be shot.

At the Ranch, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of cousins-by-marriage about Urban Wildland - both the blog and the house in the chaparral where is lived the life upon which it is loosely based. I mentioned in passing that some find the blog pieces indigestible. I have since come across a far better description of this project in lines that Virginia Woolf used to slam James Joyce after reading Ulysses ("an illiterate, underbred book") in which she characterizes the work as that "of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating"......Well, I do try.

2015-06-09

Sex and the City

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

In the scrublands between Sisar Road and the braided, currently dry creek bottoms that cross the Ojai Oil Company leases that back up to Koenigstein, there's a spot where nothing grows. Until now.

Now, it is transformed by an efflorescence.

The flowers are a deep, reddish pink (a more venturesome writer might even suggest heliotrope but I think the tiny blossoms lack sufficient blue to make them a candidate for this description - and as a chaparral denizen such highfalutin, literary color names are inimical to the cultural setting in which this plant community finds itself (see below)). The stalks too, have a reddish cast. They grow low to the ground forming a loosely woven carpet with a pile that is about six inches deep. They are stunningly beautiful: their name is Turkish rugging (Chorizanthe staticoides).

This sandy patch, strewn with small rocks, pebbles, twigs and scat where previously nothing grew, is about twenty five feet in diameter and has revealed itself, for this moment in June, as a plush Fairy circle. Elsewhere along the trails I am revisiting, after almost a month in Europe, acourtia is in bloom. It's pink-purple flower heads are lifted high atop stalks wrapped in ragged, papery leaves. In places where there is an understory of popcorn flowers (now mostly dried and gone to seed) there is this floating field of purple with a low understory of grey fuzz. Between the floral plane and dwarfish thicket floor, the antic acourtia, its foliage susceptible to every passing breeze, undulates like a terrestrial kelp forest.

Higher up in the Topatopa foothills on a switchback canyon trail, passing through early morning sun and then deep shade (where the cliff side plants seem to welcome, as do I, their respite from solar irradiation) I notice the white flowers: white sage barely in bloom, convolvulus, sprinkles of remaining-in-bloom popcorn flower, and yucca. From elsewhere in Ojai, I think of the giant roadside flowers of datura, of the at-our-front door California everlasting and everywhere, the heavily planted Matilija poppy (although there is no sign of it in my chaparral neck of the woods).

Of them all, the yucca stands out: exhibiting its buxom blossoms in a wanton display to lure a pollinating embrace of its blooms from its dedicated moth-toys. In the demure surroundings of the self-effacing chaparral, such brazen floral displays seem oddly out of place. What we notice of flowering plants is most often their means of reproduction - their flowers, their sex organs. Unnervingly, the voluptuous Yucca whipplei stands, in spring, at the very edge of species transgression.

Back in the garden (those areas of the chaparral turned into weedscapes by the soil disturbance of the development process) I have been busy culling the aliens, primarily brassicas and tocolote. The grasses are terminally bleached, but the deer weed and tar weed are in bloom, giving a yellowy-green cast to the meadows; the hills, where the chaparral plant community has remained undisturbed, except by fire, for thirty thousand years, remain largely unchanged from a month ago, although the fruits of the holly leaf cherry are now fully engorged and ready for consumption by the family of foxes that has taken up residence just across the seasonal stream to the east of the house.

In short, I have resumed my Thoreauvian transcendental triathlon of trail-running, weeding and ruminating - an activity first mooted, in slightly different form, by Jay Atkinson of the New York Times. In the week that I have been back these ruminations have sometimes been clouded by the pall that descended over me in Paris, where I spent the last three days of the trip.

Paris began as an Iron-age fishing village founded on the banks of the Seine by Pictish bands of Celts. It was a significant outpost of the Roman Empire after Julius Caesar conquered Paris in 52 B.C. Under Charlemagne, it became a center of learning and by the end of the first millennium it was firmly established as the French capital.

As the power of its Kings increased it remained a seat of theological and secular learning. The Renaissance saw Louis XIII's chief minister Cardinal Richelieu, establish the French Academy and build the Palais Royale and the Luxembourg Palace. In the seventeenth century, the Monarchy supported men of science. The Enlightenment provided an illumination that revealed the threadbare nature of medieval mysticism and thus doomed the power of absolute monarchies (its early supporters had imagined an entirely different outcome: where kings and queens controlled the new sciences to further their hold over their kingdoms). After the Revolution, Napoleon enriched the Louvre (re-purposed in 1793, from Royal palace to museum) with artworks plundered from the countries he and his armies had conquered.

Haussmann's renovation of Paris was a vast nineteenth century public works program commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III which swept away the old medieval city and replaced it with axial avenues, parks and squares. While the plan provided needed light and air and vastly improved sanitation, it was visibly a scheme dedicated to the glorification of the Emperor rather than his people. Now, having uniquely survived the twentieth century's two world wars with nary a scratch, Paris remains a city historically redolent of a great deal of plunder and very little redistribution.

Despotism didn't entirely stop with the demise of aristocratic absolutism. A new kind of tyranny emerged from the Revolution and predictably the response was a military coup. Under the pretext of protecting the Homeland, Napoleon began a world wide campaign aimed at global hegemony. Sound familiar? In Paris, the architectural artifacts of the French saga of Ancien Regime, Directory, Consulate, Empire, Bourbon Restoration, Constitutional Monarchy, the Second Empire (Napoleon III), and the founding of the Third Republic retain their power to chill me to the marrow.

This latest iteration of societal control is now evidenced by a bloated bureaucracy that attempts to fully occupy the vast hulks that loom over the streets of central Paris. The Nazis too, took every advantage of the palatial digs available to them in their conquered city. Now, the Baroque gaucheries and Gothic pinnacles that rise up along the avenues, mansarded with green-grey zinc, or steeple-roofed in lead, still weave their architectonic spell of an authoritarian and spiritual disdain for the sans culotte who beetle along the pavements below.

My longest mile in Paris was the walk between the imposing flanks of first, the Louvre, formerly the palace of the young Louis XV, then the Palais Royale - after Richelieu, home to the Duke of Orleans, regent to the pre-pubescent Sun King and later the official residence of the Bourbons. In 1848, after the Bourbon Restoration, it was looted and trashed by the Parish mob. In 1870, it was fire-bombed by anarchists still acutely aware of the building's status as a symbol of aristocratic oppression. It survived: now, as one moves through central Paris under the dread architectural influence of the first and second estate (the aristocracy and the clergy) one can feel, not unreasonably, a momentary soupçon of regret that the Nazis were unable to follow through on their intention of razing the City before abandoning it to the triumphant American liberation of 1945.

No matter: as the lively bans lieu foment future insurrections (continuing the long tradition of resistance offered up by Parisians to the establishment) and the Financial, High-Tech and Entrepreneurial sectors establish camp in the La Defense district beyond the old city, where the triumph of Capital is announced by gleaming towers of commerce that cluster like giant crepuscular ice shards on the horizon, the irrelevance of Central Paris becomes increasingly apparent - except perhaps as a bizarre chamber of horrors that caters to the blissfully ignorant tribes of global tourists who still gather there.

The great Romantic philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who died on the eve of the Revolution) wrote in his Discourse on Inequality, 1754,

"The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."

We can only hope that the French rule of aristocratic absolutism marked a high-point of such imposture.

It's good to be home where the democracy of the chaparral plant community remains unassailable.

2015-06-01

Memorial Day

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

Patrick Leigh Fermor observes in the first volume of his pre-WWII walk-across-Europe trilogy, A Time of Gifts, 1977, the old gods of Germany were driven out by an Englishman, St. Boniface, just a century after St. Augustine had arrived in Kent and performed a similar purge of the ancient Druidic deities.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Pope Francis should have decided to proceed with the canonization of Fr. Juipero Sera so that he might stand alongside his predecessors St. Augustine and St. Boniface in the sainted Pantheon dedicated to the eradication of cultures that now seem possessed of an entirely healthier relationship with the planet than is typically demonstrated in the modern world.

The infrastructure of Christianity still remains embedded in Britain, France and Germany (as elsewhere) but its God is now in the process of similarly being usurped by new deities ensconced in the heavenly clouds of consumerism that have descended, like a noxious gas, across the land.

Box stores have mushroomed alongside the churches, abbeys and cathedrals. These latter may still serve as signs of community, professional reverence, and urbanity while continuing to function as places of worship for diminishing populations of the devout, but their primary purpose is now to act as signs of the past against which the modernity of our current lives, succored by the adjacent temples of consumption, may be measured - or as tourist bait.

In the early twenty-first century, at the very beginnings of the Anthropocene, many of our informational, cultural, commercial and social needs may be attended to virtually, leaving the ritual gathering of sustenance in cavernous, industrial buildings a rare opportunity to experience community in the real world. Yet as we push our carts through Carrefour Plus or Costco, carefully avoiding contact with other trolleys and their prime (human) movers we remain in splendid isolation (a condition now abetted by the availability of self-checkout at many such stores).

We are shopping alone amidst urban and suburban infrastructures that privilege fast point-to-point transit (via trains, planes and automobiles) between centers of employment, education, entertainment, and housing that no longer support the kind of rich multi-layered engagement with the natural and built environments of agriculture, artisanal production and support services that I imagine (Romantically) may have existed in the past. We are increasingly physically and socially isolated from such conditions, cocooned instead in the complexities of making, saving, and distributing money (our abstract means of commodity exchange) - geographically and experientially isolated from the world's workshop in the Middle Kingdom and from the exigencies of factory farming, wherever it is conducted.

The France that I have experienced over the past week, speeding through the vastness of its depopulated countryside now devoted to large scale arable farms, remains studded with erstwhile touch-points of intense (as imagined) environmental, spiritual, social, political and economic interchanges - those medieval villages, towns and cities that now function as metrics of our perceived progress and economically, in part, as tourist attractions.

The pay-off for this expensive, resource depleting tourism is the consummation of one of those actual intense experiences felt in the present but transmitted across time through our historical imaginations - epiphanies that enrich our constrained, contemporary lives.

In Europe, evidence of these complex interdependencies of humans, domestic animals, waterways, pathways, buildings and farmlands exist in isolation, supported now by tourists and those city-dwellers or retirees who maintain cottages in the country, or else as nuclei of villages, towns and cities which have a continued viability and have grown, over time, around their medieval buildings. Remaining in evidence too, although less explicitly, are the networks of political and spiritual power in which these communities originally existed marked by domestic, defensive and administrative structures and commemorative statuary. Today, the sinews of power that run through society are largely hidden: sheathed in a camouflage of faux democratic institutions or hidden behind the media burlesque and, quite simply, because power in an electronically mediated world is manifested in less concrete ways.

Walking through the ancient settlement of Saint Armand de Coly in the Dordogne valley, anchored by its massive abbey, I was reminded that the interdependencies of plunder and redistribution (Karatani's short-hand for the mode-of-exchange that characterized feudalism) can render comparatively benign results of community, compassion and, evidently, spiritual passion. At least this was the inkling I gained walking between the elements of the village now supported by a tourist trade in foie gras, truffles and hand made copper pots, pans and bowls. The simple, unadorned nave of the chapel is an awe inspiring space grounded in a stone floor worn into unevenness by eight centuries of the shuffling feet of Augustinian monks - testament to a powerfully consistent social, political and spiritual ideology.

In the abbey there is a memorial to those of the religious community who lost their lives in World War One; the dead and the missing included the Abbot. Elsewhere in the village is a memorial to twenty or so other souls who lost their lives during the war. The massive die-off of young men during this conflict (still actively commemorated in every community in France) marked the end of the old ways both because there was no longer the male population to support labor-intense, self-sufficient, village-scale agriculture but also because the war marked a tipping-point in the triumph of modernity (heralded by the industrial-scale killing in the trenches) over medievalism, of the overturning of the social, political, military and religious hierarchies that had developed over a millennium and which, it was understood, had all contributed to the apocalypse.

While Europe and many other areas of the world are favored with such concrete evidence of past cultures which can serve as both potential exemplars and warnings of future societal arrangements, in California there is often the sense that there existed a tabula rasa upon which has been inscribed, over the last two centuries, a priori, a triumphant western civilization. In fact, the old spirit paths, the old cosmologies, and the old life-ways of the Chumash were driven out of Southern California by St. Junipero.

Here, the pre-existing human community lived lightly on the land and although M. Kat Anderson demonstrates in Tending the Wild, 2005, that they shaped their environment in subtly advantageous ways, early settlers understood themselves to have arrived in a primordial wilderness sparsely inhabited with environmentally passive, but nonetheless inconvenient, savages.

The remaining physical evidence of the Spanish conquest of California is the trail of Missions along the west coast that were designed to function as the nuclei of an attenuated system of feudal holdings - using the slave labor of the local Indians and the natural beneficence of the land. This arrangement was intended to render the entire enterprise financially self-sufficient.

Of the lives lost in this ultimately genocidal operation there is no record, let alone commemoration, while the chief administrator of the charnel houses is now subject to beatification.

Spring Romance

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

There's a place where bleached grasses form a ridge when viewed from Koenigstein Road looking south over the valley in which Highway 150 is enfolded. Nowhere, from this viewpoint, is the road visible but instead, the top third of the north face of Sulphur mountain rises up beyond the grass like a dark scenic flat so that the foreshortened view is of blonde on black.

In the foreground is an old oak, set amidst the grasses, and its shadowed leaves create a tenebrous void that somehow sinks into the mountain oaks beyond as though a ragged hole has been torn in the time/space continuum. The valley of Highway 150 is swallowed up in an existential warp - the third dimension, for the moment that this view exists, entirely absent.

The experience is one of a brief dissociative trance, a return to the primitive mind where the intellect is subsumed by the elemental and experiences a return to the animus mundi, the animating spirit of the universe (the light hidden in the darkness) and represents perhaps, a brief moment of clarity in our numbingly mediated lives. Or not. But I am a Romantic, and I cling to these moments of grace (as I choose to perceive them).

Perhaps I had been primed to experience this aperçu by my casual rumination on the meadow flowers of late spring. Along the track that leads off of the local metaled road, in the hard pan over-trodden by Lorrie and I on our evening walks, there are yellow pincushion (Chaenactis glabriuscula), wild Brodiaea (sp.jolonensis), purple Clarkia and Mariposa lilies. Bordering the track are wild oats, foxtail bromes, erodium, rye, native bunch grasses (stipa spp), occasionally the golden-star lily and often the pink flushed milky flowering buckwheat: sometimes, the warm honey yellow of Mimulus monkey flowers.

Across the way, the north facing slope harbors ferns, solanum, poison oak, toyon, walnut, coffee berry and bay beneath the predominant oaks but engulfed in oak shadows it registers as a dark, mounding mass lightly riddled with oak foliage that is scarcely less somber. My mind attuned to the pointillist blooms against the bold masses of color, tone and the blank canvas of the whitening evening sky, I am alert to the phenomenology of this place.

Recently, I have been in England and it is traipsing across the nation's beleaguered countryside long ago that I first developed a Romantic susceptibility of mind - the most fundamental trait of which is a nostalgia for a pre-capitalist past which now, in Ojai, manifests (for me) as a fascination with the tribal society of the Chumash and their predecessors, the Oak Grove People. Like figures such as William Morris, an avowed Marxist, Arts and Crafts designer, writer and architect, the great British Romantics fantasized about a return to the societal structure of the early medieval era, or perhaps to the even earlier times of the indigenous pre-Roman tribes.

To suggest that England is a palimpsest maybe a truism but the image of the much overwritten map reflecting a cultural and infrastructural layering is irresistible in Norfolk where Ickfield and Peddars Way mark the spirit path of the Iceni (and other more ancient British tribes) rising south from Avesbury; Roman roads and ruins lay across the land and the city of Venta Icenorum lies beneath modern-day Norwich; where the earliest Saxon village yet to be unearthed is just north of Bury St Edmunds and where medieval tracks have now been substantiated as B roads, Royal Highways as A roads and the wide, all-obliterating erasures of the twenty-first century Motorway have made inroads into the west of the County.

Wherever you drive, the route is measured in Ancient Market Towns, heralded in signage as though the development of a vicious system of proto-capitalism inherent in regional trading zones and with their rise the devolution of cooperative systems of patronage (of feudalism) is something to be celebrated - as glorious way stations in the history of western civilization that David Graeber condemns as 'the first 5,000 years of Debt'.

A return to reciprocity, to a world of exchange and gift giving is a profoundly romantic impulse. As. Karatani notes in The Structure of World History (2014) in primitive societies, "reciprocity was not limited to the living; it was assumed that reciprocal exchanges were also carried out with the dead (ancestors) and the not-yet born (descendants)." This profound sense of the cycle of life engendered a stewardship of the environment now entirely lacking in a global culture predicated on inexhaustible natural resources existing at the service of the system of industrial production. Thus in harkening back to pre-Raphaelite (and then some) societies, the Romantic outlook contains within it an implicit critique of capitalism. Karatani suggests that in adopting modes of exchange based on exploitation, humans have "disrupted the processes of exchange between humans and nature......The only hope for solving our environmental problems lies in our first superseding capital and state".

Having identified the three stages that characterize the economic history of mankind as Gift Exchange, Plunder and Redistribution and Money and Commodities (which more or less align with tribal society, feudalism and modernity) Karatani identifies a borromean knot of State, Capital and Nation that supports what he calls the 'the modern social formation'.

In the U.S., the State, comprising the military, the bureaucracies of taxation, intelligence, international relations, domestic law enforcement and justice, exists largely independent of the oversight of the people (manifested by electoral politics and its farcical representations in Washington) but is profoundly coupled with Capital. The mythologies of Nation are dutifully spun by the media in ways that reflect their fractal differences across the so-called political spectrum; manifested every two years in the horse-race ritual of voting; and carefully nurtured in K through 12. Capital, characterized by its relentless appetite for growth, is sustained within its own global bubble of structural imperatives.

In the twenty-first century, coalitions of State and Capital vie for the earth's remaining resources and this duopoly continues to act partially under the guise of fulfilling national mythologies. But as the world continues to globalize, national identities wither and personhood is increasingly characterized by life-style choices rather than geographic allegiance: beware the Hipster nation!

The collapse of the philosophical, mythological and psychological constructs that make up the abstract fabric of nations (which in turn provide the emotional and intellectual bulwark to Capital and State) may well unravel the borromean knot that still entwines all three and thus create opportunities for communities based on a variety of alternative ideologies. It is within the poetic imagination that such alternatives may develop. The mind of the Romantic, which attends to the wild Brodiaea (or the daffodil), is such that it embraces notions of an idealized relationship with the natural world - where we may return to the time of gifts and endeavor (like William Morris) to re-enchant the world.

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.