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, consumer goods and transportation systems 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.

2015-01-22

The Long March

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

In Blood Meridian (1985) Cormac McCarthy writes of the Sonoran desert,

“…here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships.”

In such wildlands, he seems to suggest, individual consciousness and even morphic distinctions evaporate beneath the Universe’s gaze. In these landscapes too, something similar happens to time. It expands to become the eternal now. Left behind in the cosmic dust are such pettifogging notions like: the future is unknowable, the end is near and the past is a foreign country.

Moment to moment, experience is immediately consigned to the past but is used, in that moment, as a guide to the future. It is in these realms of memory and of conjecture that most of us, in our daily lives, reside. Despite our best intentions of being present, we exist in a netherworld where our thoughts structure our experience - their surge and back wash constituting our notions of the past and the future: the present consigned as nothing more than grist to its mill. Thus it is that we are trapped temporally within a current flowing between past and future, urged on by the Time Lords, remorseless in their dedication to vanquishing the present.

In the world of the Chumash, enmeshed in their wildlands, fully present in their animist universe, there was an escape from the smothering folds of past and future into the knife-edge of the now. It’s a hell of a way to live, but perhaps the only way to be fully alive.

Early in January, I drove into the Chumash territory north and east of Santa Barbara. Perhaps more accurately, I drove north into Chumash Casino territory, for it is this palace of fine dining, entertainment and gambling that is the most visible symbol of those who claim a genetic link to the native American tribes that shared similar languages and cultures from Malibu in the south to Ragged Point in the north, along coastal plains bound by the Santa Monica and Santa Ynez Mountains and, beyond, by the San Rafael Mountains and the Santa Lucia Range. The forbears of the Santa Ynez Band, who now look to the casino for their wealth, were effectively exterminated, along with all of their Chumash brethren, by the Franciscan brothers, ably led by Junipero Serra, with mop-up operations conducted by Americans who flooded into Southern California in the mid nineteenth century. So it was that the tribe’s eternal now, which lasted for at least 13,000 years (Erlandson), was effectively ended by the beginning of the twentieth century.

While Indian consciousness may have endured in a state of immediacy, the people ever receptive to the sensory impulses of a constantly numinous world, their physical setting was undergoing massive change. As the climate warmed at the end of the last Ice Age, sea levels rose dramatically along the southern Californian coast - by as much as 400’ north of Point Conception along more exposed coastlines. During the melt water pulses of 13,500 and 11,000 years ago the rate of rise was between six and thirteen feet per century (Masters and Aiello, Postglacial Evolution of Coastal Environments, 2010) inundating vast areas of the coastal plains that had originally been inhabited by California’s first settlers.

Much of the evidence of these Paleo-Indian people is thus buried beneath the ocean, along a now submerged coast. It is at least partly because of this buried archeological treasure that there is now growing support for the designation of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary to fill the gap with sanctuary protection between the Channel Islands and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries.

Meanwhile, I was far in-shore, ensconced for a few days in Los Alamos, originally part of the estate of La Purisima Mission. In 1839 the land was granted, under Mexican rule, to Antonio de la Guerra as Rancho Los Alamos. By the 1860’s it was a popular stagecoach stop en route to San Francisco. The Union Hotel was opened in 1880 on the main street (Bell Street) and survives still as a kitsch curiosity, rivalled only by a truly hideous 1864 Victorian mansion which stands close by and is now operated as a themed room bed-and-breakfast. The town was a stop on the narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway which ran from Los Olivos to San Louis Obispo from the 1880’s through the early 1930’s as both a passenger line and a freight line servicing the agricultural and oil industries. A former freight shed still stands in Los Alamos and now houses an antique mall. When I first visited fifteen years ago, the town seemed to echo with a death rattle as semi-trailers rumbled past lots left vacant since a devastating 1893 fire and empty storefronts.

Long ago, a Chumash village sat amongst the cottonwoods that run through the valley. As its population was impressed as newly baptized neophytes in the early 1800’s they quickly succumbed to the diseases, depredations and the enforced labor required by the Franciscans at the nearby mission. An 1840’s small pox epidemic struck the last of the Indian population and by the mid-1850's only eight natives were left in the valley.

The town is in the process of being resurrected from this forlorn history as the northern outpost in the food and wine triangulation of the Santa Ynez Valley, anchored by Los Olivos and the town of Santa Ynez. The Chumash Casino is a meretricious outlier to these bastions of the haute bourgeoisie and their junior acolytes, hirsute and inked hipsters. Withal, the jewel encrusted dead hand of hyper-capitalism, here conjured by the twin cities of gold, Los Angeles and San Francisco, lies over the lean and racy wines and the field fresh food of this clustering of new restaurants, delicatessens, bakeries and tasting rooms.

The Spanish arrived in California determined to develop feudal estates around their mission system using the native population as serfs. Even as late as the eighteenth century, Spanish colonial rule harkened back to the feudal but here in California the model collapsed in a plague of introduced diseases and famine. The intended broad base of compliant laborers died in mission, field and their erstwhile villages, in an unintended genocide.

Around Purisima, the land then passed into the Rancho system where remnant Indians and low-caste Mexicans served their aristocratic masters (many newly minted) and thus replicated, slightly more successfully, the medieval economic system. Feudalism was then engulfed by the gold rush that opened up the 31st. State to mercantile capitalism before agriculture, oil, shipping, real estate, banking, tourism and entertainment finally moved California into a mature capitalist system.

Contemporary cultures, driven by neo-liberal capitalism, have now fully abandoned the present: they are, instead, consumed with the future. Los Alamos has been shaped over the last one hundred and fifty years by competing visions of transport – from stagecoach to railroad to the original route of the 101, and is now being revived by notions of how we might eat and drink in an idealized future where artisanal practice somehow trumps the pervasive world reality of industrially produced food and beverages. The past is fetishized by re-purposing the town’s buildings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as emporia of twenty-first century boutique consumption.

This morning, a still sea of mist lay over the Santa Clara River in a faint visual echo of the roiling melt waters that first carved the valley. Far above, in the chaparral canyon which funnels a tributary towards the river, the heavy scent of ceanothus blossom hung in the air while the sound of my breathing, my footfall and bird song further occupied my senses. For a moment, I escaped into the now. I eluded the Time Lords, whose rule began in the waning days of the dark-ages when hunters, gatherers, woodsmen and fisher-folk were first organized into a laboring under-class to serve the aspirations of the rich and powerful: the first step in our long march to the future. Under their unrelenting tutelage, we have consumed the present.

2015-01-14

2015-01-05

Dawn

I leave at first light: into a world of monochrome and mystery. I attend the re-birth, the becoming. The moment when the story of our planet, over the last ten thousand, one million, two hundred million; no, four point five four billion years is re-substantiated, each morning (thus far), as the sun first washes the sky with its incandescence.

I am loathe to leave the mire, the murk, the half-light: but inexorably the earth catches fire and slowly assumes its morning colors. The chaparral is as reluctant as I am to embrace the morning light: its drab green lingering still in the darkling. The blonde thickets of dead mustard stalks and tumbleweed along the roadway are the first to reflect the early glow – skeletal non-natives seemingly crowing to the world of their colonial triumph, accompanied by the trumpets of dawn.

As the sky brightens, the pencil line of a jet contrail is drawn across the northern sky. To the east, flecks of apricot appear to float in a milky soup. The still dark Oxnard plain is wreathed in grey-blue mists and the distant Santa Monica Mountains recede in ever-lightening ranks until they become one with the heavens. But the sinews of the industrial state have begun to emerge from beneath the cloak of night. The road’s fog line, yellow double center line, the airline, the fence line and the oil pipeline reassert their Cartesian grip on the amorphous shadowings of the dark. Only the natural gas flare in the oil patch at the top of Koenigstein reverses the process of dawn’s revelations– its bright flame slowly drowned in the sun’s emerging candlepower. Meanwhile, the antic silhouette of the pump becomes ever more emphatically etched against the sky.

Yes, it’s that time of year again when Hanukah, Solstice, Christmas, New Year’s and my birthday conflate into one almighty hammer blow to my consciousness. A moment of reckoning amidst ancient symbols of light: the menorah, the lighted tree and my candle strewn birthday cake all conspiring to coax the low, southerly arc of the sun back towards the meridian (and for me, another turn of the bell-wheel towards the chimes at midnight). Running through the dawn – in re-creation of the beginnings of time, of evolution, of the triumph of civilization, of the last gasp of the culture of fossil-fueled capitalism – adds a perspective to my existence as a tiny foot-soldier of Empire. With little left to lose, but with diminishing time to act, I am slowly beginning to strain at the bonds of servitude.

I have been reading Edward Abbey. The Edward Abbey Reader, Desert Solitaire, Fire on the Mountain and now Beyond the Wall. I have also been reading some of the eighty essays included in Moral Ground, Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, edited by K.D Moore and M.P. Nelson (2010). As one might expect from both the title and subtitle, it is a high-minded tome. It also often misses the point. Writer Kate Rawles, for instance, calls for A Copernican Revolution in Ethics – a great leveling in which the human species no longer privileges its own needs over the rest of the natural world - all very laudable: yet she suggests that this might be achieved while,

“…we keep the best of the industrialized world’s education, communication, medical advances, time-saving appliances, music literature, painting, low-impact technology, and even transportation systems.”

Good luck with that. In other words, she is advocating a selective overturning of humankind’s prevailing ethos of progress, success and development based on infinite growth on this planet of finite resources. E.O Wilson, on the other hand offers his usual sage analysis,

“…We strayed from Nature with the beginning of civilization roughly ten thousand years ago. That quantum leap beguiled us with the illusion of freedom from the world that gave us birth.......(supposedly) smart people choose to remain innocent of the historical principal that civilizations collapse when their environments are ruined.”

The reliably hard-headed Derrick Jensen asks, “Do you believe that this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?” Referencing the behavior of Nazi doctors, many of whom attempted to ameliorate death camp conditions but never challenged their underlying premise, he suggests that we are in an analogous predicament,

“We do not question the existence of an economic and social system that is working the world to death, that is starving it to death, that is imprisoning it, that is torturing it. We never question a culture that leads to these atrocities.”

Abbey was equally tough-minded. He never doubted that environmental sanity would be hard won and most likely would entail a considerable die-off of humanity. He personally contributed to this notion by shuffling off the mortal coil at the comparatively young age of 62. He left behind twenty books in which live the flames of radical environmental action, kindled in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Such radicalism has now been suppressed by those who preach the possibility of sustainability within the structure of industrial civilization; his (and other Earth Firster’s) anarchic impulses now neutered by those comfortable with the idea of endless ‘sustainable’ growth, blind to the fact that this represents, as Abbey noted, “cancerous madness”. We have left our affairs “too long in the hands of kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners”. By Abbey’s reckoning, “Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization” of this fact and confirmed over five thousand years of human experience.

Jensen writes, when most people ask, “How can we stop global warming?” what they are really asking is “How can we stop global warming without significantly changing this lifestyle that is causing global warming in the first place?” Ending industrial capitalism is, as they say, off the table, yet it is the simplest and most complete solution to our environmental malaise: it will not be achieved by tweaking the status quo.

As I emerge from mid-winter’s orgy of celebration, gifting, and over-consumption it is time to consider how my actions might align with my rhetoric; how my reflections might inform my future behavior. How I might walk the talk. These considerations will continue to be a part of my reporting from the urban wildland.

Another day, another dawn: western sky flushed with pink, scrawled across it is an oblique ‘X’ - the contrails from two early rising military jets from Vandenberg Air Force base: our Imperial warriors in their bliss. The full moon is balanced on a distant peak of the Santa Ynez mountains, it slips out of view just as the sun begins to carpet the upper crags of the Nordhoff ridge in a pointillist tapestry of red brown and gold. The universe remains in full working order despite the earnest environmental hand-wringing on one of its lesser planets.

First up for 2015: a new location on the web. Early in the year, this site will migrate to urbanwildland.org, escaping the google blogger ghetto and reincarnate as an illustrated blog powered by Square Space.

2014-12-21

Sea Fever

Those of the bourgeoisie who are handicapped by their hyper-extended educations and tedious histories of talking therapies usually avoid words that have, linguistically speaking, a high degree of modality like ‘must’ and ‘should’. We don’t do emphatic injunctions (see what I did there?). We prefer shadowy multi-valence: we seek out grounds for misconstruction, shy away from certitude and are perpetually prepared to flee along carefully established verbal escape routes.

The poet John Masefield, however, was largely self-taught and, as far as I know, un-analyzed. Although thoroughly upper-middle class (within the taxonomy of the British class system) and thus, in the Edwardian era, expected to go to one of two Universities he was, instead, sent away to sea having been diagnosed by a maiden aunt as, heaven forbid, a bookworm. Ironically, (for said aunt) the merchant seaman has ample spare time and a distinct lack of amusements available to him on the high seas (in an age before digitized movies). The youth was therefore shipped into an ideal environment for literary annelids, far richer even, than the bookish humus available at Oxbridge and one already possessed of an old-boy of unimpeachable credentials, Joseph Conrad.

All of this, it seems to me, is essential background to an understanding of,

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky…..”

This line is responsible (among so many others) for the ill-repute into which almost all rhyming poetry has fallen. The sing-song attack that generations of English and not a few American school children use in the annihilation of poetic reason likely smothers Masefield’s next line,

“And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…..”

in a typical abnegation of meaning as rhythm and rhyme transcend all in a race to the bottom of the doggerel pond. The fallout settles like toxic grime on all poems that you-know-what. Pity: because Sea Fever is quite an effective piece of verse. Who cannot, if of a certain age, but empathize with the hopeless, impotent dreams of lost youth so affectingly sketched in the last stanza?

“I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.”

Ain’t going to happen, except for that last bit. So it was, ever the versifier, that Masefield left instructions to his "Heirs, Administrators, and Assigns":

“Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there's an end of me.”

Scatter….Water….Ouch! Agreement in terminal sounds? Not so much. But with that written he felt ready to take his last breath: the ‘must’ in Masefield victim of mortality - the imperative applied to one too many items on an overly ambitious bucket list.

Speaking of which (lonely sea and the sky): at the further reaches of Koenigstein Road, where it becomes a track serving cattle pastures on a ravine-split mesa, then a winding mostly paved road headed for the Nesbitt’s avocado farm, a horse ranch and an off-the-grid shack currently on the County’s watch-list, then splits off to the left up a nameless canyon (by which time it has presumably shed its allegiance to the eponymous German hotelier) and then hairpins around several seasonal streams that cleave to deep fissures in the hillside, there is sometimes a view of the sea set beneath a wide-ranging sky. It is there, on clear days, in hazy sight of Ormond Beach, that I retain a connection to the Pacific Ocean.

Used to be that I needed to live close enough to check the surf, or at least be within a short walk of the beach and most certainly within ear-shot of a sizeable swell crashing on the shore. Remarkably, I achieved that for the most part of thirty years – ten in Sydney and twenty in Venice or Santa Monica Canyon. Now that need has fallen away. Running has replaced surfing and the chaparral the beach. Good trade.

At first light, after overnight rain, looking west between the Santa Ynez and the Santa Monica Mountains, the agricultural plain lays far below, unshrouded in its customary morning mists while plumes of steam arise from the Proctor and Gamble plant in Oxnard and the 1500 megawatt twin natural gas-fired steam turbine units of the Ormond Beach Generating Station. Beyond, a grey-white slab of ocean merges almost imperceptibly with the dawn sky - an ocean that serves as boundary to an earthen shore beholden to its top-predator: producing power, food and products on an epic scale.

Further still, unseen, are the modern-day equivalents of Masefield’s tall ships, container vessels and oil tankers that plow the sea lanes between beach and islands along the Santa Barbara channel. From the trail, they are but ghost-ships drawing the world together in a Gordian knot of trade routes delivering energy and box-store stuffing.

Masefield’s middle verse…

“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.”

…is a beautiful evocation of the sights, sounds and atmospheric energy of ocean and sky – presumably as experienced on a ship under sail – but it elides the commercial circumstances that impel this merchant voyaging. Now, it seems we can no longer enjoy the likes of Thoreau’s train whistle (and it’s not clear that his was an unalloyed aural delight (Scream of a Hawk)) – or any of the sensory delights erstwhile afforded by vehicles, vessels and locomotives embedded in their infrastructures of travel and trade – burdened as we are by an awareness of their cumulative environmental costs. The romance of the road, iron or asphalt, or sea lanes has far outlived the earlier, Blakian awareness of the satanic impact of the architectural emblems of late capitalism; but now that romance is colored with the dark shades essayed, for instance, by Cormac McCarthy in The Road.

More often, as I reach the switchbacks that can afford the ocean view, there is a grey mist on the valleys below, and as Masefield might have it, “a grey dawn breaking”. Focused on the crumbling bank of sandstone, a steep chaparral slope below and the narrow path between, I register the oaks and sycamores that appear at each tumbling dry creek (now moistened by recent rain) and the wand buckwheat, deerweed, eriodyctylon and gnaphalium along the way, I am content to be cocooned in a landscape that has not changed significantly in 30,000 years.

I function as a free floating intelligence disengaged from the concerns of now: the scents, sights and sounds of the landscape pricking at my senses – the complex and destructive bargains we have made with our sheltering planet forgotten. Free (at last) from the imperative to be in other, alternate places, I determine once more that this primordial land is my home.

2014-12-11

No Comment

Edward Abbey, a briefly fashionable writer in the last quarter of the twentieth century and a grandmaster eco-warrior, knew which way the wind was blowing. But he was also an optimist in a grim sort of way, and in a 1979 letter to a friend he writes,

“I believe that the military–industrial state will eventually collapse, possibly even in our lifetime, and that a majority of us (if prepared) will muddle through to a freer, more open, less crowded, green and spacious agrarian society.”

Didn’t happen: Abbey was dead at the age of 62 and in 1989 was laid to rest in a famously un-disclosed location in his beloved desert, marked with a gravestone incised with the epitaph, ‘No Comment’. 
 
Drive up the 33 to the Rose Valley Summit, a gain of some 2500 feet, then a scenic dip down to the Rose Valley turn off and a few miles in from the Highway you will arrive at the Piedra Blanca Trailhead car park. Any half-way serious hiker will then immediately shuffle over the still bone-dry Sespe Creek and take a right on the trail where a ‘T’ junction presents itself on the other side. Our party of seven turned left.

This takes you towards the white rocks, which offer pleasantly sculptural, sometimes zoomorphic and anthropomorphic shapes, and afford mildly kinetic experiences to those who clamber over their gritty sandstone surfaces. They are set in chaparral notable, at this slightly higher elevation than the Ojai valley, for the presence of manzanita, green-bark ceanothus, rabbit brush, chia, wild rose, salvia tridentata, California broom, and a few relictual pines. Absent was the frost-sensitive laurel sumac. Closer to the creek were black cottonwoods, willows and canyon live-oak (Quercus chrysolepis) the roasted acorns of which will make a fine coffee substitute for those “muddling through” after the great-unraveling confidently predicted by Abbey.

It being the weekend after Thanksgiving, the reason for this mildly aerobic excursion was the consumption of Turkey sandwiches – which was duly achieved once a reasonably flat and shady ledge had been found on the rocks protected from the cool breeze that blew through the formations from the west. Susan, our generous host, also provided Brazilian chocolate of varying degrees of cocoa intensity which she had brought directly from Bahia after a recent trip.

This was no existential confrontation with wilderness. We were barely out of the car for more than three hours, but there was, nevertheless, a slight frisson engendered by the remote valley location to the north of the Santa Ynez mountains (Ancient Bestiary) and a whispered awareness, best articulated, perhaps, by the susurration of wind over rock and through pines that come nightfall we lightly clothed day-trippers might not be well accommodated. But we were safely out of there by mid-afternoon and driven back to Ojai by our neighbor Margot (whose botanical commentary enlivened the walk). Those hikers who took the right turn, headed for the wilderness and the Sespe hot springs , were likely adequately prepared to spend a couple of days and a chilly night away from small-town Ojai, itself a satellite of the southern Californian coastal conurbation, or what Abbey would call an “over-crowded high-tech ghetto”.

Abbey, simply put, was for wilderness and against civilization, or the culture of cities. He understood the one to be in a fight to the death with the other – and in his twentieth century and now our twenty-first there has never been any doubt about who is winning. He also clearly understood that a reversal of the victory of, in his terms, ‘Government and Greed’ over the ‘home of the wild things’ could only be achieved if, by natural attrition, lower birth-rates or disease, famine, wars or natural disasters, the population of the planet is much reduced.

Of American civilization he writes: “The whole grandiose structure is self-destructive: by enshrining the profit motive as our guiding ideal, we encourage the intensive and accelerating consumption of land, air, water – the natural world – on which the whole structure depends for its continued existence. …” His prescription? “Let us save…the American wilderness. About 50% would be a fair and reasonable compromise....it's time to start shoving cement and iron in the opposite direction before the entire nation, before the whole planet, become one steaming, stinking, over-crowded high-tech ghetto.”

The motive force in destroying much of the natural world and replacing it with urban development is capitalism and its credo of economic expansion, what Abbey identifies, more elementally, as greed. In his version of End Times, the wilderness is inherited by the ‘prepared’ - the Chosen who possess backwoods survival skills and an aptitude for homesteading. Blessed are those that turn right after crossing the Sespe.

As Marx indicated, capitalism is the culmination of a process which was initiated by the sequential development of agriculture, slavery and feudalism; where exploitation evolved from the resources of the individual, proceeded to the family group and then focused on the totality of the planet –as the source of assets to be stripped in pursuit of power and profits. Along the way, as Thomas Piketty suggests, the modern world’s prevailing economic system has become a remarkably successful device for enriching the few and immiserating the many. That the health of this system is measured by its growth leads inevitably to its comparison to cancer: sustainable growth is an oxymoron, and the infinite appetite of industrial capitalism feeding on the finite resources of the planet can only end in tears.

The new-wave of young(ish) entrepreneurs landing on the erstwhile old and dull (Blood Moon) retail, restaurant and lodging beachheads of Ojai practice a kind of Über-capitalism leveraged through their real and virtual networks of millennials and infused with values relevant to that cohort. This energizing bubble is not only refreshing the commercial face of Ojai – notably in areas away from the moribund Arcade - but also adding oxygen to the fires of industrial capitalism already ably stoked by the consumerism of the ravening, media saturated masses. To this extent, it is the same as ever it was (at least for the last few hundred years): a dynamic, generationally specific redefinition of consumption/style that forms the leading edge of the process by which the planet’s resources are turned into products.

Sustainable? Not so much. In California, the global economy almost arrived in 1565 when the Spanish began trading gold and silver from the Americas for goods and spices from Asia. Annual voyages of the Manila galleons would cross the Pacific and then track down the California coast en-route for Acapulco. But it was not until 1769, with the arrival of the Franciscan Friars overland, that the web of intensely regional indigenous economies that rarely traded beyond a few hundred miles, began to be displaced by a European culture that was enmeshed in a Christic Empire, where notions of domination, exploitation and profit-making emanated from an angry male god.

In southern California, cow-hides and tallow, oil, ‘health’ tourism, citrus, agriculture, movies and real estate describes the arc of business development from the mission period through the 1920’s. World War II brought aerospace and defense infrastructure; the 1950’s the development of world-class educational institutions, freeway construction, burgeoning suburban developments and their attendant services, theme parks and more tourism. These sectors were consolidated through the second half of the twentieth century and in the twenty-first, medical research, bio-engineering, automobile design, financial services, high-end retail and real estate development, media, entertainment, software and the hospitality industry have made southern California an essential component of the global, capitalist Empire.

To the north and east of Ojai there is wilderness that stretches hundreds of miles: the town is jewel-like, but it remains, despite its locavore, organic and sustainable efforts, fully dependent on the ‘grandiose structure’ of industrial capitalism. It remains a tiny, verdant Principality in an Empire ruled by the great god Mammon.

Abbey always privileged action over words, he notes: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul”. Our goal should not only be the righteous transformation of Ojai, where our successes will be mostly and deviously coopted by the prevailing economic ethos, but the mortal wounding of this vaporous numerical chimera that enfolds us into systems of exploitation and immiseration and that feeds on the destruction of the natural world.

“Beyond the wall of the unreal city”, he writes, “is another world of deserts, mountains, forests and plains”. In Ojai, that other world is the chaparral wilderness, where we, for the sake of our souls, might ponder such an assault.

2014-11-28

Zombie Apocalypse

 Anyone notice that Urban Wildland was on hiatus for a while?...Thought not.

Notwithstanding your lack of attention, I will explain. For the last ten weeks I have been co-teaching an on-line course with my pal Will Reed at the Viridis Graduate Institute – a feisty start-up focused on eco-psychology helmed by Lori Pye, a lecturer in Environmental Studies at UCSB and part of the core faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

As the sun moves ever south and its rays are spread lower and wider we have emerged, here in Upper Ojai, from the thrall of summer, but on this Thanksgiving day it is expected to reach into the high 80’s before we sit down to our mid-afternoon feasts. Someone, no doubt, will mutter something about global warming as we gorge on the seasonal turkey and pie.

Will and I were guilty of a great deal of muttering over the duration of our course, Re-designing Ecosystems: Cities and Communities, and it is conceivable that one or other of us may have mentioned the fact that our climate has warmed about one degree centigrade since 1860 and that this can reasonably be attributed to the 500 billion tons of Co2 Civilization has dumped into the atmosphere since we got serious about burning fossil fuels. Will, or I, may even have noted that this may increase to one trillion tons by mid-century and that by the end of the century the planet will likely have experienced a further average rise in temperature of 2 or 3 degrees centigrade.

Let me tell you, we tried hard to be neither sanctimonious nor alarmist (the one, hand-maiden to the other) – but if you think about the prospects for ‘sustainability’ (which was the un-spoken subtext of our course) with any amount of seriousness for even ten weeks, you will begin to think some very dark thoughts.

In the middle of spinning tales of doom - our Decameron – I flew to San Antonio. From the very back seat of a Bombardier CR1900, flying at an altitude of 30,000 feet, the badlands of West Texas appeared white-threaded with tracks and the sinuous black line of some tributary to the Rio Grande – or perhaps the great border river itself - lay like a loose strand of some mad-woman’s knitting on the land. Parallel tracks of an interstate headed for a group of buildings where deep pools of shade cast by irrigated trees foxed the unrelenting beige of desert. Most striking were the festoon of white lines that laced together rectangular patches of intaglio, white against brown. Branching chaotically, the mess appeared as though snow-white Christmas lights had been strewn across the land, perhaps by that same woman whose single strand of discarded wool it was we had flown over minutes before. Here, I knew, nodding donkeys lapped from deep beneath the desert crust where, in the Permian Basin, stew metamorphosed plants and animals from the Cretaceous – Texas Oil!

I was staying at the Grand Hyatt, eighteen stories of standard convention hotel with glassy condos above, in San Antonio’s down town -right across from a tired urban mall anchored by Macy’s and just a block and a half from the Alamo - on my way far beyond the traditional oil fields of the Permian Basin in West Texas, to the new frontier of the Eagle Ford Shale, deep in the south of the state. Cotulla, the county seat of La Salle County had once, it seemed, been a charming, if faded, Western cattle town. There are the remnants of its old main street with store-fronts right out of The Last Picture Show, but the action is now on Interstate 35, the great NAFTA highway that slices through the heart of the country from Duluth Minnesota to Laredo on the Mexican border. It also serves as the conduit between San Antonio and the oil fields of the Eagle Ford shale. Close to Cotulla, on I-35, are sixteen hotels with another seven under construction. Walmart and H-E-B, the giant Texas supermarket chain, are on their way.

Away from the highway, the mesquite brush that covers the South Texas plains (fire suppression has allowed the thorny trees to predominate the once more open savannah) is widely punctuated with two or three acre plots where hydraulically fractured wells pump oil from the narrow stratum of the Eagle Ford shale formation that lies between 7,000 and 14,000 feet below. Petrohawk Energy developed the first frac’ed well in 2008 and now over two hundred operators are involved in this ‘play’ with 268 drilling rigs active as of the week before Thanksgiving.

We began our on-line course with a recounting of the transition from the Paleolithic mega-fauna hunters of the last ice age to the hunter-gatherers of the Neolithic and onwards to what Jared Diamond calls the worst mistake in human-history – the development of agriculture. He suggests that,

“the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism that curse our existence”.

David Korten (The Great Turning, From Empire to Earth Community, 2006) takes up this theme by characterizing the last 6,000 years as a male-dominated, exploitative social pathology he calls Empire - in contrast to early hunting-gatherer settlements that were marked by the worship of female deities, egalitarianism and a profound lack of separation between human consciousness and the universal energies of the natural world, which he calls Earth Communities.

Will and I were both determined that before there was any consideration of “Re-designing….Cities and Communities” our students gain a thorough understanding of the impact of human activities on the world’s eco-systems over the last 10,000 years. Our primary ally in this endeavor was my old stand-by, Clive Ponting’s A New Green History of the World, 2007 (No Soft Landing). Ponting is blunt in his assessment, suggesting that since the end of the last ice age humanity has undertaken “the rape of the world”.

As we were developing the course outline, I read The Derrick Jensen Reader, 2012, and was tempted to make it one of the assigned texts, but ultimately decided against it. Jensen picks up where Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang, 1975) left off and promotes active opposition to what he calls the death culture of industrial capitalism whereby the living planet is turned into dead ‘products’. On reflection, it was the right decision, but it now seems to me that a discussion of Jensen’s work, specifically Endgame, volumes I and II, 2006, would make an appropriate coda to our course.

Jensen suggests that Civilization is inherently un-sustainable and it is immoral to stand idly by as the world burns. He suggests that we act as enablers of the serial abuse of the planet unless we actively oppose Civilization, which, in its various iterations for at least six millennia, is founded on that abusive relationship.

The rape of South Texas is being undertaken deep below the earth where nine inch oil casing pipe runs horizontally for up to a mile and a half in each direction from the well head in multiples of six lines, 300 feet apart. Each of these lines has been perforated by frac’ing guns prior to the injection of thousands of gallons of water and sand that simultaneously open up and prop veins in the tightly packed shale which then, for as long as three decades, bleed oil into the pipe. It is an operation of bewildering complexity, technological sophistication and ruthless efficiency. It represents a stellar achievement of a Civilization, that for the last two hundred and fifty years, has been super-charged by the energy extracted from fossil fuels.

Beneath the mesquite brush, where white-tailed deer, javelinas and quail are still hunted (and stray bullets occasionally whine across the oil-well pads) this ‘play’ represents the last throes, perhaps, of a global oil industry in which North America has increased its production in the exact amount of the declines in other oil-producing countries.

Miraculously, this country’s Co2 emissions have been reduced by 4% (back to levels not seen since 1993) due to the rate of new natural gas-fired power plants coming on-line and conversion of old coal burning plants – all due to the downwards pressure on natural gas prices exerted by increased production from fractured wells.

Last time I checked, a gallon of gas was below three bucks – due to Saudi Arabia’s turning up the spigots in an attempt to drive marginal producers out of business. Ain’t working in South Texas, where the shale ‘play’ is viable down to $50 a barrel.

Like Zombies, amidst good news and bad, we continue to lurch towards the Apocalypse.