2016-04-19

Vector of Force

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

There is, close by The Beverly Hills Hotel, six acres that will forever be Los Angeles County; and there is, in this island of County jurisdiction, just north of Sunset Boulevard, the world's largest King Palm forest outside of Australia and there is too, set in this lush pleasure garden, a tennis court with a faded pink aggregate surface backed, at the east end, by a wall flamboyantly draped in pink bougainvillea originally sourced almost a century ago from South Africa: and it was here, in phalanxes of white chairs, that we were seated to celebrate the life of Bridget Hedison.

This is the Virginia Robinson Estate, deeded to L.A. County in the 1970's by the widow of the department store magnate. Bridget is my erstwhile landscape partner who died on February 22, after being diagnosed with stage four cancer some three years ago. Carleen Cappalletti, a former client of ours, and friend to Bridget, organized the event with all the precision that she brings to her professional work producing entertainment, corporate, political, and fashion events around the world for a division of AEG. But here the tone was muted - a quiet remembrance of a remarkable soul, in the grounds of this garden paradise.

Bridget wove her career in and out of ‘Hollywood’ – that chimeric society that insinuates itself throughout Los Angeles, but finds its apotheosis in Beverly Hills - both in film production and later in garden design. Deeply influenced by her Italian heritage, an English insouciance (where she was educated) and profoundly impacted by the Islamic sites she had visited in Spain, her work as a garden designer exhibited an understanding of the transcendence afforded by the rigorous pursuit of an abstract order. Her work aspired to achieve the impact that Vincent J. Cornell captures, writing in Voices of Islam, 2006,

“at the sight of glittering waves or of leafage trembling in the breeze, the soul detaches itself from its internal objects, from the ‘idols’ of passion and plunges, vibrant within itself, into a pure state of being.”

So we got along just fine. In our Laguna project, where she and I worked most explicitly in an Islamic idiom, those glittering waves were not incised within a field of tilework, but were simply spread before the garden in the bay below. Bridget provided the trembling leafage in generous swathes of citrus, olives and Ligustrum lucidum (a tree privet); I provided a stepped and terraced way down the precipitous site and the destination of a walled pool which Bridget surrounded with olive hedges and punctuated with giant palms craned in from above. Bridget plotted to install fountains and rills, but in the end the sparkling cerulean waters of a lap pool and a spa, both plastered in white with an aggregate of tiny pearl pebbles and shell fragments, had to do the work of transporting the viewer into a pure state of being (or not).

She worked then, in the tradition of Southern California as a tabula rasa upon which could be installed fantasies of an earthly paradise. By the time I came to work with her I had already come to the conclusion that the riches of Los Angeles landscape, afforded by extravagant sprinkler layouts, hid a more authentic layer of paradisial planting that was revealed only at the edges of the great conurbation - in the native chaparral. But here in Beverly Hills, Virginia Robinson spent six decades directing her ample garden staff to create a lush, notionally Italian style Mediterranean garden on a knoll graced with ocean breezes, and views of the Pacific and Catalina Island beyond - banishing, in this process, all traces of the indigenous chaparral.

Great human energy, water and financial resources continue to be expended in maintaining this alien, although reasonably climate adapted, plant community plucked from the global, Mediterranean biome (of which, of course, California’s chaparral is a part). More capriciously, Robinson let her close friendship with Coco Chanel dictate the signature color of the garden as Chanel Pink – echoed in camellia plantings, a garden of pink David Austin Roses, the bougainvillea, and the faded pink of the tennis court surface.

The idea of the garden as a paradise was first developed in Persia and was subsequently adopted in Islamic cultures and, in a mutual exchange of ideas, became incorporated into the Renaissance gardens of Italy. As Barbara Bend notes in Islamic Art, 1992, “every vision of Paradise which Islam offers is that of a garden with running waters, and every garden in the Islamic world tends to be seen as a metaphor for Paradise”. Persian gardens and their Islamic successors inspired subsequent gardens around the Mediterranean - their aesthetic principles eventually dominating their generative symbolic underpinnings. So it is that in the Virginia Robinson Estate, in southern California, there is a water rill of upturned clay roof tiles that runs down the middle of the brick steps that descend from the top of the knoll, through four terraces, each with a fountain or water trough (with crudely carved lion’s head spouts) to the foot of the site in a classic Islamic gesture originally adopted from the desert paradise gardens of Persia……..via Italy! Bridget would have loved it.

On the occasions that Lorrie and I visited Bridget and David at their aerie on Trudy lane, high in their City’s eponymous hills, it always gave me pleasure to see her copy of Mirrors of Paradise, The Gardens of Fernando Caruncho, 2000, laying in the living room, somewhere close to hand. I had recommended it to her (the book was introduced to me years ago by Sarah Munster) because I believed it spoke profoundly of what Bridget achieved with apparent ease (that English insouciance born of an ethos that preaches: ‘don’t let them see you sweat’). Her design solutions arrived, she said, via her muse - some ethereal garden sprite perhaps, that would whisper, at the very last moment before a critical client meeting, a list of appropriate trees for the site. In reality, I knew that many hours of subliminal thought and a few sleepless nights went into finding just the right solution.

She intuited much of what Caruncho learnt through his study of philosophy. She understood the dualities of the visible and invisible, the sacred and profane, the light and the dark, without reference to the ancient Greeks. Many moons ago, she studied astronomy at UCLA, and this choice of discipline reflected, I think, her practical approach to the mysteries of the cosmos. She did not employ metaphysics in her work, nor even metaphor - just plain speech and she mostly let her landscapes do the talking.

Caruncho works with massed plantings usually organized in some sort of grid or linear arrangement. Flowers are almost entirely incidental to his designs. He works in greens and browns and ochres; his groundscapes of stone, gravel or decomposed granite resonate with intense shadow from heavy penumbral foliage or reflect the fierce light of Spain; water becomes an earthbound sky. Ditto Bridget, southern California substituting seamlessly for the Iberian Peninsula.

Bridget’s commitment to her muse’s vision was breathtaking. Rick Passov was a fellow student alongside of Bridget back in the day: he tells the story of her upbraiding a professor for failing to adequately explain Vectors of Force in her UCLA Physics class. The professor had no need. Bridget had ample self-knowledge – and she, intrinsically, was a Vector of Force. With great strength of will and an unerring sense of purpose she pursued her design objectives with a powerful directional focus.

2016-04-11

Don't know much about History


Brits often disparage American History as being short - almost to the point where the association of the one with the other is imputed as oxymoronic: what they are suggesting is that the duration of the Republic, of these United States, is comparatively short-lived when weighed against the venerable statist traditions of the English kingdom. What they ignore, is that in terms of nationhood, this country is older than most, and predates that great efflorescence of nation states that occurred throughout, but often towards the tail end, of the nineteenth century (think Italy and Germany). More crucially, the very idea of assessing the venerability (or any other characteristic) of histories through the matrix of political associations (in which Nation States hold a privileged position) is decidedly reactionary.

This epiphany emerged out of my reading Clive Ponting's A Green History of the World, 1992, at more or less the same time that I ingested the great Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm's Nations and Nationalism, 1990, about twenty years ago. It was in this latter work that it became apparent to me that fictions of nationhood were the convenient tool of elite groups wishing to conduct feats of social engineering conducive to their aggregation of power. Quoting Ernest Gellner, Hobsbawm writes, "Nations as a natural God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent political destiny are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is a reality" - a reality, incidentally, almost totally reflected in the initial establishment and subsequent development of the United States.

We all move on. Now there is an understanding that what matters to us, at this cosmic moment, is history on a geologic time scale. The whole world, it seems, is obsessed with the human impact on the ecologies that envelop us. Us: a.k.a. Humans. This Anthropocene is an age when we (We) are creating sedimentary strata of toxic waste, collapsing aquifers, reshaping and perforating the lithosphere, drastically reducing levels of biological diversity and fundamentally changing the composition of the earth's atmosphere.

Set against this elemental reality, the disfunctions or otherwise of political arrangements validated by nationalist mythologies which, in this country, are based on moldering documents crafted by a few wealthy British diasporans more than two hundred years ago, or in this and other continents, less transparently, on histories of pillage and conquest, are of trivial import.

In Britain, the nationalist religion of patriotism is nurtured by a Royal family founded just 99 years ago by George V as the House of Windsor: an act of xenophobic re-branding (from the Germanic Saxe Coburg and Gotha) at the end of World War One. (There was, in Ojai, a faint echo of this, in the same year of 1917, as it was transmuted from its erstwhile Teutonic place name of Nordhoff).

Part of being a nation is, as Hobsbawm points out, getting its history wrong: but neither this country nor Great Britain have national histories, however delusional, of any great consequence except as they contribute to the great Modernist project that has seen the planet globalize under the flag of Capitalist convenience, Neo-Liberalism. It is, operating under this credo, that they are assured of a significant place in new histories that operate on a millennial and geologic time scale and have as their protagonist, not petty princes or nattering nabobs of nationalism (to paraphrase the late and unlamented Spiro Agnew) but the Lonely Planet itself.

I have mentioned Clive Ponting's seminal 1992 text: it opened up a space which has been populated by a plethora of 'green' or environmental histories of the world. Enter Joachim Radkau with Nature and Power, A Global History of the Environment, 2008, in which he notes that "environmentalism is the only ideological alternative to the absolute hegemony of the quest for private profit and consumption".

Remarkably, in this nation based exactly, explicitly and proudly on the pursuit of private profit and consumption there has been a parallel history of appreciation and concern for the natural world. It has been advantaged in this by the scale and variety of its natural setting and its convenient extirpation of native populations who fully inhabited its vast range of ecological niches. Absent indigenous peoples, killed in great numbers by introduced disease, by the U.S. Cavalry who supported the western migration of Anglo-Americans, by frontiersmen and women on their own account, or forcibly removed to marginal lands where their traditional means of sustainability were no longer viable, the nation’s great and glorious landscapes were fetishized in the nineteenth century as objects supporting a range of broadly romantic ideologies centered on our relationship to the divine. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many of these areas were institutionalized as National Parks and in this process the last vestiges of their indigenous populations were banished. The Eurocentric traditions of Emerson, Thoreau and Muir were validated in this creation of vast reserves set aside for the aesthetic, moral and spiritual delight of newly wrought and quickly populating ‘Americans’, enabled in their peregrinations by the mass production of the automobile by Henry Ford and others.

In the 1960’s and 70’s an Environmentalism emerged in the U.S. that truly challenged the cash and consumption nexus and, arguably, initiated an epochal shift toward a revision in the ways the natural world might function as a sustainable setting for its top predator: humankind.

Not much these days goes uncolored by the recent death of my friend Will Reed with whom I hiked the Sierras last summer, along with Victoria Salmon (Wild America). He was a man without a nation, having left his native New Zealand in his early twenties and subsequently been refused permanent status in both the U.K and the U.S., despite his living in one or the other place for over forty years. I regret that he will not read this piece which touches on the spurious nature of the nation state and might give him a reason for celebrating his statelessness. Now he has truly transcended such petty considerations!

He and I were, in different ways and in different places, children of the various revolutions that occurred a little after mid-century which established in us an anti-authoritarian ethos and a profound love of the natural world. We both arrived in Ojai about eight years ago and quickly established a kinship. We subsequently co-taught at Lori Pye’s feisty on-line start-up, the Viridis Graduate Institute, where we wrestled with many of the issues with which this blog concerns itself. We both lived in a world where the concerns of environmental histories were very real. He, perhaps, was more comfortable in the timelessness of the eternal present that holds sway in the lives of indigenous peoples and his mind, I believe, actually resonated on a frequency that enabled insights into the natural world that were profoundly pre-verbal, while I am forever pursuing intellectual fashion in such histories, true to my more academic, very western understanding of wilderness as cultural artifact and ideological talisman.

The last book we talked about together was Roderick Frazer Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, 1967, just a few days before he died. Will’s was not an American mind; he disliked this country precisely because it was mired in materialism - but he loved its wildlands and understood their history on a millennial and geologic scale, his mind in harmony with the cosmic energies that pulsed through his lanky frame.

2015-12-10

Old Ways Vs. New Spirit

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

I have just finished reading Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s magisterial work, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Verso, 2007. It is dense, closely argued and revelatory. The thick trade paperback now bristles with yellow post-it notes marking passages I thought particularly significant, or more often, just felt that I fully understood. If it is not quite a Theory of Everything, it did offer a thrillingly explanatory ride through fifty years of my lived experience in the working world. It now prompts these thoughts:

Capitalism is a system in which money acts as the medium of transaction between subject (individuals and groups) and object (goods and services) within a theoretically unencumbered or free market. Within that system, it is also characterized (as Boltanski and Chiapello would have it) by “an imperative to unlimited capital accumulation by formally peaceful means”. In other words, it represents (now in the guise of neo-liberalism) an advance in civilization from societies driven by warfare, plunder, and territorial acquisition towards those that formally value peace where individuals have the ability to grow rich through the socially approved accumulation of wealth. Blood lust has been transmuted into entrepreneurial spirit: ‘Capitalism’ thus represents the hive mind of the bloodlessly acquisitive.

Within this system of producers and consumers there exists a world of work. There has been, at least since the industrial revolution and its mass migrations from the countryside to the city, a clear distinction between the personhood of an employee and their contributions as a worker. Previously, workers were involved in close personal bonds with their master or mistress arising out of ancient feudal fealties - evidenced by a total subordination as well as ties of loyalty and mutual aid.

The rise of Capitalism afforded the opportunity for the working man and woman to establish an independent sense of self despite the often onerous demands of factory or trade work. This working class condition, established in the eighteenth century, was characterized by a simple contractual arrangement, based on work performed, between employer and employee, endured until late in the twentieth century.

It was then that increased possibilities for the values of creativity, freedom and authenticity became available within Boltanski and Chiapello’s construct of ‘New Spirit of Capitalism’ which developed in the era of social upheaval in the 1960's and 70's, immediately after the interregnum of what the French call Les Trente glorieuses (those three decades after the end of WWII when the standard of living greatly increased for most people across Western Europe and the USA). The new spirit was shaped by a virulent critique partly in reaction to the oppressive regimentation and control imposed by large scale, bureaucratized industrial conglomerates that dominated American and Western European commerce. For a moment, it seemed as if an entire generation had decided to vacate the world of work and reinvent Life on Earth. They (we!) were eventually reined in by a revised spirit of capitalism that co-opted many of the freedoms demanded by the Hippes, Yippies, Feminists and Civil Rights workers who characterized that era.

This emancipation was achieved, over the last forty odd years, at the cost of job security, lower real wages and a crumbling social safety net. As the authors note, wage earners are now simultaneously more autonomous and more constrained as they seek a foothold in the working world absent the protections afforded by secure long term employment, vacations and benefits. Their work lives are episodic or project based, and depend for continuity on the personal and professional connections that are nurtured during brief tenures of employment (or transitory relationships). The establishment of networks is necessary to the securing one's next gig (or relationship) and both depend on social and spatial fluidity: immobility presages exclusion from the ranks of the successful. The power of place has been re-placed by the power of real and virtual rhizomorphic links and reticular adjacencies (a linguistic thicket in the spirit of B&C) spread across the world’s array of urban nodes bound within an electronic web.

The illusory freedom, individual empowerment and authenticity offered within this new Capitalist workplace are mirrored in its attendant consumerism. The mass production of identical goods has been replaced by their customization and niche marketing. American taste has been fragmented: 'Middle America' has been shattered into a hundred taste cultures by which individual consumers are offered goods that are differentiated and 'authentic' to their particular taste culture - despite the fact that these disparate goods remain within the commodity sphere and must ultimately yield to the “cycles of infatuation and disappointment” inherent in a fashion, marketing and advertising driven consumer society.

The distinction between persons and their labor power, and between disinterested relations and relations marked by self-interest traditionally establishes the division, in Capitalism, of what may be commodified and what may not. Now, in Boltanski and Chiapello’s formulation of ‘The New spirit of Capitalism’ (under the influence of which people continue to be persuaded to participate in endless orgies of production and consumption), this distinction is under challenge: individuals are mired deeper and deeper in the processes of making, marketing, personal branding (which is directly related to employability) and networking, all of which combine to submerge the authenticity of their personhood.

It is into this world that we must now consider the introduction of the ecological critique: for the hive mind of Capitalism is mutable. In a recent interview, Eve Chiapello commented, “The market economy has adopted some of the ideas of critical movements, but only those that did not call into question profit-seeking and the pursuit of its objectives”. She notes, however, that the ecological critique does precisely that and thus has the potential to fundamentally alter the central tenet of our neo-liberal political system; but as long as growth of GDP is seen as essential to societal well-being there is unlikely to be any willing accommodation of the ecological agenda (except at the greenwash margins). Chiapello suggests that ultimately, biospheric well-being almost certainly depends on the development of localized, solidarity based sustainable economies dedicated to meeting basic needs and which entirely eschew the superfluous (Hippie communes redux). Any large scale adoption of such local, down-sized centers of production serving newly temperate consumers will most likely cause the transportation, information, education, healthcare, energy and control networks of modern society to atrophy and current levels of population to decline.

Capitalism has capitulated to demands for the greater freedom, authenticity and personal empowerment of its worker bees but it has done so by demanding increased flexibility and offering less security, benefits, generally lower wages and has undermined the sanctity of its workers personhood by commodifying their personal relationships. It now exists, within the embracing raison d’etre of its new spirit, under attack from a critique that privileges biospheric health above the emancipatory values its promoters have been shilling for almost half a century and which are now thoroughly embedded in the neo-liberal project.

Should the ecological critique succeed against all odds, are we then faced with a new dark age from which will inevitably spring the warfare, plunder and territorial acquisition that history has banished?

Let’s dispense immediately with idea that economic growth is somehow a natural, historically validated phenomenon. Eduardo Porter writes in The New York Times,

“It’s hard to imagine now, but humanity made do with little or no economic growth for thousands of years. In Byzantium and Egypt, income per capita at the end of the first millennium was lower than at the dawn of the Christian era. Much of Europe experienced no growth at all in the 500 years that preceded the Industrial Revolution. In India, real incomes per person shrank continuously from the early 17th through the late 19th century.”

He goes on to make the contrary argument that “Zero growth gave us Genghis Khan and the Middle Ages, conquest and subjugation”. One is aghast by the inclusion of half a millennium of high culture, great learning and spiritual achievement in a list clearly intended to conjure a civilizational abyss. The last two hundred years of the West’s economic growth have been afforded by our plundering of the earth’s carbon riches which, by aggravating climate change, will potentially ravage our coast lines and foster disease and famine on a scale besides which a little old-school pillaging by Ghenghis and his cohorts seems positively benign.

Gary Snyder characterizes the “wisdom and skill of those who studied the universe firsthand, by direct knowledge and experience, for millennia, both inside and outside of themselves” as the ‘Old Ways’. Traditional cultures were of a place, in which the inhabiting of a coherent bioregion forged a profound kinship within a world that provided for their people’s survival. The sanctity of human life was contingent: it existed only as a reflection of human reverence for the web of life.

Capitalism requires a rethinking such that the natural world is revered as the one and only medium of transaction between humanity and its survival. If that world is not to be devalued or destroyed, a radical critique of our economic system (predicated, as it is, on eternal growth and the ravaging of the biosphere) must be established. The hive mind is listening.

2015-10-22

Local

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Thoreau threw up a hut in the woods partly of recycled building materials sourced in his local town of Concord, Mass. It was, at ten by fifteen feet, not far off of the dimensions of a hojo, and served much the same minimalist function as the zen monk's traditional cell - a place deliberating lacking in the fripperies of the age that might, whether in medieval Japan or mid-nineteenth century America, focus the mind on the deep pulse of the universe.

When it worked, this simple dwelling, often situated in rural or wild settings, enabled its inhabitant to recognize that his (for it was usually a man) own intrinsic life force was beating within the more expansive rhythms of the cosmos. The simplicity of a life lived locally, within a shelter that barely kept its inhabitant warm and dry, with a food supply foraged, hunted or grown within walking distance, only occasionally provisioned by an itinerant rice merchant (or supplemented by merchants in the local town), heightened an awareness of humankind's larger, universal context. To live small was to think large.

A life lived locally was barely possible in 1850's America. Thoreau's attempt, essentially bankrolled by Emerson, and in large and small ways dependent on the support systems of an eastern seaboard intricately enmeshed in mercantile relations with the Southern states, the Caribbean and Europe, was a conceit: he was an anachronistic artist living on the fringes of a burgeoning global economy and living within earshot of an iron-road that would shortly open up his own continent to economic and cultural despoliation.

That was then. We are now even less capable of successfully living ‘Local’. Our attempts are doomed to fail in the face of a thoroughly co-mingled planet. Any pretense at limiting our individual impact to a particular place, to our locale, can only be maintained by denying the realities of our twenty-first century world. In truth, local has not been viable since we, as a species, moved off the plains of the Serengeti in search of specialized ecological niches across the world, where plenty in some aspect of sustenance inevitably encouraged trade with other groups who produced a surplus in another. We are done with Local. It is a pre-historical fantasy, it is stone-punk: it is intellectually, practically and morally dishonest to pretend otherwise.

Mired in the metaphysics of western thought, stuck in the tar-patch of individual identity, there is little possibility of denying our global interconnections with the material world. And yet, perhaps there is a Way.

We are consumed with the impact of our agency. What if we are but shards of a greater consciousness reified in moments of perceiving the natural world? It may be that it is not so much a matter of our effect on the environment, of consuming locally, but of perceiving locally and allowing the presence of the natural world to fill the absence within us.

Turns out that these vague premonitions of the relationship between being and Nature are cogently investigated in a slim volume I purchased recently at Banyen Books in Kitsilano, Vancouver, where there were displayed several shelves of works devoted to eco-psychology and ecological ethics. Hunger Mountain, helpfully subtitled A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, David Hinton, Shambala, 2012, is a gem. It is a remarkable primer both to Chinese cosmology as reflected in the language’s graphs (alternatively, glyphs or characters) and to one of its major works, the Tao Te Ching.

I wrote the last couple of paragraphs whilst waiting for my car’s tires to be rotated at Fred’s Tireman in Oak View. The mountains are not so much a presence here as in other parts of the valley, and as I looked around, I focused less on nature than on the works of entrepreneurial humankind, wondering at the survival of an odd selection of stores that eke out a living for their owners in the harsh economic climate of this beleaguered township. Here, in front of me, exactly in a row, as in some sort of ecological climax community of the tawdry were Donuts and More; Nails Forever; Herbs of Hope; 805 Vapes Vapor Lounge; His ‘n’ Hairs; Gold ‘n’ Essence Tanning Salon; and anchoring the eastern end of this block, the unimaginatively titled Oak View Coffee. Across the street is the newly opened Jack’s Dollar Plus. Then it’s Ojai Valley Muffler; Rte. 33 Laundry; and the about to open Ojai Valley MAMA (Modern American Martial Arts) before the stand-alone red-trimmed Ojai Valley Glass which sits next to Fred’s.

On the stretch of the State Highway from the PCH, through Casitas Springs (Bait and Liquor), Oak View and Mira Monte, the commercial presence might reasonably be considered woeful to those of bourgeois tastes and proclivities, but like the drought-plagued plants of the chaparral, the very persistence of its stores and services and the unfailing optimism of the new ones that replace the failed, against all the economic odds, possesses a kind of grandeur. Their openings and closings represent the ongoing process of transformation, in which all things arise and pass away, that is at the very heart of the Taoist understanding of the cosmos.

In his introduction to Mountain Home: The Wilderness poetry of Ancient China, Counterpoint, 2002, Hinton notes that “for two millennia, China’s tradition of rivers and mountains (shan-shui) poetry represents the earliest and most extensive literary engagement with wilderness in human history”. In Hunger Mountain, he proposes that it is the pictographic language in which these poems were written that allowed for the immediate engagement of ‘the ten thousand things’ of which the world is made because the glyphs of which the language is composed refer directly to elements within that world. By contrast, the western tradition is enabled by a higher level symbolic language that allows for the buffering of self and cosmos, or more simply, the separation of us and the natural environment.

In shan-shui, the world is not a stage for human events: the poet’s renderings of rivers, mountains and shafts of sunlight, moonbeams or enveloping mists, connote profound human connections within a cosmology where issues of being and non-being are demonstrated by the ten thousand living (including humanity) and non-living things which themselves are in constant transformation.

We are lost to that world of a pictographic language (although we tread here on a land that for fifteen thousand years supported peoples who scratched, pecked and painted on rock in ways that echoed across millennia, the voices of those ancient ones expressed in rock art, that most primal of written languages) but we can still directly engage with a primal world in spite of the remove imposed by our sophisticated means of communication. This is what Thoreau attempted. This is what we urban-wildlanders attempt, poised on the cusp of rivers and mountains in (speaking personally) our tricked-out, solar-powered huts.

The energy that flows through Oak View, along the 33, is mostly provided by the woosh of traffic that passes: drivers and passengers intent on the road ahead and casting barely a glance at the enticements offered along the commercial strip – Forever Nails passed unnoticed in a moment; but it is in the act of noticing and being present that the swirling cosmic currents that the Chinese represent as chi’i can be discerned, whether in a strip mall or a mountain trail - those tender breaths of energy that, as Hinton describes them, cascade effortlessly “through fusion-lit star-generations”.

This is what can be perceived locally: our enmeshment within the cosmos. Hinton writes of a concatenated ideogram which interpreted literally denotes breath-seed home. Time and space are woven together in the ancient Chinese notion (as in most primal cultures) of the eternal present and animated through the agency of breath, or chi'i; time is the dimension where the ongoing transformation of the ten thousand things can occur. The glyph which depicts a seed sprouting in a thatched roof denotes home and is set within this space-time continuum (which stands quite apart from the Western notion of time as a relentlessly flowing river). Taken together, Hinton writes, the cosmology represented in the glyph combination "recognizes the fundamental dimensions of the Cosmos to be our most elemental dwelling place".

In the chaparral, beneath the looming presence of the Topatopas, or wandering a strip mall in Oak view, my urban wildland ‘practice’ (to use that charged word) is as it was for the shan-shui poets, medieval Zen monks in Japan, Thoreau in Concord and David Hinton in the wilds of Vermont: to observe the empirical world as it is inflected by the chi'i storm of the cosmos. This much remains local, yet it references "the boundless breath of the planet's empty mind".

2015-09-29

Tree Fall

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

As Ojai slips gently into fall, I am filled with longing. A longing for the coming of winter: for the synchronization of my personality with the cold and gloom, the creeping damp of early mornings, rain-blackened tree trunks and lowering skies. Across three continents, I have experienced the same grim pleasure as the sun, in its elliptical orbit, swings closer to the polar hemispheres - its warmth thinned as its reach widens.

In Australia, living by Sydney's North Shore beaches, the beginning of autumn presaged good surf and empty sand. Come March, off-shore winds whipped across the inland sea of Pittwater and rustled the parched leaves of tall gums: a wooded spine separated my house from Whale Beach where these same cool, off-shore breezes smoothed the in-rushing waves and held up their exposed faces.

In the 1970's, with no thought of ozone holes, Australians remained great sun fetishists, their oiled bodies splayed across the summer beaches like colonies of anorexic, bipedal seals. In the water we wore zinc ointment on our noses but otherwise embraced our blackened skin as a sign of our dedication to the most sybaritic of sports. In fall and winter, we wore wet-suits that glistened black in the water. It was as though the summer seal colonies had taken to the waves; the depressions where they had formerly lain erased by the wind.

In England, in the village where I grew up, the oaks that remained after the paroxysm of road building between the wars (linking London with provincial market towns and the beaches of Sussex and Hampshire) were fleshy monsters, towering over road, houses and traffic: clouds of green on massive stalks like atomic explosions of foliage. Come fall they were transformed.

Drifts of pale brown leaves gathered at the bases of concrete tank traps that had been readied for deployment a few years previously to block the arteries that might permit invading Nazis a clear run to London. These squat columns, of about the same girth as the oaks, were manufactured replacements for the trees felled to make way for concrete and tar macadam: the great defensive forests of the realm decimated for the convenience of day-trippers, owners of country houses, provincial merchants and outlying commuters.

There was a row of four or five of these trees at the end of the road which linked the major routes to Sussex and Hampshire, growing in a nature strip placed between the main road and a service road onto which our house fronted, about halfway along its length. By chance, another ancient oak stood in our front yard, this one a survivor of the post-war boom in public housing which blighted requisitioned farms, estates and common land throughout the villages of the so-called home-counties that ringed the metropolis. In my young mind, these half dozen oaks were vastly old, sentinels of pre-history, and gravid with occult significance.

Their summer raiment was discarded in autumn to expose the wiry filigree of their armature: the stiffened arteries that had so recently fed and supported their mounding green canopies. Rooks nested in the twigs, their caws replacing the susurration of leaves. Off at a distance, lines of bare trees, oaks among them, scratched at the grey skies.

On both sides of the Pacific, the dominant trees are evergreen - they shed their dead leaves throughout the year. The gums maintain their emblematic grey-olive foliage and the live-oaks of California keep their dark, oak-shadow green. Signs of fall are carried in the chill of the wind, a shortening of the days and a quickening in the biotic life-force as the storms of winter loom.

Autumn in Europe, Asia and East of the Rockies is accompanied by flamboyant fall colors which quickly give way to displays of twiggy chiaroscuro - their deciduous forests presaging a waning energy, a time of hibernation in the natural world. Here, and in Australia, the mood darkens, but the landscape is vitalized: it stirs in fall after the oppressive heat and drying winds of summer. My spirits rise as I anticipate another winter in the chaparral. My heart beat quickens as I welcome the possibilities of trails being threaded with creeks, of seasonal streams roiling rocks and fallen tree limbs and scouring their weedy beds; as I welcomed the thinning of summer crowds on Sydney's beaches and the arrival of wind-whipped winter waves and celebrated the arrival of the massive edifices of trunk, branch and twig that centuries old English oaks manifest in winter.

The Gum, as Australians call Eucalypts, is mostly a tall, willowy thing with bursts of foliage pitched apparently randomly against the sky. Its peeling, or sometimes shredding, bark can be a milky white, pink or reddish brown. Its leaves hang mostly vertically, pointing at the tree's litter below (which they will join on entirely individual timetables) and often provide scant shade. In their native land they are trees of exquisite elegance. In the looming bush at the edges of Sydney, they tower over the chaotic underbrush. The punctuation of their trunks and sky-strewn foliage seem to echo the wheedling thrum of the didgeridoo as it might have emerged from some ancient corroboree while their etiolated, bone-like structures mirror some aboriginal dreamtime phantasm. The metallic rustling of leaves is their signal that fall approaches.

How different the mushroom cloud of the English Oak. The stout, phlegmatic long-lived foundational tree of the British Navy, of much of Britain's architecture and of its primeval wood henges - concentric rings of ritual (or as William Logan (Oak, The Frame of Civilization, 2006) calls them, "monuments about the mind") that were expressions of visionary or entoptic geometry designed to expand the consciousness of the celebrants. Sacred tree to the Druids, their conduit to the 'otherworld' of the pantheistic divinity, the English oak is literally rooted in Celtic pre-history, reaching far back to the swirling mists of the melting ice age when, at the margins, the oak forests were submerged in the rising waters that isolated Britain from Europe, creating an underworld of bog oak.

Here, in Upper Ojai, a lone scrub jay probes the rocky soil and disgorges an acorn into the hole it has made and then covers it with soil and leaf litter. Perhaps it will remember where this one is buried come winter. Perhaps not......and, if the rains come, the acorn will germinate and become a part of the profusion of plant life that emerges in the great lottery of fecundity which is the chaparral winter.

Last night we waited patiently for the advertised total eclipse perigee blood moon to appear over the eastern ridge. A little after 8:30 I looked up from my chair facing the ridge line and saw a sliver of a crescent subtended from the shadowed moon. I had allowed the moon to rise on my watch, so to speak, without my full attention because it was well-nigh as dark as the night sky behind it: only the dazzle of its tiny illuminated crescent alerted me to its presence. As the shadow of the earth passed over the moon, ‘the red of a thousand sunrises and sunsets’ failed to impact the coloration of our lunar satellite, although today I did see fairly compelling images showing an orange orb scaled beside the Washington monument, and hanging above picturesque skylines in Europe. A little late on the total eclipse, because of the looming ridge to the east, and denied the orange wash, we went inside feeling a little cheated.

This morning, the day dawned with a fiery orange-red sky to the east and as its color faded the western sky assumed a soft, rosy hue. Still fairly high in the sky, the super moon appeared to be wrapped in pink tissue – in drifting filaments of cirrus cloud reflecting a single, sanguinary sun rise.

The Harvest Moon, the first moon of fall, announced the season’s arrival with just the kind of subtlety we would expect in California, where the changes in weather and landscape reward close attention. I remain on high alert.

2015-09-14

There Goes the Neighborhood

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Ojai’s economy relies on tourism, agriculture, oil and the wealth of the retirement and second home communities all of which combine to drive its service and retail businesses. Here on Koenigstein, oil is the dominant economic product with a minor assist from avocado and cattle ranching. Its residential community is comprised of a mix of weekenders, retirees and those who commute to work beyond the Topatopa foothills. Nowhere, along this dead end street, with the possible exception of a single avocado farmer and a part-time cattle rancher are there examples of families living on the economic resources of their land. It is predominantly an urban wildland dormitory sustained by incomes generated beyond Upper Ojai while its indigenous oil wealth flows to widely dispersed workers, management and owners.

Of culture workers there are a couple, evidenced, at least, by the Ojai Artist’s Studio tour, which features two neighbors, the recently widowed fauvist painter Nancy Whitman (R.I.P., John, another Death Comes to Koenigstein) and Shahastra Levy who creates romantically lush landscapes entirely at odds with the harsh realities of our surrounding eco-system.

I have constructed a life and now, at Urbanwildland have worked hard at creating a persona at least partly based on an attachment to the chaparral, but that is a long way from living with the land as an economic resource. I have had the luxury of developing a primarily abstract, intellectual and at moments spiritual connection to the land without actually ever having the need to grub a living from it. I accept that that puts me in a privileged position and one from which it is hard to critique the ways and means of those who have a direct economic interest in this landscape.

Nevertheless, as someone who wishes to use the environment as a cultural artifact, I deplore its exploitation on a purely economic basis. The activities of the rancher, the avocado farmer and most of all of the oil companies that besmirch an erstwhile pristine landscape with their noxious mechanical, arboreal and bovine infrastructures are entirely antithetical to my concern to re-wild this land and make metaphoric hay of its adjacency to the urban technological, economic, legal and political conditions that characterizethe tentacular conurbations that sprawl across southern California and are themselves links in global communications and commodities chains. I accept the urban as urban but dearly wish for the wild to be truly wild (excepting my presence within it as your intrepid correspondent).

These musings are partly prompted by having read The Shepherd’s Life by James Redbanks, 2015, based on the author’s life tending his flock on the rugged uplands (or fells) of Northern England’s Lake District. Redbanks does not altogether ignore the irony that he farms in an area which was ground zero, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, for the cultural construction of its rugged landscapes, lakes and mountains as fodder for the feeding of the Romantic sensibility and that this construction, evidenced by continuing tourism (both by car and fell-walking) far outweighs the value of the rough grazing it affords his sheep. He argues that there is value in his continuance of a traditional way of life that reaches back at least five thousand years, provides his family with a living and some part of the general population with meat: it surely does this, but it is at the cost of continuing a centuries-old mono-culture that has contributed to the reduction of local floral, arboreal and faunal species and that now exacerbates the impacts of climate change.

George Monbiot sums up the impact of sheep on Britain’s marginal uplands as ‘sheepwrecking’ in Feral, Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, 2013. Despite the proclamation, as you enter National Forests, that you are broaching a Land of Many Uses, Monbiot makes the point that most human endeavors, driven by remorseless entropy, tend to devolve into monocultures. National Forests are mostly about protecting the nation’s timber supply; lacking oversight by C-Frog and engaged neighbors, Koenigstein would become an oil super-highway as Mirada opens more wells in the Topatopa foothills on its exploratory drive into the Sespe Wilderness; in Britain, the marginal uplands of Wales, England and Scotland, once mostly lightly grazed common land became, upon their privatization through the lamentable Enclosure movement, intensively farmed by landlord’s hoping to profit from the wool trade. Now, with wool a largely devalued commodity, it is the arcane traditions of sheep breeding, sheep-dog training and the insatiable appetite of up-scale restaurants for English spring lamb that drives the five thousand year tradition that, over the millennia has entirely transformed the uplands forest ecology into a grass monoculture incapable of absorbing winter rains and erased much of the complex web of life these primeval hills once supported.

Wordsworth and John Clare among others, bemoaned the enclosure (and thus taming) of the rough edges of England’s lowland arable land that traditionally remained marginal commons available for coppicing and mixed grazing of pigs, sheep and cattle to the landless local peasantry. The industrial revolution then, as in China now, depopulated the countryside leaving it to capital intensive crop mono-cultures necessary to the feeding of urban populations. Monbiot is careful to exclude these highly productive farm lands from his critique: it is the marginal grazing lands that he sees suffering unnecessarily from the ‘white plague’ and which could be most fruitfully re-wilded.

Now Koenigstein, and more generally Ojai, are on the margins of the Southland’s major oilfields (despite the area’s historical status as the location of California’s first oil well in 1867) and could usefully dedicate its wildlands to its prowling top predator, the mountain lion (reliably reported as currently resident in these parts by two neighbors and filmed on security camera by a third) rather than to the economic advantage, on Koenigstein, of the Price family (as owners of Mirada) and the continuing debasement of the climate through carbon mining and gas flaring.

Monbiot favors the reintroduction of the wolf into Britain’s uplands, a move predictably resisted by farmers but one that could quickly re-balance the wild and the tame and remove, once and for all the plague of sheep that infest the uplands and inhibits their higher value as carbon sinks, rain infiltrators and true wildlands. Similarly, greater State and Federal protection for the range of the Puma concolor, black bear and steelhead trout might reasonably re-establish these chaparral lands as untrammeled wilderness - surely now their highest and best use - unthreatened by oil interests, cattle and agriculture and safe even, for the reintroduction of the Grizzly, that great symbol of California (last sighted in Santa Barbara County in 1924) and of the vitiation of its wild lands.

In creating a redoubt and by re-dedicating the surrounding acreage to its highest purpose, of chaparral, there is an ecotone established at our house on Koenigstein balanced between the wild and the urban: it is here I can practice a dialectic of the tame and the untamed and at this interstice, to paraphrase Marx: live a life that determines my consciousness. It is where, in practical terms, a run in the pre-dawn or a walk in the gloaming requires that one carry an air-horn. It is where I can, in odd moments and in these postings, add value to the neighborhood by honing it as a cultural artifact.

2015-08-31

On a Sunday Afternoon

Now also on www.urbanwildland.org

Very early this morning, Rita whooshes down Koenigstein in her red Tesla. Perhaps she is driving to the west side of Los Angeles to meet with a client. She is a personal trainer.

Three years ago, she and her husband bought the old Hansen property (Death Comes to Koenigstein) at the top of the hill. A Los Angeles architect designed a modern re-model of the 1960’s stucco ranch house and after a protracted construction period approaching two years, Rita moved in earlier in the summer. The major views and windows are all to the west and despite a roof laden with photo-voltaic panels I imagine the house falls short of being net zero in energy consumption: of an afternoon, the searing westerly sun is likely to defeat the best efforts of even a continuously running refrigerated air cooling system, and then, when it cools down and the a/c finally shuts down, there’s the six or seven hours to charge the car’s battery at a 240 V outlet. As Kermit sings, “it’s not easy being green”.

Nevertheless, several of us on Koenigstein are attempting to present a virid face to the world. It is all, to some extent, a sham. The three overtly ‘green’ structures feature enough newly embedded energy to discount whatever savings to the grid are effected by their solar strategies. In the bigger picture, our contribution to saving the world is precisely nil. We remain part of a society that is dedicated to endless economic growth – of which so-called ‘green’ industry is a contributing factor.

It is the fatal model of expansionary capitalism (if that is not a tautology), consuming the world’s resources and producing biosphericaly threatening levels of greenhouse gases that requires immediate mitigation – not our relationship to the power grid. There is, of course, a connection between these two phenomena, but an amelioration of the latter is unlikely to make much of a dent in the former. Indeed, it has been argued that the replacement of dirty, fossil energy with clean solar, hydro or nuclear power is entirely beside the point: what we need is a society that uses radically less energy, of whatever provenance, since its consumption is largely devoted, at present, to the rape of the world.

The Pope, in his recent ‘green encyclical’ has called for a "truly communitarian economy", where "human beings in harmony with nature, structure the entire system of production and distribution in such a way that the abilities and needs of each individual find suitable expression in social life". In other words, he is calling, at least in this speech, for the revolutionary overthrow of the results of at least half a millennium of Western colonialism in which the Papacy has been entirely complicit, as well as the financial structures that grew out of this exploitative model and that now support the plutocrats, oligarchs and kleptocrats who conspire to rule the world irrespective of the political arrangements that pertain in individual states.

But he goes further. He has nominated as the foot soldiers in his Revolutionary Army, "social poets" who remake "social reality" along their own unique paths, person by person, generation by generation. It is a fantastically bold vision that entirely transcends ideology and attempts to return the world to a prelapsarian Eden where individuals can create their own destinies certain of "access to education, health care, new technologies, artistic and cultural manifestations, communications and recreation". Nothing here then, that cannot be achieved in the kind of primal harmony evinced by tribal societies intimately connected to their local ecosystems and surviving within them by hunting and gathering - in a return, in other words, to traditions from which Homo sapiens has only very recently departed. The Pope may believe that his Edenic vision can be achieved without abandoning the technological infrastructure of the modern world, but that infrastructure is entirely dependent on the exploitative model he deplores. The Pope, as Unintended Revolutionary is, perhaps, not quite ready to follow the full implications of his utopian, populist rhetoric.

Neither are we, emerald hued ones, on Koenigstein Road. Our position, as beacons of energy responsibility, does not quite elevate us to the position of social poets. We are acting in the belief that the same kind of thinking that got us into this mess can be utilized in extricating ourselves from it - that ever more sophisticated, nature alienating technologies can save us from the previous generation of sophisticated, nature alienating technologies; that embedded energy is somehow free provided we use it to demonstrate our conservation bona fides; that conspicuous, individual consumption can be justified if it models a slightly better than average understanding of how to build responsibly in the urbanwildland.

Not a social poet then, but at my best, perhaps, a lyrical observer of the rural scene: a watcher of the weather, a cataloger of the light, of the twilight and of the dark and, betwixt all this, a writer of jeremiads, a doomsayer, an unrepentant nostalgist and occasionally, a bringer of hope - my bleak outlook flecked with gold seams of optimism, like July's drenching rain in an unending season of drought.

As the veil of rain lifted a world of yellow green was revealed, punctuated with late blue-grey evening shadows; the two galvanized corrugated steel water tanks at the base of the hill pulsated with a silvery, aqueous light - their conical lids reflecting, in a colloidal amalgam, the concentrated light of the tropical skybowl's penumbra. The infinitely subtle colors that surround our house reach through the windows (despite the impediment of their solar bronze coating) and inflect the pure white of the walls. Our house, as I was reminded when dining at a friend’s place at the tippy-top of Foothill, sits in the landscape, partakes of it and is colored by it. Our friend's, sits on the landscape, in sublime difference.

The unexpected July rain had me thinking: are we, in Hawaii yet? Or better yet, Japan.....where Rikyu grey might so perfectly describe the eventide chromatic impact of tropical depression Dolores on the parched chaparral of Upper Ojai? No: just another Global Warming impacted Ojai summer long since returned to normalcy: dry, bleached and hot - 106 degrees Fahrenheit this Sunday, 16th. August, an Ojai record high for the day. Now, at the end of the month, it is still warm, soft and the day capable, if one takes a moment to bask in it, of inducing a delirious drowsiness. Meanwhile, we thrill in anticipation of a major El NiƱo promised us by N.O.A.A., which, in conjunction with the hemispheric air pressure variable, the Southern Oscillation, (ENSO) is a reliable indicator of heavy winter and spring rain in California…….

Not then, a social poet enrolled in God’s Army (as proclaimed by Pope Francis), nor a Green Crusader, but simply the creator of a place (by virtue of building a structure and tending the land), and the creator of an ecotone, between town and country (manifested both physically and through the posts of Urbanwildland): a place where I can observe the confluence, at least within my own psyche, of drought and rain, of the wild and the urban and of hope and hopelessness. Alternatively,

We'll keep on spending sunny days this way
We're gonna talk and laugh our time away
I feel it coming closer day by day
Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly

Edward Brigarti and Felix Cavaliere (of The Rascals)