2015-07-18

Sci-Fi Metaphysics

Now also at www.Urbanwildland.org

We are children of the Big Bang. In a helplessly atavistic recapitulation of the Universe's creation story, Humankind has now developed an algorithm by which the little world that we know on Planet Earth, trapped within its fragile atmospheric skin, is exploding.

It began when woman first planted seed and our species began to farm. The human collective went on to establish local markets with its surpluses, then riverine and subsequently Mediterranean trade. These regional markets, transformed by the Industrial Revolution, metastasized into Atlantic mercantilism and eventually global capitalism. Now, in the twenty first century, this slow burn has resulted in the mineral, animal and biotic resources of the planet fueling the expansionary process by which we blight the land with kipple - Philip K. Dick's term for the material stuff that is exploding across the planet.

In other Philip K. Dick related news, we ask the question,

Does the Elfin Forest Dream of Crystal Rain Drops?

Although the author's prescience in his classic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, 1968, (on which was loosely based Ridley Scott's 1982 noir sci-fi movie, Bladerunner) can be seriously questioned, most obviously in the setting of his futuristic tale of hovercars and laser guns alongside of cigarettes, pay phones and carbon paper memos, he nevertheless broaches one of the central questions of our newish age: to what manifestations of Creation can we reasonably extend our empathy, our care and concern? Or, as Dick frames it, what is real?

In his tale, reality, as opposed to the ersatz or cyborgian, is equated with the ability to emote in ways exhibited by a normal, well-adjusted human, and our hero Rick Deckard, employed by San Francisco Police Department as a bounty hunter, is charged with 'retiring' the non-human, but entirely convincing replicants, or Androids, that have escaped from Mars where they are offered as personal slaves to induce emigration from Planet Earth - rendered almost uninhabitable following what Dick calls World War Terminus.

The Nexus-6 android is well nigh indistinguishable from a 'real' person, and in place of their Miranda rights, Rick administers an 'empathy test' which differentiates the human from non-human. Despite its highly sophisticated engineering, the Android does not emote in an entirely convincing manner when confronted with certain hypothetical scenarios concocted by a team of psychologists at the SFPD. Failure to shed a tear when confronted with the scripted suggestion that your dog has died may result in your immediate offing.

How we as a species react to mountain ranges, aquifers or zoophytes and zygotes - whether we can can successfully embrace the non-human with the levels of empathy we customarily extend to each other (and our pets) - clearly impacts our relationship with the biosphere. Can we shed a tear when confronted with the decimation of a plant community or the demise of an ecosystem and generate action out of empathy? Failure to do so may ultimately compromise our place within the biosphere, if not in our species-wide offing.

At Urbanwildland there is a concerted effort to extend the readers' range of empathy towards the natural world via the sharing of my reactions to the local plant community. As your hack chaparral reporter (embedded, with his series 6 i-phone, somewhere on the Wildland frontier) I make no excuses for posting this latest dispatch on my well worn trope of seasonal dissonance in the topsy-turvy world of the Elfin Forest.

'Tis the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness here in the Upper Ojai chaparral. Leaves are turning orange and brown, stalks to straw and seed heads have replaced flowers. Only the doughty, foundational, schlerophytic shrubs retain their full quotient of chlorophyll and amongst them, it is laurel sumac which is putting on the bravest show with a late burst of creamy pyramidal blossom and still, in places, the bright green leaves of new foliage. Chamise is more typical: seeming to hold its breath while the tips of its branches venture into the red-brown spectrum, yet drawing on its phlegmatic resilience to somehow remain in character as an evergreen shrub. Fruits of the holly leafed cherry are ripening and reddening amidst the plant's still shiny green leaves while rust is curdling the milky buckwheat flowers below.

A thin veil of mist this morning, but across the valley, the deep dark of the oaks can still be discerned dotting the meadows, amongst the barns, houses and refined, Italianate fingers of cypress point skyward in the languorous vapors. Beyond, the oak riven mass of Sulphur Mountain looms like a heavy cloud on the horizon. Calendrically, it is high summer, but the local ecosystem is hunkering down for the season most beloved by that most romantic of Romantic poets, Keats.

There are outliers to this general drying up of the sap: tar weed remains spritely with tiny yellow flowers on its antic armature, deer weed is sometimes still in bloom (whilst others of its kind have succumbed to the seasonal desiccation, their stalks turned an orangey, brick-red); Turkey mullein has erupted across over-grazed pastures in white, psoriatic patches and vinegar weed is newly sprouted, along a stoney track up the hill, with its cornflower blue flowers and strong turpentine smell.

Overall, the mood is somber. Sweet, maple-syrup perfumed California everlasting has decayed into a frouzy fuzz of seed heads on mahogany stalks and acourtia bristles with seed atop its kelp-like structure now turned a tobacco brown. Gauzy seed balls of the local clematis are draped forlornly across parched shrubs, while elsewhere in the Elfin Forest poison oak foliage is now carmine. The plant community may have mostly retired for the season, deep in summer sleep, but does it dream of its awakening, come October, with the first kiss of rain?

That question drives us to the heart of Philip K. Dick's sci-fi metaphysics. When we have empathy, we confer on its subject the presumption of sentience - we transmit our feelings to what we believe are potential receivers. To impute dreaming in other beings is to imply sentience. In Dick's world, almost all plants and animals have been destroyed in the nuclear carnage of WWT. The remaining humans crave the company of pets and those who cannot afford the high price of the rare living examples, choose replicant animals such as the eponymous Electric Sheep. Hence the titular conundrum.

Living in a deluge of hyper capitalism that threatens to flood the natural world (in metaphoric augury of impending ice-melt) we can expand the ambit of our inherent anthropocentrism by an imaginative embrace of the non-zoological, far beyond, to the global sum of all ecosystems, the biosphere.

James Lovelock has already pioneered the notion, in Gaia, 1979, that our home planet is a living, self-regulating, sentient entity of which we and our civilization are a tiny part (as ants and their anthills are of the human realm). It dreams, we can dream of it. We can empathize with it; it registers, in some infinitesimal way, our empathy.

Are mountain ranges tickled by the babbling streams that wriggle down their flanks and, do androids dream of electric sheep? Locally: Does the Elfin Forest Dream of Crystal Rain Drops?

2015-07-05

Enchanted Islands

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

A long, thin, dove grey cloud hung over the Nordhoff ridge, floating like an island in the sky. Enraptured by its color, morphology and juxtaposition I stood and watched as the water vapor slowly changed shape: a shoreline receding here, a mountain swelling there and an islet calving from the mother island's northern promontory.

In those last days of June, it was preternaturally still, unusually humid and very warm.

Early in the morning the sky is awash with a pale silver that my right, metaphor seeking brain reads as ocean and the darker, grey clouds as land or occasionally Cetacea. Come evening, the intense blue canopy has spent the day being over-written by blossoming contrails and criss-crossing wind strewn wisps of stratus (belying the thick stasis at the ground) while bright clouds have drained towards the horizon and sit glowing atop mountain ridges.

Earlier, there was bird song, swirling across the morning - in a shrill punctuation of the temporal equilibrium. The silhouettes of diving, jinking, spiraling creatures paper time and space: black or brown, sometimes with flashes of white against sky or the massed shrubs of the chaparral - they are birds mostly unknown to me, but eerily familiar. One stands out for its sleek raffishness. Almost all black, revealing flashes of under-wing white only in flight, it is crowned with a ragged, gothic crest. It has the distinction of being the only bird in either Sibley's or Peterson's Field Guide to Birds that has no common name. It is known simply by its Latin genus, Phainopepla. Our specimen is almost anorexic in its slimness, crowned with punkish head feathers - aloof, alone and attitudinal.

At last light, the sky is washed almost clean of cloud; a few vaporous bruises to the west flush with pink, Venus is a bright jewel and just above, a more reticent Jupiter; an almost full moon has risen over the eastern ridge - it's light glittery behind a last remnant of wind-frayed cloud.

A realignment of the human presence on planet Earth, such that it is symbiotic with the rest of the natural world, rather than antithetical, might begin with such an embrace, by the collective human consciousness, of the enchantments that nature offers. Theory: I am enthralled by the physical, emotional and spiritual emanations of our enveloping life-giving atmosphere and its ecosystems so there's a chance that that makes me more concerned about their stewardship – and that chance, I think, is worth propagating. So I try to be alert to these experiences, and when sufficiently moved, to write about them.

Many have written of our relationship with the natural world (of which we are intrinsically a part) by enveloping this association in myth, fairy tale or Jungian archetypes. Nature both mirrors and impacts our psychological demeanor and in literature it is routinely evoked to suggest mood: the titles, Under the Volcano (Joseph Lowry, 1947), A High Wind In Jamaica (Richard Hughes, 1928), The Man whom Trees Loved (Algernon Blackwood, 1912) and Jean Giorno's Song of the World, 1934, all denote works where natural elements have agency in shaping human destiny.

But increasingly, nature is seen as a place to establish facts rather than mood: to be experienced objectively rather than subjectively. The divide, between those who see the natural world exclusively as an arena of empirical study and those whose embrace encompasses a more pluralist range of enquiry is neatly summed up by the descriptors, Scientist and Naturalist. More broadly, the prism through which one views nature offers a spectrum that spans from science to religion. Locating its value is dependent on your viewpoint. The British Romantics and American Transcendentalists sought a universal spirit that an etheric nature might reveal while those with a more materialist bent, shaped by a rationalist intellectual tradition founded in the mid-seventeenth century, seek scientific information and biological wealth that might add to humankind’s comfort, well-being and prosperity. Both positions demand something of nature.

In calling for an ‘ecocentric spirituality’ Patrick Curry in Ecological Ethics, 2006, suggests that the problem lies with our firm distinction between the material and the spiritual, inherited from Platonism, Christianity and modern science. He writes that “We shall never be able to understand and appreciate nature until we re-learn to see it both as ‘spiritual’ subject and ‘natural’ object”. Desacralizing nature, a key feature of the modernity project, is the pre-requisite of its commodification, and to that extent resacralization is critical to any solution to the global environmental problems caused by such exploitation.

How we achieve such a thing presumably begins with childhood experience. With some friends in the Arbolada, sitting around an outdoor table, with crickets chirping and frogs croaking as sonic background to a velvety Ojai evening, talk turned to the issue of grandchildren growing up with i-phones and Androids and by extension, missing out on the self-made nature play with which we had all grown up. Richard Louv summed it up in the title of his 2005 book, The Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. E.O.Wilson has developed the notion of biophilia, by which, as a part of our array of adaptive mechanisms, we are all instinctively drawn to nature.

Given such an innate predilection, only opportunity, it would seem, needs be provided to ensure continuation of this bucolic tradition. I certainly enjoyed opportunities both at home, where my father route-marched my sister and me over hill and dale and the village school where so-called nature walks were an essential part of the curriculum. My early education was thus still very much under the influence of the nineteenth century naturalist Louis Aggasiz, who insisted that children study nature not books. This pedagogical approach worked well at the local Parish school I attended where only the most precocious students learnt to read before moving on to Secondary school at age eleven. I was a veritable prodigy and mastered the art at age nine, and quickly went on to devour the entire Enid Blyton canon.

Based on my experience, early-reading might be as big a culprit as the availability of electronic media in keeping children out of the woods. The Waldorf curriculum of early childhood education developed by Rudolph Steiner, actively attempts to inculcate a sense of wonder in children by deferring reading until nine. Children are encouraged to believe in elves and other elemental spirits that then animate a mysterious natural world. Reading nature thus prefigures a more conventional literacy. Is it far-fetched to believe that this might facilitate what Curry calls “a pluralist, embodied and locally engaged ecological spirituality”?

I haven’t seen the Phainopepla these last few days. Our Houston weather (as someone described it to me) has broken and normal service resumed: a thick marine layer in the mornings shrouding the towns of Ojai and Santa Paula - we, up above it all on the upper reaches of Bear Creek - then warm and sunny days. This morning, a sea of fog lapped at Black Mountain at the west end of the upper valley, its cone shape (as seen from Koenigstein) circumscribed by the enveloping fog, creating the swirling, vaporous shoreline of an enchanted island on the land.

2015-06-22

Pyramid Power

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015-06-09

Sex and the City

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

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

Now, it is transformed by an efflorescence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015-06-01

Memorial Day

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring Romance

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015-04-26

The Village of the Damned

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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