2014-07-19

Place-World

“Attachments to places may be nothing less than profound”, Keith H. Basso writes in Wisdom Sits in Places, his short monograph on landscape and language among the Western Apache, University of New Mexico Press, 1996. But, as he also notes, our attachment to places remains enigmatic.

I arrived to live in Ojai with my family almost six years ago. We lived in town, on Blanche Street, while our house in Upper Ojai was being built. In May of 2009, we moved into our new residence which was quite deliberately set at the wildland urban interface – the place we were about to call home. A year later I began this blog at least partly because I wanted to both record and nurture my attachment to this particular ecotone: as I had hoped, it has become a way to construct my surroundings, to create bonds to a particular locality and to engage in the process of place-making.

But as followers of this blog will know, I have pursued a parallel bonding experience directly with the land itself – primarily in attempting the restoration of the disturbed areas of our site. My guide in this endeavor has been our neighbor Margot Griswold, a professional landscape restoration ecologist. Under her tutelage, I remain, in keeping with my English heritage, an enthusiastic amateur. We are both engaged in weeding out non-natives on our respective sites and share notes on our battles with mustard, tocalote (Centaurea melitensis) and the noxious star-thistle. I think we are both resigned to the continued existence of erodium (now, after a few warm weeks, fried to a crisp and crunchy underfoot!) and each give a pass to many of the introduced grasses.

At the same time I have tried to locate our property - within the axis that runs between Santa Paula and Ojai; within Ojai’s economic cultural and spiritual sphere of influence and both to the wilderness at its back (Los Padres National Forest) and the Pacific coast to the west. Temporally, I have set the moment of the area’s first human settlement as a baseline in which to situate the land, and have attempted, in these posts, to establish a resonance with its earlier, native inhabitants and a dissonance with their cruel European conquerors (but with whom I accept a modicum of complicity).

Occasionally, there have been notes from abroad, but always now with a firm sense of home, of an anchoring to our house, its site and surrounding landscapes. Edith Wharton, a writer of breathtaking psychological acuity, writes in her 1905 tear-jerker, the ironically titled House Of Mirth, of her heroine’s lack of this geographical grounding, feeling (at the moment of her final peril) “the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years”; and, “the feeling of being rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor tentacles of self could cling….”; of having

“grown up without any one spot on earth being dearer to her than another: there was no center of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others…”.

Wharton piles on in this vein for another paragraph or two, eerily echoing a sense of the moral and spiritual sustenance that connects the Western Apache to their homelands, me to the Topatopa foothills, and all of those favored portions of humanity who have a notion of domestic locus (of home), but that is tragically absent from her heroine’s background.

Place-making is best practiced in one’s youth, but it is a skill, perhaps, that can also remain with us into our dotage. It is, after all, an activity that is embedded in time. Places do not represent unchanging realities. Indeed, the act of paying special attention to a “spot on earth” dearer than others reveals that said spot is in constant flux. To coin a cliché, we never step into the same place twice. As Basso writes, “we may perceive a place afresh, but it resonates with our past knowledge of it”. Place-making involves multiple acts of remembering and imagining that inform each other: it is thus both a discursive and a recursive activity that mostly occurs, in our culture, unconsciously.

By contrast, the Western Apache go to great pains to weave their storied places into a moral universe – to establish ‘grave endearing traditions’ to which they can look for support and guidance. The names they give to these special places, which are often topographically precise, such as Line of White Rocks Extends Up and Out; Whiteness Spreads Out Descending to Water or A Red Ridge with Alder Trees, have tales of human folly, wisdom, grief or happiness (for instance) associated with them and the names become a kind of short-hand for behavioral guidance, especially for the young.

The process of establishing ‘what happened here’, of recording the minutiae of human activity within a limited geographical area, of fabricating a local history has been one of my goals in producing the almost two hundred posts (198…and counting) that make up Urban Wildland. I make no claims, however, for their general usefulness in terms of moral guidance: but given that I privilege my own experiences in telling my tales, they are effective in elaborating a convincing place-world which I  use as a touchstone of my personal psycho-geographic space, or, more prosaically, of my neighborhood and home. Others, meanwhile, may find interest in the baroque tessellations of this fabrication.

Last evening, I continued weeding the north facing slope which acts as an abutment to the portion of Koenigstein Road which was re-routed, a dozen years ago, to short-cut the hairpin meander traveled by the old County road as it skirted one of the more lively seasonal tributaries to Bear Creek. The crimp in this hairpin (the old road still sits in the landscape and is now a part of our property) is marked by Peruvian peppers emerging from the gulch on each side of the road as the stream passes beneath it in a corrugated steel culvert. The two sides of the hairpin splay southward towards the base of this road-triangle formed by the new short-cut. Within it, is a wedge of land along which the stream winds before disappearing into another culvert that passes deep beneath the new road. Block this second culvert and a wet winter would produce a fine pond. The whole construct is warped and there is a twist in the planar surface of the abutment. I know, I get awfully close to its surface as I extract star thistle, tocalote and mustard.

I have just described a place. For five years now, I have weeded that slope and progress –measured by the reduction in non-natives - is slow. But where once was a solid tangle of star-thistle the herbage is now leavened with tarweed, an occasional clump of bunch-grass and a few bushes of Baccharis pilularis (Coyote brush).

By building data about particular local areas, by establishing an experience of them in some informal way, by writing or telling stories for instance, there is a slow accretion of particularity which is at the heart of place-making. I am privileged to be surrounded by chaparral hills, streams and oak meadowlands. I have created places in them, places where time and space have fused in an idiosyncratic personal history. I have worked in these places in ways that enliven my present through their evident reverberations of the past.

Basso writes,

"….for Indians, the past lies embedded in the features of the earth – in canyons and lakes, mountains and arroyos, rocks and vacant fields – which together endow their lives with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the ways they think”.

I aspire to this condition.

2014-07-06

The Children's Crusade

The planet is in the final stages of a mass migration of humanity that was initiated in the mid-seventeenth century. After eons of civilizations based on highly circumscribed agricultural settlements where, for the most part, generations lived and died in geographical stasis, Europeans discovered the New World and then the Antipodes - lands that could be turned to more intensive farming methods and produce substantial new wealth (at the incidental cost of eradicating their native peoples).

Within a hundred years, however, the industrial revolution began to establish the city, for those without substantial land-holdings, as a more reliable source of income. From that point on, millions of people began to be swept up in a global diaspora where the goal was to exchange rural poverty for urban poverty. Now, in the twenty-first century, we are experiencing the final stages in this almost total urbanization of the Earth. People have been, and continue to be, both pushed out of the countryside by the establishment of large scale mechanized farming - that leaves little room for peasant agriculture - and pulled into the city by the lure of a higher standard of living.

In Arrival City, 2010, Doug Saunders documents the role that favelas (self-built shanty towns), squatter enclaves and urban-slums play in succoring the newly arrived, predominantly peasant, populations. In his historical review, he notes that “between 1800 and the First World War, about 50 million Europeans left the continent permanently for a new home…twenty percent of Europeans moved to the Americas, Australia or South Africa”. Half of these migrants ended up in the United States and settled in major cities like New York, Chicago or Toronto. This country, with the Statue of Liberty as its symbol of welcome became, to millions of Northern, then Southern and Eastern Europeans, Arrival Nation. Here, from often squalid urban beginnings, migrants could begin their transformation into the galley-slaves of consumerism – the Great American Middle Class.

Charles Hirschman argues that as the country became successively less anglo-centric (or WASP), it was the children of Eastern and Southern European immigrants, predominantly Catholic or Jewish, who helped pave the way for the New Deal of the 1930s, the Great Society of the 1960s, and the 1965 Immigration Act – political circumstances that would eventually lead to a wave of immigration from Asia and Latin America. Now, as the country heads toward a non-white majority by 2043, it is these new migrants that are poised to change, again, the domestic political balance.

Meanwhile, increased border security, including the infamous wall (where technologies are shared with Israel) has had the unintended consequence of preventing Mexican and Central Americans from returning to their home countries - and thus encouraging them to become permanent settlers in the U.S. The fence is more effective at keeping ‘illegals’ in the country than keeping them out - by raising the difficulty level of entry and denying migrants the easy opportunity of return. For a country founded on immigration, the United States has signally failed to uphold that tradition of welcome and refuge towards their southern neighbors.

Now, a Children’s Crusade is massing on the border established by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848. Like its original, eight hundred years ago, this new crusade is founded on a combination of hope, delusion and tragedy.

Early in 1212, a twelve year old French shepherd boy named Stephen, inspired by a heavenly visitation, began a crusade to win back the Holy Land from infidel Muslims. By the end of June, according to contemporary reports, this child-preacher had gathered 30,000 children at Vendôme, in central France, where they all began their march towards the Mediterranean port city of Marseille. Although many died along the way, the crusade eventually arrived and here, Stephen had prophesied, the seas would part and they could continue their journey on foot; but there was to be no divine work of geo-engineering and the children accepted the offer of two merchants, Hugh the Iron and William the Pig, to transport them across the Mediterranean on their fleet of ships.

Nothing more was heard of them until 1830, when a priest returning from the Middle East told their sorry tale of ship-wreck, enslavement, martyrdom for refusing to accept Islam and, for a lucky few, employment with the governor of Alexandria. (A History of the Crusades, Steven Runciman, 1951).

Ian Gordon reports in the July/August edition of Mother Jones, that 70,000 children, many no older than Stephen the boy-preacher, will arrive unaccompanied at the border this year. Prey to drug-traffickers, sexual predation and physical assault, these children are part of a surge in child-migration fostered by tales of sympathetic treatment by immigration officials, burgeoning drug-violence in their home districts, the underlying surge of the rural poor in search of material advancement in first-world cities, and most prosaically, hunger: Gordon notes that “the cost of tortillas has doubled as corn prices have skyrocketed due to increased American ethanol production and the conversion of farmland to sugarcane and oil palm for biofuel”.

They arrive from Mexico and Central America's Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, hoping to send remittances back home or join a parent no longer able to visit them. While Mexican nationals, whatever their age are turned back immediately (to try again) children from non-contiguous countries can benefit from long judicial reviews of their status and settlement with a relative or an American family while their case is processed. Many successfully disappear into immigrant communities, or eventually receive legal status, and may achieve a level of education, food security and economic prospects that ultimately validates their long and often dangerous migration.

This, indeed, is in the tradition of our Arrival Nation. Although younger perhaps than most, they share in the struggle of arrival which characterizes the history of migration. Their hardships become a part of their arrival mythologies: their struggles transmuted into a determination that their success, and eventually that of their children, can assuage the trauma of their up-rootedness – their deracination.

As a part of the epic transformation of the planet from a rural to an urban way of life this new children’s crusade is also part of a trend which will see, by 2050, according to United Nations projections, a halt in the world’s population growth. Clive Ponting, in his A New History of the World, 2007, writes that it took two billion years for the world’s human population to reach one billion in about 1825, and is projected to increase to nine billion before the trend’s reversal in another thirty five years. The children massed at the border will be instrumental in effecting this epochal shift - unless they are returned home to poor rural communities where birth-rates remain high.

Stephen, shepherd and boy-preacher, stood ready to take his followers, children all, into the heart of an unfathomably alien culture and there convert the infidel to a Europeanized Christianity and return the Holy Lands to their iconic centrality within the Roman Church. The rag-tag assemblage of children massed at our borders is engaged in a very different crusade. They await not the parting of the waters but the melting of the hearts of this Arrival Nation – an atavistic return to the true spirit of this country, tragically first evinced by its native populations who welcomed the white man.

Each successful child migrant, however they establish their new lives, can thus, perhaps, count as a small part of our repayment of the heavy psychic debt we owe to these lands.

2014-06-28

The Great Wet Hope

Perhaps I’ve grown soft. It’s been a while since I have clambered through the more or less virgin chaparral on the east hill that rises up from our seasonal stream bed – which latter defines the edge of the known world in that particular direction. I mean, it’s all very well to admire the ceanothus blooms as they spread like a spring snow over the slope, or watch as creamy chamise blossoms turn the rheumy color of a ripe stilton, but to get down at ground level and crawl up the slope demonstrates just how little I can know from my accustomed, imperious position above it all at the kitchen window.

Make no mistake: my crawling is not affectation. It is quite simply the only way to make it through the tangled branches of mountain mahogany, ceanothus, laurel sumac and poison oak - still all entwined with wild cucumber vines. I found a narrow stream bed that headed directly up-slope and seemed to offer the best route but veering off of it I found a steep clearing to the south and was able to traverse across the slope and found myself just above my goal: an old wolf oak that had seemingly perished over the winter after two years of extreme drought conditions. Looking to the west I could see that the sun had set and the house, which I now looked down upon from this unaccustomed perspective, had a deep bronze cast, the windows bleak voids in the fading light.

Soft? certainly winded and fearful of getting back down without falling through too much P.O. But first, I needed to know whether there were signs of life on the oak whose canopy was a uniform pall of dead leaves. This is an old multi-trunker that has survived its share of fires, and there in its crotch I saw a sprig of green – new growth, and a branch, low down, wrapped in cucumber vine, that was sprouting spring leaves….then, another which also sported new foliage. Satisfied that there was yet life in the old thing, (and, I saw, a sturdy sapling was growing nearby) I rappelled down the slope grabbing any old tree limb that fell to hand and eventually slid down into the dry stream bed below the house.

There’s irony in my privileging Quercus agrifolia over the lowly scrub oak, which is the true denizen of the elfin forest. W.S Head, author of an early chaparral appreciation (1972), classifies the scrub oak as a shrub and of course, Richard Halsey would like to rename our local forests as Shrublands, (Land of Very Few Uses). The stately coast live oak really has no place in chaparral, its home is in oak meadowlands, woodlands like those across the valley, which face north and are sequestered in shade and damp, or at creek’s edge in a riparian habitat. Yon drought stricken specimen had been succored by a chaparral stream bed that has now failed to flow for two years in a row. It stands, moribund, despite the new growth, with its fate dependent on the extent of next winter’s rain.

A few weeks on, and now the chamise blossoms have turned a ginger-brown and are massed as thick veins of copper marbling the chaparral and, at the margins, the pink and white buckwheat blossoms are curdled with rust; in the meantime, I spent five days on a ranch in Wyoming where the heavy winter snows of the cool-phase Pacific Decadal Oscillation (Another.....Beautiful Day) are newly melted and swelling the tumbling creeks that engorge the North Platte River as it winds through southern Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Mountains. Here, just east of the Rocky Mountains there lies verdant high-prairie - the lush antithesis of our desiccated drought-lands.

Our turn will come.

The Guardian breathlessly reported, early in June,

“The global El Niño weather phenomenon, whose impacts cause global famines, floods – and even wars – now has a 90% chance of striking this year, according to the latest forecast… El Niño begins as a giant pool of warm water swelling in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, that sets off a chain reaction of weather events around the world – some devastating and some beneficial.

India is expected to be the first to suffer, with weaker monsoon rains undermining the nation’s fragile food supply, followed by further scorching droughts in Australia and collapsing fisheries off South America. But some regions could benefit, in particular the US, where El Niño is seen as ‘The Great Wet Hope’ whose rains could break the searing drought in the west.”

In Wyoming, in early spring, rivers were running at twice their historic average rate. Only the ravages of the bark beetle cloud this land that flows with milk, honey…..and beef. The lodge pole pines, spruce-fir and aspens, that must have once entirely covered the high ground of the Medicine Bow Mountains have now shrunk to cover less than a quarter of the land and the remaining forests are patch-worked with dying timber: mountain trails are littered with fallen trees and well nigh impassable. It is reported that beetle infestations are on the decline – but this is only because the number of host trees suitable for attack is steadily decreasing every year.

Drought is endemic to Southern California and our forest, the chaparral, is adapted to it and remains healthy. What’s left of the steelhead trout population is hunkered down in perennial pools alongside dry river beds. Some streams still run and wildlife it seems, from my casual observation, is surviving just fine. Foxes have moved into the niche vacated by the parvo-struck coyotes, an occasional bobcat is sighted and just down the road there was another mountain lion sighting. Controversy rages in the pages of The Ojai Valley News as to whether a horse on Fino Ranch, a little west of us in Upper Ojai, was killed by a big cat. Owner says yes, his vet is doubtful. Deer continue to browse contentedly, if with a watchful eye.

 The great wailing and breast-beating over our perceived lack of water is an entirely anthropogenic phenomenon. Exotic trees, agriculture and high population densities (with assumed entitlement to grassy swards and leisurely showers) as well as industrial processing are all uses exposed as inappropriate during these cyclical droughts. It seems, however, as though the proponents of the above will now be vindicated for the next little while by the appearance of the baby Jesus wrapped in a swaddling of storm clouds.

Our shrublands, these lands of very few uses, bar their utility to the Oil industry, their use as exotic background in Hollywood movies, as transportation corridors, military proving grounds and, at their wildland urban interfaces, as residential real-estate have survived the global deforestation pandemic: they produce no commercially viable timber and, once cleared, uncertain rainfall diminishes the land’s value for grazing.

Mostly un-loved, mostly un-seen (except as anodyne background to the tectonic excrescences of contemporary southern Californian culture), sometimes burning, mostly dry, always richly pungent, these lands are, above all, intensely alive, a profound efflorescence of the world soul and supremely adapted for survival.

 But a wet winter wouldn’t hurt…….

2014-05-31

Mojave Road

Like Carey McWilliams, I believe in Californian Exceptionalism (The Great Exception, Carey McWilliams, 1949). The State is exceptional because of its history, natural bounty and geographical situation - but Southern California, in another McWilliamism, is also An Island on the Land (McWilliams, 1946).

Bounded by ocean, mountain and desert this land is discontinuous with the mesic north, with the desiccated and trackless Great Basin to the east (beyond the Colorado River) and with the south by virtue of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The fifth article of this document, which ended the Mexican-American war in 1848, mandated that the boundary line to Mexico should begin on the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Rio Grande, then down the Gila River until its confluence with the Colorado and thence track west to the Pacific.

Neatly girded within these parameters, the region has occasionally chafed against its inclusion within the larger statewide boundaries. Wikipedia notes that there have been at least twenty seven serious proposals to partition the state. The most popular dividing line, historically, has been the Tehachapi Mountains, initially because of the difficulty of traversing the rugged range (eventually achieved by the building of the Ridge Route in 1915 which morphed into U.S. Route 99 and is today Interstate 5). The Pico Act of 1859, which would have created the new southern Californian state of Colorado, passed the state legislature and was approved by the Governor.

Only the Seccession Crisis of 1860 prevented its consideration in the U.S. legislature. Another chunk of not quite so desirable real estate, where the Colorado River has its source, shortly assumed that name in 1876, to become the 38th state. A little over a century later, in 1965, the California state senate again voted to divide California along by then familiar lines but the legislation stalled in the state Assembly.

I am re-visiting this history because a couple of weekends ago I was in the south east corner of the state, with friends Will, Joe and Mike in the Mojave National Preserve, where the Mojave Road and Route 66 played significant roles in the unique development of the southern half of California.

The first night we pulled off the 15 and headed for Owl Canyon campground where the massive batholith that under girds the Mojave emerges, in spectacular fashion, from the hardpan. Bent downward by compression, it has formed a basin in which sedimentary rocks have formed and now under further compression, are themselves deeply folded. It was within this antic moonscape that we enfolded ourselves, lying beneath the night sky on sandy terraces that stepped down to a wash. Only the lights of Barstow’s premium outlet mall, which irradiated the sky with a pale bloom, reduced the septillion stars potentially visible to us to a prosaic 2000 or so.

The next morning we met up with the rock-art crew led by John Bretney who had variously motored up from Orange County and the South Bay, at the Lenwood MacDonald’s. While we toyed with our sausage biscuits and scalding coffee, John laid out the plan for the day.

When humans first arrived in the Mojave (with absolute certainty 12,000 years ago, but perhaps even before then) they found a temperate lacustrine environment with lakes and wetlands interspersed with rich grass lands where mega fauna played (newly interrupted by heavy Clovis points arriving atop crude spears). But within a few millennia the climate became less wet and the lakes began to shrink. Some gauge of this process is evident in the succession of stone fish traps that were built at lake’s edge - horseshoe shaped piles of rock that can still be found on the parched desert floor - reflecting the shrinking shore lines. By this point, perhaps because of over-hunting, the megafauna had long gone. Between 6,000 and 3,000 B.C. desertification accelerated as the climate became still warmer and drier and the land became largely depopulated.

Today’s slightly cooler climate has been in place for some 5,000 years and the characteristic low-land vegetation of creosote bush, Joshua trees, cholla and barrel cactus established. Will and I were excited to spot a lone chia bush on the desert floor lending credence to the notion that this super-food may have fueled the Mojave runners reputed ability to run a hundred miles in a day (Bretney). At higher elevations there is pinon and juniper. All this we observed as our caravan of 4-weel drives and my soft-road Audi careened from rock pile to cave and canyon in search of rock art that is now the only remnant of the spiritual visioning of pre-historic human life in the desert.

We had begun by driving east on California State Route 40 which parallels the Sante Fe Railroad and the old Route 66. All these arteries cross the desert south of the Mojave Road - along which we would later travel - which faithfully tracks the original east-west trading route of the Mojave people and which was first traversed by a European in 1776 when Fr. Francisco Garces made the epic trek from Yuma to the San Gabriel Mission. Fifty years later, Jedediah Smith was the first of a series of mountain men to pioneer this southern route to coastal California.

When Mexico ceded much of the southwest to the U.S after the war, the government initiated exploratory expeditions with a view to developing rail links to these newly acquired territories. While Congress vacillated on the best route, contractors moved ahead to create a wagon trail for the expected hordes of emigrants along this desert track. The U.S. cavalry built Fort Mojave on the banks of the Colorado where 500 troops were stationed. Other forts were established at springs along the route and local Indians banished from this by then vital land-link to the far west.

In 1883, a rail line was finally completed from Needles to Barstow and subsequent wagon and then auto-routes cleaved to the railway rather than the older trail. In 1913, in the dawn of the age of the automobile, this route was confusingly designated as The National Old Trails Road as a link in an ocean-to-ocean highway and in 1926 became a part of Route 66.

Our day proceeded amidst these braided arteries, across a palimpsest where we were seeking pecked and painted images on sandstone, granite or basalt – the faint remains of vibrant pre-historic cultural complexes – and where the ghosts of the Mojave people (and the Kawaiisu, Paiute, Kitanemuk and Serrano), mountain men, the U.S. cavalry, prospectors, homesteaders, cattle ranchers, Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl and carefree Post-WWII Americans getting their kicks on Route 66 still haunt these dusty roads and sandy washes.

Conveniently located between the major populations of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the highest calling of this land of “singing sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, Joshua tree forests, and carpets of wildflowers” is now, according to the National Park Service which administers the Preserve, to provide “serenity and solitude” to tourists “from major metropolitan areas”.

2014-05-08

Ancient Super Seed Secret

In The Three Sages, I wrote about three local salvias –black, white and purple - no mention of chia, Salvia columbariae (the most important sage to the Chumash) the seeds of which are now consumed daily in our breakfast cereal, bread and health drinks. Dr Oz (among others) proclaims it to be an Ancient Super Seed Secret. It was a staple in the diet of many indigenous peoples. Referencing C.L. Bard’s A Contribution to the History of Medicine in Southern California, Southern California Practioner, August 1894, Jan Timbrook notes,

“Perhaps the most widely used phrase in California Ethnobotany is Bard’s assertion that one tablespoon of chia seeds was sufficient to sustain for 24 hours an Indian on a forced march".

More than a century later, the hyperbole continues.

My goal in The Three Sages was partly to raise awareness of this species that thrives on the fringes of the chaparral and to encourage a minimal sage literacy. How then could I ignore columbariae? The simple fact is that until a few days ago I had experienced but a single chia sighting, on Shelf Road, some four years ago (In Search of a Shaman’s Lair). All that changed on a recent hike up Horn Canyon.

Was it a Thacher lacrosse field that lay to my left on the way up to the trail head? Young athletes lounged on the field, their sophisticated ball catchers sprawled around them, mostly unaware that this game had derived from a geographically alien culture (East-coast woodland Indians) and were they to participate in simulacrum of a local indigenous sport then on-line poker would be infinitely more appropriate (the Chumash were gambling-mad). Unless, that is, they were interested in achieving an altered state of consciousness, in which case ultra-marathoning might appeal to these louche wannabe Spartans. Fueled by the ancient super seed, local Indians performed prodigious acts of mind-altering distance-running.

Meanwhile, a young equestrian crossed my path and trotted up a nearby rise. The Spanish, agents of the Indian genocide, had, of course, re-introduced the horse to California in the late eighteenth century after the original Asian immigrants had hunted Equus ferus ferus to extinction at the end of the Ice Age some ten thousand years before.

Best not, perhaps, to trouble these young minds with the difficult paradoxes of pre-history. I passed by, intent on broaching the wildlands that beckoned beyond.

Yellow-gold petals from bush poppies were sprinkled along the trail. The rocky path was shaded by cottonwoods, bays and oaks as it followed Thacher Creek. Horticulturally, it was a quiet beginning: the usual suspects of lupin, mimulus, vetch, blue dicks, eriodictylon, occasionally woolly painbrush and, of course, the bush poppy grew along the clearing in the dominant chamise chaparral.

As I climbed beyond The Pines camp site at 3250 feet, the vegetation grew more interesting – dodder, wooly blue curls, manzanita, bush oaks and then………..chia! It grew, demurely, on either side of the trail amongst the companionable blue blossoms of blue dicks, black sage, and yerba santa: a few florets still clung to the seed heads which, in a week or two, would be ready for harvesting.

I imagined that long ago forbears of these annual plants had been seeded from spillage from burden baskets carried by Chumash women (secured with a tumpline - a broad strap supported by the woman’s brow) as they returned from the legendary chia fields at the foot of the Toptopa range. As M. Kat Anderson explains in Tending the Wild, 2005, Chumash grassland burning practices encouraged the growth of selected seed crops. The cessation of this practice, combined with the inroads made by introduced plant species has caused a drastic decline in the abundance of chia (Timbrook). It is now grown commercially from Kentucky to Argentina, but here in the erstwhile happy gathering grounds of the Chumash, it is increasingly rare - easier to find on supermarket shelves than in the wild.

Thus the commodification of the wildland continues at a cost to the authentic experience. Goji berries promise to provide the longevity of Himalayan Tibetans while chia seeds guarantee the endurance of the Tumarahara and Chumash trail runners (In Search of a Shaman's Lair). Context is everything. I can assure you that your endurance will improve if you regularly climb out of the valley to about 5,000 feet and harvest your breakfast cereal and then carry it back in a Juncus rush burden basket, mix some with a little spring water and knock it back. Similarly, the sparse diet of the traditional Tibetan, with or without goji berries would almost certainly prolong the lives of the WEIRD (Jared Diamond’s acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). Dr. Oz’s medicine show promotes Chia pudding, Click here for the complete recipe, but absent the primitive life-style of the indigenous people your health benefits may vary.

Authenticity in Landscape, Life and (Lacrosse?) is hard won. Edward Abbey, whom I have only recently begun to read, represents someone who, although fundamentally WEIRD (but never Rich and as an Anarchist, questionably Democratic),  possessed an inviolable authenticity. He writes, in Desert Solitaire, 1968, that his aim, as he begins a summer as a park ranger in Moab is to,

“confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock that sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities.”

Farley Mowatt, the Canadian writer whose death at 92 was announced today had a similar ethos: he adopted the diet of the Artic wolves he was studying (eating wood rats and other rodents) in order to understand their true nature. He later fictionalized his researches as Never Cry Wolf, 1963. Peter Matthiessen, who died earlier this year, never wavered from his fierce advocacy of the wildlands and its creatures. His first book, Wildlife in America, 1959, was published three years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and initiated a half century of researching and writing about endangered species. In The Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes, 2001, he writes,

“In this brilliant winter light, against black tree trunks and white snow, the red-crowned crane moves and turns like the quick heart of life, as dark evergreens, in their impenetrable stillness, breathe the imminence of the great mystery looming behind.”

Such lyricism can be the reward for an authentic immersion into the natural world. All I’m saying is a life in Ojai demands an engagement of its wildlands. A friend who lives on a lane off of Thacher Road mentioned that in her ten years of living in Ojai, she had never seen a deer. I suppose it would be possible, immured in Manhattan, to never see a yellow cab. But can either life be considered authentic to the place where it is lived?

2014-04-29

The Three Sages

I arrived at Easter Dinner, kindly hosted by good friends Hans and Annika, whose house at the top of Signal commands a majestic view of the valley, with a bunch of salvia leucophylla, a bottle of Prosecco and notes for a short disquisition on resurrection (this last specifically requested by our hostess).

At some point in the proceedings, after a couple of glasses of Prosecco, I pulled out said notes and began, “It is your collective misfortune that I have just read the recent history of Jesus by Reza Aslan, called Zealot”. None amongst the guests, I quickly ascertained, had read the book: reassured, I went on, “Having received today’s assignment I jotted down my understanding of the work in terms that were unavailable to Aslan, as an academic historian, but may, in my vernacular, have a greater contemporary resonance”.  I began declaiming my bullet points - what I called the nuts and bolts of the Jesus story with,

“Jesus was the leader of a band of illiterate red-necks who formed an ultra-nationalistic Jewish sect dedicated to the overthrow of the Roman Empire in Judea…….”

I soldiered on through another nine scalding notes….but although the audience remained politely attentive I was reminded of the slightly stupefied glaze that used to come over the faces of pupils in my tenth grade history classes and I was happy, at the end, to switch gears and suggest that my original intention had been to talk about the resurrection of the field of moribund black sage that sits to the west of our house, whose rejuvenation was effected by the heavy rains of late February and early March.

Had I known, ahead of time, of the bemused reaction that my first offering, the sage bouquet, would elicit I might have stuck with that initial intention. Few, even amongst the Ojai residents in attendance, seemed to understand that purple sage (named for its flower color) is a foundational plant of soft chaparral and as such is everywhere at the fringes of the wildland – just over their back yard or, in my case, very much in my front yard. At this time of the year it is a stunning cut flower, although it sheds its purple florets quite quickly - in this instance into the trays of devilled eggs that the blooms overhung once placed in a glass vase by Annika, in the center of the kitchen island. The multitude, I might have reasoned, was in greater need of enlightenment vis a vis soft chaparral than a slightly revisionist rendition of the Easter story. Either way, I was going to scratch my itch to teach!

These flowers were no exotic offering: they were merely a showy exemplar of our prodigiously rich native flora. Here was an opportunity to expound upon our three sages, their names, characteristics and favored environments. In the interests of remaining a tolerably entertaining guest, it is fortunate, perhaps, that my enthusiasm for the chaparral was, in the end, tempered with a little bible study. But here, on my blog, with its clearly stated chaparral mandate, I can let rip!

The first thing to know is that locally, there is black, white and purple sage; and maybe that is enough.

I have just begun reading Peter Matthiessen’s The Birds of Heaven (2001) in which he recounts his journeys to the ends of the world searching for the fifteen remaining species of crane. It occurs to me that we, who live in Ojai, should all take a journey in search of our three sage varieties. For some it will involve nothing more than a stroll around the garden, for others a hike into the canyons. Purple sage is in my line of sight as I write this – out of the kitchen window, where it attracts moths, hummingbirds and monarch butterflies. Our west meadow is mostly black sage with a little purple running through it, while white sage grows reliably at White Sage Rock overlooking Bear Creek which flows (even in dry years) along our western property line.

A couple of weeks ago I invited a few friends along for what I advertised as a wild flower ramble up Bear Canyon . The event was cancelled, but on a recent evening I chose to go on the walk to see what we had all missed and to gauge the difficulty of seeing the three sages along a single track canyon trail.

Now this trail, which effectively starts at the Greenberg Ranch at the top of Koenigstein, does not offer the rich cultural stew and socio-political drama of navigating the Black Dragon River in the Manchurian borderlands between China and Russia, up which Matthiessen voyages in search of his cranes, but it does offer a variety of conditions as it leaves the avocado ranches behind and heads towards the lower scree slopes of the Topatopa mountains.

The Greenbergs have lived on Koenigstein longer than any other residents, moving here in the 1960’s after having farmed for many years along Tree Ranch Road, just west of the Summit. Natalie Greenberg no longer lives in the house she and her husband built, but her daughter Emily stays there intermittently; their avocado orchards, meanwhile, are professionally managed.

The first half mile or so of the trail runs over their property and a sign warns of loose stock although there have been no cattle on the property for the five years that I have walked it. The route begins alongside a pomegranate hedge which borders their northern-most orchard. On the other side of the dirt road is scrub land where lie piles of concrete debris from the demolition of stone-faced gate pylons that used to adorn a nearby property - until the County determined that this baronial gesture had been made on their road easement.

A little further along the track, on the left, a steep drive runs down to Leo Lockwood’s avocado ranch that straddles Bear Creek. For many years the Whitman’s, our neighbors, who arrived in the 1970’s, battled Leo over his practice of diverting water from the creek for irrigation and otherwise altering the natural flow. Meanwhile the Whitmans are not entirely blameless in this regard having used the creek to fill a vast swimming pool for many years; but the Greenbergs are the most egregious offenders and even in this very dry season their ranch managers have rigged up 6” pipes to carry what little water flows in the creek to a giant 35,000 gallon holding tank complete with an overflow pond above their orchards. While the trail continues on their property, long-failed irrigation pipes litter the verge as the track heads for its crossings of the creek.

Before the first crossing there is a eucalyptus grove where abandoned trucks and two dilapidated travel trailers or caravans, tarps draped over their roofs, are casually parked. Then a western facing slope appears, overlooking the upper valley, covered in black sage (so called for the inky hue of its dried seed heads). The field of mint green leaves seems almost irridescent in the westering sunlight belying the plant's somber name. On the bank along the up-slope side of the trail there are now occasional purple sages – not yet in bloom (at this higher elevation than my front yard) but easily identifiable by their white/grey leaves.

Already I am seeing bear scat – this path evidently serves as their route to the avocadoes. On the approach to the second crossing, ancient fire-scarred oaks crowd the trail while on the eastern side, a rock face presses in on the canyon: here, at this dry dip in the road, are the de facto headwaters of the Greenberg’s illegal irrigation system. A little way to the east, as the creek bed tumbles to the foot of the cliffs, there is a puddle of water welling from the ground into which a pipe and filter have been artfully placed – this, the latest iteration in a perhaps fifty year tradition of installed, failed and then replaced pipes whose archeological evidence is enshrined in steel and plastic tubular debris.

Climbing beyond the ford one enters the narrow defile that parallels the now unseen creek. Deeper in shade, damper and less traveled, the track is over hung with bay, big leaf maple and oak. The under storey features golden current, poison oak and scrub oak. As the trail approaches the scree slopes below the Topatopas (sprinkled with yuccas and a lone group of relict big cone Douglas firs) the trees become sparse and the ground cover is dominated by white sage, (named for its whitish leaves) and yerba santa, its leathery, serrated foliage a pale green and which, at this elevation, is just beginning to display its clusters of blue flowers. Along the verges, soap plant is shooting its flower stalks skyward from a base of crumpled lily leaves. Sometimes, prickly phlox injects a bubble-gum pink into the patchwork of colors underfoot.

The trail ends abruptly when it rejoins the creek now climbing steeply towards the foot of the spalled mountain face. Clambering down the bank, I then make my way back along the creek bed, freshly scoured by the  deluge early in March, but with no water now in sight. Here mule fat (baccharis salicifolia), mugwort, California blackberry, and poison oak predominate until, as the creek approaches the ford, the dense shade gives bracken fern shelter.

Gathering these experiences together, I have re-written the final bullet point of my Easter Story so that Sage, Christ and Spring are now fully conflated:

"The rejuvenation of the sage on the two acre meadow west of our house, after its near-death experience during this drought winter, and the passion and resurrection of Christ have many parallels, not least in their relationship to the celebration of Spring - for this is the season when the natural world may offer a window into the divine - its green curtain drawn back and here, in the chaparral, the mysteries of the three sages revealed."

2014-04-16

Blood Moon

Is Ojai cool again? It’s been an awfully long time, perhaps not since Beatrice Wood was a girl. The dead hand of the Ojai Valley Inn and the sepulcher that is the arcade have made this town a very dull place indeed.

Alex Proud, writing in the Telegraph notes, “I have seen the future – and the future is Paris and Geneva. The future is a clean, dull city populated by clean, dull rich people and clean, dull old people”.

Make that Paris, Geneva and Ojai. Except that something wonderful is happening in the Valley of the Moon. Hipsters have arrived.

Now some of you may be thinking that this is not an unalloyed beneficence. Many may have experienced being pushed off of the sidewalks of Venice and Silverlake in Los Angeles and herded aside along the streets and avenues of Brooklyn by twenty-something, facially hirsute and tattooed young men and alluring, inked young women lurching from noisy bars to shade-grown organic, cold-press coffee houses to artisanal bakeries and restaurants with market-driven menus. When they take to the road (where their elders may sometimes be randomly strewn, dazed and confused by this generational putsch) they are on fixies, Jack Spade messenger bags flapping in the breeze.

Here in Ojai, lacking the overwhelming numbers they are able to muster in the hipster capitals of the world, they represent a piquant seasoning to the still predominantly old, dull and clean - or at least clean shaven, and sometimes wealthy population. They do not threaten, they enrich. They will forever be exotics not endemics. But their influence is keenly felt………..and it’s a good thing.

Now, fortunately for the future health of the planet, hipsters have little interest in driving cars but they are curiously attracted to the derelict and defunct infrastructure of an erstwhile, car-centric world. Thus Summer Camp, a general goods store specializing in the ephemera of a simpler, pre-digital civilization, sits atop the toxic waste of a long-ago service station. The House of Fixies’ showroom (signage confusingly proclaims it to be The Mob Shop) is in the service bays of a gas-station that used to actually fix cars as well as sell gas (how quaint is that?). The building is thus re-purposed to cater to the urge for self-propulsion for which the aforementioned purveyors of hipster comestibles provide the necessary fuel.

One of the enduring mysteries of the modern world is that the increase in cars has resulted in the radical reduction of the number of gas-stations. Used to be, in the 40’s and 50’s, one could barely drive half a mile through Ojai without being beckoned by a forecourt enlivened by colorful gasoline pumps and their boiler-suited jockeys (or so the number of such abandoned and now re-purposed structures leads me to believe).

Pedaling east and leaving the many chambered, non-hipster, retail crypts of the arcade behind, our exotic, ex-urban twenty-somethings are accosted by the unbearably charming Spanish colonial revival forecourt that serves as an annex to Knead which now sells, in lieu of petroleum, serious hipster fuel – delectable, artisanal baked goods. Next up, our single-speeder finds, on the left, a Pet Spa specializing in the grooming of very small dogs, housed, inevitably, in a very tiny ex-gas station and, across the street, CJ’s repairs the farm-trucks of yesteryear in the service bays of a larger, but long-dry gas station - nostalgic, artisanal kinds of vehicles that still gladden the hipster heart.

Apart from its abandoned gas-stations there are few buildings in Ojai that might stir the hipster-soul. Adam Tolmach’s Ojai Vineyard now occupies one such, the old Fire House on Montgomery, a landmark WPA brick building which served the Ojai Fire Department from 1936 -1979, and it is here that his fine hand-made wines may be tasted. Predictably, the much lambasted (in this blog, at least) arcade, post-office tower and Libbey Park pergola, once the defining architectural icons of Ojai, appeal largely to the old and dull. The Libbey Bowl, set in the park, resounded to the sounds of an echt hipster band, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, for one brief moment -a magical night a couple of years ago - but customarily serves up, outside of its signature New Music festival, superannuated performers from the old and dull’s youth.

In the back of another brick building of only slightly later vintage than the Fire House Ben and Marissa, creators of Hip, a restaurant serving vegan food, have successfully bridged the gap between hippie and hipster and cater to locals as well as the Silverlake diaspora. The main room of this building (where once its owner Mary Goldberg ran her restaurant, Treasure Beach) is occupied by dba, a small design-driven architecture firm and P.Space where P.Lyn Middleton sells her stunning hand-made ceramics.

Now comes Warner Ebbink (owner of the Rocker-Hipster Coffee Shop 101 in L.A.), a serial restaurateur with an eye on the bourgeoning Ojai market, as the new owner of Mary’s building. His precise plans are shrouded in a too tight and too short hipster jacket of secrecy.

Topa Topa Brewery is optimistically proclaiming that its future space, the disheveled, barely roofed old plumbing workshop that has stood forlorn and empty for many a year on the Avenue, just west of Ojai Creates, will be open early in 2015. Some discerning residents consider this to be perhaps the finest of all the mid-century quotidian commercial structures in town but sadly its conversion to a code-compliant building will almost certainly eviscerate its charm. After a few craft beers (the young’s new wine), perhaps no one will care. Inspired to lurch west towards ersatz colonial arches, the buzzed throng might do well to visit The Hub - the single business that escapes the general opprobrium I have conferred on the arcade - a blue-collar bar that is ripe for a retro, PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) kind of revival.

Lodging for this youthful diaspora is now thoughtfully provided by The Rancho Inn, a motel from the 50’s recently infused with the early twenty-first century zeitgeist by two young, hip hoteliers. Regrettably, the new owners of The Capri, The Hummingbird Inn and The Deer Lodge have decided that there’s still gold in the old and dull hills. New publishers for Edible Ojai and Ventura have just replaced the perennially hip Jane Handel and they too, based on their first few issues, appear headed for those same hills. The two journals of Ojai real estate boosterism, the Quarterly and the Visitors Guide remain blithely unaware of the new kids in town, and continue to pitch their publications to guests at the Ojai Valley, rather than the Rancho Inn.

When Mike Kelley, the internationally acclaimed Los Angeles artist, visited town none of this mattered. His analysis of the place as evinced in a series of a dozen or more 8 ½ x 11 pencil drawings, currently on display as part of the massive show devoted to his work at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Gallery, depict three elements emblematic of this series of valleys - oil, oranges and the geomorphic shape of the enveloping mountains. All of which once seemed like the eternal verities of the area. Now, not so much: the presence of the oil industry in Ojai is an embarrassment to many while citrus is threatened by changing long-term weather patterns and a persistent drought – only the mountains remain un-moved by time, fashion or economic expediency.

The town too, is in flux. Kelley identified an arc that stretches from Thomas Aquinas College to the Libbey arcade at the center of town while citrus groves are shown quartering the East End. Hipsters who land here now favor the wilder reaches of Upper Ojai or the dramatic gorges of Matilija Canyon. The East End is dead to them, perceived as ground zero for the old and dull. For those youngsters with a more urban bent, Motown (Meiner’s Oaks) is an attractive, funky option with a growing array of hipster oriented services such as The Farmer and The Cook (Restaurant and organic produce); Book Ends (housed in a re-purposed Church) and The Coffee Connection.

The 150 artery, as Kelley discerned, is the life blood of Ojai but the arrangement of vital organs along its length is subtly changing: now the young are creating a new corpus corporis channeling energy to their favored haunts while the provinces of the old and dull slowly wither. It’s a brutal process, but one that is necessary for the continued relevance of our Lunar Valleys. This week's blood moon is a sanguinary harbinger.