2014-09-16

Good Vibrations

It was only ten years prior to the publication of Francis Hitching’s seminal text, Earth Magic, that radio-carbon dating was fully accepted within the archaeological community. The first American edition of the book was published in 1977. I own a copy with a pristine dust-jacket that I happened upon recently at that excellent addition to Ojai’s community of retail establishments, Book Ends. I first came across (and then devoured) it in paperback in Australia in 1978 or 1979. My relationship to carbon-dating, to the extent that it has ever been established, began in 2007 when I began volunteering at UCLA’s Native American Rock Art Archive which is housed in the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

So, we have the publication of a book, my reading of it; my rediscovery of said work thirty five years or so later (and my re-reading of it) and the attendant birthing and maturity of a dating technique that arguably has revolutionized Archaeology – along with my incidental exposure to that revolutionized academic discipline starting some seven years ago.

What does all that add up to? Well, in my personal history quite a lot, but as a writer, I believe I am charged with a generalized responsibility to make matters of personal import of some wider interest to my imagined and occasionally real audience. It is a reflection of my perversity that I believe that what interests me in the narrow ambit of my home in the chaparral will resonate, when crafted into a blend of my own sensory and intellectual experiences, with the select few…..

In January of 1977 I began an undergraduate degree in Architecture at the University of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. In my second year of studies I discovered my mentors: Dr. Terry Purcell, a psychologist who taught a much derided course in man-environment studies, and Marr Grounds, an environmental artist who had somehow found employment, in those more liberal days, as a lecturer in design. These two academic outsiders, neither architects, guided me through what ended up being a hugely formative experience in which I discovered an interest in the primal qualities of the Australian landscape and landscape in general - interests which ended up completely dominating my antipodean education.

It was against this backdrop that I picked up Earth Magic in the University book store and in reading it I connected back to my childhood in the English countryside and my adolescent interest in the occult, the practice of which, in its literary re-telling, usually involved settings of ancient mystery and foreboding –ruined abbeys, stone circles, lonely moors and the like. I was readily susceptible to the genre’s facile production of chills and spine tingles. Looking back, I can re-frame the appeal in terms of an interest in making contact with a universal energy – which, it was implied in the books that I read, possessed the bi-polarity of good and evil.

I continue to be fascinated with the apparent tributaries of etheric energy which adepts, both ancient and modern, have found ways to channel to their purposes. In Earth Magic, which details the endeavors of megalithic man to focus and amplify these energies by building a system of stone nodes and nexuses, I understood an archaeological aspect to my childish proclivity. Although this was well before Bruce Chatwin had written The Songlines (1987), I also possessed a generalized awareness, sharpened by Marr Grounds who, in his environmental art-making, worked extensively with aboriginals still pursuing a traditional life in the Northern Territories, that I was living in a country where there existed primitive lines of force that had once bound together a far-flung and never large population of sentient beings. I vaguely understood that I was living, at that moment, at the tail end of two centuries that had seen the almost complete destruction of an elaborate human exegesis of primal forces that is the aboriginal culture of Australia, developed over perhaps 50,000 years.

Now, lurking at the fringes of the chaparral wilderness, amidst strewn boulders hailed down from the Topatopas in some fracturing event of the Pleistocene, I wonder whether the rock marks made by California’s earliest people were an attempt at a lithic ordering that privileged some stones over others. Within the antic geology of the land, they might thus have recorded the same lines of force that intrigued megalithic man and the Australian aborigine which, in the ritual and physical marking of such networks, bound their societies.

Within the discipline of Archaeology, the study of peoples who failed to create significant artifacts beyond their language and belief-culture is of a limited appeal. If you have any interest in advancing your career you will not stay long in the ghetto of American Indian cultures. At UCLA‘s Cotsen Institute there are five full professors of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and not one in North American Languages and Culture. Within that ghetto, Rock Art represents the darkest, most underfunded and ill-regarded neighborhood. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who directs the Rock Art Archive, has not ascended beyond Research Associate despite holding the prestigious post of Director of the Easter Island Statue Project where the excavations at Rano Raraku, the primary moai quarry, are her life’s work. David Whiteley, perhaps the most renowned archaeologist currently studying the rock art of Californian Indians has no academic affiliation whatsoever. Similarly, until very recently, those who study the works of megalithic man have also been side-lined. What that means is that the field is overrun, instead, with odd-balls, amateurs and speculative historians. Fine company.

Ironically, the general popularity of these areas of archaeology has never been higher, as evidenced in the last week or so by the blanket coverage, from National Geographic to the Daily Mail of the new discoveries at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. The work, by archaeologists from Birmingham and Bradford universities and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Vienna has also been awarded the ultimate middlebrow accolade of a two-part documentary series on BBC-2, titled Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath.

I do not know whether this title is the BBC’s homage to the Hermetic notion that the microcosmos reflects the macrocomos, but the new information appears to solidify the monument’s significance as a major ritual center that is likely linked, in ley line alignments, to other such centers like Avebury and beyond, perhaps as far North as the massive Neolithic temple complex at the Ness of Brodgar in the Orkneys (recently uncovered using the same ground-penetrating radar used at Stonehenge).

The incised and painted rock art of Californian Indians has been dated back to somewhere beyond 15,000 years ago using a controversial dating system developed by the geomorphologist Ron Dorn. Known as  cation-ratio dating, the method uses the leach rate of elements from the desert varnish (accumulated atmospheric debris) which covers the rock motifs, to deduce their age. Carbon dating, as the name suggests, is only useful where there are organic elements such as bone or charcoal which are adjacent to and, by implication, of a similar age as the artifact under study. There are very few examples of rock art panels conveniently buried under such material. The imprecision of dating pictographs may go some way to explaining the disfavor in which they languish in the academic world. These artifacts exist in an uncomfortable zone where neither accurate dating nor any certainty of meaning or signification is possible.

Inspired amateurs such as Francis Hitching are therefore free to speculate. He argues that the major monuments of megalithic man which, like Stonehenge, are dated to between four and five thousand years ago (and continued in use beyond the beginnings of the Christian era), were concrete realizations of both astronomical abstractions and subterranean electro-magnetic currents. Both notions are broadly supported by scientific evidence, but his narrative is not constrained by an academic methodology.

In the 10,000 years prior to the great age of megaliths, Paelolithic humans had, it seems, been mostly focused on representing hunting totems. Similarly, the oldest rock art in North America attempts the representation of mega-fauna such as long-extinct camelids. While that tradition continued with drawings of, for instance, big horn sheep, well into the historic period there is also a coherent tradition of abstract symbols that appear to tie in with the geomantic and astronomical concerns of the makers of stone circles, dolmens and standing stones. In southern California, there are several instances of solstice alignments in caves and ridge notches as well as incised spirals and concentric circles that likely reference energy vortices.

In Ojai-speak, we might consider these ancient glyphs as denoting currents of rhythmic life-energy. The notion is in common currency - Conde Naste Traveler magazine references Ojai’s “famous magnetic vortex", and Ojai’s “storied electromagnetic forces” in a recent article about the appeal of the area. The Chumash preferred painting to pecking rock and their surviving designs clearly reference astronomical events. But is it possible that the vigor of the life force that runs through these valleys left no need for lithic amplification or painted signification? That the local good vibrations could be exalted in a kind of heedless hedonism whereas in the gloom of Europe, for instance, heroic effort needed to be expended in the production and tracing of a feeble charge -  a quavering echo of the universal life force which courses so strongly in Ojai?

2014-09-06

The Scream of a Hawk

The Acourtia (A. microcephala) which bloomed spectacularly (in mauve) this year continues to enthrall in its autumnal guise of golden tobacco leaves and clouds of white seed heads. It is featured along the local trails and on patches of broken ground, where pale green golden bush seemingly cowers in its shadow. Soap plant is reduced to a brittle skeleton and the peonies are now little cabbage-like clusters of straw-colored stalks and leaves. Vinegar weed and snowy patches of Turkey mullein remain vigorous and the amazing tarweed is still, in places, in bloom (fulfilling its purpose, perhaps, as Keats’ “late flowers for the bees”).

Milk weed has recently ventured forth. Buckwheat seed-heads continue to rust into ever darker shades. Sprays of wand buckwheat (Eriogonum elongatum) splay elegantly: their single white flowers tinged with pink at the end of each chalky node.

Deeper in the chaparral all is quiet – it awaits its spring with the first rainfall of October and November. Its flamboyance is at an end: the strident ginger seed of chamise now oxidized to a shadowy brown; the brilliant red of poison oak moderated to a dull ruby. The grey-green leaves of ceanothus, mountain mahogany and scrub oak stoic against the withering desiccation of late summer.

It is, of course, as the poet noted back in the old country, the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Our section of valley, between the Topatopa foothills and the Sulphur Mountain ridge, is at the confluence of the rivers of fog that drift in around dawn, east from the lower valley and west from Santa Paula. I watch in the early morning as they comingle due south and below me,  a soft collision of vaporous light in the still almost dark.

But enough about me: the wild in me and the wilderness out there are one, at least on occasion; sometimes, I am my terrain. We are twinned. Marx was explicit on the matter “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive”. More recently, Wendell Berry examines these connections in Preserving Wilderness, an essay from his collection, Home Economics, 1987:

“We breathe and our hearts beat and we survive as a species because we are wild. To be divided against nature, against wilderness, then, is a human disaster because it is to be divided against ourselves”.

Harmony, he suggests, can only be achieved when there is a dialog between culture and nature and this has to be achieved locally. In a viable accommodation between us (the made, or nurtured) and our implacable environment (our biological context, or nature) is the planet’s salvation. He writes,

“We cannot intend our good without intending the good of our place – which means ultimately the good of the world”.

A product of parents who privileged a white collar over blue (my father was, for most of his adult life, an insurance clerk, my mother a typist) and an education that after primary (or grade) school - where village nature-walks were a key feature of the curriculum - was focused on classroom work, I am not by proclivity or training an outdoorsman.

Despite the protestations of Robert Macfarlane, England remains a place remarkably lacking in wilderness (The Wild Places, 2007). Deforested, initially by the Romans, the countryside has been groomed - grazed, tilled and hedged - for at least a thousand years. Ecosystems have been constructed that serve human culture rather than, in Mowat’s phrase, the call of the wild.

Growing up in darkest Surrey, there was an easy engagement with this manicured nature: hedgerows were teeming with birds, mammals, trees and shrubs that over time had adapted to an environment that despite specifically serving the needs of landowners also enriched the lives of all who encountered them; fields glistened with freshly turned soil or glowed in the pale sunshine with ripened wheat while ancient oaks, yews and chestnuts stood sentinel in churchyards, village greens and gardens. The domestication of the English landscape is its most striking characteristic. It is telling that Macfarlane finds most of his ‘Wild Places’ not in England but in what we used to call the Celtic fringe, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

In our neck of the woods, ‘commons’ remained - scrub ground left after the enclosure movement aggregated all the worthwhile agricultural land - but you could walk across these bracken and gorse lands and arrive at a country ‘B’ road in, at most, an hour: along this metaled hedge-rowed canyon there would shortly appear cottages, a pub and a few shops signifying a gentle transition to the fine web of village, market town and city that lays across the country and establishes the dominance, in this tiny island, of human culture. Wilderness skills were irrelevant. The back yard could be tamed with a push-mower, a pair of clippers, fork and spade; woods and coppices traversed along ancient bridle paths; commons walked over on well-worn tracks; rivers and streams followed along their tidy banks of willow and wild flowers.

Here, in America we are, mostly metaphorically, but at the wildland urban interface, often literally, still engaged with the frontier – the stain of uncontrolled nature, the wilderness that threatens to engulf us. Here, there are intrepid cadres of outdoorsmen and women ready to broach the wild, backpacked and provisioned ready to encounter both themselves and the other, their primal twin.

I am not one of that tribe. I lurk at the fringes.

My friend Will has just embarked on a solo two week high altitude circuit of the eastern Sierras. He will be in his element, communing, as they say, with nature - living out of a well-equipped, advanced technology backpack that is the product of a world entirely antithetical to the experience he seeks. My son Will, took a similar trip a few years back despite a notable lack of encouragement or example from his then very urban parents.

Having made the move to Ojai we are now wilderness adjacent but being close to State Highway 150 we remain linked to the vast network of freeways and surface streets that vein Southern California and thus we continue to be in the great circulatory system of the Empire, still swimming instinctively in the plasma of late capitalism.

Likewise, Thoreau’s cabin was not in wilderness but at the edge of town, about two miles from his family home. Walden Pond lay in a wood – scarcely a wilderness - comfortably within walking distance of Concord and within earshot of the then new Fitchburg railway. Thus he immersed himself, not in wilderness, but in the urban wildland. The railroad was a symbol of modernity (and the antithesis to any notion of a classical wilderness) which served as his link to a world of trade and finance, of industrial capitalism, that he mostly disparaged. As he notes,

“The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am. I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth……”

The line ran then and now between Fitchburg, north and west of Boston via Concord to North Station in the City: it was a visible symbol of Thoreau’s enmeshment in the skein of village, town and city that characterized southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts - and in this regard, at least, made its regional name of New England entirely appropriate.

Thoreau writes,” I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me”. Oh that I could share in his equanimity as I hear, of a weekend, the barbaric snorting of Harley Davidsons as they snake up and down the 150 below us in the valley where, in the early morning, the fog swirls in confluence.

I hate Harley Davidsons. They serve not as transport but as crude affectations - machismo appendages that befoul the air and viscerally curdle my soul. I hate the Neanderthals that ride them. I hate the regalia which symbolizes their crippled and contradictory world view: the outlaw faithfully making payments on his (or her) heinous machine while conflating his or her right to terrorize fellow road-users, and others in ear-shot, with the genuine freedoms of the Republic. If not quite "the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible" (as Wilde spoke of the fox-hunting fraternity) they are most certainly the emasculated in vain pursuit of their virility.

That said (and yes, I feel better for it), they represent a sonic connection to an urban world in the same way that the locomotive served Thoreau. While he, patently the better man, sublimates the whistle of said iron horse as “the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard” and likened the rattle of railroad cars to “the beat of a partridge” I cannot get past my blind hatred. Not usually lost for metaphor or simile, I am stuck in some primitive non-verbal place where my lizard brain is firing synapses at will and blanketing my higher thought processes with hot-lead.

But here, in Upper Ojai, despite the occasional aural assault, nestled beneath the Toptopas, "I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth" - a writer setting the planet to rights: for it is here, on the margins, in a liminal space that is, as Nietzsche said of Turin, "the first place where I am possible...."

2014-08-18

Tip-toe Through the Killing Fields

On a warm August evening a super-moon had just risen above Sulphur Mountain and the grey and golden grasslands of Happy Valley were framed by the silhouette of the distant Nordhoff range (softened in the gloaming); the Topatopa bluffs (which glowed faintly with the day’s last remaining light) and Sulphur Mountain’s oaks (massed into a dimpled, darkling terrain). Cleared of their native oaks, then later cleared of serried ranks of European walnuts (grafted onto native root-stock), the grasslands now conjured, over their 400 odd acres, a faded pastoral idyll.

 The place resonated: and it was into the unearthly timbre of this dream-like landscape that the audience was pitched as we left the Zalk theater after a stunning performance by Chankethya Chey, late of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

Now resident in the United States (after earning a degree in choreography at UCLA) she appeared as a part of the Ojai Playwrights Conference having work-shopped her piece, My Mother and I with a director and a dramaturge. Over the course of the evening it became clear that the notion of her mother included her birth parent, her dance master (a woman) and her Country. All four dramatis personae survived the rape and murder of the failed Khmer social revolution (and its aftermath) and Kethya’s attempted reckoning is communicated through the stylized gestural language of the Royal Ballet overlain with antic influences of modern and urban dance.

Released into the heady rapture of that summer’s eve, my thoughts immediately turned to the miracle we had witnessed: a classical art-form, preserved and re-energized, that had somehow survived Pol Pot’s program of cultural genocide. The ironies unfolded more slowly.

As Eric Hobsbawm details in The Age of Extremes, A History of the World, 1914-1991, the Khmer Rouge were part of a tide of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutions that swept Africa and Asia in the 1970’s. The U.S defeat in Indochina reinforced the advance of communism and socialist regimes were established in all of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He notes that in the latter case, under the leadership of Pol Pot, there arose “a particularly murderous combination of Paris café Maoism…and the armed backwoods peasantry bent on destroying the degenerate civilization of the cities”.

Pol Pot’s attempt to root out the effete cultural traits of urban intellectual life had a horrendous impact on such institutions as the Royal Ballet where, of the 190 ballet corps and principals, only forty survived. More generally, of Cambodia’s estimated 380,000 artists and intellectuals, just three hundred, by some counts, escaped the genocide. Removed from power after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, the Khmer Rouge, under Chinese and American patronage, lived on in camps along the Thai border and remained a force in Cambodian politics - their flag flew in New York City, as sanctioned representatives of their country to the U.N. - until 1993. Kethya was born in 1985.

Mythology (as limned on the carved surfaces of the great tenth century temple and palace complex of Angkor Wat) attributes the beginnings of Cambodia’s dance tradition to a time when warring gods and demons churned the cosmic ocean, and celestial dancers called apsaras emerged from the froth (Brian Siebert, NYT). In Angkorian culture the human manifestations of these mystical beings became handmaidens to the court of the Empire (802-1431).

Most of the great monuments of the ancient and medieval worlds were built using forced labor. In the twentieth century, the Soviet and Chinese gulags, along with the labor camps of Nazi Germany, supplied much of the human energy required to create massive infrastructure projects. The great temple and palace monuments of Angkor Wat were similarly built by conscripted peasant labor and slaves captured from neighboring territories.

The complex has come to symbolize the country but it also represents the millennium of impoverished serfdom suffered by Cambodia’s peasants up until the declaration of the Republic in 1975. In a fiercely hierarchical society, court dance served the divine aspirations of the ruling family: as a State sponsored cultural expression, an aspect of its mission was to shore up the spurious mystical foundations of princely privilege. It was this privilege, along with the support provided by an urban, educated and cultured upper-middle class, that Pol Pot set out to destroy.

The almost-annihilation of Cambodian classical dance was a profound example of the collateral damage he inflicted on the country’s traditional arts: and it was the ghost of an apsara, nurtured in centuries of aristocratic co-option, that danced with Kethya that balmy August evening, remaining haughtily composed despite the alien influences of the globalized dance stylings with which Kethya surrounded her.

It is, perhaps, a matter for debate as to the extent to which the oppressed can authentically use the tools of an oppressor in their attempted overthrow. Or, as with Kethya, use a language of oppression to critique the history of a revolutionary force intent on that language’s destruction. It’s complicated. But certainly not lacking in irony.

Here in the United States we are long removed from our killing fields and long indoctrinated to ignore their dark shadow. The last vestige of Native resistance to the implacable forces of American imperialism was acted out in dance. As I suggested in Hoop Dreams, the development of the Ghost Dance, a mash-up of the Plains Indian round-dance, spiritual revivalism, end-times prophecy, trance states and incitement to destroy the white race was, as much as anything, a loose aggregation of stress symptoms. The movement originated in areas of profound spiritual and geographic dislocation - the Indian Reservations - where the survivors of the holocaust lived lives that were a macabre caricature of their authentic nomadic being.

James Mooney (1861-1921) was a self-taught ethnographer with the Bureau of American Ethnology from 1885 to 1921. His most notable work was in the study of the Ghost Dance. In 1894 he made a series of recordings of songs associated with the movement. Amidst the scratch and hiss of the recordings, a late nineteenth century American brogue is discernible droning Native American incantations - for these are his renderings of the anthemic Indian chants.

The Ghost Dance was once and forever ended with the killing of Sitting Bull at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. His are renderings after the fact. He sings in remembrance - in the voice of the oppressor.

In whose voice does Chankethya Chey speak?

2014-08-05

Epithalamium (Wedding Song)

Does it mean anything that the buckwheat blossoms have turned the color of dried blood? Or, that the tarweed is thicker than I have ever seen it and is even, in places, out-competing mustard? Or, that vinegar weed (Trichostema lanceolatum) is thick on the cattle pasture just to the east of the giant gorge that splits the old County property at the top of Koenigstein (now owned by the Rainwaters)?

Is there such a thing as a vegetative portent? Is there a mechanism by which the universal mind, human consciousness and plant ecology melds into an oracular medium? Is there, in other words, a payoff in prescience to the attention I lavish on such things?

There are, I suspect, rational reasons for the fact that the mauve Acourtia (A. microcephala) was particularly spectacular this year while the inky, native peony blossoms failed to impress and perhaps, sound meteorological cause for the other extraordinary ecological phenomena referenced above.

But being of a quasi-mystical or poetic frame of mind I want more: I want transcendence – I seek the realm beyond the quotidian. The lives of Ventura’s indigenous people, and perhaps of all the tribes of the Americas, were ruled by portents, signs and omens - the divination of which was entrusted to only the most powerful members of society. Hence the secret society of astronomers (and, I speculate, floromancers and botanomancers), known as the ‘Antap, ruled Chumash society by virtue of their occult knowledge - the prescience granted to them by the stars, flowers and plants.

So, while there is, perhaps, a pre-historical precedent to the notion that the irruption, color and idiosyncratic shape of plant material have meaning beyond the intrinsic ecological circumstances of their being, these days I simply relish the powerful ability of the flowers and shrubs in the chaparral to thrill me aesthetically while reserving the right, as it were, to believe that there are shadowy messages being projected onto the cave wall of my consciousness that I am too obtuse to understand.

Of one thing I am certain: there is a brooding solemnity in the California shrublands on even the sunniest of days. So much portent (of unrevealed import); so much occluded meaning, so many flitting shadows in an incomprehensible chiaroscuro of figure and ground, can be burdensome. A few days in Brooklyn, where the arboreal and floral arrangements that intermittently decorate these brick, stone and concrete lands are clearly empty of all but the most spurious signification, comes as a relief. It is here that I can take the measure of the urban, secure in the knowledge that these once wildlands have been almost totally stripped of their adumbrations.

Back in the day (and here I speak of, say, twelve thousand years ago), the broken lands of Breukelen, were the final resting place, in this part of America, for the great ice floes that had inched down from the north pole during the most recent Ice Age (humanity’s great surge forward being entirely predicated on our occupying a brief, interstitial warm period before the next big freeze inexorably engulfs the planet) and the mild topographical features of the City reflect the dying energy of these gelid earth-movers.

Left, was a littoral riddled with tidal creeks that flowed through swampy marshlands and meadows amidst the pleasant rises now named Vinegar, Cobble, Boerum and Clinton. I am staying in Bococa – which embraces Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens where the Gowanus Canal, the remnant of the many tentacled creek that once bore into the heart of Brookland Parish, lies fetid, a superfund site awaiting reclamation.

There are splinters of waste land that run between canal and the back yard defenses of industrial plants rendered in horizontally laid, graffitied, corrugated roofing, chain link and razor wire. Where once were manufactured gas plants, mills, tanneries, foundries and chemical plants now sit mostly derelict, nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings on brown fields of inestimable value - the mighty industrial city transformed into both a dormitory suburb and a reflection of the finance, advertising, media, real estate, drinking, dining, entertainment and retail power of Manhattan: the marshy lowlands of hardwood groves, grasses, sedges, reeds and forbs reduced to mere slivers - the unaccounted, commercially inconsequential lands between the engineered canal and the platted land; between the brown fields and the glistening, infuscated waters.

But here lies the once and future past: the biotic memory of the last ten thousand years awaiting its recall; and these waste lands spoke to me of their dreams; or, perhaps I dreamt that they spoke. These weedy patches of ground do indeed function as a vegetative portent, amplified by the desperation of their marginalization - whispering of a different future.

In a grey Brooklyn dawn, the morning after son Will’s wedding to Ellen Cantrell, Manhattan loomed across the river, its sky-scrapers wreathed in a light rain: Gehry’s Spruce Street condo tower standing slightly apart, creased like a wrung-out dish towel.

Brooklyn Bridge Park runs along a mile and a half of a defunct cargo shipping and storage facility, the long fingers of the wharves still reaching into the East River, their pier sheds left intact, and wooden piles rising out of the river. It is a park (designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh) that achieves much by doing little. The greenscape is serviceable, providing pleasant havens for city dwellers but invoking almost no wildland frisson. Cleared of cranes and, of course, ships, the park offers unobstructed views across the water. South of the park, in the still functioning Brooklyn docks, beyond Redhook, is the Gowanus estuary.

The 3rd Street draw bridge over the canal was completed in 1905, a time when there was a reasonable expectation that commercial shipping would require clear passage. Today, intrepid kayakers can comfortably pass under the closed bridge and although thoroughly restored in 1985, activation of the bridge’s opening mechanism awaits the dredging equipment which will be necessary to remove and capsulize the heavy metal sludge that sits at the canal’s bottom - a terminally toxic impediment to the revitalization of the waterway as a viable ecosystem,

Meanwhile, alongside the bridge abutments, in caged waste-lands, sugar maple, beech and birch saplings wait patiently. Underneath them, rushes, reeds and invasive grasses constitute a weedy ground cover where Queen Anne’s lace blooms prolifically.

On wedding’s eve, with cumulus building overhead, I gathered armfuls of this filigreed non-native invasive and used it to decorate the tables at Frankies Spuntino, the restaurant where Will and Ellen’s rehearsal dinner was to be held that evening. Locally grown, sustainably foraged (I walked), it stood in for the lush green and cream roses that I had previously eyed at Union Market on Court Street.

The spirit of Gowanus, sachem (head man) of the local Lenape tribe called the Canarsee, would have approved (I hope) of this deeply pragmatic act of choosing the lesser evil: non-native Queen Anne’s lace from his eponymous canal verge over roses from Colombia or Ecuador, where they are grown in large production greenhouses, harvested, sorted, and flown 3,000 odd miles to Brooklyn.

The dried blood of buckwheat blossoms presaged, it now seems, the old brick of Brooklyn: the off-white of fresh blooming California everlasting (that old reliable) was a pre-echo of the blossoming Queen Anne’s lace. Our future worlds are pre-figured by our local environments. Pay attention, be present: portent and circumstance may become fluid and the tyranny of time and space collapse into a delirium of consciousness.

The confluence of a man and a woman, bound by marriage, is similarly mutable.

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 1230, 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…….