Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tree Fall

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


There Goes the Neighborhood

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On a Sunday Afternoon

Now also on www.urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Brigarti and Felix Cavaliere (of The Rascals)


Little Boy Lost

Now also at www.Urbanwildland.org

In the time I have spent living off of Koenigstein, there have been three births, two deaths and now, a small boy found somewhere along the road. Sammy Evans was discovered at 7p.m. on Monday, after he was reported lost some six hours before, having last been seen on Tree Ranch Road. He was located by a bloodhound named Roscoe and Michael Grossman of Ventura County K9 Search and Rescue. "He's a wonderful kid who got confused and got scared and they found him," his father Steve Evans said. "The gratitude we have is unbelievable."

In the early evening, as the wind dropped, the search-dog picked up Sammy’s scent and led his handler up Koenigstein Road. The prescient mystic, William Blake, has most of the details right:

“Then they followed
Where the vision led,
And saw their sleeping child
Among tigers wild.

To this day they dwell
In a lonely dell,
Nor fear the wolvish howl
Nor the lion’s growl.”

Sammy was found, according to media reports, in a wooded area about a mile east of where he was last seen. No mention was made of finding mountain lions, coyotes or even foxes in the vicinity, although, on occasion, all three roam these parts. The media was mute too, on the exact nature of the woods in which he was found. I should add that young Sammy was apparently awake when discovered and spoke with his human rescuer. No word on his interaction with Roscoe, the bloodhound.

I am an essayist not a journalist: a quick check with local scribe Chris Wilson suggests that he is not following the story – he referred me to the Ojai Valley News’ intrepid Misty Volanski who after a cursory report in the local rag has moved on; fellow blogger and esteemed Ventura reporter, Kit Stolz, is missing in action, hiking the Pacific Crest trail somewhere along its more than twenty five hundred mile length; Urbanwildland is therefore attempting to pick up the threads in its author’s amateur, essay-ish kind of way.

The story, as I have outlined it, is based on news reports. As a long-time historian manqué, however, I understand the value of original research. So it was that I drove the length of Tree Ranch Road hoping to detect some latent, psychic echoes of the parent’s panic on discovering the loss of their child or perhaps of Sammy’s desperation in attempting to flee the family unit. Note that I am discounting the notion that our boy wandered off unintentionally and became disoriented and lost. Ending up on Koenigstein involves traversing the County divide separating the Ventura and Santa Clara River watersheds, and requires a serious intent - a concerted effort to put distance between oneself and one’s nearest and dearest. Was there some inkling on Tree Ranch of what made Sammy run? (Ancient reference: What Makes Sammy Run, the 1960’s Broadway musical based on Bud Schulberg’s story of the rise and fall of Sammy Glick, archetypal Hollywood Jew – stereotyped as smart, ruthless, savvy and crude). Our Sammy is black, ten years old and four feet tall, but he too has demons that impel him to run.

Tree Ranch Road is mostly horse-properties. Not of the Kentucky blue grass, white fence, lush meadows kind, but the dry, dirt and dust, metal corral, hard-scrabble Ojai kind. It appears to be mostly a street of pick-up trucks and horse trailers casually parked in front of one story ranch houses; but as you drive north, across intermittent speed bumps, something changes. The 12700 block, where Sammy was reported missing, is composed of mostly two story structures of dubious architectural provenance and irrigated grounds that have aspirations (mostly unrealized) of achieving estate status. These gardens cling to some European ideal while their northern aspect is dominated by south facing native chaparral hills that rise up to Fuel Break Road, running along the near ridge, as it heads over to High Winds and Boccali’s Ranch. Lush exotics and schlerophytic natives are thus poised in a Mexican stand-off - nature and nurture unresolved and unresolvable.

Sammy most likely stuck to the road, eschewing what for him were probably the unknown pleasures of bush-whacking over to Sisar, and then going cross-country to Koenigstein. Let’s face it: the kid was in escape mode, out Tree Ranch, east on the 150 then up Koenigstein - terra incognita – until he decided that a rest was in order and he hunkered down among the oaks on our property up the hill (favored hang-out, too, of recalcitrant Thomas Aquinas students, who chug beer and wine while enjoying the westerly views of the Upper Valley and the shade of our ancient live-oaks). I don’t mean to be proprietary, just saying that Lorrie and I are the chumps that pay the Ventura County property taxes on the only ‘wooded area’ directly off of Koenigstein. In other words, “Whose woods these are I think I know”.

I am delighted to have played host, albeit unknowingly, to runaway Sammy. But it was the trees and their shade that appealed to him. It’s an old story: as William Bryant Logan points out in Oak – The Frame of Civilization, the genus is intimately involved in the recent development of humankind; as he says, “People stayed and went where the oaks were. There is some basic sympathy between oaks and humans.” Sammy was seeking comfort from Quercus agrifolia, the Coast Live Oak, the same tree that helped nurture ten thousand years of successive Native Californian cultures, finally ending with a constellation of balanocultures (oak and acorn societies) epitomized by the Chumash. As Logan notes, these were the last cultures on earth that continued to rely on the fruits of the oak where once they were a mainstay of the temperate belt that girdled the Northern Hemisphere after the end of the ice age.

When he was nine, William Blake saw “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars”. In Martin Frederick’s, The Life of John Clare, 1865, he recounts that Clare had a favorite place where he would write his poetry. “it was the hollow of an old oak. Inside this old oak, John Clare used to sit in silent meditation for many hours together, unmindful even of the waning day and the mantle of darkness falling over the earth”.

How long did Sammy sit under the oak and what did he see? By the middle of August it is dark not long after eight. Was Sammy mindful of the waning day? What did he plan for the night? A few hundred yards to the south of his resting place are the trampled depressions (now mostly covered by chaparral) of the house sites for a small band of Chumash who lived on the banks of Bear Creek. Foxes begin to snarl as the light fades. Spirits of long dead Indians may still haunt the oak woodlands. Owls hoot and bats jink and fade as the sun drops into the westerly haze.

Enter Roscoe: slobbering over child and foreshortening the night of his young life. Safely back in the bosom of his family, under the now ever watchful eye of his parents our Little Boy Lost may yet be planning his next great escape. May Blake’s arboreal angels watch over him…..


Wild America

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Peering over time's fence, into the deeply shadowed back yard that is the twentieth century, where still linger the remnants of some fifty years of my phenomenological experience (some lived directly and some absorbed, in my youth from, for instance, a close reading of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia), I would venture that from a viridic (or ‘Green’) point of view, the two most significant events of that particular time (which, with good reason, is called the American century) were this country's establishment of the National Park system and the landing of a man on the moon.

Both events profoundly impact the way we understand our place in the world, particularly in this country (although the branding of Wild America is a global phenomenon) while, at the same time, both remain firmly rooted in the traditions of two millennia of anthropocentric imperialism predicated on our Christian, God-given dominion over the Planet. But the carving out of vast tracts of land in North America as partly manicured, but still plausible wilderness, and the perspective afforded by Armstrong's moon-walk are now key elements in a shift that is beginning to re-wire Humanity's relationship within the enveloping physical, biological and spiritual ecologies that support life on Earth.

Having gotten these two declarative paragraphs out of the way (but to the theme of which I will return) I turn now to the existential matter at hand. The condition of my Life. Right. Now.

I am entirely clad in polyester: perhaps for the very first time. I have long been a fabric snob - certainly since I was dressed as a child in sample clothes that my aunt liberated from Harrods' where she was the buyer for their children's department. Petit Bateau and Grenfell were my brands, although I longed for the more plebeian, provincial togs of my mates, sourced from dubious 'outfitters' in the nearby town or a barrow at the Saturday market. One particular item I craved, affected by the local nine year old toughs, was a spearmint green, rubberized wind-cheater with an elasticized waist and a jaunty flair of fabric over the hips, redolent of a sleeved doublet. I had to make do with a stinking poofter jacket made of the finely woven cotton cloth that had been standard equipment (as my father encouragingly told me) on the Everest expeditions of 1936, 1938 and 1952.

Now, in a strange turn of events, cotton is considered to be fatally conducive, if allowed to get wet, to hypothermia, and the prospective mountaineer, trekker or back-packer in the High Sierras is advised to don synthetic fabrics. As a prospective member of that third class of intrepid adventurers, I am done up in a plastic khaki shirt and grey, oil-derivative pants, branded as Mountain Hard Wear and manufactured in Vietnam - perhaps by child labor.

Driving from Ojai, up the 33, we three - friends Will, Victoria and I - journeyed over the magnificent Santa Ynez range and into the strange confluence of oil and agriculture, of carrots and crude, that supports Ventucopa and Cuyama. Then arrives Maricopa: a disappointed town awash in poverty porn and the grim nostalgia of failure squeezed between the Carrizo Plain and the huge Midway-Sunset oil field, where only a kitty litter factory on Golden Cat Road in the near-desert scrublands, offers any hope of local employment. Skirting oil-rich Taft, we motored on to the 99, heading into a vast pall of dust and diesel smoke that hung over the Central Valley, blotting out the Sierras beyond; across the 5, past egregiously exogenous fields of cotton and rice, onwards to Bakersfield, the storied destination of Dust Bowl migrants but now a boom town targeted by California’s incipient bullet train. Then, Visalia, gateway to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, beckoned.

After a night at the Atwell Mill campground we arrived next morning, kitted out in our polyester, at the Mineral King Ranger station - the National Forest Service guard-post at the wilderness frontier. Once cleared to proceed on our five day hike we began down the glacial valley and within twenty minutes, like some ambassador of the Wild Kingdom, there appeared a black bear squarely on the trail showing no inclination to move. Once assured, perhaps, that we fully acknowledged that we had entered its ursine world, the bear moved away, lumbering up the meadow.

Although both Sierran National Parks were founded in 1890, some eighteen years after Yellowstone, it was not until the establishment of the National Park Service, under Woodrow Wilson in 1916, that these repositories of wilderness began to assume their contemporary form. They had been founded, more or less, as pleasure grounds, a familiar nineteenth typology, but the new administrative structure was mandated "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”.

Thus it was that the development of the picturesque qualities that had been the guiding aesthetic principal in the nineteenth century was replaced with notions of conservation – the explicit preservation of Wild America within borders patrolled by the quasi-military styled Park Service. Wilderness was henceforth to be sequestered in secure reservations and on full view, in perpetuity, to curious visitors from an increasingly urban and suburban America. The porosity of the frontier, where wilderness leaked into and around the infrastructure of civilization was banished in this organized attempt to corral the unruly (and usually economically marginal) and frame the scenic majesty of Wild America both as a backdrop to Imperial ambition and as a freely available instrument of commercial branding. Nevertheless, we three somehow believed we could transcend these socio-political realities and bask, for a while, in an unfettered natural world.

We walked over colls and passes, along creeks, through pine and redwood forests, across hanging valleys and the bleak geology above the tree line where glacial cirques supported lakes of unknowable depth. We swam in the late afternoons and at night, slept intermittently under bright stars and a waning gibbous moon.

Begun over fifty years ago, the mission to put a man on the moon was a product of American hubris, lingering national shame over the successful launching of the USSR's Sputnick, and the notion of extending the Imperial frontier into Space; it was enabled by an infrastructure established by the military industrial complex (initiated in WWII and expanded during the Cold War), rocket scientists looted from the ashes of the Third Reich, (personified by Wernher Von Braun who headed up the Atlas and Saturn rocket programs) and the inspiring, nationalist rhetoric of a young and supremely charismatic president.

The mission’s success had unexpected consequences: rather than heralding the dawn of America's Space Age (so long anticipated), it was Bill Ander’s iconic photo, dubbed Earthrise, shot from Apollo 8’s first manned lunar orbit and showing the moon in the foreground, that instead turned many Earthlings inward, towards a new appreciation of the fate of their own planet and their obligation to work for the survival of its ecosystems.

1969 was marked by both the first lunar landing (and Armstrong’s NASA scripted “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”) and a massive blow-out at a Union 76 oil well, off-shore of Santa Barbara. The following year, prompted by this environmental calamity, the first Earth Day was observed across the United States marking the formal beginning of the ‘Green’ movement.

Was it necessary for man to step foot on the moon? Was it necessary that I spend five days trudging past fractured granitic cliff walls and metamorphic spires, across scree, up talus slopes and down treacherous moraine drifts in Sequoia National Park?

To have vicariously trod on the moon and seen the Earth from Space, means nothing. To have back-packed in the Sierras, variously dressed in the Wild America, adventure branded, synthetic fabrics of REI, Patagonia and Mountain Hard Wear, means even less. But to be a part of the great up-welling of environmental awareness that began with the founding of the National Parks and that has acquired a new urgency in the last half century – as a tiny neuronic particle vibrating from deep within the ululating harmony of the collective human consciousness, as it is begins to give voice to a new, post-Carbon song of the world - is something.


Sci-Fi Metaphysics

Now also at www.Urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

Does the Elfin Forest Dream of Crystal Rain Drops?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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