2014-04-16

Blood Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014-03-30

Shell Game

Early this morning: dark clouds scudded across the eastern sky, as though fleeing the impenetrable, moonless night. A slightly fuzzy crescent the sun had carelessly painted on the side of our earth-washed satellite (which had arisen to greet the dawn) hung over the eastern ridge, a jewel bright morning star subtended below it. Sort of reminded me of the Turkish national flag – and no wonder, said red banner pays homage to the Tengriist beliefs of the ancient sky-worshipping Turks.

Status report from an earth-worshipper: underfoot the peonies, soap plant, wild cucumber, goosefoot and Acourtia are flourishing; at eye level ceanothus and chamise are beginning to bloom; poison oak glistens malignantly. Despite the general failure of winter, spring has arrived. Pantheists (and others) are rejoicing.

Last week, not for the first time, I was called to jury duty: actually for the third time that I did not have the ready excuse of resident alien status. Ah, those joyous years when I could scrawl “Non-Citizen” across the summons and return it (postage paid). But rendering such service is a small price to pay for the diminished night sweats. As a citizen of this fine country I can now luxuriate in my anarchist politics, comfortably ensconced in the great pluralism of the U.S. of A, protected by the might of Empire and assured of my First Amendment freedom of speech – and, by inference, of thought. Yes, dear reader, this country now clasps a viper to its bosom.

Now, when it comes to jury service, I am as willing as the next free-thinker. Turns out, such willingness is not reciprocated. Call number two (when it counted) resulted in my inclusion in a jury pool on a drunk-driving case. The case turned, as we were led to believe, on the accuracy of the breathalyser device. A young Latina was the defendant: casual observation would lead one to believe that she should more appropriately have been charged with under-age drinking. In any event, she had been stopped and blew, as the billboards suggest, $10,000. More perhaps, as she had the gumption to contest the charge. Seated with my fellow good men and women jurors I was questioned by defense and prosecution: I threw the racial profiling curve ball and followed it with the “in no circumstances will I find this woman guilty’” game ender – or so I thought. The judge came to bat and asked whether I would follow his instructions. Not necessarily says I – finally, game over. Judge asked to be reminded of my name and profession and then excused me from further service. That’s one potential client to which I can safely say goodbye.

You’d think that that performance would have earned me an asterisk against my name – indicating that under no circumstances, save a massive die-off of eligible citizens, should I be called to assist in the machinations of the criminal justice system. But no….last Thursday found me in my jury attire lurking at the back of the hall with the on-line poker players. I was reading Edward Abbey. Mercifully, at around 3 p.m. we were sent home.

Having consigned the entire day to this civic duty I now found myself close to the ocean with more than four hours of light awaiting my pleasure. Gone are the days when I might have checked the surf report, instead, the Chumash Trail (which has some claim to being the oldest continually used footpath in California) was calling. Located across the Pacific Coast Highway from the Seabee’s rifle-firing range, it is at the southern end of Mugu lagoon in what once was the sizable Chumash village of Muwu, the path heads straight up the western flank of Mugu Peak (1050’). I usually pass the dirt parking lot on the left as I drive by at around 60 m.p.h., eyes looking ahead to the less photogenic side of Mugu Rock, and preparing for that first shot of ocean on my hurried way to Santa Monica, but this day I pulled in, parked the car, grabbed my paper cup of Peet’s Darjeeling tea and headed up the heavily used track.

This is in the area that burnt in the Camarillo Springs Fire of May 2013 and absent a wet fall, the vegetation is only now beginning to regenerate: first up, bushy red-berry; yucca, sprouting from blackened ‘pinapple’ stumps (the edible crown or base of the plant); bright green opuntia pads growing on charred cactoidal skeletons and coreopsis sprouting amidst its burnt ruins from last spring.

After about 25 minutes of steep climbing, I reached the first overlook of La Jolla Valley, green meadowlands that reach towards the jagged backdrop of Boney Mountain, reputedly a place of power for Chumash shamen. Behind me views of the ocean and Mugu Lagoon fading into the mists of Port Hueneme. To the right the trail continues up towards Mugu Peak where some functionary from the California Department of Parks and Recreation (I presume) had seen fit to raise an American Flag - a reminder of our crass conquest of these primal lands. Here, blue dicks, Indian paintbrush, poppies and white lupine have established their own mountain-top kingdoms somewhat less assertively.

Dropping down towards the rugged La Jolla Canyon the trail crosses a small creek and then leads back towards the meadow. Beneath skeletal oaks with bright green foliage nested in their carbonized upper branches I followed the creek where pools of water and jumbled debris of blackened sticks and rocks remained from the recent rain storms - crowded by patches of mugwort, nettles and poison oak. Along side, mounded, ashen earth forms were dotted with the burnt oaks where once the Chumash and before them, the people of the Millingstone horizon had made camp.

As I followed the track through a mostly monochrome landscape (the creek bottom and the puffs of new oak growth the only green) I noticed, on the blackened earth amidst the white ash of burnt sticks, other more intense dots of white. When I looked closer I realized that I was walking through a casual collection of shell middens – where mussel, barnacle, sea-snail and clam shells had been exposed by the fire. I picked up a small collection from the surface and put the shells in my now empty Peet’s cup. These were the leavings from some Chumash meal in the Mission period, below them no doubt, was buried the detritus from countless sea-food dinners consumed over many thousands of years.

At the other end of the sweeping curves of the PCH, which begin at Pt. Mugu and wriggle sinuously between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific, is County Line beach (as it continues south the highway then veers away from the coast and heads across the Malibu hills). Neptune’s Net, a lonely sea-food roadhouse (except on weekends when it is beseiged by bikers) looks across the road to this surf beach and a small promontory that I have long understood to be a Chumash site (The Sage Gatherer). Immediately opposite this piece of scrubland which offers a fine perch from which to watch the surf, is Little Sycamore Canyon.

Commonly referred to in the archeological literature as the Little Sycamore site, VEN-1 was investigated in the mid ‘50’s by William Wallace who uncovered a kicthen midden site measuring 115m x 150m that, in the process of constructing the PCH has been split into two investigable fragments. He chose to dig at the surf-side promontory and beneath the surface shells he uncovered nineteen bodies, 116 metates (mortars), 123 manos (grinding stones), as well as pipes, charmstones, hammer stones, points (arrowheads), other stone tools and antler-bone flutes, diggers and pendants (Wallace et al. 1956). In the process, he more or less defined the characteristics of the Millingstone culture which he saw as unchanging over the 7,000 years of pre-history evidenced at the site. Later research has demonstrated significant cultural change over time culminating in the development of the Chumash civilization.

I had walked over a similar midden, the mounds, perhaps, not earth-forms but depositories layered over time and entombing a people’s artifactual history; the scattered surface shells remnants of the very last food consumed before their culture was swept away by the ravages of the Spanish.

2014-03-16

Another......Beautiful Day

I have found, over the years, that the effort I have exerted in understanding a particular place from an historical, geographical, botanical, biological and meteorological perspective, is richly rewarded in terms of what I am going to call resonance – the feedback loop between a sentient being and its physical setting.

The scope of analysis can differ, but it does seem that the attention we pay to our surroundings enhances the possibility of symbiosis – where what we learn on a theoretical plane is enriched by the actual experience of a place. Perhaps it’s like knowing the plot of a Shakespearean play before attending the performance: an understanding of the narrative structure allows for an openness to the play’s more subtle emanations.

It is the weather, in southern California, that is one of the subtlest aspects of our environment. I often think of a remark attributed to Alice de Janzé in which she had once flung open the shutters of her window in her house in Kenya and declaimed: "Oh, God. Not another fucking beautiful day." De Janzé was a notorious Chicago meat-packing heiress and a key member of ‘The ‘Happy Valley’ set, a community of wealthy expatriates in East Africa in the 1920’s and 30’s, who clearly missed the meteorological vagaries of the Great Lakes region. I still miss the thunderous cycles of sub-tropical weather washing over coastal Sydney, Australia - that great build up of heat and humidity regularly broken by cyclonic storms - which I experienced for a decade before arriving in California.

Once in Los Angeles my regular plaint was, “and when exactly is the rainy season?” Although I arrived at the end of a wet calendar year, 1980, it wasn’t until January 1983 that I had me some serious southern California rain. It started raining late in the season, on my wedding day, the 23rd of the month, and It didn’t let up until late April, for a total of 32”. At that point, my meteorological acculturation was complete - with a visceral understanding of Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood's 1972 lyrics,

Seems it never rains in southern California
Seems I've often heard that kind of talk before
It never rains in California
But girl don't they warn ya
It pours, man it pours

Between 1986 and 1991, Southern California experienced a drought (I still remember the moratorium on water served at restaurant meals). Then the El Nino returned in 1991-1992 and began a series of wet winters culminating in the ‘super’ El Nino of 1997 – 1998, during which I was commuting a few times a week from Santa Monica to Ojai. In that memorable season the rains did not let up until the middle of May and totaled 41”. 2005 also brought heavy late winter rains (36”) to Ojai and briefly marooned our newly acquired land: the 150 was closed at the Grade and at Santa Paula canyon where it crosses Sisar  creek. The only reasonably wet year we have experienced since we moved in to the house in May 2009 was that first winter of 2009-10, when rainfall totaled almost 30”.

While it does sometimes seem as though ‘it never rains in southern California’ where one glorious sunny day succeeds the next, we remember the exceptions, the wet years….the dry, not so much. So it is that we find ourselves, in 2014, deep into a drought that has crept up on us like a (water) thief in the night. We have not, collectively, been paying enough attention and by now the emanations are no longer subtle: oaks are dying; year-round creeks are going dry and wells are failing.

Kit Stolz, a local journalist and the curator of a fine blog, A Change in the Wind, recently arranged a symposium, “Facing Drought Together, A Call to Community Response and Action” to focus the attention of Valley residents on the fact that we might just be half way through a 20-30 year drought. William Patzert, Ph.D., of JPL/NASA, introduced the audience to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) a measure of average ocean temperatures in the Pacific that, historically, switches from a warm-phase PDO (leading to cold and wet weather in the western states) to a cool-phase PDO, which causes warmer, drought conditions, every twenty to thirty years.

Many of Ojai’s residential and agricultural landscapes are predicated on a permanent warm-phase PDO. California’s agriculture was founded on such wet-year optimism: the cattle industry in the mid-nineteenth century was established during a warm-phase PDO and subsequently foundered disastrously when the PDO switched states later in the century - the industry then suffered a terminal decline from drought and drought-induced cattle disease. Ojai’s citrus industry may one day suffer the same fate as the Ranchos.

So, in denial of our own experience of the flood and drought cycles of southern California, it takes a NASA scientist to awaken us to the meteorological realities of our Valleys. A few days later, The Guardian published a synopsis of a new study sponsored by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center that suggests that industrial civilization is likely headed for irreversible collapse…………If it’s not one thing it’s another.

Every age harbors doomsayers, but it is undeniable that every previous civilization of the current post-glacial era, a 10,000 year epoch of civilizational efflorescence (a direct result of a warming climate) has collapsed in circumstances that are now alarmingly familiar. The study highlights the probability that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

The sophistication of our late-capitalist western culture is no guarantee of its longevity. The study notes,

"The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent."

When I taught World History in High School, I used a college level textbook that, from my perspective, was blessedly free of pictures, bar graphs and side-bars. It demanded of the students a sustained textual engagement of which almost all were developmentally incapable. Oh well. But as we marched through the rise and fall of civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Indian sub-continent, we were alternatively entranced or bored stiff by the repetitive story lines. Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy were the recurring characters in these tales of unheeding hubris and mindless careening towards inevitable collapse. This was the mid to late nineties – when the writing on our own civilizational wall was not quite so evident.

It appears now to be all of a piece. Western Civilization is about to be added to the chapters of failed societies where the harvesting of resources outstrips the ecological carrying capacity of the planet and, concurrently, societies are stratified into rich Elites and impoverished Masses. As the lead author of the study, Safa Motesharri  makes clear, our civilization is doomed by either this collapse of the natural world and the resources it provides or a societal collapse engendered by the over-consumption of the Elites and the inequality-induced famine of the Masses or, most likely, a perfect storm of both.

What is striking about the report is that mathematical models suggest collapse is imminent, perhaps within the next fifteen years - which leaves me with the thought: Never mind the drought – Feel the impending civilizational collapse. Pay attention. Time and Place have assumed a profound, dystopian resonance.

2014-03-08

Wild Thing

"It’s the question every writer faces, every morning of his or her life: Am I Malcom Gladwell today, or am I Arthur Rimbaud? Do I sit down with my pumpkin latte and start Googling, or do I fire a couple of shots into the ceiling and then stick my head into a bucket of absinthe?”

This is James Parker’s opening shot (so to speak) in a brief essay on literary bad boys (in honor of William S. Burroughs who was born one hundred years ago this year) in Bookends, The New York Times, February 23, 2014. If I define my personal choice of literary persona, faced by a blank lap-top screen (most often in the evening), along the continuum of milquetoast to bad-boy, then I clearly plump for the lily-livered end of the spectrum. The closest I have come to absinthe is its rather more civilized relative, Pernod, and my experience with fire arms ended in my adolescence with a few half-hearted shots at wood pigeons with a four-ten shotgun and several target rounds with a .303 World War II vintage bolt-action rifle. I have rarely lived my urban life on the wild side. But now, at the edge of the wildland, albeit comfortably ensconced in a modern house, I feel when I broach the keyboard, not only reverberations of the wilderness from without but also stirrings within: atavistic echoes of the primal.

This evening, retreating to the warm embrace of said modern house (which has mild pretensions, in its shape, simplicity and continuous ridged interior volume to being a barn) I brought with me, from my walk up Koenigstein, a frisson of the elemental spritzing my otherwise over-civilized and complacent brain.

A massive wall of marine layer stood on the western horizon, pierced only by the peaks of the Nordhoff range, behind which the sun slipped, its day’s work done well before its scheduled close. Quiffs of cloud scrolled slowly along the Sulphur Mountain ridge, while to the north thin whisps of fog appeared from the east, scribbling over the Topatopa bluffs. I watched the sun sink into its grey blanket while leaning against the south facing side of a riven sandstone rock, my feet against the opposing face of the cleft. From this position of repose, at a little over 2000 feet, there is a commanding view of the upper valley clear to Black Mountain. Walking back through dry grasslands and dead sage, dehydrated coyote brush and over bare earth through which even the redoubtable erodium has failed, thus far, to emerge, I was keenly aware of a change in the weather: an end, at least temporarily, of perhaps the worst Southern California drought in 200 hundred years. By the time this piece posts, we will have experienced the impact of what Wunderground describes thus: “Huge Gulf of Alaska low covering about 4.4 million square miles of the eastern Pacific will bring rain to the area today through Sunday”.

The storm duly lived up to its advance billing and dumped over seven inches of rain on Upper Ojai. The hills resounded with the rush and gurgle of streams: the chaparral came alive. Beneath each rocky fall in each seasonal stream I came across - when I ventured abroad in the lulls between storms - there were clouds of suds as though the rain had awoken the Naiads and each of them, in some sort of crazy mass psychosis, had decided to partake of a bubble bath (Nymphs and Naiads). A more prosaic explanation is that in the three long years since the last major rain, saponins from soap plant roots (Liliacaea Cholorogalum pomeridianum) had leached into the soil and were released, in a foaming frenzy, by the torrents.

The chaparral came alive, but did I? Was this an occasion when the stirrings of the primal were manifested, signaling a revival of my wild self? Was this an Arthur Rimbaud moment? Alas, dear reader, I found myself, on returning to the barn, with a deep yearning for a cup of Yorkshire Tea and a strong compunction to check, on-line, the Ventura County Watershed rainfall totals. In other words, I exhibited, not transformation, but a customary, persnickety frame-of-mind not altogether distant, I suspect, from that of the googling, pumpkin latte loving Malcolm Gladwell.

The wild weekend storm of the 2013-2014 rainfall season was also, by chance, the moment when I finished Feral, George Monbiot’s new book. It is a call to action: for planetary and personal re-wilding. Monbiot is a sometimes inspiring commentator and blogger for The Guardian although he is also, controversially, a proponent of nuclear power (like James Lovelock, the gadfly scientist who established the Gaia hypothesis), a position, post Fukushima, which I believe to be totally, irrevocably, untenable.

In Feral, he calls for the re-introduction of wolves, beavers, lynx and bison into the British countryside in order to initiate ‘trophic cascades’ by which top-predators, by culling their prey, limit the abundance at every level of the food chain and balance the entire ecosystem. The re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone has demonstrated this remarkable phenomenon; by reducing the elk population the river and streams, absent over-browsing at their banks, now support a richer plant community which in turn supports a richer variety of fish, insects, reptiles and mammals.

Monbiot is an effective popularizer but he is very late to this particular party. In Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation, Wild Earth, Fall 1998, Michael Soule and Reed Noss make a succinct case for the reintroduction of the entire set of pre-Columbian carnivores – bears, mountain lions and wolves - throughout the North American wilderness, contending that rewilding is “simply scientific realism, assuming the goal is to insure the long term integrity of the land community”.

There have been two catastrophic extirpations of native fauna on this continent. Human kind is deeply implicated in both. The first occurred over about two thousand years, starting around 12,000 years ago: the great Ice Age herds of megafauna vanished at the hands of Asian big-game hunters (the Clovis people) newly arrived in the Americas – in an egregious over-hunting of the energy resource that fueled their exploration of the continent.

As Soule and Noss point out, contemporary ecosystems remain profoundly altered by this extinction episode and beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing up to the present time, a second wave of killings precipitated the drastic decline of the continent’s mesofauna – the senseless killing of grizzlies, mountain lions, antelope, big-horn sheep and cougars. It is the loss of these keystone creatures that has led to a further biotic simplification and species loss in the American wilderness. At about the same time, another non-renewable energy source, fossil fuels, was being extracted from the earth with little concern for the environmental degradation it caused - so critical was this resource to the development of the modern world.

Now, such impacts have been exacerbated by the global triumph of corporate-driven consumerism, NAFTA, continued over-grazing, tree plantations and population growth. The wildlands are under siege. Rewilding offers a short-cut to a re-imagining of wilderness. While Monbiot bleats about the destructive impact of sheep on the uplands of Britain – territory he considers to be ‘sheepwrecked’ – Soule and Noss are equally emphatic in their belief that the American wilderness “will not recover from past and present insults and mismanagement unless its bears, cougars and wolves return”.

A few weekends ago I visited the California Oil museum in Santa Paula (A Tale of Two Cities) which was featuring a special exhibition, ‘Prehistoric California’ where the skulls of mega fauna such as the saber tooth cat, dire wolf, a prehistoric camel, a horse and ground sloth were on display. Greeting visitors, as they entered the gallery, was a life-size, life-like replica of a saber tooth cat on loan from the Page Museum (Bobcat Magic). This was one truly scary moggie (Brit-coinage for a domestic cat), a wild thing hunted to extinction for its meat, fur and saber teeth – variously used as ornaments, weapons or digging tools. Alive, it ripped and tore its prey with a staggering sanguinity, a bloody-minded top-predator that was a vital motor in maintaining the complexity of its ecosystem.

It is remote and miniaturized descendents of the murderous crew of Pleistocene marauders that biologists understand to be essential for the maintenance of our wildlands. We are fortunate that mountain lion, coyote and bear still roam the lowlands of the Santa Ynez Mountains. But the chaparral lacks the grizzly, the last California variant of which was shot in 1922 (in Tulare County) and it is the re-introduction of this bullocking giant of the chamise pampas (or, at least its northern cousin) that would truly energize the plant and animal community.

The grizzly would open up the chaparral up to its trails – for it is the only animal capable of bending the schlerophytic natives to its will. Its presence would spark a re-imagining of our place in the world, banish our complacency, encourage humility and ultimately move us all a little closer to an engagement with our wild selves. It is a thrilling thought: it makes my heart sing.

2014-02-19

A Tale of Two Cities

We moved to Ojai a little more than five years ago. Now settled on a south facing slope of the Topatopa foothills our home is a part of the scattering of houses along Koenigstein in Upper Ojai. The road turns off the 150 almost exactly halfway between the downtowns of Santa Paula and Ojai. Although the mail is delivered by the Santa Paula Post Office, we are a part of unincorporated Ventura County that is officially known as Upper Ojai.

We have existed in geographic confusion before. In Santa Monica Canyon, where we lived for almost twenty years prior to moving north, we paid our property taxes to Los Angeles and the kids went to the local LAUSD grade school, but our mail was delivered by the Santa Monica Post Office and thus we had a Santa Monica address.

In L.A. we lived, topographically, in an ancient river bottom a few blocks from the beach. In the winter of 1938-1939 a great flood swept through the Canyon creating a wide brown river where once the road and the creek had been. The following year, the WPA created a concrete channel to carry the creek which ran alongside the road or, where the road was bifurcated, right down the middle of the thoroughfare. As a consequence of the flood, a switch in mail delivery from Los Angeles (Brentwood Post Office) to Santa Monica Post Office was organized and has remained in effect ever since.

Here, we live on the cusp of another watery divide: at the edge of Ventura’s two primary watersheds. (Koenigstein falls just to the Santa Clara River, rather than the Ventura River side of the divide). Thus it is that we drop downhill in both directions, some 1200 feet (and eight miles) to Ojai and 1500 feet (and eight miles) to Santa Paula. Despite the fact that Santa Paula enjoys a moderate climate, benefiting from ocean breezes that blow inland along the course of the Santa Clara River, it is, to all appearances, a less prosperous City than the much smaller enclave of Ojai, which suffers extremes of heat and cold. At the same time, there is a discernible class divide which I have discussed previously in Tsunami.

Ojai possesses many of the characteristics that Christopher Isherwood discerned in post-war Santa Monica Canyon,

“It is a shallow flat-bottomed little valley, crowded with cottages of self-consciously rustic design, where cranky, kindly people live and tolerate each other’s mild and often charming eccentricities. The Canyon is our western Greenwich village, overrun now by various types of outsiders, but still maintaining an atmosphere of Bohemianism and unpretentious artiness.”

Santa Paula has a slightly seedy main street with a number of empty storefronts; in surrounding streets are the often shabby Queen Anne houses, craftsman bungalows and period revival cottages that evidence a formerly wealthy community - from the 1890’s through to the beginning of the Depression in 1929, the town grew rich from the oil and citrus industries. Amongst the commercial and civic relics of a long ago economy are two fine neo-classical bank buildings; the 1923 Mediterranean style Limoneira building (now the Santa Paula Art Museum); the 1905 Odd fellows building with its recently restored copper clad clock tower; the shingle-style Women’s Club from 1917 (now the Santa Paula Theater Center); the 1910 craftsman-style Glen Tavern Hotel; the work of local architect Roy C. Wilson in a variety of early twentieth century styles and, perhaps the best known, the bizarrely eclectic Union Oil building on the corner of Main and 10th street.

Despite a brief flourish of store-front face-lifts in the 1950’s, development moved on, in the second half of the twentieth century, to the coastal conurbation of Camarillo, Oxnard and Ventura. Santa Paula now has a population that is 80% Latino (many of whose members work in local agriculture) and a built-environment locked into a small-town dream-time of late nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings with occasional grace notes of post war ebullience and a great deal of forlorn dereliction. The town, although popular with nostalgia fetishists, under-serves its population’s natural desire to live somewhere adjacent to the twenty-first century. Those aspirations can be fully realized at The Collection, via the 126 and the 101, a newly built urban-consumer fantasy now playing in Oxnard at the west end of a recent developer community, Riverpark – leaving Santa Paula as a dormitory exurb with a scattering of local services, a K-mart, a Vons, Tresierras, a supermarket specializing in Mexican and Central American foods, a furniture store, dress shops and two western wear stores (Muwu). It is all quite charming to fans of the Gothic - of small town America moldering in its grave.

This morning the full moon set behind a notch in the Nordhoff ridge surrounded by a bright, pink streaked halo and, as I crested the eastern ridge of Sisar canyon, in the middle distance, the lights of Ojai twinkled in the early dawn. Our lives are Ojai-centric, we are beguiled by Pixies, the Post Office tower and the sheen of prosperity, but back over our shoulders looms Santa Paula peak, and down the hill and east towards the Santa Clara River lies a town with real architectural gravitas and a very significant history in the economic development of the region.

Nordhoff developed as a small rural town in the late nineteenth century. Amidst the jingoism of the First World War it was renamed. Here was a missed branding opportunity: Nod-Off would have fully encapsulated the character of the sleepy town and recycled 75% of the original name. Instead, the moniker of an Indian village in the happy-hunting-grounds of the Upper Valley was purloined with who knows what long-term deleterious psychic consequences. In 1917, the newly christened and formerly shabby western town was made glamorous by the addition of an arcade financed by a mid-western industrialist besotted by the Romance of the Ranchos (Through a Glass, Darkly). Reborn as Ojai, it was, and is, a Potemkin village – the arcade a stick, chicken wire and stucco stage set - the town dressed to appeal to wealthy bohemians from Hollywood. From the beginning it affected an ‘unpretentious artiness’ and was considered, by virtue of its stunning natural setting, a place of spiritual resonance.

Across the street, in an echo of the arcade, there is a re-built pergola which replicates Richard Requa’s original design (bombed in 1967 in the so-called Ojai Hippie Riots and subsequently demolished). Completed in 1999, it partially barricades Libbey Park from the pedestrian and vehicular experience and leaves the park a wasteland frequented by addled teens and their drug-dealers. Thanks to Landscape Architect Kathy Nolan, the park is being naturalized at its edges and may one day approach the quality of the smaller Cluff Park at the western end of downtown. Meanwhile, it continues to be burdened with David Bury’s heavy handed rendition in steel and concrete (2010) of everybody’s favorite funky wooden band shell, home to Ojai’s signature cultural event, the eponymous music festival, whose spirit is now threatened by this ponderous and acoustically mediocre venue.

Ojai gets by on its charm, characterized by an insouciant raffishness that belies its impoverished downtown building stock. Santa Paula enshrines its past in its excellent Oil museum, Agriculture museum and its Art museum while its history lives - on its streets of architecturally significant commercial, civic and residential buildings. Tourism is the life blood of Ojai; in Santa Paula, not so much, although ironically it has a great deal more to offer.

Both towns emerged little more than a quarter of a century after the establishment of the 31st State, but have followed vastly different narrative arcs. I find it impossible to believe that this tale of two cities ends with Latino gangs roaming the streets of Santa Paula and wealthy Anglo-septuagenarians trolling Ojai’s arcade: the rediscovery and rejuvenation of Santa Paula is now being hatched by twenty-somethings in Silver Lake and other hipster colonies in Venice and the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles.

When that happens – watch out Ojai!

2014-01-31

California Spring

For the last half century, I have pictured David Hockney with a schoolboy cap, owlish wire-frame spectacles, skinny, horizontally striped tie, a shock of blond hair and a cigarette drooping from his lips - the perennial bad-boy of British art.

A few weekends ago, in San Francisco, that image was finally retired and the artist, now in his seventies (and I not much more than a decade behind him), established himself in my consciousness not as a caricature but as a great painter of place. It’s not that he hasn’t been painting place all along but in his new show, A Bigger Exhibition, he is willing to demonstrate a level of profundity that he has often preferred to hide. During all those years in Los Angeles (he arrived in 1964, already a star) – a place that has never rewarded depth, except, perhaps, in its swimming pools – he painted surface; then he created the fractured desert polaroids that were so easy to love; but in the late 1990’s he moved to Yorkshire to be close to his ailing parents and he attacked (there’s really no other word for it) the landscapes of his youth. He held them hostage through the seasons, imprisoned them in photographs and video and then made them immortal through the epic scale of his paintings.

At the de Young, all was revealed. His practice, his passion and, ultimately the visual qualities of a very particular environment: the rolling farmland and woods of the East Yorkshire wolds. There were riotous examinations of how we receive images in glorious Technicolor but that the brain most often interprets in sfumato – colors toned down into a smoky medley of sage greens, washed out blues and soupy taupes. Hockney refuses to back off the loud pedal, he forces us to admit that yes, that muddy puddle really is magenta. This is the north of England, in winter, spring, summer and fall, every season rendered in splashy colors and frenetic line and with an urgency that is evident in every brush stroke. That urgency arises from a need to reflect what he sees, not as an idea, but as an image: in turn, we begin to see with him, in thrilling sympathy with his zealous eye and, ultimately, with his honesty as a painter.

The show, barely contained in some ten large galleries, was staged on the ground floor of the De Young, a typically bravura exercise by Herzog and de Meuron, Swiss architects who cloak their only slightly punk modernism with gloriously tactile materials: here embossed copper panels for the low-slung galleries and perforated copper sheets that drape the twisted tower, at one corner of the site, which houses the administration offices and an observation platform. Their 2010 building replaces a bizarre Egyptoid beaux-arts building thankfully felled in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Across the way from the de Young is another architectural entertainment, the Renzo Piano Academy of Sciences, an overtly green building that extends from the surviving limestone wing of the old 1934 building (similarly dealt a death blow in 1989). Retaining the symmetry of the older building, the new is neo-classical modern, with slender steel columns which support an extended canopy shading the inner building in a peristyle. Piano’s new trick is to lay photo voltaics atop the translucent canopy. The body of the building is green roofed in a series of domes studded with occuli sky-lights. The roof, best seen from the upper floors of the de Young, seems to mimic the adjacent mounding land forms, which are heavily treed and vegetated sand dunes.

To learn that Golden Gate Park is an elaborate horticultural confection layered on drifting dunes was disappointing: predictably, I shed a tear for the now forever lost, bleak and wind-blown landscape of yore. By 1880,155,000 trees covered the dunes in typical late-Victorian excess, fashioned, in what we now consider a wrong-headed eclecticism, out of (mostly) California pines and Australian eucalypts. Lorrie noted that this greening of the dunes made it more accessible to the adjacent huddled masses. I was willing to admit that the dunes were probably doomed given the growth of the City and that misguided horticultural adventurism might possibly be preferable to their commercial development.

Back in the de Young, in their permanent American collection, there are a number of mid to late nineteenth century paintings by Albert Bierstadt, 1830–1902, one of those Hudson River School artists who was enthralled with the exoticism of Yosemite and the giant redwoods of California and came west to paint them. Among his paintings on display is California Spring, which portrays a pastoral scene of cows grazing in a field contrasted with an approaching thunderstorm over the Sacramento River valley. This late period Bierstadt is inferior to much of his earlier Yosemite works, less interesting than his giant redwood paintings and less iconic than his heart-rending late painting, The Last of the Buffalo, from 1888, a study for which is also on display at the de Young.

The Spring image is of a tamed landscape - a pastoral that proclaims its domesticity (hence the latter-day aurochs). Yet it is phenomenally popular and prints of the work, now in the public-domain, or hand-painted knock-offs, can be purchased in the size of your choice. Bierstadt’s earlier paintings of the Sierras celebrated the mystical power of wilderness: they were much favored by critics and the public who, at some level, understood that these paintings served the mythic pretensions of the young Republic.

Roderick Nash in his seminal work, Wilderness and the American Mind, 2001, makes the point that wilderness was a basic ingredient of American culture in the nineteenth century. In contrast, Bierstadts’s pastoral idyll, painted at a time in his career when he had fallen from favor, now sounds a ghastly pre-echo of Thomas Kinkade, the self-proclaimed ‘Painter of Light’ whose work became a mass-market cultural cliché in the late twentieth century.

Hockney’s Yorkshire Wold paintings, his iPad series of The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) and the 25 drawings in his charcoal series, The Arrival of Spring in 2013 (twenty thirteen) describe a landscape deeply familiar to him: one shaped by the human hand since the New Stone Age; farmed by Britons through the Iron and Bronze ages, the area then further deforested by the Romans and settled in succession by Saxons, Danes and Normans. Its fertile chalk soils are now subject to some of Europe’s most intense farming. Hockney found, through the seasons (but especially in spring), in the copses, rolling hills and farm tracks of his boyhood a subject for his relentlessly questing eye. Ironically, his iPad drawings of Yosemite which were included in this vast exhibit, and ink-jet printed to a staggering 12’ x 9’, are supremely decorative, but entirely lacking in gravitas.

I am cautiously celebrating the California spring: despite the lack of substantial rain, the season is well underway in the chaparral. Locally, soap plant, wild cucumber, blue-eyed grass, deer weed, peonies, purple nightshade (solanum xanti), goosefoot, vinegar weed, morning glory and erodium (the infidel of the group) are all poking their heads out of the dry ground. Elderberry and chaparral currant are flowering; sycamores and walnuts are leafing out.

Although several oaks have died on the property and, across the way on the north-facing slopes of Sulphur Mountain, many more are now shrouded in canopies of dead leaves, the overall resilience of the schlerophytic natives is phenomenal. Many of the trees are deep rooted and as I walk over the dusty land I imagine the aquifers beneath flowing sluggishly in porous rock or, more often, in slurries of yellow and black sands, nourishing the feeder roots of sycamore, oak, laurel sumac, holly leafed cherry, toyon, walnut, mountain mahogany and ceanothus.

Hockney is now back in Los Angeles, living in the Hollywood Hills. Beguiled for so many years by the exoticism of Los Angeles, fascinated by its faux irrigated landscapes and amoeboid pools, perhaps now, in his new maturity, he will finally discover the chaparral spring as fit subject for his scintillating, late-period landscape painting.

2014-01-23

Pale Creatures

Sleeping alone on a 90 foot fishing boat, moored just off the Costa Rican Pacific coast, Dr. Lori Pye was woken by a dull thud. Getting out of her bunk to investigate, she stumbled on deck and bashed her head against a davit supporting the little motor boat which kept her connected to the mainland. Knocked unconscious, she lay where she had fallen, quite still, until dawn when she became aware that next to her on the cold steel plate was another pale creature: a dead shark, wantonly fished from the ocean, its fins sawed off, and then dumped on deck.

Lori worked with the environmental-action group, Sea Shepherd, when this Godfather-like threat was delivered, presumably by a local poacher enraged by Lori’s work dedicated to the eradication of shark fishing – an activity pursued solely for the profit in preparing the luxury delicacy of shark-fin soup, largely controlled by the Taiwanese. Sea Shepherd subsequently endured an un-happy relationship with the Costa Rican authorities after their intrepid leader, Paul Watson, prematurely attempted the arrest of a long-line shark fishing vessel, the Vadero I, off of Guatemala before taking up Costa Rica’s invitation to help patrol the waters around the Cocos Islands World Heritage site. Watson was arrested when he docked in Puntarenas and charged with endangering the lives of the Vadero I crew. Watson and crew managed to flee the next morning but he has been under indictment ever since and last year was briefly extradited back to Costa Rica to face these decade-old charges.

Lori’s story unfolded in the Administrative offices of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy in a Wild about Ojai talk titled, The Human Ecosystem (January 11, 2014).

Twinned, for a few hours, with a mammal whose consciousness had been brutally ended in asphyxiation while hers had been merely suspended, Lori awoke to an epiphany: that we share our home, the earth, with all other living things in a complex ecosystem that relies, because of human kind’s great ability to do damage to that home and the life-forms within it, on ours species’ collective psychological health - on our understanding of the balance, stewardship and comity required to maintain a healthful relationship with our environment. The well-being of the individual’s psyche can thus be the key to ensuring the outer, physical, health of the planet. After briefly becoming Sea Shepherd’s Director of Operations Lori retreated to the calmer waters of academia to pursue her passion for Ecopsychology, the discipline that addresses these concerns.

 Lori challenged her audience to consider how we might create, as she puts it, “a new narrative for the relationships between nature and human nature”. There are serious structural obstacles in the way of developing such a revised narrative. The foremost barrier to lives lived on the planet in a sustainable relationship - and there are many - is a collective psychological pathology, the transcendent ideology of Capitalism.

This system is entirely dependent on turning natural resources into saleable goods and at this point, as Jerry Mander argues in The Capitalism Papers, Counterpoint Press, 2012, we are engaged in a kind of global, system wide Ponzi-scheme. The collapse of our macro-environmental systems such as the oceans, the atmosphere, rivers and the climate, at least as we know them, seems inevitable faced with the resource pillage necessary to feed the beast, for Capitalism demands not a steady resource diet but one that grows with the expansion of goods and services (the measure of GDP) necessary to ensure ‘the health’ of our economy.

As I pointed out in No Soft Landing, the development of Capitalism as a dominant economic force in the West is coincident with the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels. As such it has thrived over the past three centuries when these resources were plentiful and cheap. Given the finite nature of the world’s mineral resources it is self evident that a system for which growth is imperative will, sooner or later bump up against these limits. Put another way, Capitalism demands the conversion of the living into the dead. Animals, plants, minerals, sunlight and fossilized solar energy are appropriated by the economy at a scale that threatens the very viability of the ecosystem.

The Capitalist bastions are manned by the super-rich. With the possible exception of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age in late nineteenth century America, we have not seen such concentrations of power and wealth as exist today since the European monarchies of the eighteenth century - the excesses of which unleashed a democracy project that continues to unfold. That project, most notably in the United States, has now been captured by the Capitalist oligarchy, through political contributions and lobbying, and subverted to wealth accumulation and the cooption of the public commons to its own ends. Our government now routinely arranges for Corporations and their leaders to escape taxation, receive Government hand-outs and profit obscenely from health care, defense, communications and public works while belt-tightening in the areas of entitlements, education, social services and basic infrastructure is focused exclusively on the 99%.

We are thus faced with a system that is entrenched both economically and politically and supremely adept at the co-option of potentially threatening ideologies such as living in a sustainable relationship with the Earth. In the West, the development of newspapers in the latter half of the nineteenth century enabled the rich to quickly regain control of the recently enfranchised (male) masses. The ability to shape the debate around issues of war and peace remains with the media - still mostly owned by the oligarchy, and still supported, by and large, by purveyors of consumption, advertisers of goods and services blindly driven to an expansion of their markets - and is key to the demagogic control of the public-mind.

Eco-warriors such as Paul Watson operate entirely at the margins or worse, provide fodder for the media industry that perpetuates heedless consumption. Watson’s Whale Wars is into its sixth season on Animal Planet Cable TV which, as VP of ad sales Sharon O’Sullivan gushes to Adweek, November 18, 2013,

“… had all the pet endemics and all the major female packaged-good companies…now we have a really strong proposition against male categories—alcohol, home improvement and the more male-focused end of the movies category.”

Mander, like Naomi Klein (No Soft Landing), believes in a kind of Eco-socialism where corporations would be reconstituted “to harvest private interests to serve the public interest, rather than seek profit”. Perhaps he should try selling that idea on Animal Planet, right between the ads for Gillette’s Venus Embrace Women's Razor and Bud Light.

The history of systemic and radical societal change over the last few hundred years is not pretty, beginning in the late eighteenth century with the French Revolution and moving to the nineteenth to include that first foray into modern industrial warfare, the American Civil War; the twentieth century then offers up the grisly examples of Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot, to name only the most egregious actors in the effort to create new social, economic and political paradigms.

The restructuring necessary to accommodate a fundamentally altered relationship between humanity and nature will dwarf all previous efforts at systemic change. Interior psychological remodeling seems like a very attractive alternative but the ‘new narrative’ must necessarily wait on the unraveling of Capitalism. The resolution, for now, may be to initiate a slow, peaceful, pulling of threads.