2015-03-18

Triple Cream

(Now also at www.urbanwildland.org)

With a stiff neck from watching a one hundred and fifty minute film, I walked out of the Riviera Theater in Santa Barbara on the first day of daylight saving to see a viscous twilight settling over the bay. Lights had begun to appear across the darkling plain of downtown and at the shore's edge, a white twig-like line illuminated with strings of light was etched into the bay - Stearns Wharf: reduced by distance and the scattering of light through the dust and pollution of earth's atmosphere to a filament, a tiny scratch on my retinal canvas.

I had, indeed, just seen Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh's grand biopic of the early nineteenth century painter. I was primed - stretched and gessoed - ready to receive the faintest optical stimulations of atmosphere, earth and ocean. What I got, as I blinked into the early evening's light, was a cineramic shot of the edenic, sub-tropical, crepuscular, Southern Californian, Spanish provincial revival, stage-set fantasy that is Santa Barbara seen from the Elysian heights, above the Mission, on Alameda Padre Serra.

The Riviera Theatre is housed in the auditorium of the old Normal School of Manual Arts and Home Economics, built in 1909. The campus later morphed into the original setting for UCSB. Improbably, the Riviera is the one Santa Barbara screen showing independent and foreign movies. The theater still features a heavy beamed mission-style ceiling and amber wall sconces embellished with a gothic ‘R’. Across the street is the newly re-modeled luxury resort El Encanto which utilizes some of the old buildings from the original dormitories for the Normal school.

Turner painted atmospheres of sufficient viscosity to function as dream catchers - he created external matrices tuned to capture inner thoughts or visions that might otherwise never escape the unconscious. His subject matter - from the horror of a burning slave ship to the pathos of an old Napoleonic era ship of the line being towed up the Thames by steam tug or the technological marvels of the day, like steam trains - was enveloped in texture, color and impressionist mood sufficient to stir inchoate emotions from deep within the viewer. He elaborated the captured moment in ways that produce a gestalt of meaning that transcend the prosaic realities of the original scene.

Leigh shows us canvases (prepared by Turner's housekeeper with benefits) painted, smeared, scratched, and smudged so that they reflect those fleeting moments of visual revelation initially caught in the artist's sketch books. The filmmaker's graceful camera and economical script bring Turner, his domestic life and loves, his rancorous dealings with patrons and the stultifying Royal Academy, his professional jealousies and above all, his fascination with the world of the Thames estuary, so fully to life that our own relationship to place, light and our lived lives is ushered into that delirious zone where the prosaic is ennobled both by a soulful beauty and tenebrous meaning.

This morning, before dawn, a half moon hung overhead giving sufficient light for me to move confidently along the trail; wind buffeted the sage and stirred the scents of the chaparral; no birdsong yet, but the tympanic breath of the warm air filled the aural void. Random fronds of chamise whipped in the breeze and brushed against my body: my senses thus engaged, they resonated somewhere deep within me.

The painter’s contemporary, Wordsworth, practiced a similar recollection of fleeting events in tranquility and then a transposition into enduring verse. Both artists were assiduous in broaching the concerns of the day while expanding the consciousness of their audience with bravura renditions of purely visual, often natural, phenomena. It has not entirely escaped my notice that I practice a journeyman version of this device of sugar-coating the pill. The compulsion to concretize the evanescent too, is an enduring artistic compulsion - as is the use of beauty to cloak intellectual constructs and critiques: they are at the heart of the artistic endeavor. But the Romantics, and Turner is surely one such, were also engaged in the practice of drawing back the veil: of revealing the sublime beyond the quotidian surfaces of the world.

At first light, the sky is almost fully illuminated and the sun's impending appearance is heralded by a yellow wash leaking around the back lit silhouette of the Santa Paula ridge. An ocean of fog creeps slowly up the Santa Clara river delta bounded by the headlands of South Mountain and Point Mugu. Here was a Turneresque background in the chaparral: but the master was more than a painter of seascapes, landscapes and atmosphere: he imbued his scenes with social, historical and economic significance. Turner would require a foreground, at the edge of the waves of fog, and extending picture plane left. A native scene: a collection of thatched, beehive shaped huts clustered along the Santa Clara River valley, blue tendrils beginning to coil out of the hut's smoke holes and about them, the first flurry of the mornings activities animating the plain, would have served. His was an imagination, typical of the nineteenth century intellect, that slipped easily into past worlds.

Turner's, proto-impressionist paintings shot his viewers half a century or more into the future enabling them to see the world with something that approached a modern sensibility. He attached emotion to the everyday and wonder to the extraordinary. Karl Ove Knausgaard, that voice of the moment who has elevated the neuroses of the schlub to an art form, writes in My Saga (2015),

"The external has to awaken something within; nothing means anything in itself, it is the resonance it produces, in the soul and in the language, that gives meaning to the thing described."

In the chaparral this week, the externalities stirring my soul are the triple cream blossoms of the native clematis, holly leafed cherry, and elderberry. They have no need of artistic mediation - they speak directly to me. Here in the wildland, the veil may be drawn back, transcending the picture plane, abrogating the word and eschewing the moving image. The prickly, scented, untidy and random profligacy of the dull green fuzz that clings to the earth's crust in Southern California - still, in places, in its primal state - can fully reveal the soulful adumbrations so hard won by the Romantics and now, by the logorrheic Knausgaard. It offers transport to the Universe's infinitude where the romantic spirit may collapse into a vertiginous gyre of the sublime.

2015-03-04

Owl's Head Clover

Also at www.urbanwildland.org

In Brooklyn last weekend, Prospect Park was limned in monochrome only occasionally leavened by a snow plow's colorful livery or a red, yellow, or blue jacket of a runner who had not gotten the memo: black cold weather running gear best complements the snowy wastes of the park. It was a few degrees above freezing and a plow's blade had cleared a dark band of wet asphalt between rippled piles of slush. Across the white meadows and steely grey lakes stood a black filigree of trees that plumed towards a leaden sky. The previous day, half a foot of snow had fallen transforming the park into this visual slurry of white ash and charcoal.

Returning to California, the Jet Blue Airbus 321 takes off and then traces a wide arc out into the Atlantic offering its passengers aerial visions of the snow fringed continent, black and white cornrows of Long Island's Levitt towns, and then the obsidian daggers of industrial jetties carrying oil pipe into the wintry ocean; then, as I watch (now on the seat-back screen's map channel) the blue silhouette that serves as the plane's pixeled icon turn, in the blink of an eye, towards a crude cartographic representation of the white heart of a mostly frozen land, I plunge again into the dense, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, deeply sectarian, tribally costumed and variously be-hatted world of Patrick Leigh Fermor's magisterial travelogue, The Broken Road, (2013).

As a youth, the author walked the length and breadth of pre-WWII Bulgaria, and remembered his journey, with startling clarity, in his old age. I was driven, from Park Slope (and around Grand Army Plaza) then along Eastern Parkway towards Jet Blue's revivification of Saarinen’s spread-winged terminal almost entirely oblivious of the social, ethnic, economic, religious, national, and political enclaves through which I was passing. I glimpsed (and conjectured) along the eight-lane, bifurcated street (and heaven knows, over the continental United States) that there is substantial evidence of our ethnic heterogeneity: yet Levi Strauss' pronouncement in Triste Tropiques (1956) that we are headed for a global mono-culture remains prescient.

On many of Brooklyn's streets, terra-cotta, common brick, yellow brick, brick clinkers, pale rough-cast stone, granite and brownstone alternatively wrap ossified cavities (their interiors often encased in dark woods) that once hosted lively communities of worshippers. This borough is famously replete with churches, most dating back to the former city's days as the most populous in the country. Now these varied ecclesiastical edifices remain as hulks, massively irrelevant carcasses in a world gone secular - where Mammon has established his patriarchal sway, attended by nymphs proffering votives of enabling technology.

Barclays Center - a rusting, Corten-clad Leviathan seemingly hauled up from the Hudson River on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush is a twenty first century corporatized multi-use venue. Here the many arrive to worship their sports stars and, this spring, for instance, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, The Who, Stevie Wonder, and other aging acts still, apparently, of appeal to what, in another borough, is known as the bridge and tunnel crowd; here they are enraptured in a place which once was at the heart of multi-ethnic low and middle income neighborhood. Sometimes known locally as the 'Slug', this facility represents the creeping Manhattanization of Brooklyn, a dilution of ethnic, economic and. cultural diversity before the leveling impact of a global corporate mono-culture. On some nights, streets that once may have seen a multiplicity of headgear are swamped by a sea of black, Chinese made Brooklyn Nets snapback hats - a sign of the wearer's allegiance to a company of tall, ball-bouncing mercenaries: but I suppose that there is also, in that flotilla of brimmed cloche, some of the same exoticism of which Fermor takes note in a Turkish graveyard where stone pillars marked the graves. He writes,

“The lower and older ones, chipped, split, tilted askew and leaning at all angles, were crowned with extravagant carved headgear….They expanded like giant pumpkins and vegetable marrows, intricately pleated round a cone, and sometimes a helmet’s point pricked through the bulbous folds; others were coil upon stone coil of twisted linen; yet others, jutting fluted cylinders adorned with aigrettes. What pashas and agas and beys, what swaggering bimbashis, what miralais with mandarin whiskers, could have worn these portentious headpieces?”

The avowed modernist Ataturk abolished the fez and turban (of which the above lithic draperies are all examples) in 1920. The elaboration within, and multiplicity of, social worlds is a defense against cultural entropy – the process where taste devolves towards what used to be called mass culture.

Complexity empowers the human world. Monoculture destroys vitality and facilitates entropic decay. Mark Fisher points out that “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics” Capitalist Realism (2008).

At the same time, the natural world is increasingly homogenized by the growth of monoculture agriculture, destruction of habitat, the spread of invasive species and by global warming. The bright green weeds of the world are by their very nature, dominator species – bent on global hegemony over the vast variety of the plant kingdom.

Once upon a time, there was a world of plenty and peace. Over this beneficent tranquility ruled the Great Goddess. But it was but a small step to move from Goddess culture to what Riane Eisler calls an 'androcratic' social organization under a patriarchal God where domination of the natural world, women and the physically weak is condoned: where might makes right and where rigid hierarchies of power prevail. We are the heirs to such a world.

Complex communities of varied ethnicity, taste and culture have long been under threat from the dominator ideology of neoliberal capitalism. A desacralized Nature is threatened externally by the plundering of its economic resources and within it, by opportunistic flora and fauna, abetted by deliberate and accidental, humanly engineered migrations that further degrade native ecosystems of their complexity and stability.

Long before the godhead was anthropomorphized, human societies lived in worlds of enchantment where there was a recognition that the infinite energy of the universe existed in all things. Then, the human task was to propitiate all that they touched in supporting their livelihoods and worship all that surrounded them. Then, men and women were equipped with egos that remained subservient to the world soul, and humankind's chthonic unconscious acted like a pervious membrane that allowed for the universe to flow in and human intention to flow out.

Drifts of owl’s head clover are set in a lush backdrop of weeds. The plant's slightly purpley red pin-cushion flower heads rise above a sea of alien grasses, clovers, and the irrepressible erodium. The trails through the chaparral that a couple of weeks ago were rock strewn dirt tracks are now grassy, virid veins that thread through the dull brown green and shadowed wild lands. It has rained again: New York's snow echoed in Ojai by half an inch of warm rain. Imported, European sourced chlorophyll is rampant: there are places that look like gimcrack evocations of the Emerald Isle.

This morning I awoke to the steady drum of rain on our metal roof. At first light I saw the Topatopa bluffs were rimed with snow that clung to ridges spread across the spalled sandstone - the dark rock banded in white. To the east, the Santa Paula ridge was lightly dusted while its conical peak was white with snow. Below, as light began to stream over the upper valley, the chaparral remained its dour, somber self; at its edges, meadows, the bright green of trails, and weedy roadside verges pulsated with a manic vigor.

For a moment, I am transfixed again by the clover, lost in its exuberance and its native beauty. I am enchanted - transported to a more complex time (paradoxically), long, long ago, when magic inhered in the world.

2015-02-11

Blue Dicks

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

Sometimes a Blue Dick is just a Blue Dick. But these native hyacinths, appearing after a storm of ceanothus blossom has blown through the chaparral, are a harbinger of spring. We have arrived at that time of the year, at least in Ojai, when we are again reminded by the creaking of the seasonal gears that all of life is transitory - that nothing lasts forever. The entire planet is date-stamped.

Heading into the holiday season, what passes for our winter – an occasional cold snap or rainy day – held a firm grip on my imagination: Spring was not even the palest glow on the edge of the event-horizon. Six weeks later, I am inclined to believe again in the reliability of the celestial clockwork.

Another spring is also heralded by the sickening candy-pink of prickly phlox flowers, often alongside more demure corn-flower blue solanum and white, wild cucumber blossoms. Crinkly leaves of soap plant are emerging from the hard-pack and goosefoot (Chenopodium californicum) is in full leaf. Poison oak gleams malignantly from its shiny new foliage. The native peonies are almost done, true denizens of the topsy-turvy world of the chaparral where plants flourish in winter and begin to wither and die in spring. High on a hill, California poppies nod toward the south. Owls head clover have appeared in the meadows. Lupins are flowering and blue Ceanothus spinosus, which blooms a few weeks later than the white varieties (whose massed polar clouds are now diminishing), is freshly in evidence.

It’s that time of the year on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills when spring and summer collections are on display in the flagship stores of international brands that the line both sides of the street between Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire; (within too, a courtyard mall that worms its way into a surrounding block and along a street that wriggles through another section in the development parterre).

Just a week ago, walking along these bastions of early twentieth-first century global-consumer capitalism (sound track supplied by Maserati and Lamborghini as their pilots trawled the gold-paved streets) deep in the maw of our profoundly ego-centric culture, I was reminded how different is the experience of living apart from such displays; of how my psyche has been split asunder living in Upper Ojai where the portal that yawns before me leads not towards Ralph Lauren’s new spring/summer collection, but directly into the World Soul.

Lorrie and I were headed to a restaurant to meet friends: Chinese tourists bustled past us clutching their newly bought fashions, equally available in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong - and perhaps other Chinese cities of which I remain unaware; but here at the heart of the American dream, their goods come branded with the unique frisson of having been purchased on Rodeo Drive (on a warm winter’s afternoon). Here too, global brands are richly burnished by the triple imprimaturs of the eponymous Hillbillies’ town, Los Angeles and Southern California. Rodeo Drive represents, for the out-of town, lustful consumer, a quadruple threat.

Cloistered beneath the crumbling face of the Topatopa bluffs, I daily face a similarly multitudinous threat to the erstwhile sanctity of my ego. That’s a good thing. Jung re-established the eternal truth that the earth is more than matter, it is spirit. It is that spirit that now erodes the primacy of my ego, nurtured in some of the most consumer-centric cities in the world – London, Sydney and Los Angeles. Walking down Rodeo Drive represented a mannerist mirror to my past, a ghastly, glittering apparition of the road not taken. For in each city, despite being lured by their urban surfaces polished by desire - by the continuum of fashion-driven development over the ages - I have also found some refuge in more elemental circumstances: the woods and downs of darkest Surrey, the beaches and bush of Sydney’s North Shore and the bay beaches and chaparral edges of Los Angeles. Now in Ojai, I am able to fully allow what Jung called the ‘conditioning of the mind by the earth’.

David Tacey, in Edge of the Sacred – Jung, Psyche, Earth, Daimon Verlag, Zurich, 2009, explains. The history of human spirituality has been divided, he suggests, into two broad streams: the sky-pointers who see the heavens as representing the sacred realm and the earth-pointers who understand that the sacred inheres within the earth. These two distinct spatial heirophanies are represented on the one hand by the major monotheisms and on the other by polytheistic animism. This spatial mapping of the sacred is reflected, in Jungian terms, within the human psyche.

For Jung, the psyche included both conscious and unconscious psychic processes. How the elements, or forces, within these processes are resolved results in individuation. The ego exists at the center of the field of consciousness and stands guard at the border of the inner and outer worlds. The unconscious is the repository for all past and future thoughts and repressed emotions which are not being experienced in the moment. Within the unconscious there resides the shadow, an underworld that aggregates the parts of ourselves we most fear as well as the intelligences that reside in the collective unconscious, or group mind, and ultimately, is attuned to the World Soul. For Jung, it is the shadow to which the earth speaks.

In the global north, at least since the Enlightenment, and arguably since the rise of patriarchy and monotheistic religion, the ego has enlarged its domain within the psyche at the cost of the shadow within the unconscious. Thus the earth has increasingly gone unheard.

The shadow world of the subconscious, what Jung calls the chthonic portion of the psyche, was fed by the ancient religions of pre-modern humanity. Jung notes that ‘dark powers, witches, magicians and spirits’ represented the forces of the earth and these archaic forms held sway over an emasculated ego in primitive humans. But this form of magical thinking was undermined by the rise of science; Jung writes,

“This was the first stage in the despiritualization of the world. One step followed another: already in antiquity the gods were withdrawn from mountains and rivers, from trees and animals”.

Jung posits, in his Terry Lectures from 1940, that the dominant, modern form of thinking leaves us bereft: in a spiritual and emotional wasteland where the earth has become desecrated, desacralized and is plundered to satisfy our gross egotistical desires. Thus he predicts the psychic roots of our growing environmental crisis.

Yet spirit still inheres in the land. The spirit dynamics of the earth can overturn and replace the aspirations of the ego. Material desire can wither and die as connections are made with the natural world. The shadow can rise again and fully inhabit the unconscious creating a base of spiritual profundity that can heal the individual: in society, such a realignment might heal the planet.

Here, where all is sky and bio-mass, damp earth and trickling streams, is a world that calms - a world that subtly shapes one’s psyche. On a meadow, just up the road, blue dicks rise out of the grasslands, or sometimes push out of sun-splashed rocky soil. Violet blue, their flowers are the color of the heavens: but they direct our attention not towards the empyrean, but to the spirit earth, where primordial forces may one day link again with humanity and bring an ecological order to the planet.

For the Chumash, this plant they called Shikh’o’n was a valuable food source. Their bulbs were roasted in communal lily (brodiaea) roasting pits (Timbrook). It was a beloved plant that featured in their tales of Coyote trickery: it was deeply rooted in their magical thinking. It helped sustain, as did all things of the earth, their psychic balance within a world of enchantment. More than a harbinger of spring, it represented a complex spirit essence; it spoke to the deep chthonic streams within Chumash psyche.

This early spring, it spoke to me.

2015-01-31

Candy, Candy

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

In the burgeoning bohemian capital of Ojai (as Architectural Digest gushes in a recent blog piece), we live at the vortex of a luxury market devoted to an ethos of the organic, natural, hand-crafted, and locavore.

There’s no denying the appeal of artisanal foods, small-batch beverages and locally-sourced goods made from natural materials. Yet the market for such products typically exists, in the Global North, in wealthy societies underpinned by an antithetical means of production – corporate capitalism.

How do we live with this paradox?

The prevailing goods and services and means of communication across the planet are the products of advanced technologies that have been created with the deliberate goal of reducing the amount of hands-on labor involved and concentrating the profits of such endeavors into the hands of the few.

This phenomenon was enabled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the development of a highly focused and reductive way of looking at the world known as The Scientific Revolution, and its practical adjunct, The Industrial Revolution. Advances in weaponry, navigational technologies and transportation enabled peoples from countries who first adopted this new outlook to colonize great swathes of the planet and use foreign labor and raw materials to enrich their own societies. Thus we have the familiar tale of modern civilization: a world founded on the twin pillars of rational scientific analysis and greed. It replaced a pre-modern age of manual labor, hand crafts and food and drink that, even if often scarce, were always organic.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, increasing mechanization of large scale agriculture reduced the number of jobs available to rural populations and made available a vast labor pool for the new industries of mass production. A similar process continues to play out in the so-called developing world today. A universe of artisanal production and small, mixed farms of crops and livestock is being replaced by hugely productive, artificially fertilized mono-crop agri-businesses and meat factory farms tied into a global distribution system, enabled by the fossil-fueled internal combustion engine. Displaced rural workers, over the generations, have become fully enmeshed in the modern world, overwhelmingly as passive consumers rather than as active producers.

Yet we continue to crave the organic artisanal foods and hand-crafted goods that once were our birthright and in Ojai and select towns and suburbs throughout California, they are readily available, marketed by an array of local providers. We may even fantasize about a universal reversion to organic farming methods, localized production and hand-made goods: but we are dimly aware that such a transition might entail the destruction of corporate capitalism along with all the financial, health, food, communications, transport, scientific research, education and consumer goods that the system supports. For most people too, their livelihoods (and their ability to purchase artisanal luxuries) depend on the maintenance of that system.

Patti Smith, who played the Granada in Santa Barbara recently, has the answer.

She sang,

I had a dream, Mr. King, if you'll beg my pardon
I was trespassing a sacred garden
And the blossoms fell and they dropped like candy
And the nature cried, "Gandhi, Gandhi"
And the nature cried, "Gandhi, Gandhi"

And then,

Long live revolution and the spinning wheel
Awake, awake is the mighty appeal
Oh, people awake, awake from your slumber
And get 'em with the numbers
Get 'em with the numbers……

The numbers are indeed what it is about: the planet’s ability to support over seven billion people depends on the cruel system of production and reward the powerful have devised over the last half millennium and whose viability is profoundly dependent on the ravaging of the natural world – of trespassing a sacred garden.

This week, the chaparral has also spoken. Ceanothus blossom is dropping like candy. Nothing is as sweet in the local elfin forest as buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus) in bloom. The Santa Ana winds of late January have scattered the tiny white petals across the chaparral trails. On still days the sweet scent hangs in the air: anchored by a dark, honey fragrance freshened by herbaceous sage-like top notes it is redolent of the nose of a vintage Sauterne; of floral candy.

Gandhi used a spinning wheel as a symbol of self-sufficiency: it represented a way to replace industrially produced clothing with self-spun khadi cloth dhotis, lungis, kurtas and sarongs. His was a vision of self-employed small farmers and craftspeople who lived in small villages rather than cities and derived their livings entirely within the local community; governance, to the extent that it was required, would be organized through consensus driven village assemblies.

Gandhi was adamant in his opposition to the centralized, industrialized, and mechanized modes of production that the British had developed and he fully understood the impact of India’s economy becoming subservient to that system. He preached, “Not mass production, but production by the masses”. Transportation in traditional, rural India is by foot, bicycle and ox-cart and Gandhi saw no need for further elaboration. One of the great symbols of Britain’s command and control of the sub-continent was its vast network of railways: Gandhi understood its true significance as a conduit of imperial power.

We are now, ourselves, mostly colonial subjects of multi-national industrial capitalism: a system ultimately upheld by governments, legal frameworks and militarized police forces. Notions of the organic, natural, hand-crafted, and locavore are a subset of broader concepts of sustainability, localism and democracy. Gandhi’s idea of Swadeshi, or home economy, retains its relevance: there can be no genuine embrace of the local without breaking the bonds of a globalized economy.

Our fetishization of organic food, natural fabrics and homewares fits neatly into the prevailing economic model as a high-end, boutique market ultimately sustained by consumers fully embedded within neo-liberal economics and the industrial modes of production, transportation and communication it enables.

If we are to awake from our slumbers and get ‘em with our numbers, it will take a little more commitment than shopping at the farmer’s market, driving a Prius and enjoying device-free home-cooked meals with our families.

Clouds of ceanothus blossom have emerged from the chaparral. Surely, in Ojai, we can hear nature’s cries of “Gandhi, Gandhi”? The blossoms have dropped like candy: it’s time to get our dhoti on.

2015-01-22

The Long March

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

In Blood Meridian (1985) Cormac McCarthy writes of the Sonoran desert,

“…here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships.”

In such wildlands, he seems to suggest, individual consciousness and even morphic distinctions evaporate beneath the Universe’s gaze. In these landscapes too, something similar happens to time. It expands to become the eternal now. Left behind in the cosmic dust are such pettifogging notions like: the future is unknowable, the end is near and the past is a foreign country.

Moment to moment, experience is immediately consigned to the past but is used, in that moment, as a guide to the future. It is in these realms of memory and of conjecture that most of us, in our daily lives, reside. Despite our best intentions of being present, we exist in a netherworld where our thoughts structure our experience - their surge and back wash constituting our notions of the past and the future: the present consigned as nothing more than grist to its mill. Thus it is that we are trapped temporally within a current flowing between past and future, urged on by the Time Lords, remorseless in their dedication to vanquishing the present.

In the world of the Chumash, enmeshed in their wildlands, fully present in their animist universe, there was an escape from the smothering folds of past and future into the knife-edge of the now. It’s a hell of a way to live, but perhaps the only way to be fully alive.

Early in January, I drove into the Chumash territory north and east of Santa Barbara. Perhaps more accurately, I drove north into Chumash Casino territory, for it is this palace of fine dining, entertainment and gambling that is the most visible symbol of those who claim a genetic link to the native American tribes that shared similar languages and cultures from Malibu in the south to Ragged Point in the north, along coastal plains bound by the Santa Monica and Santa Ynez Mountains and, beyond, by the San Rafael Mountains and the Santa Lucia Range. The forbears of the Santa Ynez Band, who now look to the casino for their wealth, were effectively exterminated, along with all of their Chumash brethren, by the Franciscan brothers, ably led by Junipero Serra, with mop-up operations conducted by Americans who flooded into Southern California in the mid nineteenth century. So it was that the tribe’s eternal now, which lasted for at least 13,000 years (Erlandson), was effectively ended by the beginning of the twentieth century.

While Indian consciousness may have endured in a state of immediacy, the people ever receptive to the sensory impulses of a constantly numinous world, their physical setting was undergoing massive change. As the climate warmed at the end of the last Ice Age, sea levels rose dramatically along the southern Californian coast - by as much as 400’ north of Point Conception along more exposed coastlines. During the melt water pulses of 13,500 and 11,000 years ago the rate of rise was between six and thirteen feet per century (Masters and Aiello, Postglacial Evolution of Coastal Environments, 2010) inundating vast areas of the coastal plains that had originally been inhabited by California’s first settlers.

Much of the evidence of these Paleo-Indian people is thus buried beneath the ocean, along a now submerged coast. It is at least partly because of this buried archeological treasure that there is now growing support for the designation of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary to fill the gap with sanctuary protection between the Channel Islands and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries.

Meanwhile, I was far in-shore, ensconced for a few days in Los Alamos, originally part of the estate of La Purisima Mission. In 1839 the land was granted, under Mexican rule, to Antonio de la Guerra as Rancho Los Alamos. By the 1860’s it was a popular stagecoach stop en route to San Francisco. The Union Hotel was opened in 1880 on the main street (Bell Street) and survives still as a kitsch curiosity, rivalled only by a truly hideous 1864 Victorian mansion which stands close by and is now operated as a themed room bed-and-breakfast. The town was a stop on the narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway which ran from Los Olivos to San Louis Obispo from the 1880’s through the early 1930’s as both a passenger line and a freight line servicing the agricultural and oil industries. A former freight shed still stands in Los Alamos and now houses an antique mall. When I first visited fifteen years ago, the town seemed to echo with a death rattle as semi-trailers rumbled past lots left vacant since a devastating 1893 fire and empty storefronts.

Long ago, a Chumash village sat amongst the cottonwoods that run through the valley. As its population was impressed as newly baptized neophytes in the early 1800’s they quickly succumbed to the diseases, depredations and the enforced labor required by the Franciscans at the nearby mission. An 1840’s small pox epidemic struck the last of the Indian population and by the mid-1850's only eight natives were left in the valley.

The town is in the process of being resurrected from this forlorn history as the northern outpost in the food and wine triangulation of the Santa Ynez Valley, anchored by Los Olivos and the town of Santa Ynez. The Chumash Casino is a meretricious outlier to these bastions of the haute bourgeoisie and their junior acolytes, hirsute and inked hipsters. Withal, the jewel encrusted dead hand of hyper-capitalism, here conjured by the twin cities of gold, Los Angeles and San Francisco, lies over the lean and racy wines and the field fresh food of this clustering of new restaurants, delicatessens, bakeries and tasting rooms.

The Spanish arrived in California determined to develop feudal estates around their mission system using the native population as serfs. Even as late as the eighteenth century, Spanish colonial rule harkened back to the feudal but here in California the model collapsed in a plague of introduced diseases and famine. The intended broad base of compliant laborers died in mission, field and their erstwhile villages, in an unintended genocide.

Around Purisima, the land then passed into the Rancho system where remnant Indians and low-caste Mexicans served their aristocratic masters (many newly minted) and thus replicated, slightly more successfully, the medieval economic system. Feudalism was then engulfed by the gold rush that opened up the 31st. State to mercantile capitalism before agriculture, oil, shipping, real estate, banking, tourism and entertainment finally moved California into a mature capitalist system.

Contemporary cultures, driven by neo-liberal capitalism, have now fully abandoned the present: they are, instead, consumed with the future. Los Alamos has been shaped over the last one hundred and fifty years by competing visions of transport – from stagecoach to railroad to the original route of the 101, and is now being revived by notions of how we might eat and drink in an idealized future where artisanal practice somehow trumps the pervasive world reality of industrially produced food and beverages. The past is fetishized by re-purposing the town’s buildings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as emporia of twenty-first century boutique consumption.

This morning, a still sea of mist lay over the Santa Clara River in a faint visual echo of the roiling melt waters that first carved the valley. Far above, in the chaparral canyon which funnels a tributary towards the river, the heavy scent of ceanothus blossom hung in the air while the sound of my breathing, my footfall and bird song further occupied my senses. For a moment, I escaped into the now. I eluded the Time Lords, whose rule began in the waning days of the dark-ages when hunters, gatherers, woodsmen and fisher-folk were first organized into a laboring under-class to serve the aspirations of the rich and powerful: the first step in our long march to the future. Under their unrelenting tutelage, we have consumed the present.

2015-01-05

Dawn

I leave at first light: into a world of monochrome and mystery. I attend the re-birth, the becoming. The moment when the story of our planet, over the last ten thousand, one million, two hundred million; no, four point five four billion years is re-substantiated, each morning (thus far), as the sun first washes the sky with its incandescence.

I am loathe to leave the mire, the murk, the half-light: but inexorably the earth catches fire and slowly assumes its morning colors. The chaparral is as reluctant as I am to embrace the morning light: its drab green lingering still in the darkling. The blonde thickets of dead mustard stalks and tumbleweed along the roadway are the first to reflect the early glow – skeletal non-natives seemingly crowing to the world of their colonial triumph, accompanied by the trumpets of dawn.

As the sky brightens, the pencil line of a jet contrail is drawn across the northern sky. To the east, flecks of apricot appear to float in a milky soup. The still dark Oxnard plain is wreathed in grey-blue mists and the distant Santa Monica Mountains recede in ever-lightening ranks until they become one with the heavens. But the sinews of the industrial state have begun to emerge from beneath the cloak of night. The road’s fog line, yellow double center line, the airline, the fence line and the oil pipeline reassert their Cartesian grip on the amorphous shadowings of the dark. Only the natural gas flare in the oil patch at the top of Koenigstein reverses the process of dawn’s revelations– its bright flame slowly drowned in the sun’s emerging candlepower. Meanwhile, the antic silhouette of the pump becomes ever more emphatically etched against the sky.

Yes, it’s that time of year again when Hanukah, Solstice, Christmas, New Year’s and my birthday conflate into one almighty hammer blow to my consciousness. A moment of reckoning amidst ancient symbols of light: the menorah, the lighted tree and my candle strewn birthday cake all conspiring to coax the low, southerly arc of the sun back towards the meridian (and for me, another turn of the bell-wheel towards the chimes at midnight). Running through the dawn – in re-creation of the beginnings of time, of evolution, of the triumph of civilization, of the last gasp of the culture of fossil-fueled capitalism – adds a perspective to my existence as a tiny foot-soldier of Empire. With little left to lose, but with diminishing time to act, I am slowly beginning to strain at the bonds of servitude.

I have been reading Edward Abbey. The Edward Abbey Reader, Desert Solitaire, Fire on the Mountain and now Beyond the Wall. I have also been reading some of the eighty essays included in Moral Ground, Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, edited by K.D Moore and M.P. Nelson (2010). As one might expect from both the title and subtitle, it is a high-minded tome. It also often misses the point. Writer Kate Rawles, for instance, calls for A Copernican Revolution in Ethics – a great leveling in which the human species no longer privileges its own needs over the rest of the natural world - all very laudable: yet she suggests that this might be achieved while,

“…we keep the best of the industrialized world’s education, communication, medical advances, time-saving appliances, music literature, painting, low-impact technology, and even transportation systems.”

Good luck with that. In other words, she is advocating a selective overturning of humankind’s prevailing ethos of progress, success and development based on infinite growth on this planet of finite resources. E.O Wilson, on the other hand offers his usual sage analysis,

“…We strayed from Nature with the beginning of civilization roughly ten thousand years ago. That quantum leap beguiled us with the illusion of freedom from the world that gave us birth.......(supposedly) smart people choose to remain innocent of the historical principal that civilizations collapse when their environments are ruined.”

The reliably hard-headed Derrick Jensen asks, “Do you believe that this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?” Referencing the behavior of Nazi doctors, many of whom attempted to ameliorate death camp conditions but never challenged their underlying premise, he suggests that we are in an analogous predicament,

“We do not question the existence of an economic and social system that is working the world to death, that is starving it to death, that is imprisoning it, that is torturing it. We never question a culture that leads to these atrocities.”

Abbey was equally tough-minded. He never doubted that environmental sanity would be hard won and most likely would entail a considerable die-off of humanity. He personally contributed to this notion by shuffling off the mortal coil at the comparatively young age of 62. He left behind twenty books in which live the flames of radical environmental action, kindled in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Such radicalism has now been suppressed by those who preach the possibility of sustainability within the structure of industrial civilization; his (and other Earth Firster’s) anarchic impulses now neutered by those comfortable with the idea of endless ‘sustainable’ growth, blind to the fact that this represents, as Abbey noted, “cancerous madness”. We have left our affairs “too long in the hands of kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners”. By Abbey’s reckoning, “Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization” of this fact and confirmed over five thousand years of human experience.

Jensen writes, when most people ask, “How can we stop global warming?” what they are really asking is “How can we stop global warming without significantly changing this lifestyle that is causing global warming in the first place?” Ending industrial capitalism is, as they say, off the table, yet it is the simplest and most complete solution to our environmental malaise: it will not be achieved by tweaking the status quo.

As I emerge from mid-winter’s orgy of celebration, gifting, and over-consumption it is time to consider how my actions might align with my rhetoric; how my reflections might inform my future behavior. How I might walk the talk. These considerations will continue to be a part of my reporting from the urban wildland.

Another day, another dawn: western sky flushed with pink, scrawled across it is an oblique ‘X’ - the contrails from two early rising military jets from Vandenberg Air Force base: our Imperial warriors in their bliss. The full moon is balanced on a distant peak of the Santa Ynez mountains, it slips out of view just as the sun begins to carpet the upper crags of the Nordhoff ridge in a pointillist tapestry of red brown and gold. The universe remains in full working order despite the earnest environmental hand-wringing on one of its lesser planets.

First up for 2015: a new location on the web. Early in the year, this site will migrate to urbanwildland.org, escaping the google blogger ghetto and reincarnate as an illustrated blog powered by Square Space.

2014-12-21

Sea Fever

Those of the bourgeoisie who are handicapped by their hyper-extended educations and tedious histories of talking therapies usually avoid words that have, linguistically speaking, a high degree of modality like ‘must’ and ‘should’. We don’t do emphatic injunctions (see what I did there?). We prefer shadowy multi-valence: we seek out grounds for misconstruction, shy away from certitude and are perpetually prepared to flee along carefully established verbal escape routes.

The poet John Masefield, however, was largely self-taught and, as far as I know, un-analyzed. Although thoroughly upper-middle class (within the taxonomy of the British class system) and thus, in the Edwardian era, expected to go to one of two Universities he was, instead, sent away to sea having been diagnosed by a maiden aunt as, heaven forbid, a bookworm. Ironically, (for said aunt) the merchant seaman has ample spare time and a distinct lack of amusements available to him on the high seas (in an age before digitized movies). The youth was therefore shipped into an ideal environment for literary annelids, far richer even, than the bookish humus available at Oxbridge and one already possessed of an old-boy of unimpeachable credentials, Joseph Conrad.

All of this, it seems to me, is essential background to an understanding of,

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky…..”

This line is responsible (among so many others) for the ill-repute into which almost all rhyming poetry has fallen. The sing-song attack that generations of English and not a few American school children use in the annihilation of poetic reason likely smothers Masefield’s next line,

“And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…..”

in a typical abnegation of meaning as rhythm and rhyme transcend all in a race to the bottom of the doggerel pond. The fallout settles like toxic grime on all poems that you-know-what. Pity: because Sea Fever is quite an effective piece of verse. Who cannot, if of a certain age, but empathize with the hopeless, impotent dreams of lost youth so affectingly sketched in the last stanza?

“I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.”

Ain’t going to happen, except for that last bit. So it was, ever the versifier, that Masefield left instructions to his "Heirs, Administrators, and Assigns":

“Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there's an end of me.”

Scatter….Water….Ouch! Agreement in terminal sounds? Not so much. But with that written he felt ready to take his last breath: the ‘must’ in Masefield victim of mortality - the imperative applied to one too many items on an overly ambitious bucket list.

Speaking of which (lonely sea and the sky): at the further reaches of Koenigstein Road, where it becomes a track serving cattle pastures on a ravine-split mesa, then a winding mostly paved road headed for the Nesbitt’s avocado farm, a horse ranch and an off-the-grid shack currently on the County’s watch-list, then splits off to the left up a nameless canyon (by which time it has presumably shed its allegiance to the eponymous German hotelier) and then hairpins around several seasonal streams that cleave to deep fissures in the hillside, there is sometimes a view of the sea set beneath a wide-ranging sky. It is there, on clear days, in hazy sight of Ormond Beach, that I retain a connection to the Pacific Ocean.

Used to be that I needed to live close enough to check the surf, or at least be within a short walk of the beach and most certainly within ear-shot of a sizeable swell crashing on the shore. Remarkably, I achieved that for the most part of thirty years – ten in Sydney and twenty in Venice or Santa Monica Canyon. Now that need has fallen away. Running has replaced surfing and the chaparral the beach. Good trade.

At first light, after overnight rain, looking west between the Santa Ynez and the Santa Monica Mountains, the agricultural plain lays far below, unshrouded in its customary morning mists while plumes of steam arise from the Proctor and Gamble plant in Oxnard and the 1500 megawatt twin natural gas-fired steam turbine units of the Ormond Beach Generating Station. Beyond, a grey-white slab of ocean merges almost imperceptibly with the dawn sky - an ocean that serves as boundary to an earthen shore beholden to its top-predator: producing power, food and products on an epic scale.

Further still, unseen, are the modern-day equivalents of Masefield’s tall ships, container vessels and oil tankers that plow the sea lanes between beach and islands along the Santa Barbara channel. From the trail, they are but ghost-ships drawing the world together in a Gordian knot of trade routes delivering energy and box-store stuffing.

Masefield’s middle verse…

“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.”

…is a beautiful evocation of the sights, sounds and atmospheric energy of ocean and sky – presumably as experienced on a ship under sail – but it elides the commercial circumstances that impel this merchant voyaging. Now, it seems we can no longer enjoy the likes of Thoreau’s train whistle (and it’s not clear that his was an unalloyed aural delight (Scream of a Hawk)) – or any of the sensory delights erstwhile afforded by vehicles, vessels and locomotives embedded in their infrastructures of travel and trade – burdened as we are by an awareness of their cumulative environmental costs. The romance of the road, iron or asphalt, or sea lanes has far outlived the earlier, Blakian awareness of the satanic impact of the architectural emblems of late capitalism; but now that romance is colored with the dark shades essayed, for instance, by Cormac McCarthy in The Road.

More often, as I reach the switchbacks that can afford the ocean view, there is a grey mist on the valleys below, and as Masefield might have it, “a grey dawn breaking”. Focused on the crumbling bank of sandstone, a steep chaparral slope below and the narrow path between, I register the oaks and sycamores that appear at each tumbling dry creek (now moistened by recent rain) and the wand buckwheat, deerweed, eriodyctylon and gnaphalium along the way, I am content to be cocooned in a landscape that has not changed significantly in 30,000 years.

I function as a free floating intelligence disengaged from the concerns of now: the scents, sights and sounds of the landscape pricking at my senses – the complex and destructive bargains we have made with our sheltering planet forgotten. Free (at last) from the imperative to be in other, alternate places, I determine once more that this primordial land is my home.