2015-08-31

On a Sunday Afternoon

Now also on www.urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Brigarti and Felix Cavaliere (of The Rascals)

2015-08-25

Little Boy Lost

Now also at www.Urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015-08-14

Wild America

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015-07-18

Sci-Fi Metaphysics

Now also at www.Urbanwildland.org

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

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

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

Does the Elfin Forest Dream of Crystal Rain Drops?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015-07-05

Enchanted Islands

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

A long, thin, dove grey cloud hung over the Nordhoff ridge, floating like an island in the sky. Enraptured by its color, morphology and juxtaposition I stood and watched as the water vapor slowly changed shape: a shoreline receding here, a mountain swelling there and an islet calving from the mother island's northern promontory.

In those last days of June, it was preternaturally still, unusually humid and very warm.

Early in the morning the sky is awash with a pale silver that my right, metaphor seeking brain reads as ocean and the darker, grey clouds as land or occasionally Cetacea. Come evening, the intense blue canopy has spent the day being over-written by blossoming contrails and criss-crossing wind strewn wisps of stratus (belying the thick stasis at the ground) while bright clouds have drained towards the horizon and sit glowing atop mountain ridges.

Earlier, there was bird song, swirling across the morning - in a shrill punctuation of the temporal equilibrium. The silhouettes of diving, jinking, spiraling creatures paper time and space: black or brown, sometimes with flashes of white against sky or the massed shrubs of the chaparral - they are birds mostly unknown to me, but eerily familiar. One stands out for its sleek raffishness. Almost all black, revealing flashes of under-wing white only in flight, it is crowned with a ragged, gothic crest. It has the distinction of being the only bird in either Sibley's or Peterson's Field Guide to Birds that has no common name. It is known simply by its Latin genus, Phainopepla. Our specimen is almost anorexic in its slimness, crowned with punkish head feathers - aloof, alone and attitudinal.

At last light, the sky is washed almost clean of cloud; a few vaporous bruises to the west flush with pink, Venus is a bright jewel and just above, a more reticent Jupiter; an almost full moon has risen over the eastern ridge - it's light glittery behind a last remnant of wind-frayed cloud.

A realignment of the human presence on planet Earth, such that it is symbiotic with the rest of the natural world, rather than antithetical, might begin with such an embrace, by the collective human consciousness, of the enchantments that nature offers. Theory: I am enthralled by the physical, emotional and spiritual emanations of our enveloping life-giving atmosphere and its ecosystems so there's a chance that that makes me more concerned about their stewardship – and that chance, I think, is worth propagating. So I try to be alert to these experiences, and when sufficiently moved, to write about them.

Many have written of our relationship with the natural world (of which we are intrinsically a part) by enveloping this association in myth, fairy tale or Jungian archetypes. Nature both mirrors and impacts our psychological demeanor and in literature it is routinely evoked to suggest mood: the titles, Under the Volcano (Joseph Lowry, 1947), A High Wind In Jamaica (Richard Hughes, 1928), The Man whom Trees Loved (Algernon Blackwood, 1912) and Jean Giorno's Song of the World, 1934, all denote works where natural elements have agency in shaping human destiny.

But increasingly, nature is seen as a place to establish facts rather than mood: to be experienced objectively rather than subjectively. The divide, between those who see the natural world exclusively as an arena of empirical study and those whose embrace encompasses a more pluralist range of enquiry is neatly summed up by the descriptors, Scientist and Naturalist. More broadly, the prism through which one views nature offers a spectrum that spans from science to religion. Locating its value is dependent on your viewpoint. The British Romantics and American Transcendentalists sought a universal spirit that an etheric nature might reveal while those with a more materialist bent, shaped by a rationalist intellectual tradition founded in the mid-seventeenth century, seek scientific information and biological wealth that might add to humankind’s comfort, well-being and prosperity. Both positions demand something of nature.

In calling for an ‘ecocentric spirituality’ Patrick Curry in Ecological Ethics, 2006, suggests that the problem lies with our firm distinction between the material and the spiritual, inherited from Platonism, Christianity and modern science. He writes that “We shall never be able to understand and appreciate nature until we re-learn to see it both as ‘spiritual’ subject and ‘natural’ object”. Desacralizing nature, a key feature of the modernity project, is the pre-requisite of its commodification, and to that extent resacralization is critical to any solution to the global environmental problems caused by such exploitation.

How we achieve such a thing presumably begins with childhood experience. With some friends in the Arbolada, sitting around an outdoor table, with crickets chirping and frogs croaking as sonic background to a velvety Ojai evening, talk turned to the issue of grandchildren growing up with i-phones and Androids and by extension, missing out on the self-made nature play with which we had all grown up. Richard Louv summed it up in the title of his 2005 book, The Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. E.O.Wilson has developed the notion of biophilia, by which, as a part of our array of adaptive mechanisms, we are all instinctively drawn to nature.

Given such an innate predilection, only opportunity, it would seem, needs be provided to ensure continuation of this bucolic tradition. I certainly enjoyed opportunities both at home, where my father route-marched my sister and me over hill and dale and the village school where so-called nature walks were an essential part of the curriculum. My early education was thus still very much under the influence of the nineteenth century naturalist Louis Aggasiz, who insisted that children study nature not books. This pedagogical approach worked well at the local Parish school I attended where only the most precocious students learnt to read before moving on to Secondary school at age eleven. I was a veritable prodigy and mastered the art at age nine, and quickly went on to devour the entire Enid Blyton canon.

Based on my experience, early-reading might be as big a culprit as the availability of electronic media in keeping children out of the woods. The Waldorf curriculum of early childhood education developed by Rudolph Steiner, actively attempts to inculcate a sense of wonder in children by deferring reading until nine. Children are encouraged to believe in elves and other elemental spirits that then animate a mysterious natural world. Reading nature thus prefigures a more conventional literacy. Is it far-fetched to believe that this might facilitate what Curry calls “a pluralist, embodied and locally engaged ecological spirituality”?

I haven’t seen the Phainopepla these last few days. Our Houston weather (as someone described it to me) has broken and normal service resumed: a thick marine layer in the mornings shrouding the towns of Ojai and Santa Paula - we, up above it all on the upper reaches of Bear Creek - then warm and sunny days. This morning, a sea of fog lapped at Black Mountain at the west end of the upper valley, its cone shape (as seen from Koenigstein) circumscribed by the enveloping fog, creating the swirling, vaporous shoreline of an enchanted island on the land.

2015-06-22

Pyramid Power

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

A field of flowers is a powerful thing. Heading up the hill, my vision was filled with the miniature pointillism of the alpine meadow that rose up before me. For a moment, I was lost in the celestial matrix that the tiny flowers described. Asters, phlox, and stonecrop, it seemed, reflected some heavenly order, as though in floral reification of the ancient cabalist's dictum of as above so below.

On this field of flowers there was no sign of its medieval accompaniment, the Unicorn, but once up on the ridge and heading over bitter brush (Purshia tridentata) and sage (Artemesia tridentata), the foundational shrubs of these high prairie grasslands, I saw a female pronghorn antelope and its tiny calf scamper down the track.

Alert Reader, you may have the feeling we're not in California anymore.......

The trails over the 100,000 acre ranch where Lorrie's family holds its annual retreat, are maintained primarily for the benefit of horse and rider. Searching out wildflowers involves both the recurring stench of horse manure and the proliferation of Canadian thistles spread by the horses, for whom the seed head of this noxious weed is a favorite treat.

Buffalo still graze these pastures, but as a domesticated breed rather than the rampaging herds of yesteryear. Cattle have negatively impacted the grasslands because of the constancy of their grazing within fenced boundaries; wild herds of Bison, by contrast, were nomadic over vast areas - grazing, fertilizing and breaking up the soil crust in one area before moving on, and rarely visiting one particular spot more than once in a year. The wild buffalo, despite the density of their herds, tended to have a beneficial impact on the native flora by cropping, enriching the soil and enabling water penetration.

A few short centuries ago, the high prairies were home to vast herds of these animals that, over their entire North American range, may have numbered up to 60 million. Buffalo numbers, swelled by the reduction of the native population (their lone predator) through introduced disease and systematic annihilation, were then brought close to zero after the Civil War in a frenzy of industrial-scale killing by Anglo-American 'sportsmen'.

The horse, closely associated with Plains Indians of the historic era and with ranching (and thus with our notions of the Old West), like the cow, is a non-native species, although it's remote ancestor Eohippusevolved some 50 million years ago in the woodlands of North America. It's extinction on this continent occurred about 10,000 B.C.E. suspiciously close to the arrival of north-eastern Asians bearing Clovis flint points capable of downing the mega-fauna that still roamed the land (despite the stresses of climate change at the end of the Ice Age). The horse, by then of something approaching modern-day size, was collateral damage in this slaughter, but it survived on the steppes of Eurasia and was re-introduced by the Spanish in the sixteenth century to become emblematic of the roaming cowboy lifestyle.

Now, the smaller of the above-mentioned meat bearing ungulates and the horse continue to be both the real and mythic underpinnings of the guest-ranch where the Brown family were quartered early this June in what was once the south west tip of the Archean era Wyoming Craton, formed about 2.5 Billion years ago, and which constituted the initial core of the continental crust of North America.

The passageways, over earth and through sky, in which I journeyed between Upper Ojai and this ancient, seed pearl Craton, were experienced as placeless, dead zones: Sargasso Seas wherein float the hectoring detritus of corporate America. By plane (Boeing 737) and rental car (Hyundai Accent) I voyaged across the heartland wrapped in a civilizational membrane which held me in a state of fecklessness, helpless before the assault of the meretricious and the ribbon-like erasures of Eisenhower’s Interstates: except for a moment when increasing sleepiness forced me to pull off the highway. Escaping the cocoon, I ventured where landscape and memory went unbranded, to a memorial which time had forgot - a memorial to a passageway from the past, the nineteenth century Transcontinental Railway.

Along a mile of dirt road, urged on by signage proclaiming an historic monument, the pyramid that rears up on the featureless plain is almost alien in its red-rock, Martian adumbrations. It retains, in its two-stepped form, an echo of its formal progenitor, the ziggurat. On each of its eastern and western faces, midway on the upper tier, “a shattered visage lies" and thus the monument inevitably (for me) references the collapsed edifice in the boundless desert sands of Egypt, conjured by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poem of 1818, and on which is inscribed,

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

The land in which we voyaged was genuinely “Antique” (Interstate 80 had already broached the mighty Craton) and truly,

"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

What, I wondered, was the source of this double-headed exercise in egregious hubris? Helpful plaques provided by Wyoming State Parks were at hand. Built in the 1880's a few years after the death of both of the Ames brothers whose bullet pocked faces adorn the upper reaches of the pyramid, and designed by the noted architect H.H. Richardson, it was financed by the Union Pacific Railway to restore the reputations of the brothers who, while achieving the goal of building the Transcontinental Railroad (originally at Lincoln's behest), did so while inflating the costs, bribing half of Congress and cheating the taxpayer.

But the relevance of what was intended to be an enduring monument beloved of those who traveled the Transcontinental Railway (it was built close to the high point of the iron road) was cut short In the 1890's when Union Pacific went broke, the railway was re-routed to the south, and the tourist town that had sprung up around the memorial withered and died. The monument itself was thus left in the almost perfect isolation in which I stumbled across it - a memorial to a proto-modern passageway, little more engaging of the world, perhaps, than today's equivalents, but uniquely capable, in the late nineteenth century, of providing a moving platform from which buffalo might be shot.

At the Ranch, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of cousins-by-marriage about Urban Wildland - both the blog and the house in the chaparral where is lived the life upon which it is loosely based. I mentioned in passing that some find the blog pieces indigestible. I have since come across a far better description of this project in lines that Virginia Woolf used to slam James Joyce after reading Ulysses ("an illiterate, underbred book") in which she characterizes the work as that "of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating"......Well, I do try.

2015-06-09

Sex and the City

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

In the scrublands between Sisar Road and the braided, currently dry creek bottoms that cross the Ojai Oil Company leases that back up to Koenigstein, there's a spot where nothing grows. Until now.

Now, it is transformed by an efflorescence.

The flowers are a deep, reddish pink (a more venturesome writer might even suggest heliotrope but I think the tiny blossoms lack sufficient blue to make them a candidate for this description - and as a chaparral denizen such highfalutin, literary color names are inimical to the cultural setting in which this plant community finds itself (see below)). The stalks too, have a reddish cast. They grow low to the ground forming a loosely woven carpet with a pile that is about six inches deep. They are stunningly beautiful: their name is Turkish rugging (Chorizanthe staticoides).

This sandy patch, strewn with small rocks, pebbles, twigs and scat where previously nothing grew, is about twenty five feet in diameter and has revealed itself, for this moment in June, as a plush Fairy circle. Elsewhere along the trails I am revisiting, after almost a month in Europe, acourtia is in bloom. It's pink-purple flower heads are lifted high atop stalks wrapped in ragged, papery leaves. In places where there is an understory of popcorn flowers (now mostly dried and gone to seed) there is this floating field of purple with a low understory of grey fuzz. Between the floral plane and dwarfish thicket floor, the antic acourtia, its foliage susceptible to every passing breeze, undulates like a terrestrial kelp forest.

Higher up in the Topatopa foothills on a switchback canyon trail, passing through early morning sun and then deep shade (where the cliff side plants seem to welcome, as do I, their respite from solar irradiation) I notice the white flowers: white sage barely in bloom, convolvulus, sprinkles of remaining-in-bloom popcorn flower, and yucca. From elsewhere in Ojai, I think of the giant roadside flowers of datura, of the at-our-front door California everlasting and everywhere, the heavily planted Matilija poppy (although there is no sign of it in my chaparral neck of the woods).

Of them all, the yucca stands out: exhibiting its buxom blossoms in a wanton display to lure a pollinating embrace of its blooms from its dedicated moth-toys. In the demure surroundings of the self-effacing chaparral, such brazen floral displays seem oddly out of place. What we notice of flowering plants is most often their means of reproduction - their flowers, their sex organs. Unnervingly, the voluptuous Yucca whipplei stands, in spring, at the very edge of species transgression.

Back in the garden (those areas of the chaparral turned into weedscapes by the soil disturbance of the development process) I have been busy culling the aliens, primarily brassicas and tocolote. The grasses are terminally bleached, but the deer weed and tar weed are in bloom, giving a yellowy-green cast to the meadows; the hills, where the chaparral plant community has remained undisturbed, except by fire, for thirty thousand years, remain largely unchanged from a month ago, although the fruits of the holly leaf cherry are now fully engorged and ready for consumption by the family of foxes that has taken up residence just across the seasonal stream to the east of the house.

In short, I have resumed my Thoreauvian transcendental triathlon of trail-running, weeding and ruminating - an activity first mooted, in slightly different form, by Jay Atkinson of the New York Times. In the week that I have been back these ruminations have sometimes been clouded by the pall that descended over me in Paris, where I spent the last three days of the trip.

Paris began as an Iron-age fishing village founded on the banks of the Seine by Pictish bands of Celts. It was a significant outpost of the Roman Empire after Julius Caesar conquered Paris in 52 B.C. Under Charlemagne, it became a center of learning and by the end of the first millennium it was firmly established as the French capital.

As the power of its Kings increased it remained a seat of theological and secular learning. The Renaissance saw Louis XIII's chief minister Cardinal Richelieu, establish the French Academy and build the Palais Royale and the Luxembourg Palace. In the seventeenth century, the Monarchy supported men of science. The Enlightenment provided an illumination that revealed the threadbare nature of medieval mysticism and thus doomed the power of absolute monarchies (its early supporters had imagined an entirely different outcome: where kings and queens controlled the new sciences to further their hold over their kingdoms). After the Revolution, Napoleon enriched the Louvre (re-purposed in 1793, from Royal palace to museum) with artworks plundered from the countries he and his armies had conquered.

Haussmann's renovation of Paris was a vast nineteenth century public works program commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III which swept away the old medieval city and replaced it with axial avenues, parks and squares. While the plan provided needed light and air and vastly improved sanitation, it was visibly a scheme dedicated to the glorification of the Emperor rather than his people. Now, having uniquely survived the twentieth century's two world wars with nary a scratch, Paris remains a city historically redolent of a great deal of plunder and very little redistribution.

Despotism didn't entirely stop with the demise of aristocratic absolutism. A new kind of tyranny emerged from the Revolution and predictably the response was a military coup. Under the pretext of protecting the Homeland, Napoleon began a world wide campaign aimed at global hegemony. Sound familiar? In Paris, the architectural artifacts of the French saga of Ancien Regime, Directory, Consulate, Empire, Bourbon Restoration, Constitutional Monarchy, the Second Empire (Napoleon III), and the founding of the Third Republic retain their power to chill me to the marrow.

This latest iteration of societal control is now evidenced by a bloated bureaucracy that attempts to fully occupy the vast hulks that loom over the streets of central Paris. The Nazis too, took every advantage of the palatial digs available to them in their conquered city. Now, the Baroque gaucheries and Gothic pinnacles that rise up along the avenues, mansarded with green-grey zinc, or steeple-roofed in lead, still weave their architectonic spell of an authoritarian and spiritual disdain for the sans culotte who beetle along the pavements below.

My longest mile in Paris was the walk between the imposing flanks of first, the Louvre, formerly the palace of the young Louis XV, then the Palais Royale - after Richelieu, home to the Duke of Orleans, regent to the pre-pubescent Sun King and later the official residence of the Bourbons. In 1848, after the Bourbon Restoration, it was looted and trashed by the Parish mob. In 1870, it was fire-bombed by anarchists still acutely aware of the building's status as a symbol of aristocratic oppression. It survived: now, as one moves through central Paris under the dread architectural influence of the first and second estate (the aristocracy and the clergy) one can feel, not unreasonably, a momentary soupçon of regret that the Nazis were unable to follow through on their intention of razing the City before abandoning it to the triumphant American liberation of 1945.

No matter: as the lively bans lieu foment future insurrections (continuing the long tradition of resistance offered up by Parisians to the establishment) and the Financial, High-Tech and Entrepreneurial sectors establish camp in the La Defense district beyond the old city, where the triumph of Capital is announced by gleaming towers of commerce that cluster like giant crepuscular ice shards on the horizon, the irrelevance of Central Paris becomes increasingly apparent - except perhaps as a bizarre chamber of horrors that caters to the blissfully ignorant tribes of global tourists who still gather there.

The great Romantic philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who died on the eve of the Revolution) wrote in his Discourse on Inequality, 1754,

"The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."

We can only hope that the French rule of aristocratic absolutism marked a high-point of such imposture.

It's good to be home where the democracy of the chaparral plant community remains unassailable.