Lorrie and I had driven down to Ojai in the evening after a mostly clear day to find, as we descended the grade, the north mountains wreathed in a dense fog of cloud slowly being sucked south and east, towards the Topatopas, in the trail of the weather front that had passed earlier in the day. We arrived home about 10 pm and the headlights of the car caught the errant flakes, just marginally less assiduous than rain drops in their quest to hit planet earth. These were not those dreamy, fish tailing flakes, light as air, that are downright reluctant to alight. This was barely snow. But this morning, the evidence was in: white patches on bare earth and the ipe decks sparkling with snow crust.
That morning (now a few days ago), approaching the gorge that splits the old county property (mostly used as a cattle pasture) I was followed by the sound of wind machines thrumming lower down in upper Ojai, but by the time I was on t'other side, it was the Santa Paula wind mills that I heard. This deep ravine, which this morning was a sound barrier between east and west, carries a piddling stream to which the cattle, and I suppose deer, track. I know, because I have followed their trail, at the northern, less steep part of the gorge. Above, on the mesa, there were patches of snow to the west but none to the east.
Having arrived at its lower reaches and passing beneath Koenigstein Road, nearby Bear Creek is not as geographically emphatic as the gorge. Its drama in the landscape derives primarily from its establishment of a riparian habitat. Without it, we would not have the willows, sycamores and cottonwoods that have just concluded their fall show of oranges and yellows. The next Santa Ana will strip them of their foliage and leave them briefly naked before they re-leaf. Such is the subtlety of our seasons. This year, just before Christmas, the crown of one cottonwood made a particularly effulgent golden ball, floating aflame, it seemed, on a sea of sage and chamise, to the west of our west meadow where snakes Bear Creek.
Once, I fancy, the gorge carried the creek: the amplitude of the geographical gesture matched by significance of the year round watercourse - fed by a spring beneath the eastern-most face of the Topatopas and the seasonal rains that wash down it.
If you detect notes of heightened reality in this piece, and flaming orbs floating on the dull grey green swells of the chaparral may count as such, then it has to do with the lacuna implicated in the first paragraph. Between evening and 10pm, the night it snowed on Koenigstein, we were in Ojai, first bumping into friends Julie and John in the still fire-damaged post office, then having an early dinner at Monte Grappa, where the main room is finally working (after a couple of expensive lessons in becoming a restaurateur bequeathed to the previous two owners of the space), and then: watching Ang Lee's The Life of Pi at the Ojai Playhouse (on its new digital projection system).
Understand that the aggrandizement of nature in the movie, while not, in my opinion adding to the pathos of the story, has inevitably colored my view of the world. Ang's over-the-top, CGI representation of the splendors of the Pacific (not a few flying fish, but a veritable pescatorial blizzard; not a pod of dolphin but a thousand leaping mammals; enough meerkats to sink a carnivorous mangrove island; and, not a few fluorescent jelly fish but a Scyphozoan milky way) has upped the stakes - I never thought I was one to hold back, but my scant smattering of snow would, in Ang Lee's hands, have become an impenetrable Arctic wasteland of bottomless drifts blanketing topography in frozen white waves.
Certainly he would have located a raging torrent at the foot of the gorge (until the water spasmed into chunks of ice and the canyon was buried in snow); and I too have felt, for the past day or two, that the local terrain could use some re-arranging - for dramatic effect. The relocation of creek to gorge is an obvious first step.
But what this really means is a temporal realignment. Once upon a time, we can presume, Bear Creek forged its way through the terrain and created the gorge as it spewed its way towards Sisar Creek. Once upon a time, to take another example, there was a seismic event that caused the massive spalling of the Topatopa face and a great scree of sandstone shards and boulders was deposited across the north side of the valley. Now, for full dramatic impact, Ang Lee style, we would have the boulders and an engorged Bear Creek hurtling down the slope contemporaneously; and since we are conflating time, enraged grizzlies would be dodging the lithic onslaught and perhaps surfing the waters of the creek.
Instead, we have a misplaced creek and apparent stasis. Change happens over vast aeons of time and, as we look at the landscape, it appears unchanging and even dull. We stand, as Frances Cornford wrote of Rupert Brooke, like golden haired Apollos,
.... dreaming on the verge of strife,
For the long littleness of life.
Perhaps, in our lifetimes, a tree falls and dams a stream diverting it from its ancient course. Perhaps something of the sort happened locally in the great rains of 1968-69. The next wet years were 1977-78, and I know that it was then that Bear Creek flooded over our neighbor's property. Charred oaks record the history of fires that, from time to time, have both ravaged and revived the land. These are brief moments of drama in long periods of quietude when the landscape is disrupted by nothing more than the slow turn of the seasons.
Our lives are fleeting even by the standards of hydrological and fire cycles - how many El-nino years will each of us experience; how many fires? On a geologic scale the insignificance of our planetary inhabitation, even as a species rather than as individuals, is truly profound. We are left to seek meaning, not in the extraordinary, but in the incremental changes of the hours, of the weather, and in the acuity of our attention.
Two hours in the company of Pi, his young life embroidered with remarkable scenes of nature at its most awe-inspiring (as imagined by Ang Lee and his army of designers and computer artists) momentarily distorted my appreciation for the chaparral. One recent frosty morning, the sage and squaw bush really were like the milky way, sparkling in the dry creek bottom; the patchy snow on Koenigstein a revelation; the golden ball of the cotton wood a vision of quiet splendor - these are moments that lack bombast, have no soundtrack and are strictly analog: they are, quite simply, beguiling.