2017-02-11

Brutal Landscapes

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

@BrutalHouse is the Twitter feed of Peter Chadwick, an on-going celebration of an architectural style first codified by Reyner Banham in his essay, The New Brutalism in 1955. One of several new coffee table books that celebrates work built in this brutish style of poured concrete – massive, forbidding and until recently totally disdained - is Chadwick’s This Brutal World, 2016.

As a memento of our recent trip to Death Valley, a friend sent me a copy of Reyner Banham’s Scenes in America Deserta, 1980. This is a lesser (and late) work in the Banham canon, his seminal book being Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 1960, a history of the modern movement in architecture that for several decades was standard text in graduate schools. Of particular local interest is another of his books, his eulogy to Los Angeles, The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 1971.

What lies in the mind of a man who as a newly minted Art History graduate celebrates the uber-functionalism of exposed structural systems in post-war British architecture, epitomized in the work of the Smithsons, Alison and Peter, reveres the late work of Corbusier (Marseille’s Unité d'habitation, 1952, and his Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp, 1954) and a quarter of a century later falls prostrate before the landscape wonders of American deserts? It helps to know that he tours the American south west, heavily bearded, dark-glassed and Stetsoned in a rented Mustang, was famously photographed riding a folding bike (in its unfolded version) over a salt flat, and made TV programs for the BBC in the late 1970’s which attempted to explain the inexplicable urban vagaries of Los Angeles to British audiences.

He is thus exposed as an aesthete with a particular penchant for form and place and an overt awareness of his image in a small byway of celebrity culture. By coincidence (really), I have just read the English writer Geoff Dyer’s essay collection White Sands, 2016, which contains several pieces on his new home of Los Angeles. Both Dyer and Banham quote their compatriot D.H. Lawrence who famously toured New Mexico in the early 1920’s in search of nodality – that special quality that accretes to certain places and gives them a mythic resonance. Dyer first discovers this quality, in retrospect, when he remembers a hillock of compacted dirt in the corner of a park where he played as a child that was the locus for games and was called ‘the hump’. Banham becomes an early fan of the architectural style of Brutalism, which celebrates the massive, primal, imagistic force of poured concrete - and endured as a significant movement from circa 1955-1975. Lawrence is struck speechless by the raw emotive impact of the Taos pueblo (he recovered, of course, to write about it). Late in his career Banham becomes a self-described desert freak pondering the aesthetic qualities of vast landscapes of rock, sand and creosote bushes.

Brutalism is founded on the notion of an imagistic power inherent in the sculpting of forms that overwhelm their environment and can operate from the scale of Dyer’s hump to the Taos Pueblo and beyond to Kallman, McKinnell and Knowle’s Boston City Hall. Brutalist buildings don’t try to ‘fit-in’ they proclaim their differentness. Much of contemporary civilization relies on a built infrastructure that is inherently brutalist (viz. L.A.’s endless grid spreading from the ocean to the San Gabriel Mountains).

Landscapes can only be ‘brutal’, in this definition, by their formal association with this differentness, this dialectic of the anomalous human intervention (the brutalist building or system of infrastructure) within a homogeneous context: thus the mountains that ring many of our western deserts are ‘brutal’ by their association with the placid desert floor.

Banham long ago championed Los Angeles as something more interesting than a sink hole for the depression era diaspora from America’s dust bowl, the home of a meretricious film industry and the progenitor of the urban freeway as substitute for public transport. Perhaps he was reacting to its inherently brutalist topology of grid, freeway and floodwater management system (the much maligned, but appropriately concreted and channelized L.A. River).

Several waves of music, art, architecture and fashion have subsequently developed the reputation of L.A. (in all its colorful, edenic vacuousness), as a city making a credible cultural contribution to global civilization and as a place in which the well-educated, culturally literate, such as Geoff Dyer, might reasonably live and work.

When the New World emerged from its continental isolation a little more than 500 years ago, California came to exist in the European imagination only as a fabled Island of Amazons ruled by Queen Califia (Las Sergas de Esplandian, Garci Roderiguez de Montalvo, 1602). The world discovered California in 1848 when non-trivial quantities of gold were found at Sutter’s Mill which made San Francisco, the closest port to the gold fields, its pre-eminent city where greed personified flooded the town from all corners of the earth.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Los Angeles was nothing more than a murderous cow-town serving rapacious Anglo-Americans, relict populations of Californio Rancheros and their vaqueros - together with small groups of ghettoized indigenes, African Americans and Chinese. It was only with the establishment of the transcontinental railroad, the discovery of oil, the attraction of the health benefits of the desert-like environment and the founding of the movie industry that L.A. entered the twentieth century with a population swelled to truly urban proportions. Shortly thereafter, with the remnants of its decimated native peoples having long since been culturally assimilated, alienated or removed from the place they called Yang-na, The Valley of Smoke, the real estate boom began, and it has resonated across the flatlands, along the coast and up and down the canyons of the surrounding hills more or less continuously ever since.

The defense industry, Pacific Rim finance, and now Silicon Beach contribute to the economy. The entertainment industry continues to add to the city’s wealth and allure. Tourism thrives under mostly sunny skies. These are the foundations of a New World civilization, the Los Angeles that Banham came to interpret, and Geoff in Venice, (his joke, not mine) Dyer might practice his elliptical irony whilst in search of place in the Land of the Lotus Eaters.

Dyer finds his resonant ‘humps’ in Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, on L.A.’s west side where he visits Theodore Adorno’s house on South Kenter Avenue – where, and thereabouts, 1930’s European academic and high-culture émigrés wound up in an unlikely mid-century conflation of eternal sunshine and gloomy intellectualism – and at Muscle Beach in Venice where arcane rites of physical hygiene are practiced.

Neither he nor Banham attempts to confront the little that is left, in terms of artifacts, architectural evidence, language or other mythically resonant representations, of the Native American cultural efflorescence that once flourished in the territory now ceded to this global city, which together with San Francisco, is the West Coast light of the neo-liberal world.

I had always assumed that the bulk of what does remain was in the collection of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Pasadena, now administered by the Autry Museum of the American West; was in the boxes of John Peabody Harrington’s linguistic, ethnographic and native flora collections deposited in the Bureau of American Ethnology and now housed in the Smithsonian; in A.L. Kroeber’s collection at Berkeley’s Museum of Anthropology; or in other institutions across the State. It turns out, however, that this corner of southern California suffered the depredations of its own Lord Elgin.

Berlin’s Ethnological Museum houses a vital collection of over 1,000 Californian Indian artifacts collected between 1837 and 1914. Schwed and Garfinkel’s paper in The Journal of Californian and Great Basin Anthropology, Vol. 36, #2, 2016, tells the story of how this came to be. The King of Prussia tasked Ferdinand Deppe, a talented painter and naturalist working in the Royal Court to travel to California and collect Indian artifacts for his Royal Museum. Deppe was so successful he was later employed by other wealthy German aristocrats to acquire objects for Berlin’s Zoological Museum. In concert with a European shipping magnate, Deppe established trading relationships that Charles Wilcomb went on to use in the final shipment of some 500 Californian artifacts to Berlin on the eve of World War One. Unlike the Elgin Marbles (sculptures, moldings and other architectural elements from Ancient Greece purloined in Athens while Elgin served as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire), which are subject to on-going efforts by Greece for their return from the British Museum, no such movement is afoot to return these spectacular baskets, feather blankets and ritual objects to their rightful owners.

The paper includes black and white photos of some of these extraordinary works of utilitarian and ceremonial art and one is reminded of the profound contextualism practiced by native cultures: taking from their world precisely the resources necessary to coexist with it equitably and with honor. Their brutality was confined to each other and their enemies, but never, it seems, to their natural environment which they tended with reverent care.

In Los Angeles, the Tongva, linguistically a Shoshone tribe, established their settlements on the mutable banks of the river and journeyed to the mountains in the hot summers: the real brutalism of the L.A. basin resides in the holocaust wreaked upon them by successive waves of Old World immigrants. Whatever we interpret in this conurbation today as ‘Brutalist’, is but a glinting, heat irradiated reflection of the killing fields that came to overlay the land, and from which only the white man walked away unscathed.

2017-01-18

Landscapes of Shame

Also at www.Urbanwildland.org

This winter, the war-journalist Robert Fisk and his wife, together with Justin Huggler and his partner Anu, visited Wannsee Villa in the Berlin suburbs where, he writes, “Hitler’s war criminals planned the industrial side of the Jewish Holocaust in 1942……...We prowled the rooms of this delightful lakeside SS guest house with its magnificent windows, parquet floor, statues and gardens where Adolf Eichmann, Reinhard Heydrich, Roland Freislerand other monsters met to plan the destruction of the 11 million Jews who in 1933 lived in lands which might fall to Germany”, Counterpunch, Jaunuary 10, 2017.

A few nights ago, in the dining room of the Furnace Creek Inn at Death Valley, I was gathered with friends to celebrate my birthday. We ate beneath portraits of Fred Harvey, the pioneering hospitality entrepreneur and the American borax magnate, Francis "Borax" Smith, together with copies of some of billionaire Phil Anschutz’s western art collection which features work by artists such as George Catlin, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran , Frederic Remington and Charles Schreyvogel.

Anschutz, whose wealth was created in oil and railroads (but is now heavily invested in real estate, hospitality and entertainment), owns Xanterra, the National Parks concessionaire which runs the Inn. While we consumed elegant dishes of steak, salmon, scallops and duck, we were surrounded by artifacts of a triumphal colonizing civilization. Below us, at an unkempt corner of the roadside parking lot was an exposed ledge containing several bedrock mortars which had been used over many hundreds of years to grind Mesquite beans by the local Timbisha Shoshone Indians, who were exiled from the Park in 1933, five years after the founding of the Inn, by order of Herbert Hoover.

The Wannsee Villa now serves as a Memorial, Conference and Educational Center. Fisk reports that Justin Huggler proclaimed, after his visit, “Your capacity to take in the horrors just runs out……You have to come back, again and again.”

We ate in the dining room both nights of our stay and slept soundly in well-appointed guest rooms. On the second evening before dining, we enjoyed cocktails at the bar. On our last morning we swam in the warm spring fed pool. During our days in the Park we visited well known geological marvels such as Zabriskie Point, Badwater (lowest place in the United States), and Artists Drive where oxidized minerals in the hills glow with a rich variety of colors.

We partook of National Park mythology: of virgin wilderness where only tourists roam and out of which an invincible race, Homo Americanus, has arisen. At Death Valley this narrative is embellished rather than discomfited by the near-disaster of those pioneer families traveling in some twenty covered wagons on their way west, who sought to cross this desert floor walled by the Amaragosa range and the Panamints. Reduced to burning their wagons to cure the meat of their erstwhile teams of oxen, they escaped on-foot with only one fatality and the valediction, “Goodbye Death Valley”. The expedition is now celebrated by the Death Valley ‘49ers at Furnace Creek with annual cook-outs, a poker-championship, old-time country music and competitions of wagon-train and horse-back riding. Portraits of the organization’s past presidents looked down on us from the hotel’s winding corridors - their confident sun-dappled faces entirely untroubled by the dispossession of the land’s native peoples.

Blame Ken Burns, the Leni Riefenstahl of the National Park Service. As he suggests, we were reconnecting to our soil and to our souls in ‘America’s Best Idea’ - its National Parks. Writing of Yosemite, Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory, 1995, notes that in the 1860’s it represented “a place of such primordial beauty that it proclaimed the gift of the Creator to his Chosen People”. After Obama established three new National Monuments late in 2016 he gushed,

“Our country is home to some of the most beautiful God-given landscapes in the world. We’re blessed with natural treasures – from the Grand Tetons to the Grand Canyon; from lush forests and vast deserts to lakes and rivers teeming with wildlife.”

The American myth of exceptionalism is intimately entwined in the grandeur of the landscapes its pioneers found in the process of colonizing the continent, many of which are now National Parks, but in order for these landscapes to fully support a Christian, Eurocentric foundation mythology it was, and remains, necessary to exclude their indigenous peoples.

What I am suggesting here is, perhaps, an obscene syllogism: yet there is something eerily reminiscent in the worship of the aesthetic treasures of America’s grand landscapes with National Socialist notions of the blood and soil (the medium from which sprang the emblematic Teutonic forest) out of which was forged the German volk and the heinous exclusionary principals Hitler enshrined in Mein Kampf and later enacted as the holocaust. John Muir, the founding father of America’s National Parks, and who provided the philosophical underpinnings to this country’s unique vision of an uninhabited ‘wilderness’, was clear that “dirty”, “deadly” and “lazy” Indians did not belong in God’s own country.

As Mark David Spence shows in Dispossessing the Wilderness – Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, Oxford University Press, 1999, in the first half of the nineteenth century there was a very different sense of American wilderness - one in which the presence of native peoples contributed to the gestalt of the wild. Although this conception evolved directly from a Europeanized Romanticism, it nevertheless provided a place for the ‘Red Man’ in an emerging civilization. Henry Thoreau, perhaps the nineteenth century’s most influential wilderness philosopher, somewhat grudging conceded that,

“Why should we not . . . have our national preserves . . . in which bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race . . . still exist, and not be civilized off the face of the earth?”

But in suggesting that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World” he was referencing a human connection to the earth which he fully understood was best epitomized by native peoples.

After the Civil War and the founding of the transcontinental railroad, there emerged what Spence calls “separate islands of the mind” where the preservation of the country’s scenic wonders in parks and the confinement of Indians to reservations developed in ways that denied their obvious correlation. The new discipline of ecology that emerged out of George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, 1864, suggested that humans disturbed natural balances and that the preservation of wilderness must therefore consist of places “untrodden by man”.

So it was that our National Parks were created to bind the country together after the ruptures of the Civil War; to take aesthetic advantage of the imperial expansion of the United States into areas of unequaled scenic magnificence; to provide new customers to the country’s burgeoning rail network and support the conservation of natural resources as a salve to the growing sense of impending environmental catastrophe. That this was achieved at the cost of promoting the removal and sometimes annihilation of the native peoples occupying those lands is to the lasting shame of all white Americans.

The resilience of this country’s indigenous peoples has belied what Herman Melville called “the metaphysics of Indian-hating” (see the action at Standing Rock). There is now a small community of Timbisha Shoshone living in an area between Furnace Creek Inn and the National Park Service Information Center, but they are tenants of the U.S. government rather than the inviolate beneficiaries and stewards they once were, of a land they call Tüpippüh.

The Park Service remains paternalistic, seeking to have tribal members continue past practices of mesquite harvesting and thus improve the aesthetics of the oasis’ tangled brush. Younger members of the tribe are understandably more committed to their social and economic development through the running of a shaved-ice stand and seeking positions at the Inn, which is about to undergo a $50M renovation and be transformed into a luxe year-round desert spa resort, from which the glories of a mostly uninhabited landscape can be more comfortably viewed.

2016-12-30

Being Local

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

"As we move into a connection economy, where the tool that matters most is the one that we can carry with us, the idea of geography fades very quickly. How do we juxtapose that post-geography with the post- industrial to create actual value?"

Thus spake Seth Godin, in conversation with Jedediah Jenkins in the 2016 issue of Wilderness Magazine. Godin is proclaimed in the article's title as The True Master of Intentional Living. In reality, he is an accomplished marketing huckster - selling books, courses and seminars on “relativity, productivity and ideation”. He has found his niche within the world of the gig-economy where its participants surf the planet seeking the next wave in an endless summer of rootless short term employment opportunities, buoyed only by the relational networks built on past performances and where one's self-belief is supported by a variety of psychological, spiritual and physical routines conflated into 'life-styles'. He is, in short, the product of end-of-days capitalism and the reductio ad absurdum of Rationalism. He, and others of his ilk, pursue their trade in the slop of spent waves, where broken dreams meet disillusionment and deracination: where the tool that matters most, your brain, is almost entirely disconnected from the body's physical setting - where uprootedness is endemic.

This condition of anomie can be traced back to the 60's and 70's when a grassroots youth-driven movement (pioneered by the Hippies) that demanded greater personal authenticity, creativity and empowerment within a hierarchical and sexist corporate employment sphere was taken by those ossified corporations as an opportunity to increase employment flexibility (as a sop to those demands) and simultaneously to reduce job security and benefits. Thus ended what the French call Les Trente Glorieuses, those thirty post war years when income disparities diminished, a functioning social safety net existed in most western economies and, in America, the dreams of a burgeoning middle class were largely realized.

This process confirmed, particularly amongst young wage earners, the rootlessness already well established in America, by privileging those willing to relocate to secure employment. Home town allegiances were increasing usurped by placelessness and the beginnings of Godin's post-geography world. Employers and entrepreneurs responded to the attacks on corporate capitalism for its bureaucracy, inflexibility and uniformity by presenting new justifications based on self-actualization, freedom and authentic community for young people to buy-in to the capitalist system in the post-industrial world. Thus Godin both expresses and propogates the values that Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello describe in their book, The New Spirit of Capitalism, 2005, by which the prevailing system of oppressive consumption and production successfully coopts new generations of willing victims.

Values of craft, artisanal production, third world travel and organic agriculture are now being added to the inducements by which twenty-first century hipsters are drawn into the capitalist maw. Wilderness Magazine is complicit in this process; and now, Collective Quarterly has published their Topa Topa issue, focused on the triangle between Santa Barbara to the west, Ojai to the east, and Ventura to the south, in an almost perfect celebration of local centers of this new, artisanal spirit of capitalism. Marketed across the United States (the copy I saw was purchased in Brooklyn), it promotes localism as practiced (in the first seven issues) in Marfa, Texas; the Absaroka Mountains, in the Montana Wyoming borderlands; Topa Topa, Ventura County, California; Mad River Valley, Vermont; Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina; Penobscot, Maine; and the Mojave Desert, California. It represents a movable feast of intense regional hipster-lifestyle irruptions often consumed, I would guess, by the haute bourgeoisie of urban, coastal enclaves as place porn.

Committed to placelessness by the demands of a global economy, where one place provides the same divertissements and services as another, there is, nevertheless, an intense interest in the mystique of rootedness, but very little commitment to the slow aggregation of geographic connection that results from staying put. As Godin will tell you, the establishment of networks is necessary for the securing one's next gig and demands both social and spatial fluidity: the establishment of deep, enduring local roots will likely lead to exclusion from the ranks of peripatetic, successful network builders. It is thus that the power of place has been usurped by the power of real and virtual linkages spread across the world’s array of urban nodes bound within an electronic web. Weekend voyeurism or, at a remove, printed or electronic simulacra of particularly charismatic places, is the necessary antidote to a world where material reward lies in movement not stasis, in temporary residence not deep connection.

Building those profound connections is a necessarily slow process and is rewarded with nothing much more than the intellectual and perhaps spiritual frisson that comes from an understanding of the relationship between time and place. The uncovering of the natural, cultural and geologic layers that constitute the genius loci, or spirit of a place, may take years: but it is an endeavor to which I am currently committed here in Upper Ojai, the furthest, easternmost point of the Topa Topa triangle celebrated in Collective Quarterly. It involves the re-engagement of “the tool that matters most” with the physical substance of the world so that identity is no longer confined to personhood but extends outward to the material and spiritual expressions of the natural world.

Over time, we can fully inhabit our immediate world and that world may insinuate itself into our being. Our network begins to consist not of professional referrals and potential creative collaborators but of local rocks, trees, animals and earth-forms which provide conduits not to future material enrichment but to potential etheric energies – to a primitive spiritual power not pecuniary profit.

So it is that I resent time spent away from my exo-environment. It represents time spent away from who I am becoming; from time in which my authentic identity is incrementally extending beyond my physical body. Urie Bronfenbrenner, the Russian American developmental psychologist (1917-2005), founded a social ecological model which takes account of a child's development within the context of the systems of relationship that form his or her environment. My continuing development, it seems to me, is dependent on the uncovering of the layers of the natural world that immediately surround me. It is a reversion to my experience as a child growing up in a small English village where walking, playing and going to the village school was intensely bound to the hedgerows, fields, ponds, woods and common-lands that insinuated themselves into our young lives.

We all interact with our environment at a variety of scales – and gain information from it from the global to the granular, yet we remain time bound, operating within a finite life cycle: a close engagement with the natural world presents opportunities to live outside of time, to understand the larger, universal cycles and to gain information at a cosmic scale. Ironically, this can only be achieved, it seems, by focusing at the smallest level on that which immediately envelops us. Additionally, this focus can most usefully occur over long spans of time where it results in the wisdom that accrues to locals – those who choose to live their lives with a deep and constant attachment to a place. It is a choice that is increasingly becoming a luxury.

It is unlikely that the benefits of such a commitment will accrue to those who consume artisanal, craft, organic agriculture and permaculture products and the journals that promote them without dedicating themselves, at some level, in some place, to being local.

2016-12-20

House and Garden


Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Urbanwildland is a neologism derived from the term Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) in general use by fire fighting agencies at least since the 1980’s and used to codify the expansion of urban development into traditionally wilderness areas which has increasingly brought humans into contact with wildfires. The International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (IWUIC, 2011) notes that between 1985 and 1994, wildfires destroyed more than 9,000 homes in the United States and goes on to explain that these homes were usually located in areas “where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels”.

It did not require a huge stretch of the imagination to coin the word urbanwildland which rather than being focused on the wildfire issue, describes more generally the frontier beyond exurbia - the edge condition that exists where human development encroaches on erstwhile wilderness areas. It also describes the place where I have chosen to live and make a garden (at least as far as that practice concerns the relationship of the human being to his or her natural surroundings).

The area surrounding human habitation and under the influence of its presence, can never be fully wild since we, as a species, have long lost our place in the wilderness and have constructed, over the last ten thousand years or so, an alternate realm known as civilization. Thus the buffer zone that we inevitably create around our shelters is not wilderness because it has our mark on it, the mark, however unintended, of civilization. As such, this zone has the characteristics of a garden because it not only mediates our remaining connections to the natural world but also physically links us to the infrastructure and appurtenances of civilization, if only via a driveway or a path.

I would suggest that the word is also shadowed by some of the notions that inspired the very first gardens created five thousand years ago in Persia, which were created to symbolize the four Zoroastrian elements of sky, earth, water and plants. This is true at least to the extent that the interstice between the two contrasting realms of urbanwildland can serve as a meditative or even transcendent space in which can be explored our relationship to the unknown, or spiritual powers of the universe; a space in which these ancient garden elements can be transformed into a powerful symbolic language that has the potential for revelation.

Hence urbanwildland, in both the meaning of the word, in describing a place or an ecological condition, and in this blog, there is license to reference both the wild and the civilized (or urban), as well as, and perhaps most importantly, the point at which (somewhere between the middle ‘n’ and the ‘w’) they come together and, as I have argued, create a garden and, potentially, a place of spiritual repose. In other words, the two sticks, labelled ‘Wild’ and ‘Urban’ when rubbed together have the ability to make fire - the characteristic to which the Wildland-Urban Interface terminology is directed. They can also make, by that same process of friction, and with a similar level of inevitability, a garden - and that is precisely the propensity that I celebrate in my writing.

So, after all these years, I find that I have been writing a Gardening Blog. Just recently I have had Russell Page and his autobiography, The Education of a Gardener, 1962, at my side. While I burble on more or less in real time as my experience of the urbanwildland unfolds, he had the wisdom to write a single career capping book. Doris Lessing wrote of him in her blurb, “Did you know that we have living among us a master gardener as great as any of those of the past?”

In his youth, Page was a follower of Gurdjieff; later he studied Sufism and his work was profoundly influenced by the principles of Islamic design. Just a few pages into his book a reader becomes aware of his uncanny spatial sensitivities: he suggests that every object “sends out vibrations beyond its physical body” and that there is “interplay between objects”. He believes that the artful arrangements of elements can produce a kind of magic, and can thus elevate a garden to being a work of art. Despite his mystical leanings, the bulk of his book lays out the very straightforward principles that inform his design work, which quickly spread from his pre-war work in England to Europe, immediately after the war, and eventually, to major commissions in America.

His book has led me to question the ways in which the few rough acres that surround our house, which consist of a mix of slowly regenerating chaparral, coastal sage scrub and oak meadowland, can be considered a garden, and in what ways the land is marked by ‘civilization’ or, at the very least, human intentionality. There is an easy answer supplied by the title of M. Kat Anderson’s book, Tending the Wild, 2013, which deals with all the ways that California’s indigenous people impacted the landscape in their quest to find food and shelter, and while I have indeed been occupied in tending the native landscape (for primarily aesthetic reasons) there have also been, in the intrusive act of placing a house on the landscape, a rearrangement of objects (and their emanations) that fits fully within the Pageian definition of a garden.

He writes, “most houses need anchoring to their setting” and benefit from being sited on a level area of ground. He disparages structures that are perched precariously on a hillside (and certainly not a hilltop) or appear to grow out of vertiginous terrain. He is a designer of great simplicity and common sense. When initially confronted with our newly purchased acreage of mostly sloping, rocky and heavily vegetated land, our first act was to select a site for the house around which the existing plantings, rocks and major trees might plausibly become the bones of its garden.

Half way up the dominant north-south slope, which is cradled between a steep eastern rise of chaparral and a minor, rock-strewn spine scattered with walnuts, mountain mahogany and holly-leafed cherry, we settled on a location just below a stand of oaks that rises out of a rocky bank. Although beguiled by the substantial shade of the oaks which make the mound and its trees corporeal - a giant in the landscape - we were not unaware of the view upon which this arboreal colossus gazed: but our primary attention was rooted to the spot. Page warns of the tyranny of the view in which “one’s interest is torn between the garden pattern with its shapes and colors in the foreground and the excitement of the distant view”. The mounding trees possessed a primal rootedness that spoke to a notion of what our future house could become.

In the nineteenth century a path, Page notes, was customarily built around the perimeter of the house and in his judgement this leaves it “high and dry and destroys any possible relationship between house and garden”. But elsewhere he extols gravel or stone terraces leading from the house out into the garden and the borrowed landscapes beyond. In our situation, ever mindful of living in both the urbanwildland and the Wildland-Urban Interface, there was a requirement to remove the house from the vegetative fuels that comprise our found garden. Thus it sits on an entirely graveled bench – the flat area between cutting and filling the slope. This level area is contained by the new, steeper slopes produced by cutting to the north and filling to the south (which were hydro-seeded with a mix of native grasses and forbs), to the west by the aforementioned spine and to the east by the oak mound. We did follow one of Page’s rules by introducing an element of pattern to the gravel: immediately bordering the house we used ¾” crushed rock and separated by an embedded ipe 2 x 6, finer crushed rock for the field. Paige might have used a mix of split and saw-cut local sandstone which he notes “fits well in a very informal garden”. Our garden is formally ordered only to the extent necessary for circulation and fire protection while retaining most of the informality of the surrounding chaparral. While local sandstone is plentiful, its cutting is now prodigiously expensive.

Page fully understands the elemental, Zorastrian power that water plays in garden design. He writes, ‘water seems to course on the planet’s surface as blood through the body”. Even a contrivance such as a swimming pool can be effective in referencing this fundamental source of energy and life. Formally, a simple rectangle of still water can make a powerful garden boundary. We chose to place our pool three steps above the surrounding terrace, parallel to the house and backed into the up-hill slope. The horizon lies far above it, dancing along the Topatopa bluffs, but the reflective pool water brings the sky down to the ground and integrates it into the other garden elements of water, earth and plants.

There is, after seven years, a seeming inevitability to this composition of gravel, water, oaks, sage-scrub meadows and borrowed views of true chaparral wilderness. As Page writes of one of his creations in Piedmont, “it is, in one sense, a synthesis and a symbol of the nature and essence of the place, its earth and air and water and what I must call the humanities – the house, its period and its builders”.

It is, above all, a garden.

2016-12-10

Girl Power Through the Ages

Now also at urbanwildland.org

At the beginning of 2016, I taught an on-line graduate course in Ecological Ethics for the Viridis Institute, an educational start-up focused on Ecopsychology and Environmental Humanities, founded by Lori Pye who also teaches at both the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Pacifica Institute in Santa Barbara. Although I fancy myself a meta-historian, fascinated by the structural mechanisms that impact humanity’s story over time and place, I entirely neglected, in my course, to consider how the ways in which humanity grubs a living from the natural environment impacts our values, so concerned was I with the way our values impact our use and abuse of the environment. I have now been schooled by Ian Morris, a classics professor at Stanford, having read his book, Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels, Princeton University Press, 2015.

He proposes, quite simply, that our values mutate in sympathy with the ways in which we derive energy (sustenance) from the planet. Our core spiritual values, for instance, have evolved from the pantheism of foraging to the worship of the god-kings of farming to the widespread contemporary denial of spirituality demanded of late-stage capitalism, where the rational, neo-liberal pursuit of maximum profit, the relentless expansion of consumerism and the extractive technologies that support it, represent a quantum leap in the size of civilization’s energy footprint which, at the present, can only be maintained by the burning of fossil fuels. It is a breathtakingly broad-brush approach to the story of human development.

Morris concedes that humanity has consistently exhibited a number of basic values over time such as fairness, justice, love, hate, respect, loyalty and a sense of the sacred; but he suggests that the manifestation of these values varies according to the dominant form of energy capture which he reduces to the three modalities of his title. Community governance, which tends to reflect shared values, begins, in Morris’s telling, with the egalitarianism of the forager (encapsulated in the notion of moral autonomy by which we are all headmen – each of us headman over him or herself), moves on to the authoritarianism under which farmers thrive (the genesis of which is traditionally traced to royal control over the flood waters of the Nile) and comes, in the modern age, to democracy, broadly defined as a refutation of political hierarchy with power notionally residing with the people.

For the more than ninety thousand years that anatomically modern humans pursued a strategy of foraging to secure sufficient energy in the form of food and water, and material for shelter, ceremony, tools, transport and warfare, there was an essential equality between men and women. Neither sex achieved a lasting primacy over the other perhaps because their means of livelihood was consistently assured by gathering, in which women more than fully participated, and which was only occasionally enriched by the male preserve of hunting. In contrast, the ten thousand years devoted to non-mechanized agriculture that followed was characterized by a marked sexual hierarchy at least partly because farming privileged upper body strength.

The increase in the food supply afforded by the practice of farming, particularly as it intensified with the adoption of plowing and irrigation, also meant that women spent more time pregnant and caring for young children, further distancing them from the processes of energy capture and creating a sexual divide that was expressed spatially as men in the fields and women in the house. This inside outside dichotomy was confirmed as women became increasingly confined to the sheltered realm of the home and garden while men, literally and figuratively, were out in the world.

A divergent relationship to nature, expressed in woman’s conciliatory practice of small scale horticulture and the gathering of handfuls of wild plants around the home (an extension of their erstwhile foraging) for culinary, medicinal and spiritual purposes, as opposed to the subjugation of nature practiced by farmers, ultimately led to the conflation of women with nature - and patriarchy sought to dominate both. The increasing use of fossil fuels over the last two hundred and fifty years to power machines and, more recently, electronic equipment, has led to a progressive weakening of this entrenched gender hierarchy. The parallel development of democratic institutions in the high energy using parts of the world (producing countries tend to experience, by contrast, huge disparities in wealth and fall victim to tyranny) has further eroded, but not eliminated, sexist hegemony.

Morris makes the argument that Industria (his term for society powered by fossil fuels) does best within a democratic political environment where its technocratic foundations are supported by a liberal ideology which encompasses notions such as competition, efficiency and individual empowerment - and worst in illiberal climes such as Soviet Russia, Maoist China and Kimist North Korea.

He writes,

“…although the state shows no sign of withering away, fossil-fuel attitudes toward steep political hierarchies and upstarts have more in common with foragers’ views than with farmers’. Political scientists have long suggested that even democracies necessarily spawn powerful elites that constitute themselves as permanent political castes, but democrats have consistently preferred visions of government by everyman to the idea of a natural ruling class.”

There is, it seems, a connection between abundant energy and liberal governance: our contemporary appetite for energy is supported by a parallel addiction to democracy - a form of government perhaps temperamentally ill-suited to the curbing of society’s cravings for oil. Additionally, in a world where science has assumed the role of the sacred, we continue to be in awe of scientifically developed technologies, many of which facilitate the extraction and distribution of fossil fuels, as well as those devices which are its most profligate users, such as jets, high powered cars and giant farming, earth-moving and ore extraction equipment. In this country, we paper over the ironies (and climate threats) of our preferred mode of energy capture by espousing values such as freedom, independence, and loyalty to a state whose military consumes oil at the rate of more than a hundred million barrels a year.

But always, there are outliers. In an essay by Margaret Attwood, When the Lights Go Out: Human Values after the Collapse of Civilization, written as a formal response to Morris’ thesis (she was a contributor to his Tanner Lectures at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values) she upbraids him for entirely ignoring the nomadic, pastoralist mode of energy capture in his analysis. In particular, she notes the value-laden cultural consequences of the development of large-scale warfare by the pastoralist warriors of the Steppe, in their twelfth and thirteenth century campaigns of imperial conquest, led by Ghengis Khan.

Until recently, Mongolia, was ground zero for pastoralism - a survival strategy fueled by grass - but beginning in the twentieth century, Mongolia’s economy began to be transformed by the development of extractive industries. The country has extensive deposits of copper, gold, molybdenum, fluorspar, uranium, tin, tungsten and coal, most of which it now exports to China; but its surviving pastoralists remain largely self-sufficient and only occasionally dependent on local markets.

For many centuries, Muslim Kazakhs have been grazing their livestock in the foothills of the Altai Mountains, in Western Mongolia. Today, they continue to herd sheep, horses, camels, goats, cattle and yak, from which they extract much of their energy requirements (including cooking fuel from their animals’ dung). The use of eagles to hunt foxes and marmots survives as a ceremonial tradition amongst these people, and now Sony Pictures has released The Eagle Huntress, 2016, directed by Otto Bell, that documents the training of a thirteen year-old girl as the first woman to participate in this ancient sporting tradition.

I was utterly beguiled by the drone, hand held, and eagle-mounted digital cinematography of Otto’s glossy fairy tale which features the charming Aishoplan, daughter of a champion in the sport both ready to pass on his skills and brook the almost comic chorus of sexist disapproval expressed by community elders. Sia’s breathy paean to Girrrl Powah, ‘Angel by the Wings’, with its seemingly endless refrain of ‘you can do anything’ plays over the end credits and is a reminder that the documentary, set amidst the snowy crags of Mongolia and featuring the stunning aerial acrobatics of Aishoplan’s pet eagle is, at heart, a showy live-action cartoon of female empowerment.

Yet it is women like Aisholpan, infused with a warrior spirit born of a profound empathy with the workings of the natural world, who will, I believe, lead us towards the next frontier of energy capture.

2016-11-20

The Recent Unpleasantness

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

This fall the mythography of our country suffered a significant loss. A place went missing. A pastoral room has vanished. Lake Wobegon is no more. After forty years of more or less continuous weekly radio reports Garrison Keillor has hung up his microphone and the landscape and community he made has fallen silent. He created a place that represented the way we were, or at least imagine the way we might have been, in some rural outpost in Central Minnesota where the seasons were often the protagonist and where the human population was deeply embedded in some version of the natural world - their personal foibles or crises mere arabesques on the immutable presence that is the Prairie.

Across the continent, another voice fell silent that also represented a mythic place - a pastoral village green where simple games of stick and ball are played. Vin Scully retired from calling Dodger games. Never mind that the L.A. stadium represents the hyper-commercial aggrandizement of that simple game, nor that the development of the stadium in the early 1960's destroyed an established community in Chavez Ravine with little regard for its resident's welfare: this was the demise of another (white male) voice that enshrined a pastoral, conservative, and not entirely coincidentally, a Christian world view - but which ultimately celebrated the mythic power of a place to which it provided an aural anchor in times of profound transience.

I owe both men a debt of gratitude: they have voiced an important part of the sonic background to the three and a half decades of my acculturation to this remarkable feat of the imagination: the United States of America.

Now, a great transgressive act has occurred within this heady construct. Swept away in the yearlong Opéra bouffe culminating in the second Tuesday of November, were two dynasties containing three Presidents, a Secretary of State, a Governor and a CIA director along with their Washington courtiers, and retinues from Florida, Texas, Kennebunkport and Chappaqua via Little Rock, Arkansas: all having faithfully served mammon and Empire while outwardly maintaining the appearance of divisive partisanship. Both families successfully fulfilled their role in what amounts to electoral authoritarianism (the technique much favored by third-world countries whereby multi-party elections are held, but in circumstances so prescribed that they become instruments of authoritarianism rather than democracy) . The genius of the American system, as has often been noted, is that it consists of two major parties both dedicated to the needs of the deep state and both determined to effectively silence alternative, so-called third, parties. These two familial bastions of this exclusionary system have now been vanquished.

In this we can rejoice. Yet they exit the stage still trailing the clouds of havoc they wreaked upon the world. We wait to see how dark is the instrument of their comeuppance. One thing is certain: the old religion is dead, the new is upon us.

The World Value Survey (conducted by a consortium of social scientists from around the world) locates national values along two axes: vertically (y) from Traditional values to Secular-rational values and horizontally (x) from Survival values to Self-expression values. Sweden resides in splendid isolation at the top right hand corner of the chart and a cluster of Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Jordan and Morocco at the bottom left. The USA lurks in the bottom third of the ‘y’ axis, favoring traditional values, but is to the far right of the ‘x’ axis, favoring the values of self-expression. Despite the keening of liberals, we have just experienced a beautiful expression of this metadata. We have, indeed, demonstrated the vitality of our democracy, for the demos, or the villages, have spoken and their standard bearer is about to be installed in the White House. While many fear that we are about to suffer under an ochlocracy, or mob rule, (one of the three systems of government that classical Greek thinkers derided as evil, along with oligarchy and tyranny) the recent unpleasantness demonstrated that the system is, after all, not irretrievably rigged.

Despite the dastardly deeds of the Democratic National Committee in defeating what it perceived as an inappropriate choice as their candidate and an equally nefarious campaign waged to ensure the selection by the opposition of a candidate it believed was so flawed as to be unelectable, our democracy prevailed - and our imaginations are now newly challenged to remake our Union.

I accept that as a white male pontificating on such matters from on high, or at least reasonably high in the Topatopa foothills of Ojai, in Southern California, I inhabit a position of great privilege. I am unlikely to be amongst the first cohort to be shadowed by the darkness many perceive to have befallen our nation. What I can authentically do is to continue what I have been doing for the last seven years, but with a renewed energy; that is, to write of a particular place, the Urbanwildland, in the spirit of those writers (from Jefferson and Thoreau, to Edward Abbey, Ursula le Guin and Leslie Marmon Silko and beyond) who have, in the life of this nation, clearly seen that our relationship to the land is crucial to the way in which we arrange our society.

No creative writing practice is likely to exert direct influence on scientific or technological developments, even less on public policy and little or none on the political process. Yet if, as Lawrence Buell suggests in The Environmental Imagination, Harvard, 1995, “there is an emerging culture of environmental concern” some part of that culture is likely open to the persuasive power of literary production. Many of us who labor (however sporadically) in this vineyard seek an end to the ideologies of neoliberalism and more broadly of the rhetoric and mythos of ‘progress’ and seek to foster an embrace of green thinking which might value cooperation rather than competition, the community rather than the individual and diversity rather than conformity. Our political crisis (if such it is) is ultimately transcended by our environmental crisis: reimagining the natural world and our relationship to it is a necessary first step in the resolution of the secular affairs of state.

Early November, early morning, preternaturally warm; the sun barely over the Santa Paula ridge, my shadow long, flaring towards the ocean; skin riffled by the Santa Ana winds - fire winds. The pasture I am moving across is flushed with green after the first rains of the season; part of my attention is caught by the mounding turkey mullein along the track, but the particularities of place are swamped by that long promised transcendence which arises from an engagement with the natural world –for this moment, the minutiae of our social arrangements fall away, lost in the eternity of the empyrean.

2016-11-07

Pastoral Rooms

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Lawrence Buell (The Environmental Imagination, 1995), writes that Thoreau practices the embedment of pretty pastoral rooms within a radical critique of urbanism and chastises him for turning away from social confrontation "for the sake of immersion in a simplified Green world". The environmental movement is predicated on a similar tendency to valorize the wild and to pillory the urban for whatever faults it sees in our world now or in an imagined future. Here at Urban Wildland, I attempt a fluid analysis of our predicament which privileges neither urban nor wild and indeed, neither past nor present: our shared future is the river in which these temporal and physical tributaries come together. Our individual consciousness is influenced by similar complexities of time and material circumstance, and in the black and white textual rooms to which I fully admit to retreating, there continue to be useful revelations pertinent to an understanding of the process. Hence this week’s Book Report.

Joan Grant was an extraordinary English writer who wrote the global best seller Wings of the Pharaoh, a historical romance, in 1937. She first visited the United States in 1914 aboard the Lusitania (yes, the very same ship that was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in 1916 and became the proximate cause for America's entry into WWI) and returned in 1964 with her third husband Denys Kelsey (known to her as 'K', like Krishnamurti, in what is unlikely to have been an entirely unconscious conflation) on the Queen Elizabeth to visit the center for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach where she and Denys would lecture on Reincarnation. Now, her granddaughter Nicki Bennett (a recently widowed, treasured friend in Ojai), is returning to England on the Queen Mary II to take up residence in Edinburgh.

There is, between these several voyages, a fascinating tale which I will leave Nicki to weave. But before she left, I took a shrink wrapped copy of A Lot to Remember, 1962, Grant's travel memoir re-issued in 1980, beautifully cloth bound in a pale sage green, no dust jacket, but instead a purple imprint of the author's mesmeric eyes and bewitching eyebrows on the front cover, from a carton of same before placing the box in a storeroom of the Ojai house which Nicki has now left.

The book concerns the author's time in the Dordogne, and focuses on the architectural and scenic splendors of the towns and villages along the river Lot and on life amidst the Lotoise, particularly those involved in what we would now call the hospitality industry. It is, to be frank, a slight volume both in heft and literary pretension, but it is enlivened by Joan's psychic relations with what she calls 'spooks' which inhabit an alternate plane of reality to which she is acutely attuned. The region's history is drenched in bloody dynastic and religious rivalries and grotesqueries lurk in ruined manorial piles, chateaux, abbeys and fortifications scattered amidst the now placid countryside. Eternally damned torturers, murderers and fallen priests are sent on the way of reincarnation by Joan's sensitive analysis of their plight and her powers of love and forgiveness - expressed in Christic epigrams, presumably delivered in her fractured French.

At other times, she fully inhabits her role as a prototypical upper-middle class bohemian Englishwoman dispensing gobs of noblesse oblige over the French countryside. Accompanied by her second husband and later by her third, gallivanting, gourmandizing and practicing what she calls her Far Sight, she is at once entertaining and annoyingly precious. The couples’ choice of steed is carefully selected for their progress along farm tracks, minor ‘D’ roads, rustic Rue Principales and Routes Nationales, the system of ‘N’ roads which largely follow ancient Roman routes; for it is an Armstrong Siddeley, perhaps a Sapphire, which has as its hood ornament a sphinx, adopted as the company's logo in 1912 after a journalist described an early model as ‘as silent and inscrutable as the sphinx'. One of Joan's alter egos (or more accurately, previous incarnations) is Sekeeta, the daughter of a Pharoah and heroine of her first book. Joan enjoyed many lives in Egypt, recollecting them in another three Far Memory books, Eyes of Horus (1942), Lord of the Horizon (1943) and So Moses was Born (1952). Looking across the long-hooded car, the sphinx imperiously leading the way, the French countryside is deconstructed beneath her penetrating gaze.

Jonathon Bate's exhaustive biography, John Clare (2003), is my current sleepy-time, lights-out soporific. ‘The peasant poet’, was one of a cohort of British Romantic poets in the early nineteenth century, which included, most famously, Keats, Byron, Cowper and Tennyson. Clare, briefly famous in the 1820’s, saw his work begin to gain a new level of popularity in the 1980’s and his work continues to be discovered by readers charmed by his poetic descriptions of the English countryside and galvanized by his outrage at the injustices of the Enclosure movement which restricted the rights of landless peasants in a process by which highly profitable monocultures replaced small scale arable crops and common-land grazing. Much of the land of which he writes is simultaneously under the threat of creeping Industrialization. Reading him is to experience our world foretold, of nature scarred and compromised and society riven by ever increasing economic injustice.

Ironically, the impoverished Clare, who made almost nothing from his infrequent publications, was supported by members of the aristocracy and for a while became a literary mascot to several of the noble houses which surrounded his humble cottage on the edge of the fens in what is now Cambridgeshire. Briefly feted in London, he risked being integrated into high society but his manic behavior saw him, instead, institutionalized first in a private hospital in Essex and then in a public Lunatic asylum in Northampton where he wrote perhaps his most famous poem, ‘ I Am’, which ends with a fine, transcendentalist howl,

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.

He longed to retreat, in other words, from padded cell to pastoral room. Turned solipsistic in his dotage, he abandons his social gaze and is transformed into an admitted “self-consumer of my woes”. Perhaps, a nineteenth century incarnation of Joan could have helped him, for Joan practiced psychotherapy with #2 Charles Beatty and #3 Denys Kelsey in Britain the U.S. and France. Employing a kind of regression therapy, she believed that diagnosing unresolved issues from past lives could assist in the treatment of the patient’s neuroses in their present incarnation. Clare’s hold on his identity was always tenuous – he identified with Byron to the point of re-writing that aristocrat’s poems and on occasion believed that he was Shakespeare. He explained, with admirable candor, “I‘m John Clare now. I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly”.

One of the appeals of Clare’s work is that it is the expression of a true rustic. He knew of what he wrote in a way that Wordsworth, for instance, did not. Clare was a participant in nature, Wordsworth an observer. The nature they both wrote about was part of a pastoral tradition: a land tamed over the ages for the benefit of its human inhabitants. Enclosure represented an extension of pastoralism not its beginnings. Thoreau’s ‘simplified green world’ was, in the case of Walden, an island of second growth forest in a largely deforested countryside. Joan traveled through a similarly compromised environment, but it was exactly the human imprint to which she was attracted, for in that lay the psychic reverberations which were her true subject. Her pastoral rooms existed as traps for superannuated spooks.

My pastoral rooms, to quote Thoreau, “are made out of Chaos and Old Night”. They are not pastoral at all – they are wild, “not mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, not waste-land” - but primal chaparral. This week has been warm and the winds strong. The other evening I arrived home to find that a dead Deerweed plant (Lotus scoparius) had blown up against the front door. It was largely spherical - perhaps three feet in diameter - and it glowed a fiery orange in the sun’s last rays. It appeared as a burning bush, heralding the presence of the wild within the precinct of our home.

My green world is aflame: it is a threat, not a comfort - and there is, I realize, no turning away from the Urban Wildland.