2017-04-12

The Waste Land

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

A collective sigh of relief riffled through the corridors of power around the world. The Great Disrupter had been brought to heel, whether by his own insecurities, the deep-state, Mad-Dog Mattis, or Jared Kushner, no one knew. In one act of petulant gun-boat diplomacy the world was restored to its customary axis and America to its past.

The U.S. had returned to fighting the last war. The one great moral force in the world was appalled at the release of low-grade, bath-tub variety Sarin gas and caused five dozen largely ineffective Tomahawk missiles to be lobbed at a remote air-field (back in service days later) and the Russian Bear’s nose to be tweaked. A masterstroke of nineteenth century diplomacy (by other means)!

Meanwhile, its Empire continued to be roiled in real and consequential ways by the blow-back of over one hundred and fifty years of the burning of fossil fuels, the sixth extinction, acidifying oceans and great clouds of turbid toxicity settling over Asia. And its profoundly reactionary leader, to no great surprise, had prepared his response: the nineteenth century be damned, his environmental policy would be guided by attitudes forged in the seventeenth: North America, nay the Planet, the gift of the Great Provider to her chosen people – exists to be raped and pillaged at its God-given pleasure.

The Acourtia lies prostrate across the single track trail; wild cucumber entwines itself amongst the flanking shrubs and crisscrosses the path at around neck height. Progress involves triage: something has to give. It’s spring in the chaparral. Blue dicks (native hyacinth) are rampant. Virgin’s bower (native clematis) is running riot, poppies and popcorn flower are popping up all over; and solanum and lupin bloom in blue profusion. Bush sunflowers are radiant.

It rained this year. The drought doomsters are perplexed at this entirely predictable turn of events. A cursory review of the rain fall records is all it takes to be assured that Southern California’s drought was fully within historical norms. Don’t be conflatin’ (with global warming that is).

Even in the chaparral, historical perspective is useful. Both the wisdom of reflection and the judgement of time are denied by the primacy of the moment where we become transfixed by the jet stream of trivia generated by the 24-hour media news-cycle - or blinkered by a few years of minimal rainfall. The slightly above average rainfall of 2016-2017 has everyone rejoicing – and me mourning the end of a five year holiday from weeds in the broken edges of the urban wildland. Natives are bred to drought, weeds from temperate Europe much less so.

In Washington, decision making happens in a place where its obsessions with a golden past deeply color its obsessions of the moment. There is a precedent. The Whig interpretation of history is a precursor to what some now call presentism: the predilection for focusing on what’s happening NOW. If all of history is tending towards its culmination in the present, then it is indeed the present that demands attention - the past serving as mere prelude. But the triumphalism of British mainstream historians in the age of Victoria who tended, as their great de-bunker Herbert Butterfield, wrote 1931, “to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present” was surely the result of their satisfaction with the contemporaneous state of the world with Britain as its Imperial Master. They were blind to the impending decline of British hegemony - blind to threats of greater historical gravitas than those so ably batted away by the Foreign Secretaries of the day who relied on the rattle of the saber and the explosive shell, just as the Lord High Executioner and his Ministers rely on the brute force of the Tomahawk missile and drone delivered ordnance while seemingly unaware of more existential threats to their world.

In among the invasive grasses, those heralds of spring, peonies and goosefoot, still nestle. Deerweed, artemesia and sage show up as sage-scrub slowly re-establishes itself in the soils disturbed by residential development and before that of ranching and mixed farming. Soapweed sprouts in clusters, casually seeded by Chumash Indians who used its poison root to stun steelhead trout in Bear Creek. Native bunch grasses survive, but are crowded by introduced annual grasses. This morning, mist lay heavy in the valley, but rising above it, in the lee of the Santa Paula Ridge, the sun almost over the mountains, I spotted my first owl’s head clover of the season. Moments later, I saw fiddle neck still tightly curled but about to bloom.

In rhapsodizing over the emergence of vernal flora I am a consumer of the natural world situated, ideologically, somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century. Pursuing transcendence through transference, moving the ego aside and accessing what Jung calls the ‘voice of God’ (or at least, wallowing in an aesthetic reverie sufficient to submerge my quotidian concerns) I am following in the footsteps of Wordsworth, Emerson and Thoreau. Mine is a Romantic vision where I find profound aesthetic and spiritual value in the chaparral wilderness that surrounds me on the wildland edge of Ojai, California.

This reactionary excursion, from a position of little influence is, I hope, reasonably harmless. It is a step away from the present where we live in an age of ecology, our consciousness of the natural world informed by notions of complex and inter-related systems and shadowed by an understanding that civilization has impinged on these systems in profoundly irrevocable ways.

Our President meanwhile, from a position of some considerable influence, has retreated to a way of valuing the natural world prevalent at the very beginning of the European conquest of North America: when wilderness was worthless (unless to serve as terrain for the testing of one’s Christian faith); when wilderness was without intrinsic value until transformed by colonists and when its indigenous peoples had no rights to ownership precisely because of their failure to cultivate the land. By common law exegesis (or spiritual alchemy) land became property by virtue of its exploitation by Europeans.

As Jedediah Purdy outlines in his recent book, After Nature – A Politics for the Anthropocene, 2015, America was colonized by men and women resolute in their belief in this providential vision whereby the land existed only to serve human needs, its bounty a God-given gift to those who dared to make the land productive. In his pledge to Make America Great Again!, the President has embraced this vision which serves as divine justification for the mercenary exploitation of the environment. Within this pre-modern world view its protection would be tantamount to an attempt to turn the environment to Waste, a word, as Purdy notes, which in the providential vocabulary suggested wilderness - a place devoid of value.

Amy Davidson writes in a recent New Yorker, that in attempting to restrict the work of the EPA in controlling greenhouse gases, our President is guilty of “reckless endangerment”. The truth is this country is founded on exactly that ethos – ask any Native American even mildly cognizant of his people’s history.

It’s as almost as if all of History is trending towards the seventeenth century. Despite his Twitterish presentism, the baleful one has returned to the world of knee breeches, doublets and ruffs to find justification for an intensified extraction of the world’s resources. Yet there is a neo-liberal twist, a shard of the twenty first century inserted into his providential vision, for the environment will be fully monetized and the market will manage its inexorable decline.

Perhaps, as the earth trembles under the impact of its missiles, the earth’s air stultified by its toxic emissions, its rivers poisoned again by industrial waste and its over-fished seas swollen by its heedless carbon emissions, our land will, in the twenty-first century meaning of the words, be truly laid to waste……while its people (and their Representatives) remain comatose, (to continue our nature story) like so many stunned steelhead trout.

2017-04-04

Darkness at Noon

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

They followed their food. They came from Northeast Asia: men, women and children wrapped in fur and hides lashed with sinew, walking between glaciers, across ice floes, over moraines and through wide river valleys where the megafauna of the fast receding Ice Age still roamed. Or they paddled through the kelp forests of the western ocean, staying close to shore and surrounded by their prey - dolphin, seals, otters and perhaps even schools of saber-toothed salmon coming of age.

They settled across every bio-region of the land: enduring and sometimes thriving, in peace or at war with each other, but always living lightly on the land. They multiplied but did not overpopulate.

Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, perhaps fifteen millennia after these first peoples had arrived, the Europeans showed up with, as Jared Diamond puts it, guns, germs and steel. After eons of co-habiting with animals, which Europeans had domesticated to more easily harvest their flesh, take their milk, tan their hides and render their bones, the new arrivals came carrying zoonoses, pathogens swapped between the species; and their very arrival was dependent on the great technical and knowledge revolutions that they had achieved after the stagnation of post-Roman Europe. The native populations were helpless before these biological and technological assaults.

The Unites States is thus a country born of Imperialism. North America beckoned as a land that might be consumed, its peoples killed (deliberately or by biological hazard), the survivors enslaved and its resources ravaged. Europeans, having so thoroughly partitioned their own lands to the advantage of the few (the aristocracy and other landed classes) and to the detriment of the many (the peasants), saw an opportunity to begin again – to escape a time-worn feudalism and more equitably exploit the riches of North America.

This time, carried on the ideological wings of late eighteenth century liberalism, land would be available to all and its government arranged for the benefit of its many owners. What could be fairer than that? But Jeffersonian Democracy carried within it the demon-seed of agrarian capitalism, developed in the Old World and now, in the New, primed to burst into an un-fettered expansion. Teamed with mercantilism, which was energized by the triangular trade anchored in Old World centers of production and which pivoted to North America for raw agricultural materials and to Africa for the slave-labor to farm them, capitalism became the dominant ideology of the United States.

The competition inherent in capitalism plays out as a deep rift between winners and losers – the rich and the poor – as predatory accumulation leads to an organization of society that marshals labor against capital, whites against minorities, urban areas against rural, elite education versus popular and politics against social life - as power, all the while, accrues to the wealthy. The ability of the rich to shape the rules of the game has promoted these characteristics as they manifested first in mercantilism and agrarian capitalism, then nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial capitalism and now neoliberalism.

The great heat-sink of late-stage capitalisms is the so-called middle class – essentially a creation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and an essential partner to mechanized production. Once those dark satanic mills really got humming it was necessary to find consumers. Thorsten Veblen understood that conspicuous consumption was essentially a display behavior practiced by this new interstitial class (encouraged by the dark arts of marketing), which slotted between blue-collar workers and capital. Together they established a compelling new tripartite division of labor, consumption and capital.

Marx’s notion that bourgeois ideology (whose charms extend across the ‘lower’ classes) blinded citizens to the exploitation to which they were subjected, was prophetic: it foreshadowed the entirely passive acceptance of an inherently oligarchic government by the majoritarian middle classes. Our government has enshrined the ideology of capitalism and its concomitant, the rule of the few over the many, from its conception - it is no aberration that George Washington was reputed to be the richest man in America. Our democracy, a shell game played every two years, remains in the duplicitous hands of the country’s wealthiest citizens.

Our current Sun King, radiant beneath his gilded halo, is but a petty pretender: but his election speaks to the American fealty paid to wealth as he acts, in his buffoonish way, as the supreme symbol of the neoliberal oligarchy. While he makes gestures towards curbing this latest iteration of capitalism, spouting nationalist, protectionist, high-tariff rhetoric, current evidence suggests that the stock market remains hugely confident that he understands, like Coolidge (and every president since Grant), that the business of America is business - and that that business is now irrevocably global.

Imperialism ‘adds value’ to the production process by sourcing materials or labor (and often both) at a competitive advantage in territories beyond the market base of its end products. This exogenous capitalist enterprise has been complicit, since at least the seventeenth century, in the metastasis of capitalism throughout the globe. Time was when this activity involved the actual conquest of foreign lands. Now capitalism - enshrined as neoliberalism in this age of globalized production and international trade – is supercharged by the wage disparities between the global North and South. This hemispheric division largely reflects the divide between the old Imperialist nations and their former colonies and serves as the playground for the neoliberal game of global labor arbitrage.

While industrial production is increasingly based in the global South, this does little to enrich those lands, instead, it has reinforced the accumulation of wealth in the North and led to the immiseration of the urbanizing labor force in the South. At the same time, as John Smith points out in Imperialism & the Globalization of Production, University of Sheffield, 2010, profit making is more and more centered on ‘Financialization’ whereby the profits of production are diverted into financial speculation and private equity mergers and acquisitions. Meanwhile, the hard currency earned by the producing countries (most notably China) is loaned back to the United States so that it can continue to purchase the consumer products which find their way, via laden container ships, to the shelves of Best Buy, Walmart, Bed Bath and Beyond and the like. Smith suggests that we are witnessing “a perverse ‘Marshall Plan’ in which some of the poorest countries in the world finance the overconsumption of the richest”. The EU, NAFTA and the TPP were all structured, in part, to increase access to centers of cheap ‘offshore’ labor by Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan.

The race to the bottom in terms of global competitiveness inevitably impacts the remaining centers of production in the global North where wages are pushed lower to ensure their continuing viability. It has not gone unnoticed that the industrial heartlands of this country contributed mightily to the Republican victory in the recent presidential election. Voters were gambling that the new president would more effectively control the primary manifestations of global labor arbitrage – migration and outsourcing - by reaching back to the ultranationalist and right wing ideologies of the 1930’s. Fat chance, but we should nevertheless prepare ourselves for neoliberalism with a fascist face.

It is tempting to assume that darkness has only recently befallen this country: congruent, perhaps, with what we might call our own, low-wattage, Orange Revolution. But the chthonic - the shadow of the underworld - has been endemic since the European Imperial powers colonized what is now the United States. The unrelenting psychic gloom is only occasionally pierced by sunny periods - moments that have often been attributed to the rule of Presidents and Congress but as Howard Zinn shows in his A Peoples History of the United States, 1980, can be more reasonably attributed to the push-back of the governed.

At the height of its twenty-first century financial and military power, the United States remains deeply shadowed by its prevailing ideology which, by its very nature, entirely discounts individual and societal well-being. At this moment of presidential effulgence – its brazen light illuminating tawdry evidence of extreme wealth - we the people are experiencing an existential darkness at noon.

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.