2016-09-28

We Can Move

Now also at urbanwildland.org

Weeds are overspread on the cattle pasture at the top of the hill: tar-weed, vinegar-weed and milk-weed (although not so much of this last one); all are natives and all highly unpalatable - likewise turkey mullein - to the cows that are occasionally put here to graze. There was a brief flush of non-native grasses earlier in the year, and then mustard and Erodium, but the cattle were out often enough to reduce the field to a dusty, over-grazed paddock by spring. Yet somehow this pretty (and in the case of vinegar weed, pungently aromatic) trio of weeds survived the bovine onslaught and made it through much of the summer. Now, still blooming tar weed dominates the gentle north facing rise and turkey mullein studs the ground either side of the north-south track the cattle and I take as we make our way across the field. Along the way too, stunted vinegar weed still sports its delicate blue flowers.

Recently, approaching from the south (along the track that parallels the deep ravine that becomes the western boundary of the field) with the rise forming the near horizon, a flock of Dark-eyed juncos rose up like a small cloud from the un-seen meadow: the avian mass quickly dissipated then came together again in a similar sort of vaporous formation. They had been feeding, I realized, as I chased them north in the early morning light, on the tarweed. A few days later, the entire spectacle was reprised but this time, they flew off to the west - just far enough to alight on a chaparral bush too distant to identify but close enough that I could make out the coal-black feathered eye sockets of these little brown-grey birds.

Here, on the meadow, east of the great chasmic gorge, there is a clear view west out to the Santa Ynez range as it stands up before Ventura’s coast and forms a scenic flat over which the sun and moon disappear. This morning, the almost full moon appeared as a mottled apricot for the few minutes that it hung above the jagged edge of the mountains. To the east, and at more or less the same time, the sun – the two celestial bodies in cosmic lockstep – was beginning to rise over the Santa Paula ridge. It is at such moments that this spot feels like a rostrum from which one might, with some trepidation, direct the morning’s music: coaxing the full majesty of the sun from its terrestrial lair, urging it up into the empyrean from where it can let loose its cosmic rays, destroy the ambiguities of the night, banish the moon, and unsubtly establish the incontrovertible truths of the day.

There is, in this process, a clarity that is usually less than evident in our lives, although we too are in lockstep with biological processes that will ensure our eventual decay and death. A long night, we can be assured, will follow our brief day. Exactly how much light floods into that day is, it seems, a function of the circumstances of our birth and subsequent happenstance: first we are locational victims of geo-politics and then often hierarchical casualties of our natal socio-economic milieu. We are products of our particular environment quite as much as those native ‘weeds’ are of their horticultural setting; but we can move.

From the very beginning, humankind has done exactly that - we have left one place and sought advantage in another - and the history of California, in particular, is inextricably entwined with a long succession of arrivals from less favored homelands.

Locally, during the depths of the last ice age, from 21,000 to 18,000 years ago, sea level was 400 feet lower than at present and the beach about twenty five miles further west. The northern Channel Islands were one, known as Santarosae, and it only remained an island by virtue of the fact that it rose out of a deep channel beyond the continental shelf.

As Terry Jones and Katherine Klar point out in California Prehistory, Colonization, Culture, and Complexity, (2012), the extent of glacial ice during this period would almost certainly have precluded the initial settlement of the land from northeastern Asia. The melting of the glaciers in the warming that followed (known as the Holocene Interglacial, which continues as our current geological epoch) opened up the New World for migration from Asia, and despite subsequent dramatic oscillations in climate, made California, with its dense conifer forests, rich marine life and relict megafauna, a favorable destination for the prehistoric Asian diaspora. We can now, with a fair degree of certainty, date its first arrivals back to 15,000 BP.

The west coast of North America remained an outlier to history until the seventeenth century when the voyages of Cabrillo (1542), and Drake (1579), brought it into the realm of European politics. By virtue of Cabrillo’s explorations, Spain claimed California and considered its native peoples as subjects of the Crown, but they did not take possession of the territory until 1769, when goaded by an awareness of Russian fur trader’s interest in the area, Junipero Serra and Gaspar De Portola took hold of the country by establishing missions and presidios – military garrisons in support of the Franciscan project of Christianizing the native population while installing them as un-paid laborers, or serfs, within what they planned to be initially self-sufficient, then surplus producing communities.

The Spanish were the first of California’s modern conquerors; then Mexico, in 1821, took control as a more or less unintended consequence of their overthrow of Spanish rule (exactly three centuries after Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs); finally, Alta California was invaded by Anglo-Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was a moment of triumph for the mostly poor-white frontiersmen, many of whom were Bear Flag veterans, who rallied behind West Point educated Fremont and his successor Stockton, but their occupation predictably resulted in the devastation of the Californio, campesino and Native American populations.

A measure of the disruptive impact of the arrival of Americans can be judged by the fact that for a decade or so around the conquest, Los Angeles was the most violent place on the continent and quite possibly on the planet. John Mack Faragher, in Eternity Street, Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, 2016, suggests that the murder rate was “comparable to that of Mexican border towns in the first decade of the twenty-first century, at the height of the violence between warring drug cartels”. He goes on to quote William Butts, editor of the Southern Californian, who in 1854, bemoaned the fact that the cultural contribution of the Americans to local culture was the introduction of “ever more formidable weapons of death and destruction”. This homicidal frenzy extended throughout the nascent state - San Francisco, still caught up in the Gold Rush, and far more populous than Los Angeles, almost equaled its murder rate.

After the onset of the Civil War, the formation of the California Brigade, to fight on the Union side, absorbed much of this psychopathic energy and when the four year paroxysm of industrial scale violence had run its course, California began a more peaceful integration into an expanding United States. In 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad hired many thousands of Chinese immigrants as the labor force for the last sections of the transcontinental line. They joined the thousands of their countrymen already in California from the Gold Rush era; despite anti-Chinese xenophobia, many stayed and more arrived until mounting pressure from poor white Americans and recent Irish immigrants (who, ironically, arrived on the newly completed railroad) led the Federal government to ban Chinese immigration in 1882.

In the decades that followed, agricultural migrant farm workers arrived in California from Japan, the Indian sub-continent, the Philippines, and increasingly, as time went on, Mexico. The great Dust Bowl diaspora saw as many as half a million poor white farmers flee the plains States in the 1930’s and settle in California. Black Americans began to arrive in significant numbers during World War II to work in the war industries.

Exclusionary immigration rules were finally overturned in 1965 when LBJ signed a number of bills that again opened up the U.S. to migration from Asian countries (several of which the American Empire were concurrently attempting to annihilate) and set generous quotas for nationalities around the world. Two years later, I was a part of the global Hippie migration that for a moment, found its locus in San Francisco’s Summer of Love.

Jonathon Gold reflects on the impact of the last sixty years of immigration into southern California through the medium of his weekly restaurant reviews first for the L.A. Weekly and now in The Los Angeles Times . His life and work are documented in the film, City of Gold, 2015, written and directed by Laura Gabbert. Gold celebrates the evolution of ethnic food sold from carts, trucks, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants to white-table-cloth establishments as a way of demonstrating the power of gateway capitalism - through which immigrants can establish their ethnic identities in new places by selling their distinctive cuisines to the local community and the wider population. Their service workers, many of whom have shared a similar journey to their employers, remain mired in the low wage world that such entrepreneurial ventures demand and thus find less reward in having moved.

In both Los Angeles and San Francisco, and throughout the towns and cities of California, a complex mix of cultures contributes to what in the botanical world would be called a climax community – where an intricate mix of environmental adaptations contributes to system stability. The preservation of difference, in values, customs and lifestyles is fundamental to the spirit of southern California and is greatly threatened by the neo-liberal globalism that seeks the homogenization of values congruent to its goal of asymmetrical capital accumulation. The tragedy of Gold’s food cart entrepreneurs is that their gateway capitalism tends to feed into this neo-liberalism which seeks to erode the unique qualities of community (the very foundation of disparate cuisines) in its relentless mission to blend and commodify the cultural experiences of the planet.

The cow pasture is encrusted with a dried mulch of Erodium botrys through which the native weeds still manage to emerge. From this ferruginous mat the corkscrew seeds of the invasive annual herb await the first rain to swell and drill blindly into the newly softened soil. Next spring will see the renewal of the species’ inexorable progress in entirely colonizing the field.

2016-09-05

Between the Mountains and the Sea

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

It is not in the books, by which I mean Milt McCauley’s painstaking catalog called Flowers of the Santa Monica Mountains and Wildflowers of Orange County and the Santa Ana Mountains, by Robert L. Allen and Fred M. Roberts; yet it flourishes in the canyons of the southern California cismontane, in the lands between the mountains and the sea; locally, it grows in the upper reaches of Bear Canyon, along the La Broche Canyon trail and alongside the now dry, spill-over washes of Sisar Creek that run down towards State Highway 150; it has even grown in our neighbor’s yard in a patch of south sloping oak meadowland; but it is a flower, now in pink-purple bloom, for which I know no name. It is, in Hawaiian pidgin, da kine (I’m reading William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life, 2015), a whatchamacallit or as a botanist might gamble, probably a part of the Asteraceae family (just because this is the largest flower family on the planet).

Its foliage is spikey like an artichoke plant and colored a silvery spearmint green. From a base of incised leaves it sends out sprays of stems to which the one inch diameter flowers are closely attached on short stems bracted along their length. Each of the leaves from which the flowers subtend is a single miniature version of the mess of mostly withered foliage closer to the ground. In spring and winter this foliage alone is remarkable, its silvery color unusual amidst the chaparral drab of sandstone, and the mix of golden and chocolaty soils strewn with dead leaves and twigs beneath the leathery, deep rooted chamise, ceonothus, mountain mahogany, scrub oak and red berry; it favors rocky escarpments and dry stream beds but somehow I had never previously seen it in bloom. At this moment in late summer, its pinkish, purplish ray (or ligulate) flowers dotted along its gracefully arching wands are truly startling.

Get close to the ground at this time of year (when removing tumbleweed perhaps) and another startling vision appears: tiny red and black diamond patterned beetles scuttling around in the dry soil. They too, despite a little desultory web research, remain for the moment, nameless. Barely a quarter of an inch long they demand close-up inspection, and such hands and knees investigations reveal black diamonds on red, crisp, deck-of-cards-like graphics genetically painted onto the hardened–for-battle, heraldic wings of the little creatures.

At another scale, but with the same intense graphic quality, our big rock (ours, because we claim it as a profoundly dense moon anchored in frozen orbit, forever mocking the precarious enfoldment of space that is our house) sitting a hundred feet west of the front door, is this evening a black silhouette against a livid blood-orange sky. The composition is completed by a piercing point of light in the pale grey just above the color wash at the horizon: Venus appears, as the sky darkens, laggardly following the sun into the southern hemisphere, somewhere over the raggedy mountains.

These Santa Ynez Mountains are a famously transverse range on a continent characterized by great north-south cordillera – the axial north-south mountain ranges such as the Rockies, the Andes, the Sierras, the Cascades, and the local coastal ranges such as the Santa Monica and San Bernadino Mountains: running parallel to the Pacific shoreline, these ranges shelter vast, biotically productive plains, watered from their slopes. The Ojai Valley, idiosyncratically, is formed between the tail end of the transverse Santa Ynez range and the parallel Sulphur Mountain ridge.

The lower valley is not squarely between the mountains and the sea, as in archetypal cistmontane, but is instead the terminus of a gently sloping flood plain spread beside the Ventura River and its major local tributary, the San Antonio Creek; it is a valley that points towards the ocean. The upper valley is similarly situated although dramatically bifurcated at the Summit where the focus of its rain shed is split between the Ventura and the Santa Clara rivers. On Koenigstein, our oceanic connection is through Santa Paula which stands at the head of the vast Oxnard Plain, and is a city shaped geomorphically by the transverse South Mountain, the Santa Paula Ridge (last gasp of the Santa Ynez Mountains) and the terminus of Sulphur Mountain.

Surface run-off has but this one route to the ocean from our property – down the hill to Sisar Creek thence to Santa Paula Creek where the co-mingled molecules make their way to the Santa Clara Estuary just north of Point Mugu and into the Pacific. We can replicate this route – more or less – by car and be at Point Mugu Beach in about an hour. Alternatively, we can head west on the 150 and follow (again, more or less) Lion Creek, to San Antonio Creek to the Ventura River and thence to its estuary hard by the County Fairgrounds, where, just a little to the north is Emma Wood State Beach bordered by the South Pacific Coast Railroad and the old Pacific Coast Highway (now usurped by the 101); to the south is C street, Ventura’s in-town surf beach where the eleven year old William Finnegan learnt to surf.

A third beach-bound option is to continue west on the 150, and cross over the Ventura River at Baldwin Road rather than parallel it along the 33, and wind through the hills past Lake Casitas and on towards the 101 just shy of Carpinteria where Rincon’s famous point break awaits a few hundred yards to the south. Santa Barbara is another dozen miles to the north and here, at East Beach, just last weekend, I experienced one of those epiphanies that abound in the natural world and which constituted the third in this late summer group of talismanic black-on-red vignettes.

Standing on the sand, late in the afternoon, bemused by the assortment of shorebirds busy on the beach (curlews, sand pipers, plovers and gulls) I was transfixed by a group of perhaps half a dozen ungainly Black Skimmers (Rynchops Niger) lurking on the periphery. Every so often one of their number would wheel into the sky and swoop over the waves bordering the beach and dredge, with the lower half of its beak, through the water - hoping, presumably, to catch small fish. Back on the beach after each brief foray, the bird lost its aerial grace and assumed its earthbound awkwardness. Most remarkable about this strange group was their oversized and mismatched bills, the lower mandibles being noticeably longer than the upper maxillas and the color of their beaks: brilliant red, tipped with black as though they had been dipped in squid ink, or perhaps in the oil that bubbles up in seeps along this coast.

From January 1970 to early in the 2000’s I too lived ‘A Surfing Life’, rarely living far from the beach and almost always aware of the local surf conditions – a pale reflection of William Finnegan’s whole-hearted commitment and performed athletically at far below his level of skill, which was at an almost professional standard. Having started surfing a few days after my twenty second birthday on Manly Beach in Sydney, I suffered through many years of humiliations before achieving a bare proficiency; then, in my fifties, I lost just enough ability for it to become untenable for me to continue this life into the new century. As Finnegan points out, no one who begins surfing much after their fourteenth birthday is ever going to be any good. He continues to surf well into his sixties but must maintain his fitness level by daily swimming a mile in a basement pool in Manhattan, where he now lives.

Much of the allure of surfing is in the close connection to the ocean it affords its participants. Standing on East Beach in Santa Barbara, I felt disconnected from the rhythm of the sea: I had become a bird-watching by-stander. My Chaparral Life, which began with regular early morning runs in Will Rogers State Historical Park on the north western edge of Los Angeles, at just about the time that I abandoned surfing, usurped the primacy of the ocean as the focus of my existence. This life continues in Ojai, where I remain consumed with trying to achieve a plausible connection to the unknowable complexities and visual richness of an alien environment; it is a life spent in pursuit of tapping in to the strange energies that eddy through the chaparral.

It is, of course, not so very different from the life I began, so many years ago, on Manly Beach.

2016-08-17

Dog Star Rising

Now also at urbanwildland.org

Oceans of marine layer fog lap at the mountain shore lines of the lower valley and the Oxnard Plain. The cities of Santa Paula and Ojai have disappeared beneath roiling water vapor. Up above the fog line in La Broche Canyon the morning sun has just risen above Santa Paula Ridge illuminating the east facing sandstone escarpment along which I run. To my left, the twisted limbs of Manzanita, tenaciously anchoring themselves in rock fissures, flush red; along the track and at moraine's edge, gnaphalia, dried yucca and the clouds of Acourtia seed atop tobacco brown stalks are sepulchral: a patchwork of the chaparral's ghostly summer shroud.

There is, or at least I imagine there is, a profound stoicism in the chaparral plant community: in the many thousand years old succession of plants, soils and weathering rock, the rains have always come and the plants have endured. The wildlands hereabouts are littered with the woody remnants of shrubs and perennials, of dead sage, artemisia, laurel sumac, and chamise : their armatures dried grey in the sun and waiting, quiet as the grave, for wildfire to return their nutrients to the soil. Fallen oak limbs and split trunks dot the dry land, elephant bones in the chaparral ossuary.

We live in a canyon through which we can reasonably expect fire in our lifetime. Hence the elaborate precautions in the two built structures on our wildland spread made to increase their chances of survival in a bush fire. We expect the fires to return (evidenced in our yard by fire-blackened oak trunks), and we expect, too, the balm of heavy rains. Like most southern Californians, we maintain a level of pragmatic preparedness in the face of natural disasters.

While providing an anthropomorphized example of stoicism, the plant community also serves as example of Aristotelian telos. The philosopher maintained that every living thing, whether plant, animal or human, acted according to its nature and for all these beings that inevitably included living in community with their fellows. Cycles of birth and death, dormancy during drought and revival after rains and fire-scorched earth and subsequent regeneration from within ash enriched soils, are intrinsic to the chaparral plant community and it is these processes which formed the environmental setting for the human groups that lived within it.

For fifteen thousand years, the Chumash and their forbears, such as the people of the Oak Grove Horizon and before them the first Paleo Indians settlers who voyaged down the coastal kelp-road or trudged across the Beringian land bridge valued community as their guarantee of survival in these lands of uncertain rains and randomized fire events. Seeds stored in woven baskets were insurance against a lack of game or a dearth of fresh plants. Equitably shared resources promoted the welfare of all. Like most indigenous peoples, the Chumash sourced all their food, clothing shelter and tools directly from their local environment, and the weather played an integral part in either sustaining or pauperizing their communities. To voluntarily attempt to live outside of the community or to be banished from it was to court death. Survival was a cooperative endeavor. Individuality was of little value, for to consistently express it was life threatening.

Tribal and peasant cultures have always relied on high levels of cooperation, community and shared values (albeit ones sometimes forged in the brutal furnaces of oppression). Elite groups, in turn, shared values based partly on the exploitation of the under-classes. In either case, anomie, Durkheim’s term for societal alienation, was mostly unknown in pre-modern times. The overbearing extremism of the European aristocracy eventually shook loose the elaborate social structures that had arisen out of Feudalism (which exhibited some levels of shared welfare and responsibilities within its hierarchies) and prompted the political revolutions of the late eighteenth century (including ours) as well as the more generalized European liberalizations of 1848.

It was at this historical moment that increased levels of population, food production and industrial infrastructures (all based on new energy inputs derived from fossil fuels) provided a social and financial environment in which individualism began to have value. Voltaire, Locke, Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, amongst others, provided the philosophical underpinnings of this new liberalism. Yet Locke’s notion that humankind should live in a “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions…as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man” runs entirely counter to the lived experience of our species for the roughly two hundred thousand years of its existence prior to this pronouncement.

Liberalism’s intimate connection to new forms of energy production, dependent on exploitation of the planets crust, should come as no surprise. These new values better served those who were beginning to benefit from the shift in the sources of energy wealth. As Ian Morris points out in his recent book, Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, 2014, tribal cultures (such as the Chumash), who made a living foraging or hunting and gathering adopted social structures that were substantially egalitarian: they included strong norms of sharing and exhibited very limited inequalities. The brief interregnum of farming societies (in the long scheme of things), enabled the rise of Aristocracy, because their hierarchies were based on the ownership of land which tends to aggregate into the hands of the few (who then justified their ascendance by linking it with Divine Will). This complex system of values, norms, expectations and cultural patterns that supported the Divine Right of Kings was then systematically undermined by liberal philosophies that privileged the individual and emphasized humankind’s supposed freedoms.

Fossil fuel societies have proved to be highly tolerant of wealth inequalities. Their implicitly technocratic foundations correlate highly with liberal ideologies which foster values such as competition, quantifiability, majoritarian rule and efficiency. As Morris points out, liberal, individualist values have come to define Western ideology (what he elsewhere calls “a pack of lies from which someone benefits”).

Rousseau offered a warning at the birth of modern liberal society, in the late eighteenth century, when he observed that competition would create a society riven with “Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve and fraud”. A hundred years later, Thoreau, a great reader of Jean-Jacques, observed that it was a wise thing to “cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage…” while noting that “the civilized man is a more experienced and wiser savage”, eschewing, by inference, wealth, vanity and culture for the profound pleasures of a primal relationship with the natural world. Now, neoliberalism is a kind of metastasized, cancerous liberalism that feeds on the sugars secreted by the polluting organ of capitalism. Wealth inequality is symptomatic of this condition and leaves (to continue flogging the oncological metaphor) a vast societal sore that is the disaffected middle classes.

Sometimes, there’s really nothing to be done but to take a walk in the chaparral. Even here, your experience may vary. A couple of weeks ago an oil storage tank set deep in sage scrub, exploded about half a mile from our house. A plume of black smoke rose into the still air. Prompt response by the local fire brigades prevented the fire spreading beyond the immediate confines of the pad. The last significant wildfire that began in the area, less than a hundred yards from the entry to what is now our property, occurred in December 1999, raged for five days, involved over 1500 fire fighters, scorched nearly 5,000 acres and threatened multiple structures and two private schools. It was caused by fire crackers stuffed in a mail box. The explosive impact of the oil storage tank was far greater but was thankfully vitiated by the almost total lack of wind. It is ironic that the chaparral landscapes that produce so little that is of material value to modern society conceal, in places, vast reserves of fossil fuel.

At other times, the ‘tonic of wildness’ is more reliable. One recent early morning, looking over the steep, rocky bank of a seasonal stream (dry now for three years) I watched the single panoptic eye of a rabbit crouched in a crevice a few yards away. Shyest of creatures, I have only seen rabbits freeze when a bobcat is stalking them. This animal remained comfortably immobile as my attention was drawn to a fluttering brown bird spiraling up slope from the dry stream bottom. It circled towards me (I remained as still as the rabbit) and alighted on my arm. Feeling a little like my notion of Saint Francis, I looked down on it and took note of its whitish cream breast, orangey brown (rufous) plumage and darker, herringbone patterned tail. Over breakfast, I learnt from Sibley’s Field Guide that my visitor was a Canyon wren (Catherpes mexicanus).

2016-08-04

Atonement

Now also at urbanwildland.org

It is late July and a welcome stasis has descended on the landscape surrounding our house. The bunch grasses move in the merest breath of wind, animating the meadows with waves of bleached straw. Stiff, broom-like stands of Deerweed, mostly a dark reddish orange, punctuate the land, while the dried blossoms of California everlasting appear (to the fancifully inclined) as foam caps on the moving ocean of grasses: through August and September little will change. The weeding work of winter, spring and early summer is rewarded in these months of landscape hibernation.

It is in this pale scene, occasionally interrupted by patches of bare, ochre to reddish soil that young cream and sepia rattlesnakes sidle along, hunting western fence and western whiptail lizards; in other years (but entirely absent at the moment, reflecting the dearth of their prey - tail thumping wood rats) Red Tail hawks shadow the ground from on high, tails flashing their earthen color. More subtly, the homely Towhee reveals, on close observation, a cinnamon colored belly, echoing the tones of the dirt and leaf litter in which it digs for seeds, insects and grubs.

And so, with a few changes in the details but none in sentiment, we can, perhaps, celebrate with Browning that,

“The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d

The Lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in his heaven –

All’s right with the world!”

But this summer, as the grasses bleach out, I am particularly aware that there is a darkness abroad; that the chaparral is missing its California Grizzlies and the trail making, tending and fire managing of Native Americans; that all’s not right in the world; and that this country continues to pay the price for the trauma it has wreaked on the land.

As much as we pretend that we are a Nation founded in religious freedom at Plymouth Rock, in liberty won from our erstwhile colonial overlords and in justice enshrined in the words of our Constitution and its amendments, the reality remains that this is a country forged in the hell-fire of violence. We are a people who created a home based not so much on political, philosophical and religious ideals as on the brutal displacement of an indigenous population and the venal consumption of their land’s natural resources. The continuing denial of our genesis calls into question everything we think we know about ourselves.

The frontier that rolled west in the nineteenth century was the final resolution of a genocidal pogrom that had begun long before the signing of the Declaration of Independence (which proposed a minor rearrangement in the circumstances of European hegemony over the Native peoples of much of North America). In the great sweep of history it is the bloody fact of our killing of the original, in-place, intact, highly diverse, fully sustainable, intellectually adept, and spiritually attuned peoples of this country that is a central theme of the American nightmare.

Welcome to our world.

This is not a world customarily evoked in popular culture, in political rhetoric, in our churches or in our classrooms and yet it is a world reflected every day in the rage, in the violence and in the hate that surrounds us.

Some would call it karma.

Gun control, believing that Black Lives Matter, increased policing, borders walls, extreme vetting of potential migrants, fewer prisons, more prisons, an end to poverty, more jobs, better housing, improved trade policies, peace in the Middle East; none of these things is going to change the multi-generation transmission of America’s original sin. The Nation’s violent conquest is daily played out on our streets, in our government, our homes, our schools, in public places and in foreign lands as a recurring psycho-drama: it explains our metastasizing military; the militarization of our police force, our obscene nuclear arsenal, the 9mm. Glock in your neighbor’s glove-box and the Heckler & Koch HK416 assault rifle at the back of her closet. It explains the true American Exceptionalism - why this is one of the most violent places on the planet. It may even explain why a man soaked in the blood of foreign wars is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is commonplace to ascribe to survivors of an historic genocide a traumatic inheritance, passed along through generations, that results in violence, substance abuse, chronic health issues such as diabetes, and mental health disturbances. While these impacts are routinely observed in American Indian communities, it is less acknowledged that these traumas impact the perpetrators of such genocides and are transmitted along similarly multi-generational lines.

The business of America is business and, in an unbroken line, (with the exception, perhaps, of FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson) our Presidents have consistently privileged the powerful over the common people. Campaign promises may swing from the progressive to the conservative but once in power our leaders are gripped by the disastrous lure of Empire. It is in the conflation of Empire and Capitalism, of Territory and Treasure, that many of this country’s greatest sins have been committed. Both enterprises are built on the backs of the common man and woman and on the despoliation of the places they call home.

The history of the parts of North America which now form the United States is braided with the narrative threads of greed, conquest and subjugation. It is these stories and the trauma created in their unfolding, that are far greater determinants of our national character and disposition than American democracy - originating as a modest conflation of enlightenment philosophy, the governmental structure of the Roman Republic, and a belief in the political and social primacy of the white, land owning male.

The pernicious triangular trade in slaves, raw materials (cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, indigo and rice) and manufactures that linked the continents of Africa, America and Europe for centuries, was the foundation for this country’s wealth long before the great infrastructure projects, mineral extraction and heavy industries of the nineteenth century added to the wealth of the very few. The railways were built on land taken from Native Americans, the mines of Appalachia on lands earlier purloined from its rightful inhabitants, and polluting industries established in the richest biological confluences of land and water. These projects inevitably relied on the exploitation of racially diverse, mostly impoverished, native born, migrant European, Asian, Mexican, and Central American labor.

Having subjugated its native peoples over a period of almost four centuries, and in some areas having committed a thorough-going genocide, in the late nineteenth century this country turned its attention beyond its continental borders (and their few remaining indigenous peoples) and purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867. In 1893, an American led coup resulted in the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. A few years later, the Spanish American War of 1898 expanded the Nation’s Imperium to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. In 1903, the Panama Canal Zone was annexed to the United States. These were the glory days of Empire.

American military adventurism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has continued to project the country's vast resources of troops and military technology in pursuit of American cultural, economic and political hegemony. The toll in foreign death and destruction and the wasting of American lives and treasure is beyond counting. The so-called ‘Good War’ (WWII) was, in reality, an internecine battle with the U.K. to establish global financial dominance (achieved at Bretton Woods in 1944); the D-Day bid to salvage a portion of Europe not saved by the Russian army from Nazi Germany; an attempt to establish the dominance of the U.S.A. across the Pacific and most importantly, inspired by a desire to limit the power of the Soviet Union.

Domestically, the blowback from this American Adventurism, underpinned by dreams of Empire and a Capitalist endgame whereby all the world’s resources are concentrated in the hands of the few, are psychic, psychological, and sociological. We see the resultant pathologies played out in our neighborhoods, on Twitter and Facebook. Externally, blowback is reflected in the increasing levels of terrorist violence directed against the U.S.A. and its neoliberal allies.

This summer, I have dedicated my chaparral experiences to a process of lamentation and regret. Come Thanksgiving, I may be ready for a re-naming ceremony whereby it becomes our Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement.

2016-07-23

Lost Peoples of the Lake

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

I am walking out the door of Room 18, at the Dow Villa Motel in Lone Pine (gateway to Mount Whitney) at around 5:30 am early in July. If there is music to be cued it is Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathrustra: horns, reeds, strings and timpani in full flood as dawn’s first light hits the craggy peaks of the Sierras to the west. The crashing chords and the heart beat percussion (Strauss’ accompaniment to Nietzsche’s enquiry into God, humankind and the natural world) are the exact aural equivalent of the silent sensory palpitations that are occurring somewhere deep within the striatal sub regions of my brain as I focus (blearily) on the magnificence of this primordial scene.

We are not in Upper Ojai anymore, where the pretty wash of first light on the Santa Ynez Mountains impacts me like the breathy trilling of a flute. In the synesthesia induced by this Sierran scene I am hearing the dawn’s light wash over the celestial ramparts as a full symphonic assault, where the reticulated mountain ridges are bleached pale within a triumphal sound scape: the crashing sonic waves resound in my head - signaling the start of another remarkable day on the planet.

We are in Lone Pine to meet up with neighbor Margot and her partner Michael to visit the dust remediation project on Owen’s Lake that Margot and her consulting firm have been working on for the past fifteen years.

It is only in the past one hundred and fifty years that the Owens Valley has existed as a contested landscape. Up until the middle of the nineteenth century a relatively consistent human population had, for many millennia, remained enfolded in its geological, biological and hydrological setting

The level and hence the extent of Owens Lake varied over pre-historic time, but it has slowly shrunk from its post ice-age maximums of 10,000 years ago (which saw it stretch to thirty miles long and up to 250 feet deep) in a process that, through the last millennium, greatly increased its salinity. Through it all, however, it provided a rich and varied lacustrine environment for human, faunal and floral life; but as all of Southern California knows, despite its continuing decline, the Lake's death, when it came, was not natural.

Early in the last century it became a toxic waste land, inimical to all life, spreading poisonous clouds of dust along the wind corridor that lies between the eastern Sierras and the White-Inyo mountains.

The destruction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century pastoral life in the Owens Valley that centered on the lake is often lamented: local farmers are portrayed as victims of urban rapacity. As anyone who has seen the film Chinatown (1974, dir. Roman Polanski) knows, in the great conurbation to the south, water engineers, (most famously Mulholland) inspired by civic boosterism, professional hubris and their implicit partnership with the profiteering of land barons who purchased dry land in the Los Angeles basin in the sure knowledge that it was about to be watered by the California aqueduct, syphoned the lake's last water some two hundred miles to the Los Angeles basin where the artesian wells that sufficed when the city's population was no more than 300,000 had long since run dry. What is entirely lost in this story are the circumstances by which these dispossessed Anglo Americans came to be farmers in the Owens Valley in the first place.

They, and their immediate predecessors, it should be noted, had engineered agricultural diversions in the valley in the late 1800's hastening the shrinkage of the lake to which Mulholland administered the coup de grace in 1913. Eleven years later, the valley floor become a playa, the fate to which other pluvial lakes in the region had long since been consigned.

What then we're the circumstances of the establishment of these American farms in the graben, or geologic ditch (specifically a linear fault bock basin) that runs between the mountain ranges and where the sediment atop the underlying granite is as much as two miles thick?

Benjamin Madley, in his startling new book, An American Genocide, 2016, writes of the extermination of California’s indigenous population between 1846 and 1873: he notes that “Owen’s Valley’s Paiute-Shoshones to the north and Western Shoshones to the south, had very little contact with non-Indians prior to 1861”. He paints an idyllic picture where these native peoples hunted deer, big horn sheep and antelope on the lakeshore and into the mountain hinterlands while trapping rabbits over the russet colored Alabama hills that lie at the foot of the Sierras, or foraged for pine nuts in the cooler alpine altitudes of the Inyo Mountains in the summer. All that changed after 1860 when white ranchers invaded the area and unleashed hundreds of cattle to fatten in the valley for sale to miners who had discovered gold north of Mono Lake and nearby Aurora , Nevada.

The inevitable friction that developed between the indigenous peoples of the area and the newly arrived immigrants quickly devolved into what Madley calls “the well-established California patterns of genocide” whereby mounted vigilantes, supported by the Second California Cavalry, armed with howitzers and muskets, slaughtered hundreds of Valley Indians, destroyed their food stocks and burnt their villages. This first ‘Owen’s Valley War’ culminated in 1863 with the forced removal of upwards of a thousand Indians who were marched over the Sierras to a reservation in Fort Tejon. The survivors of this grim journey were left without adequate food or clothing at the reservation and most attempted to escape despite the threat of being shot for doing so.

Those that managed to return to their homes found a land transformed by cattle ranchers and with their traditional food resources and game animals in short supply. Forced to rely on taking the settlers’ cattle, a second war was precipitated between 1864 and 1865 in which the indigenous peoples of the Valley were hunted to extinction.

This genocide is the patrimony of the ranchers and farmers whose lands were subsequently made worthless by the diversion of the Lake’s remaining water to Los Angeles. They and their descendants have been obliged, for almost a century, to breathe the poisoned, dust laden air that blows off the desiccated Lake bottom: conditions for which the L.A. Department of Water and Power has now been held responsible in suits filed by the EPA and subsequently by the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District. It may not be too fanciful to imagine that this Californian inheritance of a playa that generates toxic winds containing arsenic, boron and other carcinogens, is the dark consequence of some long ago Paiute shamanic curse that might be idiomatically translated as Eat my Dust.

Since the beginning of this century, the efforts of Margot and other Environmental, Engineering and Landscape consultants have been largely successful in remediating the conditions at the Lake, and have made life tolerable for Valley residents. Now, Lake bottom tourism is being encouraged through the building of trails and a central monument designed by Nuvis Landscape Architects.

Our visit was shadowed by the sighting of a lone coyote padding along the salt crust: the traditional Native American trickster is perhaps conjuring further redemption for the Lake. There is no commemoration of the killing fields of Inyo County: surely they bring even greater shame upon this country than, for instance, the nearby WWII era Japanese internment camp of Manzanar and are of at least equal educational potential. The new monument might be more relevant if it referenced the lost peoples of the Lake rather than simulating, in earth and granite cobbles, the waves that animated the vast body of water that once filled the graben. In the Owen’s Valley, there is yet a greater, unacknowledged debt to be paid.

2016-07-11

Time Clock

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Our voyage across pellucid seas, chased by a pod of elegantly arching dolphins, held no hint of the approaching scene. Nor did the Black Rock, at the far eastern end of the island (topped with white gull guano, or Anacapa snow) as we approached our landing, truly portend the world we were about to experience where browns, sepia, black, grey and white would dominate in the form of mature white gulls, their mottled grey fledglings, their straw nests, antic coreopsis stumps, bleached grass, guano splattered stone and deeply weathered russet colored, rock strewn beaches. Unprepared: but once immersed in this alien world the pleasures of its complex visual composition (of a limited spectrum) somehow transcended the prevailing stink of seagull shit and the carnage underfoot of dead fledglings murdered by gulls they had mistakenly taken to be their parents in moments of panicked disorientation - of which careless tourists are a prime cause.

Anacapa rises like a dragon spine out of the ocean, the southern twitch of its tail disappearing in a playful loop (known prosaically, to non-dragonistas as 'the arch'). Spawn of the great Ice Age island of Santarosae, which fragmented into five discrete landmasses after the ice melt deluge of ten thousand years ago, now it is itself composed of three primary islets, home to the largest western gull colony on the planet. Despite diurnal disturbances by dazed tourists (courtesy of Island Packers) the colony is, at this moment, in the final stages of its annual regeneration: anxious gulls (yellow scimitar beaks stuck between beady eyes in ovoid heads atop short necks all wrapped in a white feather hijab) strut menacingly, watchful of their fledgling broods.

It is the 100th Anniversary of the National Parks - at least to the extent of their being sanctified by Congress. By the time the National Park Service took charge in 1917, after the passage of a bill the previous year, there were already seventeen National Parks, the earliest being Yellowstone, established in 1872, while in California, Yosemite and Sequoia date to 1890. In commemoration, the New York Times ran an essay collection recently called My National Park in their Sunday travel section. Cheryl Strayed (Wild, 2012) wrote about buffalo ("their faces primordial; their dark eyes, indecipherable") at the Badlands Park in South Dakota. Other literary luminaries lauded imposingly scenic parks in Maine (Arcadia), Arizona (Grand Canyon), Wyoming (Grand Teton), and Montana (Glacier) - all notable for the dramatically rugged morphological juxtapositions so admired in the mid-nineteenth century and so complicit in the development of a Romantic national mythology based on the religious resonance of wilderness.

My National Park is the Channel Islands: I get to write about an island where there are no mammals save the pinnipeds and where the sea gulls (their faces blank with stupidity; their beady eyes viciously vacant) have no predators - an island where even varmints disdain to live; an island that will slowly disappear, perhaps, as sea levels rise - the dragon drowning incrementally in anthropogenic ice melt. My National Park is a mini-Galapagos where evolution has proceeded independently from the mainland and has thus created a variety of unique animal and plant species; but on Anacapa it is not the variety of life forms that amazes but the stunning profusion of one dominant species and the almost total disregard of the adult gulls for the crocodile of visitors that wander through their breeding grounds. Despite a small collection of partially abandoned Spanish colonial revival buildings on the island, built in the early 1930’s to house a crew of some fifteen or twenty people who maintained the lighthouse perched on the highest point of the easternmost island (whose jobs disappeared into the miasma of automation in the 1960’s), it remains remote, apparently barren and with no permanent human population, rising out of its enormously rich marine environment, as a land that time forgot.

A few days earlier, at home in Upper Ojai, there was a presaging event of beige, blonde, cream and white splashed across my retina. The local rattlesnakes, Crotus oreganus, use their cryptic coloring and skin pattern to disappear into their surroundings where they lay in wait to ambush prey. Lurking beneath the wooden rubbing strip for our steel fire doors, a twelve or fifteen inch youngster blended almost seamlessly with the surrounding gravel and only its slight movement gave me warning as I stepped from the house. Once safely outside, I took a closer look at the pale creature: sepia markings bordered in whitish cream bands undulated on its fresh young skin as it slithered over the gravel. It was, in its uncanny melding with its environment and its minimal earth-toned coloring, a pre-echo of the monochromatic gull families (save for the mature gulls’ red-spotted orange beaks) merging with the island meadows, strewn with cactoidal stumps of giant coreopsis and dried grasses.

On Anacapa, and elsewhere on the Central Coast and its inland valleys, we are experiencing the annual color-shift from predominant green to predominant…….well, no one word describes the sun-bleached meadows and greying coastal sage scrub. As ever, the chaparral remains, at the edge of every pale summer vista, its indomitable presence - eternally green. There remain too, inky ponds of oak shadow spotting blonde hills. That this change in tone and temperature occurs every year does not dull its annual surprise; and if these changes are closely observed, there are revelatory washes of color at the margins: the moment a month ago when the leaves of black sage turned yellowy orange, the etiolated stalks of giant white sage recently turned a vivid purple and there is the maroon-purple pond of Turkish Rugging (Chorizanthe staticoides) I stumble across each June; Tarweed maintains its bright yellow flowers despite the withering heat while the delicate flowers of spring are now mostly gone.

This cycle of the seasons continues to resonate even within a society which runs on linear time; but we are mostly taught to sacrifice the precious moments of the present to future plans or package immediate experiences into memories that themselves are mortgaged to forward planning. The magic of evanescent neurological simulation is transmuted into the dross of ‘experience’. The eternal present, a cyclical mode of time that forever presages the returning – of both our souls and their setting amidst what Abrams calls the ’sensuous terrain’ – is mostly alien to our sense of ourselves; but the overpowering circularity of the changing seasons somehow dents even our well-armored notions of linearity.

The idea that Anacapa exists outside of our quotidian sense of time’s arrow is enormously powerful: that it is indeed forgotten within the prevailing trope of temporal awareness; that it is an island forever in the thrall of circularity, from the gull’s roughly constructed nests of straw to their metronomic return in the spring to breed another generation to drive time’s wheel. Our presence on the island (it was a family outing of Lorrie and me, our two grown sons and Ellen our daughter-in-law) represented, perhaps, a moment out of time: but it was inevitably bound by the chronological strictures of the Island Packer’s timetable.

Our eternal present lasted precisely from 2:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on the first Saturday of July in the year of our Lord, two thousand and sixteen.

2016-06-25

anatomy theater

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

The smoke from the Sherpa Fire daubs the morning sky in playful streaks of apricot and the smell of burnt brush hangs in the air.

There is, in this election year, as two corrupt, compromised and, it must be said, old candidates, the one a vicious neo-Nazi the other an equally vicious neo-liberal - separated in their lack of probity only by their sex - vie for the presidency of the United States: a sense of End Times; a sense of the imperium collapsing in on itself.

The fire is a natural thing although perhaps maliciously caused, the quadrennial obeisance to Democracy a gruesome tic that now consumes the body politic.

The nation is in deep shadow: late in the day, long past its high noon of power, influence and prestige in the world; signs of environmental collapse are all consuming, and writers everywhere compulsively reflect these twin strands of apocalyptic zeitgeist. Your Urbanwildland scribe follows dutifully along. What if the Federal election was about the recovery of this country’s lost connection with the natural world - about the loss of its animistic soul?

It is at this moment that Annie Proulx’s epic novel Barkskins, 2016, has appeared: the New York Times‘s suggests that “This is a jeremiad about the loss of North America’s “monstrous pine finery,” in the author’s resonant phrase, and thus its weird, old pagan soul”. She chooses, as the epigraph to her multi-generational, 736 page book, a passage from the medieval historian Lynn White Jr.’s seminal eco-theological article, The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis, 1967.

“In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”

In the last two pieces I have referenced David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996. He makes the point that since the adoption of an alphabet we, as a species, have become distanced from our environment - now veiled by the abstractions of our written language. Where once the natural world was the co-creator of our reality, and we (in our long ago oral traditions) were fully involved in the unfolding of its sensory information, we now see it encoded in the matrices of text: imprisoned in a human construct of abstract symbols. We have lost, he suggests, the ability to hone our consciousness against the whet stone of the biosphere - we are trapped in an iterative loop of purely human intelligence.

Lynn White takes a narrower view, essentially blaming the teachings of Christianity rather than the development of an alphabet for our abusive behavior towards our world. The two are connected. Abram’s notes that the aleph beth (the first semitic alphabet) was an integral part of the Hebrew religion, where the primacy of text was acknowledged in their appellation as ‘People of the Book’. Christianity, an offshoot of this earlier monotheism, gained institutional support only when it was enshrined in the gospels – where it was made clear that divine grace was dispensed not in this world but in an abstract heavenly realm accessible only in death. A full engagement of life on this planet was made secondary to some future off-world paradise with instructions for its access encoded in the Good Book.

This evening a full moon rises over the east ridge and to the west, three brownish-purple bars streak the sky, watery vapors of dust, debris and smoke from the fire splayed across the flesh of an evening sky like striated bruises.

Annie Proulx writes,

“I am sure that wild natural woodlands are the only true forests. The entire atmosphere — the surrounding air, the intertwined roots, the humble ferns and lichens, insects and diseases, the soil and water, weather. All these parts seem to play together in a kind of wild grand orchestra. A forest living for itself rather than the benefit of humankind.”

The wild, fire-burnt sky that floats over the westerly sea is resonant with the grandly sonorous tones of an oboe.

This country’s overt linkage of Christianity with Republican politics and neoliberal economics was established in the 1950’s under Eisenhower, when our national motto, ‘In God We Trust’ and a new line in the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation under God” were coined (Kevin Cruse, One Nation Under God, 2015). Now Democrats too, are subject to the same conflation of their politics and Christianity. Who will stand, in this country, for the pagan animism that might lead it out of its environmental morass?

For my Father’s Day treat, I was taken to Redcat, the performance space founded by CalArts beneath Disney Hall where we saw the world premiere of an LA Opera production, anatomy theater. Composed by David Lang with a libretto by Lang and Mark Dion, it is set in the early 18th century, and features the hanging of a murderess and her subsequent public dissection, ostensibly conducted for the scientific purpose of discovering where evil might reside, manifested as some deformity in her vital organs. “Where does evil lie” is a recurring refrain and it occurred to me that this enquiry might be directed towards our country’s existential electoral plight.

As we confront our contemporary choice between two white, pasty-faced, cosmetically enhanced cadavers, who will be publically dissected by the press and the citizenry over a long summer and fall before November’s voting, we may all soon harbor such metaphoric imaginings. Splayed on a dissecting table tilted towards the audience, a naked Peabody Southwell, playing dead but occasionally singing, represents the body politic: her bleeding Christian heart, and her viscera (redolent with the stench of politics?) and finally her Lady Liberty parts are extracted from her pale body, Filipino psycho-surgeon style, in a fruitless search for Evil, or more prosaically an answer to ‘where did she/we go wrong?’

David Abram would suggest that human awareness has folded in on itself, and transfixed by technology, we have short circuited the sensory connections that we once made with the earth and have thus denied ourselves the opportunity to be fully human in a world we recognize as much more than human. Annie Proulx echoes Lynn White Jr. in believing that we must come once more to revere not a universal, distant deity but the local gods of place and the spirits and sprites that inhabit the living planet and its earthen mantle. These are meta-prescriptions. Cosmic shifts in consciousness from our current position where the only demand we make of our leaders is that our society is managed to better support our acquisitiveness and that the resulting consumption is more closely aligned to the few or the many depending on our philosophy. But they are also shifts that can be initiated in tiny incremental acts of observation and reverence.

Last night, the full moon’s reflection in the swimming pool (left uncovered to let it cool it down) attracted swarms of white moths (Caenurgina erechtea). Many flew too close to the pool’s lunar illusion: in the early morning its dark water was patterned with drowned moths, their pale wings still stretched in flight.