Chaparral - Got to go through it

The well known children's book, We're Going on a Bear Hunt, Helen Oxenbury (Illustrator), Michael Rosen (Author) features the refrain,

Can't go over it,
Can't go under it,
Can't go around it,
Got to go through it

In the book, a family embarks on a walk in the English countryside - an activity that has bored generations of English children and is enlivened here only by the spurious presence of bears (not seen in the wild in England for over a millenium) and the conjuring of apparent topographical impediments to the hunt. The irony implicit in Rosen's work is that the wild in England has been mind-numbingly tamed over roughly the same time period that has seen the extirpation of Ursus arctos and, only slightly more recently, the wolf (Canis lupus) both staple bogey animals of fairy tales.

Very little fictional embellishment is required to establish Southern California's chaparral as a landscape epically unconducive to human passage. I like W.S.Head's description of it as vegetation that is too high to see over, too low to go under, and too thick to get through, (The California Chaparral: An Elfin Forest, W.S.Head, 1972). And it is this triumverate of impedimenta that put me in mind of Rosen's children's classic.

Winfield Scott Head's title suggests, by implication, that Southern California's signature landscape is a dwarfish, mystical ecology. He was following the terminology developed by Fred Gordon Plummer in a U.S. Forest Service Bulletin of 1911. (Plummer, F.G. 1911. Chaparral - studies in the dwarf forests, or elfin-wood of southern California. USDA, Forest Serv. Bull. 85:1—54.) The dominant trope here, of course, is the stunted form of chaparral trees - yes, they are mostly over head height but they are dwarfish in comparison to the forests of Europe or the east coast of the United States -presumably the botanical and cultural touch stones of both these writers.

In terms of its impenetrability, the reality is that sometimes you can go through it, sometimes you can shimmy on your stomach and go under it, and usually there are rock outcroppings or boulders that afford a view over it. In any event it's tough going. Absent the bullocking of the grizzly - the game paths are both intermittent and discontinuous. In my experience, the black bear favors more open terrain, and may be surprised on trails and in canyon creek beds more regularly than in the denser chaparral. In any case they do not have the massive body weight of the grizzly to impose their will on the thorny underbrush. Similarly we humans usually stick to the open trails, fire roads and creek beds. Yet the density of the canopy ensures that there are few plants that can survive on the chaparral floor - it is a world of birds, rodents, reptiles and insects; seeds, leaf litter and dead branches. Chaparral plants self prune - limbs wither and die if there is insufficient light and it is this last characteristic that at least affords an opportunity to limbo through the brush.

Well nigh impenetrable, thorny and pestiferous - but strangely wonderful even when viewed, as it most often is, from the margins. While arguably made less wild by the absence of Ursus arctos horribilis (the grizzly was rendered extinct in California at the beginning of the last century) it is still a stunningly alien environment when confronted in its midst. The rasping of chamise (Adenostoma fasticulatum), the burs of buckthorn (Rhamnus crocea) and the serrations of toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) and of holly-leafed cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) conspire to inhibit human progress but not totally deny it. The toxicity of poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), the venom of the rattle snake (Crotalus viridis) and the thrashing mandibles of mountain lion (Puma concolor), bobcat (Lynx rufus) and coyote (Canis latrans) further threaten the chaparral explorer. And yet, like Rosen's family of bear hunters, the obstacles can be confronted and the chaparral explored by walking, crawling, limboing and bullocking one's way through it. It is an activity not to be missed.