Cave and Rock

We are creatures of the savannah –and where it does not naturally exist we have created it. Sometimes it is achieved by casual or deliberate deforestation; sometimes pasture animals fulfill the role of making the wildlands grasslands; and sometimes fire does the job.

Now: imagine a house that exists under a floating and flat roof (supported on freestanding steel columns)  in a sheltered, topographic universe. There is ‘un-conditioned space’ – that is areas that are shaded but part of the common air (and its disturbances) and enclosures that are glazed or solid as their use requires -   all supported on a structural concrete floor.

This floor responds to the underlying topography of the site and to a topography of utility. A pool impinges on this scheme and is thus partly shaded. There are sit walls, ramps, steps, half walls and full walls. Enclosures are ceilinged, but a space exists between ceiling and roof protected from nesting creatures by stainless woven-wire fabric. Conditioned air is distributed in the space between ceilings and roof by a branching of duct work fed from a mechanical room.

This is an architecture not of object (a rock) but of anthropology (a cave). It is our next house. It is in the savannah.

We live, for the moment, in a box that is rendered translucent to the north and south in three of the six 16’ bays. The conceit is that the landscape flows through it. Grading and fire clearances have assured that we are surrounded to a distance of 100 feet or more by a rock-strewn weed patch. Slowly, we are attempting to turn this area into a pre-1769 grassland. For California is remarkable in once possessing native, prairie-like grasslands that supported herds of artiodactyls and the predators (including humans) that fed on them.

A few weekends ago we watched with friends as a young doe scampered across the tilted plain that is our front lawn and took off up the slope to the east. Jokingly, I said,

"now let's watch for the mountain lion right behind Bambi",

immediately over the ridge came, not a single mountain lion but two coon hounds slavering in pursuit of their supposed supper. I called their owner, Peter Jump, and told him that his dogs were heading east and would shortly be in Santa Paula. His wife Harriet had, sometime previously, showed off pictures of a mauled (and very dead) coyote that was the handiwork of the hounds. They would make short and wet work of the deer. I understand that the doe outlasted them and the dogs returned home exhausted and still hungry. They clearly had not been trained in the art of persistence hunting by which, according to recent theory, our aboriginal ancestors had succeeded in catching faster prey - human 'doggedness' ultimately triumphing over the swifter sprinters. By such episodes are our atavistic memories of the chase reawakened.

Driving north recently, California's deforestation is much in evidence for those aware that the rolling hills of alien grasses, mustard and the occasional oak are not the primeval landscape of the 'golden' state. Nevertheless, they do represent a kind of bastardized nature that stands in opposition to the urban, suburban and exurban development of the last century or so that otherwise lines the 101.

There are the missions, mission bells (those glyphs that line the road and never peal) Taco Bells, military bases, medical facilities and monuments of incarceration; and scattered campuses of tertiary education that feed these various beasts. In between is an industrialized agriculture; at the interstices are the premium outlet malls that represent the cutting edge of bricks and mortar merchandising in the 21st century. Scattered along the arterial roads and off across the plains and up into the hills are housing units.

Driving by: an abandoned military base; housing that seems at first abandoned but signs of life processes - of washing strung along a line or cars and trucks nestled against the wooden walls - suggest inhabitation; farm towns lost in time; farm-workers still inhabiting the world that Dorothea Lange documented but with newer cars; Gilroy's garlic, the cabbagelands of Monterey County; grapes - clinging to trellised armatures and to the drops of moisture borne inland by marine layer mists.

And then, Palo Alto - signs of enterprise, of intellectual activity amidst the gnomic names of applied digital technology companies.

Returning from San Francisco on the 5, we turned off at the 119 and joined the 33 at Taft then drove to Cuyama and down to Maricopa, Ventucopa, through the Los Padres National Forest (skirting Pine Mountain, center of the Chumash world) to an elevation of a little over 4000 feet and then a long and winding descent into Ojai.

To the north of Cuyama is the Carrizzo Plain occupying what in contemporary terms is a dead zone between the 101 and the 5. This is the area west of the Sierras but east of the 101 given over to ranching, oil and parkland after briefly being the breadbasket of the state when large scale mechanized grain farming attempted to take advantage of the prairie-like plateau.

Dryland grain farming and ranching developed in the late 1800's; in 1912 mechanized agriculture brought scale to the endeavor. Rusting harvesting equipment still litters the grasslands and stands as testament to the unreliable rains of California.

Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Chumash, Yokuts, and other Native Americans hunted and traded on the Carrizo Plain and the Chumash memorialized a vulva shaped rock outcropping with richly painted motifs. I visited the site a couple of years ago and found it much vandalized but still a magnificent presence. The graffiti had a history of its own going back at least 100 years. This so-called 'Painted Rock' is at the far north of the plain located between the Caliente Mountains to the west and the Temblor Range to the east with Soda Lake just to the north. The area is now administered by the BLM (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) and, running north-south sits squarely atop the San Andreas fault.

An essential node of pre-Columbian civilization in mid-coast California where gatherings connected the peoples of the coast, inland valleys, desert and forested highlands, the Carrizo Plain is now a wasteland, the empty heart of a State whose arterial system is composed of concrete roads, cell towers and fiber optic cable rather than the ley lines of ancient culture that connected community to community and all to the psychic beacon of the Painted Rock.