Chaparral Mantra

We live on the margins of the wildland; not in its depths. Here there is still the tracery of urban civilization - roads, power lines and overhead the flight paths of commercial airlines. Sometimes contrails festoon the evening sky from military jets out of Vandeburgh or Point Mugu. Looking to the south are other houses, horse corrals and barns. We can see, in the distance, the fire station (VCFD 20) and the back of the Upper Ojai market.

Not complaining, just saying. So, not truly wildland, more like mildland. But we are very much wildland adjacent, and that is the beauty of our site. Looking to the north there is nothing that stands in the way of the wildland corridor until just south of San Francisco. Moments before I sat down to write this paragraph I saw a young coyote standing sentinel on a rock twenty yards away from the back of the house. Their range can be up to a six mile radius around their den. A coyote then, of the Upper Ojai, on the edge of the wild, sniffing the wind.

We've been over-run this year with varmints. A friend in Topanga suggested that the baiting of rats has taken its toll on the top predators such as coyotes and bobcats. But yesterday morning while I was running, Lorrie was awakened by a great racket in the oaks just above the house and from the window saw three bobcats scrambling up a tree in pursuit of prey - just what she couldn't determine - but its noisy snarling and snorting and possibly her presence at the window seems to have saved it. When we looked under the oak later in the morning there was no evidence of a kill. A little later that morning I saw another coyote stroll across the meadow below the house. This summer, such sightings have been unusual.

I suspect that the mild winter, with rain through the early part of June, favored the rats, squirrels, gophers and rabbits that now animate the chaparral and that their predators, with such plentiful and easy pickings, are less inclined to venture into the wildland margins where the dangers of humans, poisons and traffic abound. The size of a bobcat's home range is similar to that of the coyote, so the three Lorrie saw are locals, but like the coyotes they seem to be spending more of their time away from our property and hunting deeper in the wild, up in Bear Canyon.

The scale of the wildland stretching north is critical. David Janzen, the noted conservation biologist, makes the point that, when it comes to saving wilderness, size matters. Only “big chunks of nature,” will survive the threats of spreading human civilization and climate change. He writes,

" the only places that are going to survive in the long run are big conserved pieces. Small pieces may be very pretty, but they die, just because of insularity. They turn into islands. And we all know what happens on islands. Islands never have high species richness. And even when they do, like Hawaii did when people got there, [they are] very, very fragile, very susceptible to human perturbation."

A Pioneering Biologist Discusses The Keys to Forest Conservation, Caroline Fraser, Yale Environment 360, March 23, 2010

Jantzen's solutions, like the major threats, are two-fold. One is his idea of 'gardenification' whereby the world's remaining wildlands are integrated into the human genome. We have so thoroughly infiltrated the planet he argues, "to survive, a non-human species must be too diffuse to be thoroughly captured, too trivial to be noticed, or too immutable to be changed". Or, it can be woven into humanity's embrace and wildland conserved as garden.

The other part of his solution is education. Because right now, he says,"the planet is blind". We do not recognise bio-diversity - we are illiterate. He suggests that with a cheap pocket sized dna bar-coder we would be able to 'read' - to "identify anything, anywhere, anytime — what you ate, what bit you, what you’re sitting on, what you just picked up, what grows by the side of the road". That, he believes, will change our relationship to bio-diversity.

The notion of a universal fluency in the language of bio-diversity seems, at this point in time, a Douglas Adamsian fantasy like his Babel Fish, but I can vouch for the value of emerging literacy in 'chaparral' earned the old-fashioned way, with books and the occasional walk with the vastly knowledgable Margot. Curiosity that focuses on our natural environment, rather than on the constructed cultural (now primarily electronic) fabric of our lives seems to be waning and is only likely to further atrophy as the world becomes more highly urbanized. It is a luxury to live near the vanishing wilds, and with or without a dna-barcoder, a privilege to begin to understand them.

Franzen is working in Costa Rica and there he says, the forest is vanishing, beginning at the margins of paved roads. Like the hedgerows in England which in my youth were a standard feature of country roads and are now greatly diminished through neglect or active eradication the looming forests of Costa Rica, which once lined the roads have now retreated. His focus is on saving the parklands and he has worked to expand a small national park in northwestern Costa Rica into a 300,000-acre reserve — the Area de Conservación Guanacaste, or ACG.

Sarah Munster, my former landscape design partner, owns two and a half acres of cleared forest outside of San Ramon and is considering building a house there. The site, she tells me, has classic views of smoking volcanoes and cloud forests. Meanwhile, she must visit annually to prevent the villagers from moving their animals onto the property. Despite a large system of parks catering to eco-tourism Janzen points out that the 160 different little pieces of conserved wildlands are a patchwork still under threat from the pressures of agriculture and development.

The chaparral in California, as Rick Halsey points out is under similar threat, compounded by the frequency of anthropgenic fires - which can reduce this delicate eco-system to weed infested grassland in a generation. Like Janzen he believes that the wildland "has no value unless it is identified, has a name and is understood" (Fire, Chaparral and Survival  in Southern California, Richard Halsey, Sunbelt, San Diego, Ca., 2005)

My odyssey began with W.S. Head's little book, The California Chapparal, An Elfin Forest, Naturegraph, Happy Camp, Ca. 1972. While still in Los Angeles I would use his list of the twelve most common plants of the chaparral as a mantra while running in Will Rogers State Historical Park.

Naming the plants in the wildland is the first step in its gardenification. The second is restoration of its primal character. Around our house, planting and weeding the wildland garden are the keys to its restoration  - the way to re-integrate our fractured island property into the big, sustainable wildland on our doorstep.