Data Streams

One of the reasons to live at the wildland-urban interface is to exchange, or at least augment the urban information stream with the wildland one. We are mostly comfortable with the urban data stream but our ability to decode the messages of the wild has atrophied: we stare unseeing, listen un-hearing and the scents of the chaparral elude our understanding; we are aware only of the grossest disturbances to the natural environment rather than the complex nuances that provide the context for decision making where the wild things are.

This evening, at dusk, Lorrie alerted me to the shaking branches of a toyon to which a cooper's hawk had retreated after a failed attempt to snag a rabbit in the deer weed beyond the pool. We watched, noses pressed up against the window waiting for a repeat performance. Didn't happen. Darkness began to animate the window glass not with wildland glimpses but looming reflections of our house interiors - dinner fixings and a vase of sunflowers on the limestone counter floating in the blackness.

Closer to the glass again, and with a cupped hand to shield the room's light, the silhouette of the ridgeline was still visible. The sky, less dark than the land, is flecked with grey but in moments is fully dark, and our thoughts turn inward, away from the enveloping wildland and we seek stimulus from within, where the bright light from T-5 fluorescents and the MR-16 halogens bounce off whitewalls creating our peripersonal space - space within our grasp and containing the controls to our media lives.

Since January 17, 1994, when our bootlegged cable connection snapped in the Northridge earthquake, I have watched no television; (I am one of the few people on the planet who has not seen the 9/11 Twin Towers footage). But the withdrawal from TV began even before then. Will, our older son, started Kindergarten at a Waldorf School in Northridge in 1989. He stayed through third grade and one of the tenets of this system of education is that you should kill your TV. We tried. Then Nature intervened.

In our Rural Loft in Upper Ojai, we have no need of television, having lost the habit. For sometime, in Los Angeles, during the Blockbuster years we would watch movies with the children, occasionally Lorrie and I together and now here, the kids gone, in this the age of Netflix, Lorrie mostly watches alone. The evenings for me are short. For most of the year I'm up at 5 and since I like to get eight hours sleep bedtime is around 9. I do not have the patience for the freneticism of most movies.

The sensory areas of my cerebral cortex enjoy the quiet laying down of information line by line, word by word in a slow accretion. And it was ever thus. Having finally learnt to read a little after my ninth birthday (which in my village school in sleepy Surrey, England, marked me as precocious) I was for the rest of my school days rarely without a paper-back novel stuck in my blazer pocket.

By the time I was sixteen or seventeen I was ready to tackle what is perhaps the most epic of the various eighteenth century contenders for the title of the first English novel, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, London, 1749. I toted a hard-bound edition around for six months or more and can still remember its heft in my hands: thus began a fat-book fetish that continues to this day. It weighed in at well over a thousand pages. My recent, summer conquest was David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Little Brown, New York, 1996, packing 1079 pages and I am currently reading William T. Vollman's Fathers and Crows, Viking, New York, 1992 - whose pagination clocks in a tick under four figures at 988. Next up? Perhaps the same author's Imperial (1296 pages) Viking, New York, 2009. This work, about California's Imperial Valley is blurbed as follows:

"Known for his penetrating meditations on poverty and violence, Vollmann has spent ten years doggedly investigating every facet of this binational locus, raiding archives, exploring polluted rivers, guarded factories, and Chinese tunnels, talking with everyone from farmers to border patrolmen in his search for the fading American dream and its Mexican equivalent."

I find deep satisfaction in scaling these mountains of words, of living on their slopes for weeks at a time, getting successively dizzier as I ascend the page ladder towards the peak. There is, quite simply, a physical as well as cerebral joy in the process; and the controls are deeply familiar: the simple flip of the page.

A couple of weeks ago, the gnats mercifully absent, we sat outside at dusk looking across the pool and up-slope with the Topa Topas rising (majestically) beyond and two bobcats - barely more than bobkittens - emerged from behind a rock perhaps 25 yards away from us and proceeded to frolic on a warm ledge of sandstone, occasionally pausing to cast a fixed stare in our direction. Beautiful creatures, their feral presentness was an astringent antidote to the mediated experiences that awaited us that evening -whether by the turn of a page or the click of a mouse.

When darkness descends the wildland views fall away replaced by the soft scrim of linen curtains or the jet hard reflections of the window glass. Through the un-curtained kitchen windows a few lights are visible across on Sulphur Mountain and the glow of Santa Paula and beyond suffuses the night sky. It is not truly dark. The urban part of the urbanwildland is ever present. But so too is the constant buzz of cicadas and deep in the night often the mewling of coyotes. Early mornings are sometimes punctuated by the fog drip that runs off the un-guttered eaves into the gravel surround. The squeak of ground squirrels and the three-noted calls of quail fill out the orchestration of our mornings.

The windows are opened after the warmth of the day passes and later the cool night air flows over our bed. The creaking of metal studs and air movement across our faces echoes the diurnal arc of shifting temperatures and in the early morning chill around 4 a.m. the HVAC compressor sometimes kicks on in reverse-cycle to push warm air into the room - a signal to close the windows and shut off the heat.

But despite this data from the world beyond, we are essentially cloistered - we live on the edge of the wildland but within a container that is designed to filter out the wildness and the weather - purposed to maintain our access to the urban information stream and allow only edited, sanitized access to the wildland.

It's a fine line: I would spend less time with the urban media if I could more fully engage our surroundings - day and night. It seems to me that the wildland is a book with pages beyond number - it may be the ultimate read.