The Democratic Republic of Chaparral

While the indigenous people of California eked a living from the flora and fauna of the chaparral, we immigrants have yet to find economic value in the plants and animals of the shrublands. For this we should be eternally grateful. In the northern reaches of the state, circumstances were different.

It was a bear-hunter, Augustus Dowd, while tracking a wounded Grizzly who would be the first European to come face to face with the arboreal jackpot of Caldeveras Grove. The discovery of the giant trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) became major news on both sides of the Atlantic and by 1855 they had become a kind of botanical freak show. Their great age prompted the notion that they were contemporaries of Christ.

But although hugely charismatic as the largest living things on the planet (and for a long while, before their cumuppance by the Bristlecone pine, considered to be the most ancient) these big trees were but the guardians of a coastal strip of far greater riches, a swathe, rarely more than 25 miles wide from south of Monterey to Southern Oregon where moderate temperatures, heavy winter rains and fog drip nourished the coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) - a vestigial or relict stand of the tree family Taxodiaceae that established itself throughout the northern hemisphere from the very beginnings of the Jurassic period on (200 MYA).

The giant (drive-thru!) trees became synonymous with both the scenic grandeur and the unique historical destiny of the United States (at a time when that destiny was most in peril); their smaller girthed cousins with the prodigious natural bounty of the land. The United States have survived, the redwood forests of California, barely. Fully 96 % of the old growth forests that existed in 1850 have been clear cut. Our old single wall house in Santa Monica Canyon which dated to the very early years of the 20th century was entirely crafted of this old growth wood and was impervious to termites and dry-rot. The mud sills were like iron and had endured their almost 100 years of service in much batter shape than the concrete foundations on which they sat. Our house was an exception: very little of that bonanza of millennial timber remains in service locally - most has long ago been sent to landfills across the western United States and beyond, but in the 1960's through the early 80's vast amounts of old growth timber were exported to Japan and there, I like to think, at least some of it has been used in their exquisite craft traditions and will become a part of their national cultural storehouse (Wolf Oak )

The aggressive harvesting of old growth wood through the first three quarters of the twentieth century opened up space for commercial stands of redwood and Douglas fir: but the young growth redwood available at your local lumber yard, looking something like slabs of streaky bacon with sections of sap wood set against coarse grained rapid growth heartwood is a parody of the deep red, tight-grained wood of times past.

The Pacific Northwest timberlands represent a cash crop rivaled only by the illicit growing of marijuana which competes for space amidst the remnants of old growth forests. In Central and Southern California, the dominant ecosystem has been cleared, burnt and invaded by exotic species but never harvested on a commercial basis. It is the light in which this ecosystem is bathed that is the key to the development of the region.

If endless dry days with azure skies were good for making motion pictures they also were attractive to those seeking a healthy environment in the dark days of consumption and other bronchial infections exacerbated by damp, cold and occluded environments. San Diego, Pasadena, Palm Springs, Ojai and Santa Barbara are all erstwhile resort towns that depended, in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, on their healthful climate.

Charles Nordhoff was an influential journalist who promoted California in his 1873 book, California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence. He wrote glowingly about his trip across the country (less than four years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad), and settling in Ojai went on to become California’s (and Ojai's) biggest fan.

That this land oozed black-gold was a bonus and has proven a more long-lasting economic bonanza than the real thing that initially prompted San Francisco's meteroic rise. Redistribution of water on a scale not attempted since the Roman Empire has resulted in vast agricultural acreages and population densities undreamt of by the land's original, indigenous peoples.

All of this exists in a dominant ecology that, unlike the giant redwoods of the north, goes largely unnoticed. I first saw it rendered on TV's MASH - the chaparral covered hills of Malibu back-country doubling for Korea and set to the thrumming of chopper rotors and Johnny Mandel's theme song, Suicide is Painless.

There is one plant however, in the mostly democratic republic of chaparral that tends to lord it over all others. One of its common names is, in fact, Our Lord's candle; another is Spanish bayonet. These two names perfectly reflect the yin and yang of the Spanish occupation: the seraphic beauty of the mission churches gilded with heavenly voices reverberating from the old-growth redwood rafters and the blood curdling ferocity of the de facto genocide of their native subjects. The names also reflect the nature of the plant at either end: at the ground is a dense basal rosette of bayonet leaves with needle like points (and used as such by the Chumash to inscribe their flesh with crude tattoos) while atop the long, single stalk there is, in season, a cloud-like inflorescence of creamy white flowers. The flowers can be seen sticking up above the surrounding chaparral like the proverbial tall poppies of Australia, which in this reflexively democratic society suggests that such preening attention-getting be rewarded with the first cut of the scythe.

The Chumash called it pokh, the Spanish meguey, mescal or quiote. Amidst the pervasive self-effacement of the low woody plants that make the thorny entanglements of the shrublands, stands this showy, etiolated member of the lily family: the chaparral yucca (Yucca whipplei).