Edge Times

The interesting stuff happens at the edges, in space and time, at the area or moment of separation between two states. It happens in plant communities, at elevational changes, in the relationship of sun to horizon and in patterns of human habitation.

Wind is generated in between areas of different barometric pressure and in this distended edge-space fierce gales blew overnight on Tuesday. The winds continued through the morning and returning from my run, up Los Osos Lane, I watched a flock of quail swooping in the charging air: rising up they were illuminated by the sun which had just crested Santa Paula Ridge and, dropping low as if to perch amidst the elfin forest they disappeared into the shadows. Twenty or thirty birds in perfect synchronicity, wheeling in the air, playing in the boundaries of sun and shade, probing the edges as the rising tide of light slowly sunk over the land, from mountain top to canyon bottom.

The winds blow down Koenigstein and in the lower reaches, where there is still trash pick up by Harrison, the plastic cans, just emptied, are wind-strewn across the street. Further up, empty beer cans, tossed perhaps, by the callow students of St Thomas Aquinas joy-riding of a weekend, are tumbled down the gutters.

These were north easters, Santa Anas blowing in cold from the desert. The gusty cleansing winds may have been the reason the El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, established in 1781, was laid out at a 45 degree angle to the usual Spanish practice of aligning streets along the cardinal directions. Carey McWilliams suggests that this was to take advantage of the scouring effect of the Santa Anas; in any event, now the City of Los Angeles follows this skewed grid in the Mission district and on these windy days fast-food wrappers and drink cups skuttle down Main, Broadway and Grand until Martin Luther King Boulevard, more or less the southern border of the old Pueblo, where the grid gets religion and reverts to orthodoxy. To the north, the skewed grid comes to rest somewhere around the wilds of Elysian Park. Thus the extent of this apostasy reflects the original boundaries of the Pueblo - which was designed to extend a league, or about two and one half miles, in each direction.

This original settlement at Los Angeles, a primarily secular undertaking, (the Mission was in San Gabriel) was located to take advantage of the pittance of a river (for it flowed best in subterranean aquifers) but was laid out, we can presume, to funnel the howling Santa Anas. These winds are a connection to the deserts beyond the mountains, their fierce dryness a reminder that most of us in Southern California live in a state of hydrated grace.

In continental terms most Southern Californians are edge-dwellers, clinging to that broad ecotone between the mountains and the sea; protected from the aridity of the Great Basin by the San Jacinto, San Bernadino, San Gabriel and Topa Topa - San Rafael mountains that trend north west across the lower part of the State. It is here, on what is essentially a flood plain, that our weather happens. Like California's first people (An Island on the Land), the weather comes (when it comes) from the North Pacific sweeping down from the Gulf of Alaska and, in wet years, it makes it to the Mexican border.

In this La Niña year, it mostly stays north. December was the exception - high pressure in the north Pacific diverted storms south into California, but January saw a reversion to the typical La Niña pattern, with less than an inch of rain and thus far in February not a drop.

Wet or dry, warm or cold, calm or windy, the Southern California basins, flood-plains and canyons that run from the barrier mountains out to the ocean south of the Tehachapi (The Citrus Belt) have offered a reasonably temperate environment for the 13,000 years of human habitation. The Chumash occupation, which accounts for about half that span, occurred at some distance from the retreat of the ice-age, and they enjoyed a substantially settled existence. Already at the westernmost edge of a vast continent they further sought the areas where ecologies were in tension, at marsh, creek, ocean, forest, grassland and chaparral's edge - for it was here that the richest opportunities for sustenance existed.

Despite their varied locations but largely because of the prevailing temperate climate their architectural response to the environment was consistent: circular, framed, domed thatched huts holding as many as fifty people. Using sycamore or willow poles up to twenty feet high planted in a circle of fifteen or twenty feet in diameter they were lashed at the top then connected with thinner horizontal stringers. This space frame was then thatched with giant rye (Leymus condensatus) or, closer to estuarial marshes, California bulrush (Scirpus californicus). Willow bark was used as a lashing material and thatching needles were fashioned of laurel sumac (Malosma laurina) twigs. For their sweat lodges they used deerweed (Lotus scoparius) thatch because it is fire-resistant. Woven Tule (bulrush) was used for door flaps and interior partitions. Floors were hardened by pounding and a ditch surrounding the hut carried away roof drainage.

We know much of this because John P. Harrington (Yuccapedia) encouraged his Chumash consultants to build a traditional thatched house for the 1924 Ventura County Fair, (Jan Timbrook). Harrington understood his opportunity as an ethnographer in the first third of the twentieth century: to record the vanishing life of the Californian natives before their final decline.

This tragic edge, towards which the Chumash culture was nudged after the voyage of Cabrillo became, after the overland arrival of the Spanish in 1769 (Bingo), a precipice. The culture was then summarily dispatched over this cliff by the first wave of European settlers from the eastern states. This flux, this edge-time, seems to have produced, however, little in the way of creative efflorescence.

On the contrary, it has, it seems to me, laid a pall of sadness over the land that is intensified the closer one comes to understanding the natural environment. It is a psychic wound that resides deep in the mountains, creeks, meadows and beaches: a disjunction of human habitation that ultimately diminishes what it is to be Californian.