The Land Speaks For Itself

Somewhere along the valley of Upper Ojai two roads run off from the highway and head towards Sulphur Mountain; there they both meet the tangle of the Arco Oil Company roads that skitter along the ridge amidst oaks and oil wells. They parallel each other for much of the way and are only about a quarter of a mile apart; each serves a scattering of houses, sheds and barns. Their names are almost identical. The western road is Awhai and the eastern is named Awhay. What's up with that?

Both names derive from ?Awha'y, the Indian village site that lies somewhere between these roads on the northern flank of the mountain. Both are pronounced ah-wah-hee. Somewhere, in the linguistic trail established by Harrington (Yuccapedia) that leads back to the Spanish missions, and beyond that to a Chumash Village, things have gone awry.

The Spanish coined the name Ojai in response to hearing the name
?Awha'y in the Ventureno Chumash dialect. It was a transliteration. A phonetic transcription of the sounds of the Indian language into eighteenth century Spanish. It meant nothing beyond the inherent meaning of the original Native American name of 'moon' (New Moon). Now, in these two road names, 'moon' has reverted to an anglicised version (or versions) of Harrington's phonetic inscription of the Chumash name.

The two road names are signs of the past. Signifiers of Indian occupation. Close by the westerly road are the remains of a Chumash burial ground presumably associated with the old village of ?Awha'y. The moldering bones are the archaeological signifiers of a way-of-life cut brutishly short by the Spanish conquest and the subsequent Native American die-off. The graves remain hidden and un-disturbed, protected by order of the State Archaeologist - thus the history of the place is signaled only by the obtuse street names.

There is a less ambiguous history enshrined by the sign at the junction of the 150, a few miles east of the ah-wah-hee's, which reads 'Koenigstein Road'. This junction is at the location of a spring which feeds Sisar Creek and was formerly the site of the hotel which served bear hunters at the turn of the century and which was named for the family who owned and ran the hostelry (Nightjars). Other street names in the Ojai area memorialize the names of those who ranched or developed the area (I am thinking of Thatcher, Montgomery, McNell, Nye Road in Casitas Springs and Osborn Road in Upper Ojai and others too numerous to mention) and of course John Meiner lent his name to Meiner's Oaks (or Mojai as the kids call it) (Mining Gravel). Indirectly, Charles Nordhoff was responsible for the naming of Ojai's precurser town.

There is a magic to naming. In many cultures, naming signifies appropriation, a bringing of something into one's world. In anthropology, place names are an area of intense study, at least since the work of Franz Boas, because they intersect three fundamental domains of social analysis: language, thought and environment - they tell us something about how people experience their world. The name ?Awha'y, now exists in four languages, the oral chumash tradition, Harrigton's phonetic transcription of the native language, Spanish and an anglicisation of Harrington's transcription. Its meaning transcends all: as I have noted (New Moon), Upper Ojai is eternally the valley of the moon.

The Chumash may have gleaned this information from a transformative incident or were merely formalizing ancient knowledge. Whether in moments of sudden exposition or in slow accretions of meaning, the land speaks for itself.

The issue is: who is prepared to listen? We had dinner with three such on Saturday evening: Sarah, my erstwhile Architecture and Gardens landscape partner is an old hand at listening to the land (Dowsing); neighbor Margot, although a scientist, is acutely attuned to the natural world and makes space in her work as a native landscape restoration ecologist to commune directly with it; and Mary Ann, a new Ojai friend, e-mailed me after our dinner and relayed her listening to trees experience at Big Sur. She writes,

"On the tree listening subject, this morning I pulled out my notes from a trip Stuart and I made into the redwoods near Big Sur a few years ago. We walked around and I was in a sort of trance, just feeling the presence of the trees, trying to pay attention. Here is what the trees said to me then:

1. You are in everything and everything is in you.

2. The patterns of the smallest are also the patterns of the greatest.

3. You are in no way incomplete. You are whole and fully connected to the universe, to all that is.

4. Is/was/will be to all time, through and beyond all time, you permeate being and being permeates you. Everything is alive.

This seems so simple and obvious and yet it was profound. It was just so evident that the trees and I were connected, united even, and that we belonged to each other and to a huge matrix of life. I had this feeling of intimacy, of interpenetration, of deep recognition, even though it was my first time there. I was so aware of their consciousness, of the trees paying attention to me. Their voices were clear and direct and kind -- as though they knew this was how I needed to be spoken to."

On Sunday, Sarah dowsed some land on Koenigstein which we are considering developing as a house site. She asked general questions of the land using coat-hanger dowsing rods and a crystal pendulum. She identified energy vortices on parts of the north facing meadow slope and found propitious sites for the buildings. She confirmed that the well, which has lain dormant since it was drilled eight years ago, stands ready to disgorge eleven and a half gallons of water a minute.

In my interactions with the land hereabouts I have intuited its desire for an end to the roiling and turmoil of back-hoe and excavator, of the unearthing of its rocks and the invasions of weeds at its broken edges which agitate and distress its enduring rhythms. Its voice is shadowy, it speaks to me in "elegant adumbrations of sacred truth"; I have yet to achieve the clarity of communication given to our three dinner guests; but I am increasingly aware of the insistent ebb and flow of its conversation: I am prepared to listen.