Death Comes to Koenigstein

I wrote recently of the death of Ralph Hansen Sr. (Nymphs and Naiads). He was our neighbor. He lived at the top of the hill and was surrounded by his passion - seven water wells and an ad-hoc museum of rusting drill-rigs and sundry drill equipment. I pass by one of his abandoned efforts most Sundays when I run through our land and then cross over the bottom spit of his property heading for the road as it sweeps north along a ridge between the abandoned County road hairpin and the gorge that drops down to the old County ranch property. Ralph's house sits at the top of the hill and looks south to another hill-top aerie, the Atmore's Lazy II Ranch.

Greg Atmore and his wife were the first neighbors to greet us on Koenigstein. Seven years ago they both lived in their house with their small yapping dog who would bark everytime I wandered the hills in view of their property. Then a few years ago, his wife was incapacitated with Alzheimers and she went to live at a facility in Santa Paula. We would continue to see Greg most often when he was driving back from seeing his wife at dinner. Then a couple of weeks ago he died while undergoing back-surgery; he was writing his autobiography. His career was spent selling life insurance; I imagine his wife is now considerably richer (but she may not realize it).

The dog continued yapping for a few days after Greg died, and the American flag still flew over the property - and then the yapping and flapping was gone. The Atmore home now sits silent in the landscape, no longer a human habitation but instead a roost for birds, shade for snakes and lizards and the crawl space a sanctuary for rats safe now from the shrill bark and needleteeth of Greg's rat-catcher.

When the Egyptian royalty realized that the ostentation of the pyramids encouraged constant plundering, their kings chose the bleak and desolate hills of Thebes as their new burial grounds hoping to ascend to the sun-god Re with their funery objects - essentially the goods needed for a continued existence - unmolested by grave robbers. The natural shape and color of the Theban Hills are reminiscent of pyramids and this seemed to confirm them as likely points of ascension for the deceased Kings and Queens of the New Kingdom.

I was reminded of this when I tramped around the two deserted hilltop estates of Ralph and Greg. The Lazy II ranch sits on a peak at a crook in Koenigstein as it turns sharply north. A steep drive winds around the slope and crude terraces have been back-hoed into the land so that it appears like a mastaba or a stepped pyramid topped with a simple suburban house from the 1960's.

A little further up the road, Ralph's ranch-style house sits on a narrow defile between the road cut and a deep bowl that spans across to our property. To the west of the house a nissen hut perches at the edge of the slope and is open at one end: like funery goods, an old tractor, lawn mowers and drilling equipment sit ready for service in the after life. Entombed at the closed end is a late fifties De Soto, the up-swept wings making it a suitable vehicle, perhaps, for accompanying Re in the sun god's daily journey across the heavens.

I did not explore the closed end of the hut, and saw only the back of the car. I was unable to see whether the hood ornament was still in place. The De Soto was a Chrysler brand from 1928 to 1961 and was named after the Spanish Conquistador who blazed a trail in the south east of what is now the United States, brutalizing the native peoples as he went. He reached as far west as the Mississippi and died on its banks in 1542 (the same year that Cabrillo conducted his exploration of the California coast in search of the North West passage (An Island on the Land)). The brand's chrome hood ornaments were fashioned in De Soto's likeness.

However unlikely the link between the pyramidal landscape of the Theban Valley of the Kings in Egypt and the Topa Topa foothills it is nevertheless buttressed by the fact that in both places there existed the practice of burying funeral goods with the dead. The Chumash buried portions of tomols (canoes), effigies, deer bone whistles and beads with high status individuals. They were equipping the dead for their soul-wanderings over the earth and ocean in preparation for the heavenly journey to a paradise where the soul is nurtured and prepared for its descent back to the world to be reincarnated. (Kuta Teachings, Reincarnation Theology of the Chumash Indians of California, Dr. John Anderson, 1998).

While status was indicated by the goods buried with the body, the depth of Chumash burials was also a gauge of an individual's wealth because diggers were paid for their work in baskets which held burial soil; the more baskets a family could afford to pay the deeper the grave. There is much evidence that in Chumash funeral practices, the majority of the deceased's possessions were burned at the time of death or in an annual mourning ceremony. Grave goods were often contributed by relatives.

Greg and Ralph were dispatched, most likely, via a Santa Paula funeral home to a crematorium - their ashes scattered to the winds. Their bodies burned, their primary possessions - their hill-top estates - stand, in my mind at least, and for the moment, as their funeral goods, empty relics awaiting their owner's spectral return.

In the one, there may appear the dim glow of a computer screen where a diaphanous Greg taps away, eternally unaware that his story is over, his life insurance check cashed; and in the other, the ancient well-driller may again wander his land, his sun ravaged hands clutching his diviner's rod forever awaiting the downward twitch that signals the location of his eighth well.

Death has come to these erstwhile Kings of the Hill. Death has come to Koenigstein.