Owlish Avatar

All writing is autobiographical: and so it is that as much as this blog purports to be about Landscape, Shelter and Community at the Wildland/Urban interface, it is mostly about me - but not an un-mediated me. I choose to write about my interactions with the environment in ways that begin to build an idealized avatar: the me I wish to present to the world.

But a reader of even the most modest powers of perception can quickly discern the shadowy bundle of neuroses and idee fixe that lie beneath this buffed up, intellectually penetrating persona that, week after week, I attempt to manifest on this blog; and when my avatar receives praise from my friends and acquaintances for another penetrating or informative piece, it is the real, more fractured me who accepts it. On Friday night at the one year anniversary of Chris and Debbie's marriage (Wedding Weeds) held at Theater 150 on Matilija, when Kit Stolz says to me: I've been reading your blog, you know so much about the Chumash, I assume the demeanor of the successfully flattered and demur - but not too forcefully.

The reality is that the anthropology and archaeology community at large knows almost nothing about the Chumash and I know about a hundreth of what little they know. But even at 1%, I feel strangely comfortable extemporizing on this lost civilization.

It is this comfort that Kit registers - my confidence on the high-wire of history. This derives from a long habit of reading histories with a critical, and truth be told, mostly left perspective. I learnt much at the feet of the great Marxist historian C.J. Hobsbawm, author of a magisterial, three volume work on modern European history which I read closely before reducing to a sort of Cliff Notes for my prep school students at a snooty private high school, on the west side of Los Angeles. Economic history interests me so Braudel's books on the development of capitalism are a key influence.

When I came to study American history I gravitated to the work of Eric Foner and taught my eleventh grade class at Oak Grove here in Ojai using Howard Zinn's The People's History of the United States. All of these historians focus on the prosaic and the plebian as well as the extraordinary and the aristocratic; and they present the economy as the milieu in which people are most evidently touched by the unfolding of power relationships - or politics.

Thus whatever understanding I have of native cultures derives from sifting the ethnographic and archaeological record through a historiographic scrim that sees politics as the apportionment of power and power as deriving from the ability to dispense basic economic benefits. As I mentioned in Space & Practice II, the 'antap were able to exert a kind of aristocratic control over the Chumash through their mastery of ritual which provided for the health, wealth and spiritual safety of their subjects. There are obvious parallels with other times and other histories.

The Chumash relationship with the land was intrinsically economic. Jan Timbrook's Ethnobotany spells it out: every plant they encountered became part of a complex culinary, pharmaecological and fiber store-house. 'Ownership' of particularly useful minerals such as obsidian derived from the simple fact of adjacency; shells, chert, flint and ground pigments, as well as prized foodstuffs like chia moved around coastal and southern central California across trade routes lubricated by the shell money produced at the Channel Island mint.

Lacking a written language, elements in the natural world took on a symbolic role in explicating the Chumash cosmology. The shadow, spirit world was also understood in terms of plants, animals and artifacts and here we have a graphic record in the form of rock art. While much meaning can potentially be derived from the Native American practice of the layering of glyphs over their terrain, (even if some of the symbolic significance of animal representations, for instance, is lost to us), the introduction of the specificity of place adds a fourth dimension to this schema that renders the whole ultimately and profoundly unknowable.

For the local tribes unerringly found the fairies at the bottom of their garden, or, as David Whitley puts it,

"The shaman's rock art site was a sacred place that served as his portal into the supernatural: during his altered state of consciousness the cracks in the walls of the site were believed to open allowing him to enter the sacred realm." (The Art of the Shaman, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2000)

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I joined John Bretney's final Rock Art Trip of the season in Kaweah territory along the Kern River. This area at the southern edge of the Sierra foothills and to the east of San Joaquin valley is at the southeast perimeter of the Yokuts' homeland. The Yokuts represent  congeries of tribes sharing a common language stock (Penutian) and significant cultural similarities. Like the Chumash, they were creators of pictographs; and the rocks upon which these motifs were daubed still resonate with an elemental spiritual connectivity: they were and are power spots.

I was introduced to the notion of power spots by the works of Carlos Castenada. He describes his Yacqui Indian protagonist, Don Juan, as maneovering to seat himself in a room or when at rest in the desert in a location in which he can channel the energy of the place. In Western thought we use the term genius locii. Here in the western United States it seems appropriate to use the term offered up by Castaneda.

As an architect one is deeply constrained by one's clients, bureaucratic strictures and programatic requirements, but once or twice, particularly in landscape projects, I have located power spots within my work. Dumb luck. The new summer house dba has created for our neighbor Margot seems to be favored with an energy vortex more or less in the center of the space.

The medieval masons who laid out the great Gothic cathedrals were geomancers of the first order, understanding that lines of force as they naturally occur on the land can be concentrated through architectural alignments. Something similar occurred in neolithic cultures that erected vast stone geometries. Native American shaman lacked the technology to modularize rock and artfully reassemble it, or even, so far as we know, move large rocks, but they certainly marked rocks with paint or through percussive incision and thereby potentiated them. Shaman endowed the landscape with power and would ritually return to particular places and use that power for good or ill.

As a resource, the geomantic energy of potentized rock exists in the world and was subject, in the Native American world, to a process of politics and economics; and the sacred and profane, the spiritual and temporal are together, proper subjects for both history and that mash-up of anthropology, archaeology and ethnology that concerns itself with societies that have left no written record.

Owlish avatar, sort of a post-middle-age Harry Potter, has no issues with processing the entire mess.