Mountain Magic

Vincent Scully, the Yale Art and Architecture historian, in The Earth, the Temple and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture, Yale Press, New Haven, 1962, attempted to show that all important Greek sanctuaries grew up around ancient open altars which were sited where they were because the place itself suggested the presence of a divine being. They were surrounded by natural forms that somehow embodied a spiritual presence. The temple, when eventually built to commemorate and expand that presence embodied, in turn, a human conception of the deity. He argues that the elemental presence and the designed, architectural elaboration of that essence, play off of one another.

He goes on to suggest that certain natural shapes have a tendency to sequester the divine presence - that the places that the Greeks considered most holy were often set against a back-drop of mountains where there was a horn shaped cleft or a double peak. These, he seems to claim, are the marks of the divine.

Much later, having established his classical bona-fides, Scully was emboldened to tackle native American spirituality and the architectural responses of the Pueblo People to an all enveloping and scenically dramatic landscape (Too Late) where, " all living things are one....and all are living: snake, mountain, cloud, eagles and men". In Pueblo: Mountain, Village, Dance, 1975, he relates how Taos Mountain,"cleft, horned and terraced" inspired the location of the Taos Pueblo and that its architectural expression, "hand shaped, hand smoothed" is a human-made earth form that relates to the natural morphology.

We sit in the Upper Ojai Valley under the spell of the Topatopas while the lower valley is similarly in the thrall of their presence - blushed pink of an evening - as well as Chief Peak, Sulphur Mountain, Nordhoff Ridge and many, more minor, geological irruptions that enliven the foothills of the major, east-west trending ridges. As Scully might have predicted, this picturesque mountain backdrop has inspired, in many of those who visit Ojai, or who come to live here, intimations of the divine.

Temples of worship and learning have been built: Krotona, Meditation Mount and the twelve-sided Council House at the Ojai Foundation are all built expressions of those seeking a connection with a universal spirit in places where its presence is deemed palpable - well-intentioned but architecturally random attempts to reify the sublime - an achievement which the Greeks, over a period of some eight hundred years, single-mindedly perfected as the post and lintel, stone temple.

A few evenings ago, we sat on a friend's terrace on Vista Hermosa, above CaƱada, with the fading light of a summer's eve casting deep shadows across Nordhoff Ridge, the Topatopa Mountains and, for a few moments, washing the spalled face of its ridge, in coral pink. This was a certifiable Pink Moment (RV III). To the side of the house, behind a small deck, was a large canvas backdrop draped over a hedge of jasmine. This backdrop, painted by Anni Siegel, depicted the view of the mountains that was presented to us as we sat on the pool terrace looking eastward. South was the painted backdrop, East was the live model.

To further enrich this layered experience of the real and the representational, excerpts from a theatrical piece, Ojai Spirits, written by Sue-Ellen Case, were presented on the deck with the actors referencing (but not chomping at) the faux scenery behind them. Scene One, and 'slices' of Scene Two, a reading of which was staged as part of the author's 70th birthday celebrations, are concerned, in part, with the relationship of spirit and landscape as manifested through that generation of Theosophists, chosen-ones and celebrity hangers-on that enlivened Ojai in the 1920's and who, as Case notes, continue to haunt this town.

Here then was the musical version (for the actors were unabashed in breaking into snatches of song) of much with which this blog has concerned itself: the alleged 'spirituality' of Ojai; the wacky esoterica of Blavatsky, Besant, Krishnamurti et al (Red Soil), their convoluted personal and professional lives and finally, the profound resonance of Ojai's natural setting. While I have burbled on in this blog, slowly building, over the weeks, some semblance of a reliable history that attempts to stitch these realities together, Sue-Ellen presented a transcendental confection that managed a level of skepticism, bawdiness and skewering of personal weakness that time-shifted the material into a compelling present.

For the issues she raises through her characters remain central to an understanding of Ojai's strange hold on our imaginations (at least, Sue-Ellen's and mine). Her cast, both substantiated and implied - Besant, Leadbetter, The Ascended Masters, The Huxleys, wealthy locals and (memorably) a garrulous oak tree, represent aspects of the enduring Ojai condition: the opportunity of living in a place of power, of living in a landscape which offers the promise of spiritual transcendence and in which the marks of the divine and the impacts of time (both on a human and geological scale) are clearly visible.

But it is a place, like Paestum (on the far fringes of the Greek empire, where a great Doric temple was built in 450 B.C.E. and dedicated to the fertility goddess Hera), that is profoundly provincial. Ojai, where temples can be conjured in the honeyed air, is removed from our cultural and economic centers as it was from those of the Spanish, the Chumash, and of the Oak Grove people before us. We are serial fringe-dwellers, dabbling in spiritual enlightenment but ever eager to welcome ambassadors from the loci of profane power and influence.

Paestum fell, within 50 years of the building of its temple, to local Latin tribes. Later, it collapsed again before the twin scourge of Muslims and mosquitoes. For a thousand years it moldered as a malarial swamp, the bleached carcass of its great temple inviolate in the marshes. Yet, as Scully writes, "the temple of Hera at Paestum is the most thoroughly overwhelming image of divinity in temple form that remains to us".

I would argue that it is the drapery of the chaparral that clothes the deific morphology of our high valleys (The Dance of Time) that represents Ojai's 'overwhelming image of divinity'. Those Theosophists were on to something: but they spent altogether too much time in the citrus and avocado orchards of the East End and sitting beneath other non-native vegetation like the Peruvian pepper tree (Manichean Plant Order).