Word of Mouth

Black Bears, Grapefruit and Star Thistle - all alien life forms on planet Upper Ojai. My provenance is also deeply questionable. But we are mostly tolerant of new life here and, if we have any understanding of history, we accept that everywhere on Earth the new inevitably replaces the old in the supernal flood tides of the cosmos.

It is only fitting however, that we occasionally stop to mourn those who have been recently swept away. Eric J. Hobsbawm, Alexander Cockburn, Gore Vidal and Tony Judt have all shuffled off in recent months and together they represent a phalanx of brilliant, historically aware writers for whom there are no immediately apparent replacements. On a selfish note, I regret that my bookshelves just got burdened with another row of dead white male authors.

The evanescence of life becomes ever more apparent as one ages and there is a kind of rearward-looking genetic immortality that some seek in their genealogy. For a historian manque or, on my better days, an independent scholar, I've never been much for looking backwards at my own family records. My standard retort is that I come from a long line of ne'er-do-wells, but the reality is that I have no knowledge of anyone beyond my grandparents. While it is not unusual for someone to be able to trace their lineage for a half millenium or more, Ernestine Ygnacio de Soto, a Santa Barbara resident, makes the stunning claim that she can trace her family back thirteen thousand years.

She makes this bid for a connection to the first peopling of California in Paul Goldsmith's film, Six Generations. As it happens, I know Paul (Shamanize or Die), and I have tried to watch his film a number of times, but the inherent goodwill I have towards it is destroyed in the first few frames when the following note appears over images of an idyllic Santa Barbara seascape:

"Chumash Indians have been living along the coast of Southern California for many thousands of years, as far back as the archeological record can determine."

Now as it happens, I have some familiarity with said archeological record and it is unambiguous in establishing that Chumash culture reaches back, at most, three thousand years. To wit:

The Chumashan languages are sui generis, linguists treat them as a 'classificatory isolate'. Yet their lack of wide diversity - just three main groupings, Northern, Central (which includes the local dialects of Purisimeño, Barbareño and Ventureño) and Island (the languages spoken on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel) - suggests a time depth of not much more than two millennia. In other words, the languages exhibit the same sort of internal diversity exhibited by the Germanic and Romance languages of Europe and, in fact, they likely developed over the same two thousand years or so, up until the dawn of the nineteenth century (Victor Golla in California Prehistory, 2007). So that while there has been significant demographic and cultural stability, over twelve or thirteen thousand years, in the lands now considered 'Chumash', the language arrived only recently.

The Yukians, who occupied coastal lands north of San Francisco, may have represented a relict population of the earliest people of California - their fiercely independent, war-like character has led to them be labeled the Basques of northern California - and it is their early language that may have served as the base linguistic strata for much of California, including the central coast and inland ranges. At this time there is no compelling theory as to how the comparatively recent languages of the Chumashan phylum developed.

While various Hegira theories remain at the fringe - relics of the notion that the Americas were solely peopled via the Beringian land bridge and the Laurentide and Cordilleran inter-galacial corridor - it is now considered more likely that coastal California was populated via the Kelp Road along the ice free Pacific coast (Jon Erlandson). Within an overriding cultural stasis, civilizational diversity was engendered, over time, by climate change (as it impacted the biophysical environment) leading to significant dietary adaptations both along the coast and inland valleys. Technological innovations, again mostly driven by the exigencies of subsistence, also contributed to a clear delineation of peoples over the millennia - most notably in the establishment of the milling stone horizon (9,000 - 8,500 B.P.).

Thus the notion that any coherent cultural link can be established between a baptized Chumash woman of the early nineteenth century (Ernestine's first documented ancestor) and the first peopling of California is at best, naively romantic. Distinct societies evolved, at least partly prompted by climatic changes with each iteration possessing unique cultural traits and languages until about 1000 B.C. when there appears to have been a homogenization, of both culture and language, over the area we now consider to have been peopled by the Chumash.

None of this addresses the genetic linkage proposed in the film by Ernestine and Dr. John Johnson, Curator of Anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Johnson studies the genetic relationships among California Indian tribes belonging to different linguistic families. Pre-contact, over 60 ( some say a hundred) different languages were spoken within a vast patchwork of different cultural groups (reflecting, perhaps, significant migration events in pre-history). Using mitrochondrial DNA molecules (passed along the female line) from extant mixed blood 'Chumash' he hopes to establish the genetic prehistory of the Indians who lived along the central and south coast and determine if they were genetically distinct from other neighboring tribes. Ernestine is Exhibit 'A' - or rather Haplogroup 'B', one of several such mtDNA markers that originated amongst the ancient people of Asia.

Ernestine possesses one of the genetic markers characteristic of Native Americans - whose four mtDNA groups can all, in turn, be traced to Asia. A rare Haplogroup 'D' is more specifically associated with the early peopling of the Pacific Coast dotted along the entire seaboard of North and South America (providing more support for Erlandson's Kelp Road thesis). Does this make Ernestine 13,000 years old as she coyly suggests in Six Generations? Does her self-identification as 'Chumash' have any meaning at a time almost 200 hundred years distant from any semblance of a coherent Chumash culture? Neither of these questions is addressed in the film and the fact that they may even occur to the viewer is a symptom of Paul and Ernestine overselling their story - for the simple fact of her connection through six documented generations to her great great great grandmother, a full-blood Barbareño Chumash ironically born in the first contact year of 1769 and baptized Maria Paula (numbered 3302) at Santa Barbara Mission on the third of April, 1807 provides, one would think, sufficient narrative structure.

As remarkable as her well documented lineage back to the moment of first contact is, it is enormously enriched by her family's close connection with John Peabody Harrington (1888-1961), the man who almost single handedly preserved the ethnographic and linguistic history of her erstwhile people. She is the daughter of Mary Yee (1897-1965) who was Harrigton's last 'informant', and the last native speaker of Barbareño and indeed of any Chumash language. Mary followed both her grandmother, Luisa Ygnacio and her mother Lucretia Garcia as the great linguist's 'informants'. Ernestine grew up around Harrington who was an almost daily visitor to the family's house, and it was her mother who nursed him as he lay dying of Parkinson's disease. Mary Yee kept her own extraordinary illustrated notes as her work with Harrington progressed over the final eight years of his life. Her heritage and her daughter's is truly remarkable: too bad, that in Six Generations, it is mired in overblown claims of unproven genetic kinship with California's first people.

This just in: Black Bear Attacks Woman in Ojai. This blog more often attempts the timeless than the timely; but sometimes the present intrudes. Perhaps because she had seen that I was working on a piece provisionally titled 'Black Bears, Grapefruit and Star Thistle' (remember them?) Lorrie texted me

"Go to Yahoo News: Story of Black Bear attack on Gridley Trail. Yikes!"

Or, perhaps because the attack occurred at seven a.m., prime running time and, in fact, on part of an old trail route of mine, she was anxious to provide documented proof of the foolhardiness of my private passion. I appreciate that she cares deeply but I take the moral of the story as do not turn your back on a mother bear with her cub (even when accompanied by three dogs, as was the woman), unless you are running like hell. Mama bear took a couple of swipes at the human and inflicted superficial lacerations. She refused medical help. Meanwhile, Game Wardens with the California Department of Fish and Game are vowing vengeance and plan to hunt down and euthanize the poor animal. Since 1980, there have been about 15 confirmed bear attacks in California - none fatal. I'll take my chances.

Neighbor Margot neglected to call the police department when a black bear strolled through her garden recently, understanding, perhaps, that part of the Urban Wildland thing is forbearance (so to speak) of the slight risks of animal attack within the greater joy of equitably sharing this ecotone with wildland creatures. We've been down the 'euthanasia' road before. Grizzlies, as we all know were hunted to extinction in California, the last being shot in 1922. Living on Koenigstein, where once was a hotel dedicated to the hospitality of grizzly bear hunters, and which dead ends at a trail that wanders up Bear Canyon where flows Bear Creek (which, as it descends towards its confluence with Sisar Creek along the 150, describes our westerly property line and a little further south, Margot's eastern boundary), we are a part of that sad history. We are sensitive about bears. L.A.'s last grizzly was killed in 1897 while the last grizzly in Southern California was tracked and killed in Trabuco Canyon less than 20 miles northeast of San Juan Capistrano early in 1908. We can assume their gig was up on Koenigstein well before that, perhaps by the turn of the century.

After the California grizzly became extinct, black bears started to appear in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties (Grinnel et al 1937). The Department of Fish and Game then supplemented this natural range expansion by moving black bears into southern California during the early 1930's (Burgduff 1935). The current bear population is a mix of these populations. They are, then, more interlopers than aliens. No such modifers need be applied to grapefruit. The mediterranean fruit does well here in Upper Ojai and there is a particularly luscious variety on Margot's property. She surprised me by mentioning, as Alex and I were eyeing the fruit, that they take 18 months to reach maturity. Well almost - turns out that the fruit reaches maturity in nine but can stay on the tree for another seven months to reach maximum sweetness. That's a long time to wait for your locavore breakfast treat borne of an exotic citrus tree (but bears are patient creatures).

Josh (Love Comes to Koenigstein) stopped for a chat the other day as he was riding his mule down the road while I surveyed a field to the south where Alex and I had cleared star thistles. Josh is always on the look-out for pasture for his mule herd, but despite being very catholic in their food preferences, mules stop short of eating this particular invasive species.

We are operating at the margins: saving a bit of sage scrub from thistles here, not alerting the constabulary upon sight of mountain lion or bear, there: but our work pales in contrast to the likes of Harrington and Mary Yee, both devoted to the notion of salvaging an oral language - the highest order of cultural artifact - of an extinct people.