Nether Land

In Ojai, we have a strange and complicated relationship with the past, living heartbreakingly close to those sixty years (barely three generations) when the climax culture of the Chumash people was almost entirely hollowed out by the Spanish rot. The older culture succumbed with barely a fight (there were brief neophyte rebellions in 1824) before the furies of a moribund colonial power and its enabling religion destroyed the practices, wisdom, and low-impact technologies of the hunter-gatherers. The Chumash remain a spectral presence: their culture, artifacts and shallow impressions on the land may have almost totally disappeared yet, for me, these lost tribes still cast shadows over the chaparral and oak woodlands.

In California, although we are historically adjacent to that primeval paradise (as we romantically suppose) of the land before America, we are also heirs to what Morris Berman, (No Soft Landing) suggests is a condition of modern civilization,

"Traditions constantly fall to the wayside. Spaces once hallowed by millennia of sacred ritual get plowed over in a heart’s beat. Whole eras of human occupation of particular spaces become erased from our collective memories so that other eras can be reconstructed as tourist attractions. Atrocities and all manners of inhuman treatment and social injustice can be deleted from our group consciousness as we march forward toward progress."

Given this annihilation of tradition (in tandem with the creation of false narratives), this willful destruction of all real connections with the past, how is it that we can connect with a place other than through the immediate exigencies of the now? We are inevitably bound to the axis of time, but how is that we can develop an understanding of locus, or place, beyond the moment that it transects the present? I mean, what threads bind us to a geographical location other than its concurrence, or complicity, in our existence as it unfolds in the present?

I grew up at, and read the books of, a time that valued organization - the compartmentalization of information. Ideas of the mash-up or serendipitous anachronism were verboten, except at the avant garde. So my early ideas of how we conceptualized space (and thus inhere place) owed a lot to people like Kevin Lynch whose book The Image of the City (1960) attempted to demonstrate that real people actually thought of spaces in terms of paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks (just like Planners!). While his later book, What Time is This Place? (1972), at least recognized the temporal axis, it warned darkly of the dangers of paying too much heed to the past which, he chides, must be 'severed from the present'. He quotes Nietzsche, "Man must have the strength to break up the past" and Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake" in support of his nihilist agenda.

Somehow, I survived this era and the intellectual fashions that followed like structuralism (Levi Strauss) post structuralism (Derrida et al) semiotics and environmental psychology (known quaintly in the early eighties as man-enviroment studies) and arrived in the twenty first century with my fascination for Place intact. This blog is an emerging real-time experiment that attempts to demonstrate that, lacking a flesh and blood community through which one inherits local lore and tradition, narratives can be serially constructed (both absorbed experientially and blogged!) that can transform a place, almost independent of ones temporal allegiance to it, into Home - where flows inspiration, spiritual rapture, sensual delight, aesthetic pleasure, environmental comfort and a connection to one's place in the river of time.

Like I said, I feel shadows of lost tribes flickering over the chaparral; I also hear the squelch (glug-glug-glug) of the asthmatic oil well down the street, smell laurel sumac on my work-shirt and, on watching a road-runner walk along the swimming pool edge, feel a frisson of connectivity to the universe: moments that affirm that I am At Home. This experience is usually dependent on a particular geographic location; but it is more than can be directly attributed to the prosaic realities exhibited at specific GPS coordinates. There needs to be an alchemical transmutation of the base natural and cultural properties that surround us, into objects of power in our lives, allowing for an apprehension of meaning that can reach beyond the apparent or the superficial.

This is ground well trod by the ancient philosophers, shamans, the 15th century magus Marsilio Ficino, the great aggregator Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough, 1922) and Carl Jung. Plato pointed out that the temporal is but "a moving image of the eternal", while the limitations of the empirical observation of one's surroundings can be expanded, as the Transcendentalists (Albion, Beep-Beep) and others have averred, into a symbolic conception of the universe. There is, of course, a career to be made in studying this stuff and an Ojai friend has recently embarked on such a journey: signing up for a PhD at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, Santa Barbara, in Eco-Psychology where, and here I quote their literature, "the imaginal, as it appears through image, dream, symbol, story, myth, and ritual....creates "pathways for human/nature/animal relations" (Wild Thing). This is some serious woo-woo that relates directly to shamanistic practices of the local, lost, civilization.

As it happens, she and her husband, like Lorrie and I, are newly putting down roots (as they say) in Ojai. They in the East End, we in Upper Ojai. Together we have found shelter in places of dark shadows: our new lives are carried out under the penumbra of an ancient civilization; our understanding of these valleys darkened by the adumbrations of colonial conquest.

While I have tended to browse the academic literature on Ventureño Indian lore, and am currently reading Lynn Gamble's, The Chumash World at European Contact, (2008), perhaps no one book more effectively portrays both the 60-odd years of civilizational destruction between 1769 and the 1830's and the glories that were lost, than Terry Tallent's, Making the Reata (2012). This simple, but emotionally resonant tale of a mestizo boy being schooled in native ways by an old, full blood Indian, artfully incorporates virtually everything that is known about the Chumash, their aboriginal world and the structure of mission, presidio and rancho that fenced in that world in the early 1800's. It thus functions as a highly accessible primer on local Indian and historic Spanish and Mexican culture and avoids the tiresome academic trap of forever hedging the data.

For those of you who wonder whether the sussuration of oak leaves stirred by baleful breezes is whispering of some doleful past, or that the inky shade in the chaparral under-story speaks mournfully of  brighter times when redmen and grizzlies enlived these schlerophytic groves, then Terry's book (available at Kava on the arcade or at the museum) can help elucidate the shadowy nether land that is pre-historic Ojai - now and forever imprinted on the natural world - for those who have eyes to see.