Ancient Isle

T.C. Boyle has written a second novel primarily set on the Channel Islands. The first, When the Killing's Done, 2011, focused on the removal of the invasive pig population on Santa Cruz, the second, San Miguel, 2012, tracks the history of two sheep ranching families on the eponymous island. So, as they say, what's up with that?

Why the fixation on these scrappy mountain tops left exposed above the rising melt waters of the last ice age? The celebrated author lives in Montecito and perhaps, on a clear day, he can see the shadowy forms of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and even San Miguel on the horizon from his writing room. It is but a small step from the admonition, 'write what you know' to 'write what you see' - a step that I have certainly embraced - but T.C. (Tom to his friends) is no beginning writer casting around for a journalistic focus. He is famously prolific and many of his books can reasonably be claimed to be about something beyond the prosaic meaning of their narratives. There is something else driving his current purview.

The geographic imperative has a long history in America. 'Go West, young man', exhorted Horace Greeley, seeking to materialize Manifest Destiny (Fortune Cookie). Us Euro-Californians can relate (Asian-Americans less so): but I was reminded that there can be contrary directional impulses within the United States somewhere around the seventh hour of last Sunday's staged reading of The Great Gatsby which Lorrie and I attended. (Gatz, By Elevator Repair Service, from the text by F. Scott Fitzgerald, directed by John Collins; at the Roy and Edna Disney Cal-Arts Theater, Disney Hall, Los Angeles).

In a work that slides into penny-dreadful territory in its closing chapters, Fitzgerald remembers his elevated literary ambitions when he mythologizes the great trek east: Nick, Jay and Daisy have all migrated from the mid-west and Fitzgerald briefly considers that fact's significance (to draw his reader away, perhaps, from pondering the automotive and ballistic carnage he has just foisted on them). Until the mechanics of the plot run away with him, I was enraptured by Fitzgerald's prose lucidly presented by this New York theater troupe. Let me tell you, T. Coraghessan Boyle is no F. Scott Fitzgerald. The former is a novelist of a distinctly different stripe. His are the narrative skills of a westerner: no complexities of syntax, no elaborate metaphor; he writes instead with the propulsive force of a locomotive carrying the reader, pell-mell, along the lines of the plot and through richly rendered landscapes and weather.

As such, he is a writer who uses externalities rather than interior monologues or the finely crafted apercus of Fitzgerald. He is, in a real sense, an environmental writer in which human characters share the stage, on an equal footing as it were, with their surroundings. In a recent interview he says, “what I seem to be writing about through all my books is us as animals in nature”.

Boyle's islands are not true wildlands. They might be seen as highly attenuated urban wildlands. But these are not suburban annexes (such as Upper Ojai), they are truly remote - yet the wildness of the isolated setting has been transmuted by the pasturing of livestock which creates its own barren, rusticated hinterland. This transmutation of the real into into the ersatz, of gold into dross, of, ultimately, wilderness into pasture, is presumably one of T.C. Boyle's novelistic concerns. His are tales of paradise lost.

The families who sojourn on San Miguel (both his recent books are novelistic glosses on the facts of nineteenth and twentieth century ranching on the islands) lead lives made miserable, in one way or another, by the environmental damage caused by the depredations of the Spanish, who first de-forested the island early in the nineteenth century, and then successive waves of ranchers whose sheep herds nibbled the vegetation down to the nub. Lacking all hindrance, the abrasive winds that sweep down past Point Conception drive sand deep into the food, shelter and clothing of these coastal pastoralists. Their lives are abraded by grit. The wool that is their livelihood is similarly infiltrated and the sand quickly blunts the blades of the Mexican and Indian itinerant sheep shearers. As Boyle tells it, when the lash of wind driven sand abates it is replaced with a shroud of fog that wraps its dampness over the land and its chilled inhabitants alike. Fun Times.

I am now reading Scarlet Feather, 1945, by Joan Grant, a so-called Far Memory Book in which the author ostensibly recalls a story from a past life. There is a connection to Ojai in that Grant's grand daughter (also a writer) now lives in Ojai having been gifted an estate that included a house and grounds in the east end by an avid fan of her grandmother's writing - she, in turn, is now embarked on telling this strange tale of inheritance. Scarlet Feather is the American story in Grant's canon (Joan incarnated in many of the more storied civilizational epochs) and relates to an Indian tribe loosely located in the west.

Grant recounts the story of Piyanah and Raki, princelings of the Two Trees band who are charged by the chief to lead a new tribe into the promised land in which the Canyon of Separation between men and women will be bridged, Love is recognized as the source of Life, the Sorrow Bird is banished, Superstition is extinguished and The Before People - their ancesters - emerge from the shadows to become spirit guides. Grant might reasonably be accused of projecting a mid-century, feminist mysticism on a midden of accumulated anthropological cliches, yet she leaves us with at least one useful concept.

The Before People represent the beginning of things: they are, Grant writes, "Those who came before we can remember" where, in their Country Beyond the Water, men and women walked hand in hand and shared their days, "it was together that they wept..laughed...worked and loved". I cannot speak to the equality of the sexes on San Miguel in its early days of human habitation, but the island's first men and women arrived at the end of the last ice age and given their great discontinuity with the lives and culture of the Chumash it is, perhaps, appropriate to think of them as The Before People.

Having navigated the 'Kelp Road' down from what is now eastern Siberia, they made landfall south of Point Conception where a pine-forested San Miguel beckoned. At that time, it formed the northern tip of Santa Rosae, before rising sea levels divided the land mass, then a mere five miles off of the mainland coast, into separate islands. Carbon dating establishes a Paleoindian presence on this scrap of land beyond the California coast as long as 13,000 years ago. John Erlandson, the archeologist who has spear-headed the Kelp Road theory, writes,

"By about 16,000 years ago, the North Pacific Coast offered a linear migration route, essentially unobstructed and entirely at sea level, from northeast Asia into the Americas....With reduced wave energy, holdfasts for boats, and productive fishing, these linear kelp forest ecosystems may have provided a kind of kelp highway for early maritime peoples colonizing the New World."

And it was in Daisy Cave on San Miguel that Erlandson found evidence of kelp culture, North America's earliest shell midden and an ancient weaving technology evidenced by basketry and cordage (all this, despite looting by the ranching families of whom Boyle writes).

By 1543, when the first European to explore the Californian coast, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, suffered a fatal wound after slipping on a San Miguel rock, the Chumash had found the island's most propitious use to be the burying of their dead. The Spanish removed the relict pine trees and the remaining native population early in the nineteenth century. As noted above, sheep and goats destroyed what was left of the native flora. In the middle of the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy administered the final indignity by using the island as a bombing range.

The Rainbow Bridge (Hoop Dreams) no longer connects San Miguel to the mainland: Santa Rosae's vestigial isthmus is now truly the land beyond the water: rising seas lap at her shores, live ordnance lies buried beneath sand and rock and her Before People have retreated to the shadows. Yet I am heartened that a moment in the island's time has now been animated, in all its grim beauty, by Boyle's pen. May other legends of this ancient isle be similarly revived.