Last night, I attended an Ojai Music Festival event at a house on Mulholland Drive. Expansive glazing allowed for panoramic views of Los Angeles to the south and of the valley to the north. The dense grids of lights in both directions seemed to represent a sort of neural tracery – the synaptic pathways of our fluorescing civilization. The house itself occupied its ridge top location surrounded by dense pools of darkness, the perquisite, in Los Angeles, of the very wealthy.

This morning, walking along freshly cleared paths in the chaparral that surrounds our house in the foothills of the Topatopas, suggests another societal analogy: the birds, insects, and scurrying mammals, the sounds and the scents, the light and shade, the arabesques of leaf and twig and the shimmy of grass or forbs underfoot create a sensory, integrative web in which one becomes blunderingly complicit.

The adoption of agriculture is often considered to be the dividing line between ‘primitive’ and ‘advanced’ civilizations. The latter, it is presumed, only developed where environmental conditions allowed for the farming of domesticated plants and animals; the disposition of the resultant food surplus was then organized through social stratification and a hierarchical command structure. One further result, as evidenced last night, is a myriad of twinkling lights in the hinterlands below the redoubts of the rich and famous.

Philip Slater, in The Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture, 2008, calls the arrangements necessary to generate ‘advanced’ civilizations a ‘Control Culture’ which he identifies with “authoritarianism, militarism, misogyny, proliferating walls, mental constriction and rigid dualism”.

For California’s Indians, agriculture represents the road not taken. In eschewing farming they had no need for ‘Control Cultures’ - their political units were often no larger than one extended family, or what Lévi-Strauss calls 'House Societies'. Slater identifies such arrangements as ‘Integrative culture’, characterized by an order that derives from spontaneous interactions, and that function, like the Natural world, through a system of self correction and cybernetic feedback. Some faint simulacrum of this can be experienced in a walk through the Elfin Forest.

The current muse through whom we connect to traditional cultures and gain some sense of how modern culture figures in the civilizational continuum is Jared Diamond. I don’t know him, but there is only one degree of separation. He’s a colleague of Jo Anne van Tilburg with whom I have worked, off and on, for the last five years at UCLA’s Rock Art Archive. Several years before that I read his classic Guns, Germs and Steel which attempts to answer a Papua New Guinean tribesman’s simple question: How come you, indicating Jared as a representative of the West, have all the stuff?

Diamond’s answer is announced in the title of his book. Critical to the West’s ability to develop beyond the Mesopotamian agricultural watershed and truly modernize (for want of a better term) was the invention of gunpowder, the relative lack of virulent diseases in the cool temperate North and the ready availability of iron ore from which to forge its tools. Thus the West (but more accurately the North of Asia, Europe and the Americas) developed the ability to create the kind of wealth that is expressed in ‘stuff’ (and twinkling lights) – infrastructure, machines and electronics of every scale and purpose as well as endless supplies of food.

 In four books, The Third Chimpanzee, 1991 (how we evolved as a species capable of dominating and ultimately threatening our environment); Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997 (why the West has the most toys); Collapse, 2005 (why do some civilizations fail?) and now, The World Until Yesterday, 2012 (what we can learn from ‘traditional’ societies), Jared Diamond has engaged a broad public in questions of how societies are. He has also introduced us to a wonderful acronym: WEIRD - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic - the characteristics, he suggests, instrumental in our domination of the planet.

 As a committed conservationist, Diamond realizes that this is not altogether a good thing, and his work is full of reminders of the values (and warnings) that inhere in traditional societies. Looking back from a twenty first century perspective one can celebrate the fact that in all their myriad manifestations over the millennia, none of these cultures came close to destroying the planet: this may yet prove to be the unique distinction of those societies Diamond lumps under the WEIRD rubric.

How Californian Indians threaded the needle, navigating between the needs of an assured food supply and ensuring sufficient flexibility to survive vast swings in climate and dramatically rising sea levels and the smaller scale, chronic disturbances of drought, flood, earthquakes, and fire is the subject of M. Kat Anderson’s, Tending the Wild, 2005.

She writes, “California Indians did not distinguish between managed land and wild land as we do today”. Tribal languages lack words for both ‘wilderness’ and ‘civilization’. Overgrown, dense wilderness was not conducive to hunting, the nurturing edible plants village sites or to creating the web of spirit, summit and trading paths that threaded through the land. In managing the wild the indigenous peoples of California contrived to create a system of linked prairies, open woodlands and coppices that resembled what we might conceive of today as parkland.

Vestiges of this vast enterprise, nurtured over fifteen millennia, survive. More often, the food-lands that have not been engulfed in industrial, suburban and transportation infrastructure, have reverted, in our highly fire averse culture, to impenetrably tangled forests and shrub-lands. The mosaic of meadowlands, managed woods, tended marshlands and open rivers and streams which, in cooperation with the sprit world, the aboriginal population both harvested and replenished, has mostly vanished.

Of the colonization of the state she writes, “When the first Europeans visited California….they did not…find a pristine, virtually uninhabited wilderness but rather a carefully tended garden that was the result of thousands of years of selective harvesting, tilling, burning, pruning, sowing, weeding, and transplanting.”

Our rigid dualisms - wild or tamed, barbarous or civilized, natural or man-made, have hindered our comprehension of this great experiment in integrative culture where, in a complex matrix of connectivity, humankind fully cooperated and co-existed with the natural world. This Edenic past is not an altogether hidden layer of California’s landscape. We could do worse, amidst the tumult of secular materialism, to unveil its history and enact its lessons.