Cumuli were massed over the eastern horizon; spare, drought savaged chaparral stood atop the low mounding hills of the old County Honor Farm silhouetted against the brightening cloud bank - just another dawn tease on Koenigstein – for these clouds did not presage rain.

By light of day, when the full color spectrum is revealed, it is clear that the most severe drought in thirty years is having an impact on the usual stoicism of the sclerophytic natives (Sleepy Oaks). Oaks are dying, their evergreen foliage desiccating into a gingery brown, baccharis is giving up the ghost and the deerweed died months ago. Only the laurel sumac remains, in places, brightly green: elsewhere its foliage has taken on a darker, reddish-purple hue that speaks of its struggle to achieve adequate hydration despite a root system that customarily descends more than twenty feet into the earth.

For a landscape aesthete, the various drought stricken tableaux that are currently on offer have an appeal independent of their meteorological cause. But as hard-hearted as I am in my devotion to the superficial beauty of the natural world, even I occasionally weep a tear for the existential struggles of the chaparral during this testing time when all but the deepest rooted or fortuitously located are showing signs of massive stress or have simply died.

Time to call in the Rain Shaman. In most dialects of the Chumash group of languages, water was simply called O. Its beneficence was conjured by a weather doctor who communicated with the Upper World where the Sky People lived (Real Suspense). Ritualistic intercession was considered necessary to ensure the orderly continuation of the biotic world – rainfall needed to be coaxed out of the sky. The instruments of persuasion were carried in a medicine bag or more simply in a bundle. Such a collection of rain making totems is discussed in the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, Vol. 32, No. 2 (2012) by the Tulare Lake Archaeological Research Group which includes Alan Garfinkel (Shamanize or Die). Many of the items are of Chumash origin, taken east during the great diaspora spurred by the genocidal proclivities of the Franciscans running the mission system.

Now housed in the Kern Valley Museum, the collection includes several bowls, nine steatite tobacco pipes with broken bird bone stems, river-washed pebbles, geodes, crystals, obsidian flakes, charmstones, a tobacco pouch and a medicine bag fragment. The most rudimentary of magics is sympathetic conjuring – the act of mimicry producing its simulacrum: as in spraying water in the air to produce rain; puffs of tobacco smoke sent heavenward to encourage the formation of clouds or stones struck together to encourage thunder. The Chumash practiced all three. The shaman’s power, however, depended upon more than these mimetic gestures. Quartz crystals were considered to be a powerful physical embodiment of sacred, environmental energies. Their shamanic power derived from their perceived function as intermediaries between the material and the spirit realm. Jay Miller, an anthropologist who specializes in American Indian history, suggests that thought and memory are literally crystallized within their lithic structure and as such can be beamed into the ether. He also notes that crystals were seen as particularly related to water and power.

Dark river rocks were prized, perhaps, for their ability to conjure thunder clouds. Charmstones, which are shaped or pecked rocks often carried for their talismanic protection may also have been instrumental in weather control. Basic to the shaman’s ability to control the elements were songs either passed on to him or dreamed anew. Snatches of these songs survive in the community which today identifies with the moribund Chumash culture. Their efficacy has doubtless been vitiated by the profane circumstances of a people now indebted to the vicious, Neanderthal capitalism manifested by casinos – a grotesque caricature of the cosmic games of chance practiced by these people’s forbears (Bingo).

We may have the kit, but where’s the shaman? The sad reality is that the human spark that might actualize these mystical objects is now entirely missing – the artifacts no longer have power: they are the dead apparatus of an extinct culture. The dominion that once resided in crystal, stone, quartz and smoking paraphernalia now resides in technocratic, military and intelligence organizations. The Special Collection Service (SCS), a mash-up of the NSA and the CIA pursues rendition of enemies, eavesdropping, surveillance and ’black-ops’ – all activities that were once within the purview of Chumash shamans. Inevitably, the SCS also has its own weather forecasting service. I have it at one remove from a deeply embedded apparatchik within this puzzle palace that we can expect, in the local area, fifteen inches of rain over the 2013-2014 season.

The timidity of this shadowy pronouncement is stunning. In an average year Ojai usually sees around twenty inches of rain. On the dry side less than ten and in seasons such as 1997-1998 and 2004-2005, close to fifty. Any shaman worth his datura would serve up not a projection uncomfortably close to the historical average, but a resolution that he and his powerful spirit allies would deliver rainfall precisely according to the needs of his people and the land. Speaking for the oaks, I don’t think fifteen inches will do it.

When Heinrich Harrer arrived in Lhasa after his epic trek across Tibet from North Western India where he was being held in an internment camp during WWII, he found even the sophisticates of the Holy City firm in their belief that certain lamas could control the weather. It was commonly supposed that they could hold up hailstones or call down rain showers as the circumstances demanded (Seven Years in Tibet, 1953). Certain simple monks were also reputed to have skill in managing the weather, blowing on conch shells, for instance, to repel approaching storms. The thirteenth Dalai Lama maintained a court weather-maker whose special charge was to protect the God-King’s summer garden from untoward hail storms.

Here in Ojai no one, at present, is offering up their services to break the drought. Perhaps Julie Tumamait, our local professional Chumash princess (available for weddings, funerals and the blessing of land) could step up to the plate and twirl her bull-roarer (a showy piece of pan-Indian paraphernalia noticeably missing from the Kern River Museum bundle). Perhaps Camille Sears, a local stone fruit orchardist and meteorologist who grew up in Meiners Oaks, can prognosticate more accurately than the SCS, or maybe we should just check the Farmer’s Almanac, by which Margot, our neighbor and chaparral restoration expert, swears. Meanwhile, I am left scouring the land and sky for omens.

We’ve had a few.

A few early mornings ago, the shadowy old moon was cradled in the bright silver sliver of the new as it rose over the eastern ridge – this phenomenon is caused by earthshine flooding the part of the lunarscape un-illuminated by the sun and is traditionally a bad weather omen. The fact that it happens regularly as part of the lunar cycle does not entirely destroy the poetry of the attendant myth, here referenced in an 18th century Scottish ballad,

'Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
Our guid ship sails the morn.'
'O say na sae, my master dear,
For I fear a deadly storm.'
'Late, late yestre'en I saw the new moon
Wi'the old moon in his arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
That we will come to ‘arm.'

In the event, Sir Patrick Spens, the ballad’s subject, sets sail despite this celestial omen and he and his crew foundered somewhere off the Isle of Islay in the predicted gale. In Ojai, right on schedule, we are now experiencing a fearsomely desiccating Santa Ana wind storm……

In the absence of coyotes and bobcats grey foxes have taken up residence on our property. We hear them calling to one another across the open meadow below the house in the evening and early mornings…..at night they cry eerily. With the moon still subject to both direct and reflected sun-light, but now higher in the sky, we were preparing to walk down to the garage one recent morning when Lorrie spotted two foxes on a nearby rock. They were juveniles – we had last seen them as kits a year ago – and now bobcat-like they were both standing proud surveying the scene with their long fluffy tails draped over the rock: one looked west and the other east so they presented themselves as heraldic creatures – crossed foxes.

Crossed Foxes. Watery lunascape with silver crescent. Omens? Perhaps, but we can be reasonably sure that at some point in the next three months it will start raining and that old Chumash magic (still imprinted on the landscape?) will kick in and order will be returned to our little corner of the biosphere.