The Wild Frontier

Beyond the creek, and thus beyond our property line, I saw a glowing orange-leafed tree; a cottonwood in its autumnal glory massed against a dark wall of chaparral.....

By the eleventh century in Japan, the tradition of establishing houses within artfully created recreations of the natural world was well established in the capital, Kyoto. Distant mountain views were ‘borrowed’ to complete the illusion of living in nature while the family remained secure in a walled garden.

Already entrenched in Asia, the notion that one might look beyond one’s own domain and enjoy borrowed views came late to the aristocratic European mind, arriving on the heels of the establishment of colonies outside of Europe. The ‘new’ territories provided room for the more rambunctious and adventurous elements in society to pursue their often predatory appetites: in their erstwhile homelands views beyond the compound could then be safely parsed for aesthetic satisfaction rather than defensive intelligence.

As European artists began to explore more rural themes in their paintings, it became fashionable to value the bucolic scene beyond the stage-managed garden precinct. In England, the naturalistic style of landscape design developed early in the eighteenth century with the work of William Kent and Horace Walpole and was further developed by Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. Their work was facilitated by the use of the ha-ha, a sunken wall and ditch that provided security but allowed for vistas reaching far beyond the estate. Aspects of the bucolic scene were included in the grounds themselves – famous examples include the milking parlor at Versailles and the hermit refuge at Stowe.

In nineteenth century America, wilderness, the ‘out-there’, had a political as well as aesthetic role. Thoreau suggested that “in wilderness is the preservation of this world”. Simon Schama (Landscape and Memory, 1995)  notes that there was the sense that wildland, those frontier places beyond factory, farm and garden, “would be the antidote for the poisons of industrial society”. Politically, wilderness was conflated with the idea of frontier and by inference, freedom - whose swaggering symbol, for a brief cultural moment, was Davy Crockett - King, you will remember, of the wild frontier.

I have always believed in the experiential primacy of landscape over the built-environment, yet for much of our history it made sense to retreat behind structure - be it cave, castle or courtyard. The impulse remains. Spanning the second half of the twentieth century and the first several years of the twenty first, I was mostly immured in the walled garden typology.

Growing up in darkest Surrey, those walls may have been holly, hazel and beech hedges (or in places, wire threaded through concrete posts) but there was never any doubt that the immediate world around the Norman-roofed, steel casement windowed and red-bricked semi-detached was carefully prescribed. Our patch of green-sward, vegetable garden, fruit trees and flower beds was effectively barricaded against our neighbors' potential encroachment - as their territory was defended against our predations - although the hedges did afford a measure of porosity to pre-teens willing to suffer the sartorial and tonsorial mayhem that was the cost of passage. (It never occurred to these intrepid bipedal hedgehogs, and full disclosure, I was one such, to clamber through the more easily traversed but more exposed wire fences). Our worlds were quartered, and our horizons mostly measured by property lines - escape lay not into the wild but out the front gate and into the country lanes and 'B' roads that offered kinetic thrills on bicycle and then motor-bike.

Later, there were a few idyllic years in Sydney, Australia, when my backyard was the inland waterway Pittwater, and, on the further shore, the dense bush of Ku-Ring-Gai National Park: here was a borrowed view, an extension of a mean concrete patio, that exploded with a dark aboriginal magic which even the vacuous day sailors in the middle distance could not entirely expunge. In Los Angeles, first in Echo Park and then in Santa Monica Canyon, my gardens were again fenced, walled and hedged but six years ago I finally engineered my escape to the urban wildland of Upper Ojai.

Love of the wildlands is culturally conditioned. It is, let's face it, an intensely bourgeois predilection. In fact, it is an almost obscene luxury to find aesthetic pleasure in the natural world when, for most of human history (and pre-history) that world has represented nothing more than the source of an extremely hard-won livelihood amidst threats from ravening beasts. I blame the Transcendentalists. And John Muir. Now, we have all, metaphorically speaking, ventured beyond the walled garden: we went as soon as it was safe to do so and were ready to see the picturesque (the randomly composed) in nature’s apparently casual but inherently systematic ecosystems that drape themselves over the earth’s antic geological musculature. The Romantic notion that wilderness was a veil through which the guiding spirit of the universe might be experienced only encouraged its worship. Muir famously wrote of Yosemite that it was there that "Nature had taken pains to gather her choicest treasures to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her."

Here, in the upper valley, there are grazing lands, horse ranches, oil-lands, avocado and citrus orchards and boutique vineyards: beyond, the tangled complications of chaparral, oak meadow land, scree slopes and sandstone rock faces; a road runs through it, climbing out of the Santa Clara River basin and, a little beyond the Koenigstein turn-off, it reaches the Summit (grade-school, general store and hamburger stand).  This is the County divide where water flows east to the Santa Clara or west to the Ventura River. The road continues on a slight descent through the wide pasture lands until Black Mountain signals the beginning of the Grade, that precipitous decline down into the lower valley. There is much here on which the lover of the picturesque may dwell and almost all residences borrow a piece of the pastoral valley, back-grounded by chaparral or oak meadowland, as their view – a wild frontier fringed with grass.

Schama makes the point that Arcadia, the idyllic landscape that resides beyond the domestic realm, is of two types - wilderness or pastoral – and that these extremes appear to play out in opposition to one another across a range of landscapes, so that a lawn may be mown or left wild and unruly with clumping bunch grasses and forbs; a park formal or naturalistic. Ultimately however, he concedes that these two notions sustain each other: Thoreau, for instance championed both the wilderness and the picket-fence Arcadias of small-town New England.

Vast swathes of suburban Los Angles were laid out in the spirit of Frank Jesup Scott’s mid-nineteenth century The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds where mown-grass was intended to sweep to the street with no property fences to obstruct the suburban meadow. Lacking privacy, these undifferentiated front yards were eventually widowed, with family life confined to the back yard and the pastoral ‘views’ to the front losing their coherence once driveways were cut to conform to post WWII off-street parking ordnances.

Our front yard view includes aspects of the pastoral, and we have landscaped our property in a way that honors Frank Jessup Scott: a wild, currently drought stricken swathe of bunch grasses, drifted rocks and patches of bare dirt sweep down alongside the driveway to the street, an unruly echo of a suburban meadow.

To the rear, a similarly impoverished meadow beyond the pool quickly gives way to a chaparral fringe of toyon, elderberry, walnut, baccharis, laurel sumac and mountain mahogany which, in turn, is quickly consumed by a wilderness ultimately bounded by the distant Interstate 5 and State Highway 101. My view is cut short by the Topotopas but psychically, I have borrowed the entire Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain beyond as both an antidote to the “poisons of industrial society” and to be my wild frontier.