Ancient Bestiary

In the yellow dawn light chaparral is draped over the boney massif that is composed of the Topatopa mountains and fore grounded by the Santa Paula Ridge; this is the jagged head of the Santa Ynez mountain range that coils lazily back to the ocean in a long tail that terminates at Gaviota: It is as though a dragon had freshly emerged from the depths beyond the Continental Shelf, its tail dripping a few miles on-shore, its head resting in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary - and I was running in the folds of its scabrous skin, still black under the jaundiced sky.

A few nights ago I dreamt that I was lying on the planet’s crust and had an awareness of its curvature, of its being a sphere spinning through space: I felt profoundly lonely. What if the Earth itself was my only friend? Reason enough to anthropomorphize the planet so that its mantle is its skin, its vegetation a fuzzy insulation or a scaly armor, its magma the bodily fluids that occasionally erupt out of suppurating pimples, and its heart the lumpy mass of lode stone at the North Pole. In my dream I had caught it bathing in the vast oceans that enwrap it and the whole enchilada was floating blissfully in the firmament.

Now, in Upper Ojai, there appeared a dragon in an embrace of the planet’s moribund flesh. In many mythologies, dragons function as agents of creation and are enmeshed in doubleness - the light and dark, the yin and yang - that gives rise to the world. But here the dragon, substantiated in mountains, had assumed the traditional Chinese male form of Yang, recumbent on the female Earth – dark, passive and absorptive – the essence of Yin. This fantastical juxtaposition exists for me as a provocation, as a goad towards an understanding of what symbolic relevance might exist in twenty-first century landscapes.

There is, as a subset of Archeology, a discipline called Landscape Archeology, which treats landforms, in as much as they are symbolically interpreted by humankind, as cultural artifacts and investigates the morphology of the land as it has been adapted to serve farming, housing, transportation, burial and other ceremonial needs. Here in Upper Ojai, anthropogenic changes to the landscape have come only slowly in the last one hundred and fifty years or so. Previously, the Chumash and their forebears had neither the technology nor the will to make changes to earth forms beyond paths and flattened areas (cleared of rocks) for their village settlements and shallow mounds for burials.

Roads, oil roads, house sites, and farming have now altered the terrain in still subtle ways following in the wake of game trails, ancient meadows, and native village settlements (Sisa, Mupu, ?awhay and, here on Koenigstein, old Indian camps that nuzzle Bear Creek). What remain almost entirely untouched are the spalled face of the Topatopas, Kahus (now called Black mountain), scarred only with a single track along its crest carved from a Chumash spirit path (Roaming Charges), the Santa Paula Ridge - a spiritual focal point of Mupu, and the sinuous ridges of the Santa Ynez Mountains which surely penetrated Chumash and the Oak Grove Peoples’ consciousness as a powerful, serpentine earth form - a smaug-like guardian, perhaps, of the center of their universe, Mount Pinos.

Despite the availability of satellite imagery, we are slow to read the mythologies embedded in the planet’s wrinkled mantle and remain more attuned to meanings in the constellations above, than on the earth below. Hermes Trismegistus, the great Pagan Prophet, and founder of the western Hermetic tradition, established the maxim, “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing." Or, more simply, ‘as above so below’ which serves as a core principal of the occult sciences.

As I pointed out in Real Suspense, celestial beings mediated Chumash reality from above but they were twinned with creatures that roamed the terrestrial plane, thus the deer was associated with the Milky Way while the spirit of Mars was mirrored in the condor. Wolves, bears, antelope, coyote and rabbits all had their astral associations. What is not clear from the archeological and anthropological record is whether earth forms and rock alignments were recognized as a kind of visionary geography or even, as Richard Leviton (RV III) believes he has discovered at Glastonbury and Elizabeth Van Buren at Rennes le Chateau, a landscape zodiac.

The extent to which we are reluctant to accept evidence of the dragon in the landscape, so to speak, was brought home to me upon publication of Rock Art at Little Lake, produced by the Cotsen Institute of Archeology Press at UCLA, 2013, and with which I was involved as an illustrator and word-smith for several years. The book, beautifully designed by Doug Brotherton features, on the back cover, a stunning aerial image of the eponymous lake with a very obvious dragon form curling around its eastern shore. Obvious, that is, to me.

The confused morphology of dragon, serpent and lizard (or crocodile) is evident across cultures and where I see dragon, others may see a more prosaic reptile. Moko, for instance, appears in some Pacific Island cultures as a lizard with both human and avian features making it King of the Lizards, while at the same time, as a biological mash-up, it transcends the animal kingdom altogether and rises to the level of an entirely mythic creature. Similarly, the rattle snake, amongst some Native American cultures, exists as both a corporeal viper and a transcendent spirit animal sometimes associated with thunder and lightning (which, to some minds might signify a fire-snorting dragon!).

At Little Lake, the head of the dragon, formed from a basalt lava flow, faces due south while the western flank of its body is delineated by a talus slope. The creature sprawls along a mile of lake-frontage. The lake, a nearby cinder cone and the dragon make up the defining large-scale characteristics of this oasis site, an ancient crossroads on the western edge of California’s Great Basin. Teams of students and volunteers, led by Dr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg and John Bretney, combed the site for rock art over a period of more than ten years and were well aware of the power of this landscape image that forms the eastern backdrop to the lake.

Harrington (Trunk Show) noted that the Panamint Shoshone knew the escarpment as Rattlesnake Ridge and, as Jo Anne Van Tilburg et al point out, “There is little doubt that the serpentine configuration was noticed and valued by other….groups”. The Kawaiisu commemorate a mythic giant snake (tugubaziitbit) in several landforms close by, but no definitive evidence suggests that the Little Lake land-monster was amongst them, but today, be it Great Snake or Dragon its covert presence is dramatically outed on the back cover of the UCLA volume.

Little Lake (formerly Little Owens Lake) is just to the east of US 395 which is the primary route from Mojave to the ski resorts of the Eastern Sierras and the road is thus heavily trafficked with laden SUV’s in the winter. I drove by a few times a year for the decade that Lorrie and I took the kids snow-boarding. Over the years I fell into a rhythm of looking out for the lake, which comes right to the edge of the paving and is almost at the same level, then casting my eye beyond it to the curving line of the talus slope, which rises more than a hundred feet above the water, and fantasizing about one day running along its ridge - the dragon’s spine.

Early in the second half of the twentieth century, Noam Chomsky suggested that the basic syntactical structures of language are hard-wired within the human brain, and Claude Levi Strauss, the French anthropologist, proposed that similarly, a shared mythic consciousness exists across all cultures. A century earlier, American transcendentalists suggested that matter is but a metaphor for spirit.

While language is most often the medium of transmission for mythologies - and these expressions of speculative narrative share universal structural similarities - it is perhaps through the armature of landscape and the Etch A Sketch of starry skies that myths are most effectively reified – shared foundational stories made manifest in the world; matter made spirit.

So it is that landforms, gnarled oak trunks, rocks, rivers and streams can have metaphoric meaning in the world. Lacking an oral tradition of mythology (or the pecked and painted symbology of rock art), they may be our last repository of a universal consciousness, a link to the narratives of our becoming and - like the constellations - contain an ancient bestiary through which these stories may be told.