Shell Game

Early this morning: dark clouds scudded across the eastern sky, as though fleeing the impenetrable, moonless night. A slightly fuzzy crescent the sun had carelessly painted on the side of our earth-washed satellite (which had arisen to greet the dawn) hung over the eastern ridge, a jewel bright morning star subtended below it. Sort of reminded me of the Turkish national flag – and no wonder, said red banner pays homage to the Tengriist beliefs of the ancient sky-worshipping Turks.

Status report from an earth-worshipper: underfoot the peonies, soap plant, wild cucumber, goosefoot and Acourtia are flourishing; at eye level ceanothus and chamise are beginning to bloom; poison oak glistens malignantly. Despite the general failure of winter, spring has arrived. Pantheists (and others) are rejoicing.

Last week, not for the first time, I was called to jury duty: actually for the third time that I did not have the ready excuse of resident alien status. Ah, those joyous years when I could scrawl “Non-Citizen” across the summons and return it (postage paid). But rendering such service is a small price to pay for the diminished night sweats. As a citizen of this fine country I can now luxuriate in my anarchist politics, comfortably ensconced in the great pluralism of the U.S. of A, protected by the might of Empire and assured of my First Amendment freedom of speech – and, by inference, of thought. Yes, dear reader, this country now clasps a viper to its bosom.

Now, when it comes to jury service, I am as willing as the next free-thinker. Turns out, such willingness is not reciprocated. Call number two (when it counted) resulted in my inclusion in a jury pool on a drunk-driving case. The case turned, as we were led to believe, on the accuracy of the breathalyser device. A young Latina was the defendant: casual observation would lead one to believe that she should more appropriately have been charged with under-age drinking. In any event, she had been stopped and blew, as the billboards suggest, $10,000. More perhaps, as she had the gumption to contest the charge. Seated with my fellow good men and women jurors I was questioned by defense and prosecution: I threw the racial profiling curve ball and followed it with the “in no circumstances will I find this woman guilty’” game ender – or so I thought. The judge came to bat and asked whether I would follow his instructions. Not necessarily says I – finally, game over. Judge asked to be reminded of my name and profession and then excused me from further service. That’s one potential client to whom I can safely say goodbye.

You’d think that that performance would have earned me an asterisk against my name – indicating that under no circumstances, save a massive die-off of eligible citizens, should I be called to assist in the machinations of the criminal justice system. But no….last Thursday found me in my jury attire lurking at the back of the hall with the on-line poker players. I was reading Edward Abbey. Mercifully, at around 3 p.m. we were sent home.

Having consigned the entire day to this civic duty I now found myself close to the ocean with more than four hours of light awaiting my pleasure. Gone are the days when I might have checked the surf report, instead, the Chumash Trail (which has some claim to being the oldest continually used footpath in California) was calling. Located across the Pacific Coast Highway from the Seabee’s rifle-firing range, it is at the southern end of Mugu lagoon in what once was the sizable Chumash village of Muwu, the path heads straight up the western flank of Mugu Peak (1050’). I usually pass the dirt parking lot on the left as I drive by at around 60 m.p.h., eyes looking ahead to the less photogenic side of Mugu Rock, and preparing for that first shot of ocean on my hurried way to Santa Monica, but this day I pulled in, parked the car, grabbed my paper cup of Peet’s Darjeeling tea and headed up the heavily used track.

This is in the area that burnt in the Camarillo Springs Fire of May 2013 and absent a wet fall, the vegetation is only now beginning to regenerate: first up, bushy red-berry; yucca, sprouting from blackened ‘pinapple’ stumps (the edible crown or base of the plant); bright green opuntia pads growing on charred cactoidal skeletons and coreopsis sprouting amidst its burnt ruins from last spring.

After about 25 minutes of steep climbing, I reached the first overlook of La Jolla Valley, green meadowlands that reach towards the jagged backdrop of Boney Mountain, reputedly a place of power for Chumash shamen. Behind me views of the ocean and Mugu Lagoon fading into the mists of Port Hueneme. To the right the trail continues up towards Mugu Peak where some functionary from the California Department of Parks and Recreation (I presume) had seen fit to raise an American Flag - a reminder of our crass conquest of these primal lands. Here, blue dicks, Indian paintbrush, poppies and white lupine have established their own mountain-top kingdoms somewhat less assertively.

Dropping down towards the rugged La Jolla Canyon the trail crosses a small creek and then leads back towards the meadow. Beneath skeletal oaks with bright green foliage nested in their carbonized upper branches I followed the creek where pools of water and jumbled debris of blackened sticks and rocks remained from the recent rain storms - crowded by patches of mugwort, nettles and poison oak. Along side, mounded, ashen earth forms were dotted with the burnt oaks where once the Chumash and before them, the people of the Millingstone horizon had made camp.

As I followed the track through a mostly monochrome landscape (the creek bottom and the puffs of new oak growth the only green) I noticed, on the blackened earth amidst the white ash of burnt sticks, other more intense dots of white. When I looked closer I realized that I was walking through a casual collection of shell middens – where mussel, barnacle, sea-snail and clam shells had been exposed by the fire. I picked up a small collection from the surface and put the shells in my now empty Peet’s cup. These were the leavings from some Chumash meal in the Mission period, below them no doubt, was buried the detritus from countless sea-food dinners consumed over many thousands of years.

At the other end of the sweeping curves of the PCH, which begin at Pt. Mugu and wriggle sinuously between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific, is County Line beach (as it continues south the highway then veers away from the coast and heads across the Malibu hills). Neptune’s Net, a lonely sea-food roadhouse (except on weekends when it is beseiged by bikers) looks across the road to this surf beach and a small promontory that I have long understood to be a Chumash site (The Sage Gatherer). Immediately opposite this piece of scrubland which offers a fine perch from which to watch the surf, is Little Sycamore Canyon.

Commonly referred to in the archeological literature as the Little Sycamore site, VEN-1 was investigated in the mid ‘50’s by William Wallace who uncovered a kitchen midden site measuring 115m x 150m that, in the process of constructing the PCH has been split into two investigable fragments. He chose to dig at the surf-side promontory and beneath the surface shells he uncovered nineteen bodies, 116 metates (mortars), 123 manos (grinding stones), as well as pipes, charmstones, hammer stones, points (arrowheads), other stone tools and antler-bone flutes, diggers and pendants (Wallace et al. 1956). In the process, he more or less defined the characteristics of the Millingstone culture which he saw as unchanging over the 7,000 years of pre-history evidenced at the site. Later research has demonstrated significant cultural change over time culminating in the development of the Chumash civilization.

I had walked over a similar midden, the mounds, perhaps, not earth-forms but depositories layered over time and entombing a people’s artifactual history; the scattered surface shells remnants of the very last food consumed before their culture was swept away by the ravages of the Spanish.