Wild Thing

"It’s the question every writer faces, every morning of his or her life: Am I Malcom Gladwell today, or am I Arthur Rimbaud? Do I sit down with my pumpkin latte and start Googling, or do I fire a couple of shots into the ceiling and then stick my head into a bucket of absinthe?”

This is James Parker’s opening shot (so to speak) in a brief essay on literary bad boys (in honor of William S. Burroughs who was born one hundred years ago this year) in Bookends, The New York Times, February 23, 2014. If I define my personal choice of literary persona, faced by a blank lap-top screen (most often in the evening), along the continuum of milquetoast to bad-boy, then I clearly plump for the lily-livered end of the spectrum. The closest I have come to absinthe is its rather more civilized relative, Pernod, and my experience with fire arms ended in my adolescence with a few half-hearted shots at wood pigeons with a four-ten shotgun and several target rounds with a .303 World War II vintage bolt-action rifle. I have rarely lived my urban life on the wild side. But now, at the edge of the wildland, albeit comfortably ensconced in a modern house, I feel when I broach the keyboard, not only reverberations of the wilderness from without but also stirrings within: atavistic echoes of the primal.

This evening, retreating to the warm embrace of said modern house (which has mild pretensions, in its shape, simplicity and continuous ridged interior volume to being a barn) I brought with me, from my walk up Koenigstein, a frisson of the elemental spritzing my otherwise over-civilized and complacent brain.

A massive wall of marine layer stood on the western horizon, pierced only by the peaks of the Nordhoff range, behind which the sun slipped, its day’s work done well before its scheduled close. Quiffs of cloud scrolled slowly along the Sulphur Mountain ridge, while to the north thin whisps of fog appeared from the east, scribbling over the Topatopa bluffs. I watched the sun sink into its grey blanket while leaning against the south facing side of a riven sandstone rock, my feet against the opposing face of the cleft. From this position of repose, at a little over 2000 feet, there is a commanding view of the upper valley clear to Black Mountain. Walking back through dry grasslands and dead sage, dehydrated coyote brush and over bare earth through which even the redoubtable erodium has failed, thus far, to emerge, I was keenly aware of a change in the weather: an end, at least temporarily, of perhaps the worst Southern California drought in 200 hundred years. By the time this piece posts, we will have experienced the impact of what Wunderground describes thus: “Huge Gulf of Alaska low covering about 4.4 million square miles of the eastern Pacific will bring rain to the area today through Sunday”.

The storm duly lived up to its advance billing and dumped over seven inches of rain on Upper Ojai. The hills resounded with the rush and gurgle of streams: the chaparral came alive. Beneath each rocky fall in each seasonal stream I came across - when I ventured abroad in the lulls between storms - there were clouds of suds as though the rain had awoken the Naiads and each of them, in some sort of crazy mass psychosis, had decided to partake of a bubble bath (Nymphs and Naiads). A more prosaic explanation is that in the three long years since the last major rain, saponins from soap plant roots (Liliacaea Cholorogalum pomeridianum) had leached into the soil and were released, in a foaming frenzy, by the torrents.

The chaparral came alive, but did I? Was this an occasion when the stirrings of the primal were manifested, signaling a revival of my wild self? Was this an Arthur Rimbaud moment? Alas, dear reader, I found myself, on returning to the barn, with a deep yearning for a cup of Yorkshire Tea and a strong compunction to check, on-line, the Ventura County Watershed rainfall totals. In other words, I exhibited, not transformation, but a customary, persnickety frame-of-mind not altogether distant, I suspect, from that of the googling, pumpkin latte loving Malcolm Gladwell.

The wild weekend storm of the 2013-2014 rainfall season was also, by chance, the moment when I finished Feral, George Monbiot’s new book. It is a call to action: for planetary and personal re-wilding. Monbiot is a sometimes inspiring commentator and blogger for The Guardian although he is also, controversially, a proponent of nuclear power (like James Lovelock, the gadfly scientist who established the Gaia hypothesis), a position, post Fukushima, which I believe to be totally, irrevocably, untenable.

In Feral, he calls for the re-introduction of wolves, beavers, lynx and bison into the British countryside in order to initiate ‘trophic cascades’ by which top-predators, by culling their prey, limit the abundance at every level of the food chain and balance the entire ecosystem. The re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone has demonstrated this remarkable phenomenon; by reducing the elk population the river and streams, absent over-browsing at their banks, now support a richer plant community which in turn supports a richer variety of fish, insects, reptiles and mammals.

Monbiot is an effective popularizer but he is very late to this particular party. In Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation, Wild Earth, Fall 1998, Michael Soule and Reed Noss make a succinct case for the reintroduction of the entire set of pre-Columbian carnivores – bears, mountain lions and wolves - throughout the North American wilderness, contending that rewilding is “simply scientific realism, assuming the goal is to insure the long term integrity of the land community”.

There have been two catastrophic extirpations of native fauna on this continent. Human kind is deeply implicated in both. The first occurred over about two thousand years, starting around 12,000 years ago: the great Ice Age herds of megafauna vanished at the hands of Asian big-game hunters (the Clovis people) newly arrived in the Americas – in an egregious over-hunting of the energy resource that fueled their exploration of the continent.

As Soule and Noss point out, contemporary ecosystems remain profoundly altered by this extinction episode and beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing up to the present time, a second wave of killings precipitated the drastic decline of the continent’s mesofauna – the senseless killing of grizzlies, mountain lions, antelope, big-horn sheep and cougars. It is the loss of these keystone creatures that has led to a further biotic simplification and species loss in the American wilderness. At about the same time, another non-renewable energy source, fossil fuels, was being extracted from the earth with little concern for the environmental degradation it caused - so critical was this resource to the development of the modern world.

Now, such impacts have been exacerbated by the global triumph of corporate-driven consumerism, NAFTA, continued over-grazing, tree plantations and population growth. The wildlands are under siege. Rewilding offers a short-cut to a re-imagining of wilderness. While Monbiot bleats about the destructive impact of sheep on the uplands of Britain – territory he considers to be ‘sheepwrecked’ – Soule and Noss are equally emphatic in their belief that the American wilderness “will not recover from past and present insults and mismanagement unless its bears, cougars and wolves return”.

A few weekends ago I visited the California Oil museum in Santa Paula (A Tale of Two Cities) which was featuring a special exhibition, ‘Prehistoric California’ where the skulls of mega fauna such as the saber tooth cat, dire wolf, a prehistoric camel, a horse and ground sloth were on display. Greeting visitors, as they entered the gallery, was a life-size, life-like replica of a saber tooth cat on loan from the Page Museum (Bobcat Magic). This was one truly scary moggie (Brit-coinage for a domestic cat), a wild thing hunted to extinction for its meat, fur and saber teeth – variously used as ornaments, weapons or digging tools. Alive, it ripped and tore its prey with a staggering sanguinity, a bloody-minded top-predator that was a vital motor in maintaining the complexity of its ecosystem.

It is remote and miniaturized descendents of the murderous crew of Pleistocene marauders that biologists understand to be essential for the maintenance of our wildlands. We are fortunate that mountain lion, coyote and bear still roam the lowlands of the Santa Ynez Mountains. But the chaparral lacks the grizzly, the last California variant of which was shot in 1922 (in Tulare County) and it is the re-introduction of this bullocking giant of the chamise pampas (or, at least its northern cousin) that would truly energize the plant and animal community.

The grizzly would open up the chaparral up to its trails – for it is the only animal capable of bending the schlerophytic natives to its will. Its presence would spark a re-imagining of our place in the world, banish our complacency, encourage humility and ultimately move us all a little closer to an engagement with our wild selves. It is a thrilling thought: it makes my heart sing.