The Three Sages

I arrived at Easter Dinner, kindly hosted by good friends Hans and Annika, whose house at the top of Signal commands a majestic view of the valley, with a bunch of salvia leucophylla, a bottle of Prosecco and notes for a short disquisition on resurrection (this last specifically requested by our hostess).

At some point in the proceedings, after a couple of glasses of Prosecco, I pulled out said notes and began, “It is your collective misfortune that I have just read the recent history of Jesus by Reza Aslan, called Zealot”. None amongst the guests, I quickly ascertained, had read the book: reassured, I went on, “Having received today’s assignment I jotted down my understanding of the work in terms that were unavailable to Aslan, as an academic historian, but may, in my vernacular, have a greater contemporary resonance”.  I began declaiming my bullet points - what I called the nuts and bolts of the Jesus story with,

“Jesus was the leader of a band of illiterate red-necks who formed an ultra-nationalistic Jewish sect dedicated to the overthrow of the Roman Empire in Judea…….”

I soldiered on through another nine scalding notes….but although the audience remained politely attentive I was reminded of the slightly stupefied glaze that used to come over the faces of pupils in my tenth grade history classes and I was happy, at the end, to switch gears and suggest that my original intention had been to talk about the resurrection of the field of moribund black sage that sits to the west of our house, whose rejuvenation was effected by the heavy rains of late February and early March.

Had I known, ahead of time, of the bemused reaction that my first offering, the sage bouquet, would elicit I might have stuck with that initial intention. Few, even amongst the Ojai residents in attendance, seemed to understand that purple sage (named for its flower color) is a foundational plant of soft chaparral and as such is everywhere at the fringes of the wildland – just over their back yard or, in my case, very much in my front yard. At this time of the year it is a stunning cut flower, although it sheds its purple florets quite quickly - in this instance into the trays of devilled eggs that the blooms overhung once placed in a glass vase by Annika, in the center of the kitchen island. The multitude, I might have reasoned, was in greater need of enlightenment vis a vis soft chaparral than a slightly revisionist rendition of the Easter story. Either way, I was going to scratch my itch to teach!

These flowers were no exotic offering: they were merely a showy exemplar of our prodigiously rich native flora. Here was an opportunity to expound upon our three sages, their names, characteristics and favored environments. In the interests of remaining a tolerably entertaining guest, it is fortunate, perhaps, that my enthusiasm for the chaparral was, in the end, tempered with a little bible study. But here, on my blog, with its clearly stated chaparral mandate, I can let rip!

The first thing to know is that locally, there is black, white and purple sage; and maybe that is enough.

I have just begun reading Peter Matthiessen’s The Birds of Heaven (2001) in which he recounts his journeys to the ends of the world searching for the fifteen remaining species of crane. It occurs to me that we, who live in Ojai, should all take a journey in search of our three sage varieties. For some it will involve nothing more than a stroll around the garden, for others a hike into the canyons. Purple sage is in my line of sight as I write this – out of the kitchen window, where it attracts moths, hummingbirds and monarch butterflies. Our west meadow is mostly black sage with a little purple running through it, while white sage grows reliably at White Sage Rock overlooking Bear Creek which flows (even in dry years) along our western property line.

A couple of weeks ago I invited a few friends along for what I advertised as a wild flower ramble up Bear Canyon . The event was cancelled, but on a recent evening I chose to go on the walk to see what we had all missed and to gauge the difficulty of seeing the three sages along a single track canyon trail.

Now this trail, which effectively starts at the Greenberg Ranch at the top of Koenigstein, does not offer the rich cultural stew and socio-political drama of navigating the Black Dragon River in the Manchurian borderlands between China and Russia, up which Matthiessen voyages in search of his cranes, but it does offer a variety of conditions as it leaves the avocado ranches behind and heads towards the lower scree slopes of the Topatopa mountains.

The Greenbergs have lived on Koenigstein longer than any other residents, moving here in the 1960’s after having farmed for many years along Tree Ranch Road, just west of the Summit. Natalie Greenberg no longer lives in the house she and her husband built, but her daughter Emily stays there intermittently; their avocado orchards, meanwhile, are professionally managed.

The first half mile or so of the trail runs over their property and a sign warns of loose stock although there have been no cattle on the property for the five years that I have walked it. The route begins alongside a pomegranate hedge which borders their northern-most orchard. On the other side of the dirt road is scrub land where lie piles of concrete debris from the demolition of stone-faced gate pylons that used to adorn a nearby property - until the County determined that this baronial gesture had been made on their road easement.

A little further along the track, on the left, a steep drive runs down to Leo Lockwood’s avocado ranch that straddles Bear Creek. For many years the Whitman’s, our neighbors, who arrived in the 1970’s, battled Leo over his practice of diverting water from the creek for irrigation and otherwise altering the natural flow. Meanwhile the Whitmans are not entirely blameless in this regard having used the creek to fill a vast swimming pool for many years; but the Greenbergs are the most egregious offenders and even in this very dry season their ranch managers have rigged up 6” pipes to carry what little water flows in the creek to a giant 35,000 gallon holding tank complete with an overflow pond above their orchards. While the trail continues on their property, long-failed irrigation pipes litter the verge as the track heads for its crossings of the creek.

Before the first crossing there is a eucalyptus grove where abandoned trucks and two dilapidated travel trailers or caravans, tarps draped over their roofs, are casually parked. Then a western facing slope appears, overlooking the upper valley, covered in black sage (so called for the inky hue of its dried seed heads). The field of mint green leaves seems almost irridescent in the westering sunlight belying the plant's somber name. On the bank along the up-slope side of the trail there are now occasional purple sages – not yet in bloom (at this higher elevation than my front yard) but easily identifiable by their white/grey leaves.

Already I am seeing bear scat – this path evidently serves as their route to the avocadoes. On the approach to the second crossing, ancient fire-scarred oaks crowd the trail while on the eastern side, a rock face presses in on the canyon: here, at this dry dip in the road, are the de facto headwaters of the Greenberg’s illegal irrigation system. A little way to the east, as the creek bed tumbles to the foot of the cliffs, there is a puddle of water welling from the ground into which a pipe and filter have been artfully placed – this, the latest iteration in a perhaps fifty year tradition of installed, failed and then replaced pipes whose archeological evidence is enshrined in steel and plastic tubular debris.

Climbing beyond the ford one enters the narrow defile that parallels the now unseen creek. Deeper in shade, damper and less traveled, the track is over hung with bay, big leaf maple and oak. The under storey features golden current, poison oak and scrub oak. As the trail approaches the scree slopes below the Topatopas (sprinkled with yuccas and a lone group of relict big cone Douglas firs) the trees become sparse and the ground cover is dominated by white sage, (named for its whitish leaves) and yerba santa, its leathery, serrated foliage a pale green and which, at this elevation, is just beginning to display its clusters of blue flowers. Along the verges, soap plant is shooting its flower stalks skyward from a base of crumpled lily leaves. Sometimes, prickly phlox injects a bubble-gum pink into the patchwork of colors underfoot.

The trail ends abruptly when it rejoins the creek now climbing steeply towards the foot of the spalled mountain face. Clambering down the bank, I then make my way back along the creek bed, freshly scoured by the  deluge early in March, but with no water now in sight. Here mule fat (baccharis salicifolia), mugwort, California blackberry, and poison oak predominate until, as the creek approaches the ford, the dense shade gives bracken fern shelter.

Gathering these experiences together, I have re-written the final bullet point of my Easter Story so that Sage, Christ and Spring are now fully conflated:

"The rejuvenation of the sage on the two acre meadow west of our house, after its near-death experience during this drought winter, and the passion and resurrection of Christ have many parallels, not least in their relationship to the celebration of Spring - for this is the season when the natural world may offer a window into the divine - its green curtain drawn back and here, in the chaparral, the mysteries of the three sages revealed."