The Great Wet Hope

Perhaps I’ve grown soft. It’s been a while since I have clambered through the more or less virgin chaparral on the east hill that rises up from our seasonal stream bed – which latter defines the edge of the known world in that particular direction. I mean, it’s all very well to admire the ceanothus blooms as they spread like a spring snow over the slope, or watch as creamy chamise blossoms turn the rheumy color of a ripe stilton, but to get down at ground level and crawl up the slope demonstrates just how little I can know from my accustomed, imperious position above it all at the kitchen window.

Make no mistake: my crawling is not affectation. It is quite simply the only way to make it through the tangled branches of mountain mahogany, ceanothus, laurel sumac and poison oak - still all entwined with wild cucumber vines. I found a narrow stream bed that headed directly up-slope and seemed to offer the best route but veering off of it I found a steep clearing to the south and was able to traverse across the slope and found myself just above my goal: an old wolf oak that had seemingly perished over the winter after two years of extreme drought conditions. Looking to the west I could see that the sun had set and the house, which I now looked down upon from this unaccustomed perspective, had a deep bronze cast, the windows bleak voids in the fading light.

Soft? certainly winded and fearful of getting back down without falling through too much P.O. But first, I needed to know whether there were signs of life on the oak whose canopy was a uniform pall of dead leaves. This is an old multi-trunker that has survived its share of fires, and there in its crotch I saw a sprig of green – new growth, and a branch, low down, wrapped in cucumber vine, that was sprouting spring leaves….then, another which also sported new foliage. Satisfied that there was yet life in the old thing, (and, I saw, a sturdy sapling was growing nearby) I rappelled down the slope grabbing any old tree limb that fell to hand and eventually slid down into the dry stream bed below the house.

There’s irony in my privileging Quercus agrifolia over the lowly scrub oak, which is the true denizen of the elfin forest. W.S Head, author of an early chaparral appreciation (1972), classifies the scrub oak as a shrub and of course, Richard Halsey would like to rename our local forests as Shrublands, (Land of Very Few Uses). The stately coast live oak really has no place in chaparral, its home is in oak meadowlands, woodlands like those across the valley, which face north and are sequestered in shade and damp, or at creek’s edge in a riparian habitat. Yon drought stricken specimen had been succored by a chaparral stream bed that has now failed to flow for two years in a row. It stands, moribund, despite the new growth, with its fate dependent on the extent of next winter’s rain.

A few weeks on, and now the chamise blossoms have turned a ginger-brown and are massed as thick veins of copper marbling the chaparral and, at the margins, the pink and white buckwheat blossoms are curdled with rust; in the meantime, I spent five days on a ranch in Wyoming where the heavy winter snows of the cool-phase Pacific Decadal Oscillation (Another.....Beautiful Day) are newly melted and swelling the tumbling creeks that engorge the North Platte River as it winds through southern Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Mountains. Here, just east of the Rocky Mountains there lies verdant high-prairie - the lush antithesis of our desiccated drought-lands.

Our turn will come.

The Guardian breathlessly reported, early in June,

“The global El Niño weather phenomenon, whose impacts cause global famines, floods – and even wars – now has a 90% chance of striking this year, according to the latest forecast… El Niño begins as a giant pool of warm water swelling in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, that sets off a chain reaction of weather events around the world – some devastating and some beneficial.

India is expected to be the first to suffer, with weaker monsoon rains undermining the nation’s fragile food supply, followed by further scorching droughts in Australia and collapsing fisheries off South America. But some regions could benefit, in particular the US, where El Niño is seen as ‘The Great Wet Hope’ whose rains could break the searing drought in the west.”

In Wyoming, in early spring, rivers were running at twice their historic average rate. Only the ravages of the bark beetle cloud this land that flows with milk, honey…..and beef. The lodge pole pines, spruce-fir and aspens, that must have once entirely covered the high ground of the Medicine Bow Mountains have now shrunk to cover less than a quarter of the land and the remaining forests are patch-worked with dying timber: mountain trails are littered with fallen trees and well nigh impassable. It is reported that beetle infestations are on the decline – but this is only because the number of host trees suitable for attack is steadily decreasing every year.

Drought is endemic to Southern California and our forest, the chaparral, is adapted to it and remains healthy. What’s left of the steelhead trout population is hunkered down in perennial pools alongside dry river beds. Some streams still run and wildlife it seems, from my casual observation, is surviving just fine. Foxes have moved into the niche vacated by the parvo-struck coyotes, an occasional bobcat is sighted and just down the road there was another mountain lion sighting. Controversy rages in the pages of The Ojai Valley News as to whether a horse on Fino Ranch, a little west of us in Upper Ojai, was killed by a big cat. Owner says yes, his vet is doubtful. Deer continue to browse contentedly, if with a watchful eye.

 The great wailing and breast-beating over our perceived lack of water is an entirely anthropogenic phenomenon. Exotic trees, agriculture and high population densities (with assumed entitlement to grassy swards and leisurely showers) as well as industrial processing are all uses exposed as inappropriate during these cyclical droughts. It seems, however, as though the proponents of the above will now be vindicated for the next little while by the appearance of the baby Jesus wrapped in a swaddling of storm clouds.

Our shrublands, these lands of very few uses, bar their utility to the Oil industry, their use as exotic background in Hollywood movies, as transportation corridors, military proving grounds and, at their wildland urban interfaces, as residential real-estate have survived the global deforestation pandemic: they produce no commercially viable timber and, once cleared, uncertain rainfall diminishes the land’s value for grazing.

Mostly un-loved, mostly un-seen (except as anodyne background to the tectonic excrescences of contemporary southern Californian culture), sometimes burning, mostly dry, always richly pungent, these lands are, above all, intensely alive, a profound efflorescence of the world soul and supremely adapted for survival.

 But a wet winter wouldn’t hurt…….