The Scream of a Hawk

The Acourtia (A. microcephala) which bloomed spectacularly (in mauve) this year continues to enthrall in its autumnal guise of golden tobacco leaves and clouds of white seed heads. It is featured along the local trails and on patches of broken ground, where pale green golden bush seemingly cowers in its shadow. Soap plant is reduced to a brittle skeleton and the peonies are now little cabbage-like clusters of straw-colored stalks and leaves. Vinegar weed and snowy patches of Turkey mullein remain vigorous and the amazing tarweed is still, in places, in bloom (fulfilling its purpose, perhaps, as Keats’ “late flowers for the bees”).

Milk weed has recently ventured forth. Buckwheat seed-heads continue to rust into ever darker shades. Sprays of wand buckwheat (Eriogonum elongatum) splay elegantly: their single white flowers tinged with pink at the end of each chalky node.

Deeper in the chaparral all is quiet – it awaits its spring with the first rainfall of October and November. Its flamboyance is at an end: the strident ginger seed of chamise now oxidized to a shadowy brown; the brilliant red of poison oak moderated to a dull ruby. The grey-green leaves of ceanothus, mountain mahogany and scrub oak stoic against the withering desiccation of late summer.

It is, of course, as the poet noted back in the old country, the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Our section of valley, between the Topatopa foothills and the Sulphur Mountain ridge, is at the confluence of the rivers of fog that drift in around dawn, east from the lower valley and west from Santa Paula. I watch in the early morning as they comingle due south and below me,  a soft collision of vaporous light in the still almost dark.

But enough about me: the wild in me and the wilderness out there are one, at least on occasion; sometimes, I am my terrain. We are twinned. Marx was explicit on the matter “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive”. More recently, Wendell Berry examines these connections in Preserving Wilderness, an essay from his collection, Home Economics, 1987:

“We breathe and our hearts beat and we survive as a species because we are wild. To be divided against nature, against wilderness, then, is a human disaster because it is to be divided against ourselves”.

Harmony, he suggests, can only be achieved when there is a dialog between culture and nature and this has to be achieved locally. In a viable accommodation between us (the made, or nurtured) and our implacable environment (our biological context, or nature) is the planet’s salvation. He writes,

“We cannot intend our good without intending the good of our place – which means ultimately the good of the world”.

A product of parents who privileged a white collar over blue (my father was, for most of his adult life, an insurance clerk, my mother a typist) and an education that after primary (or grade) school - where village nature-walks were a key feature of the curriculum - was focused on classroom work, I am not by proclivity or training an outdoorsman.

Despite the protestations of Robert Macfarlane, England remains a place remarkably lacking in wilderness (The Wild Places, 2007). Deforested, initially by the Romans, the countryside has been groomed - grazed, tilled and hedged - for at least a thousand years. Ecosystems have been constructed that serve human culture rather than, in Mowat’s phrase, the call of the wild.

Growing up in darkest Surrey, there was an easy engagement with this manicured nature: hedgerows were teeming with birds, mammals, trees and shrubs that over time had adapted to an environment that despite specifically serving the needs of landowners also enriched the lives of all who encountered them; fields glistened with freshly turned soil or glowed in the pale sunshine with ripened wheat while ancient oaks, yews and chestnuts stood sentinel in churchyards, village greens and gardens. The domestication of the English landscape is its most striking characteristic. It is telling that Macfarlane finds most of his ‘Wild Places’ not in England but in what we used to call the Celtic fringe, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

In our neck of the woods, ‘commons’ remained - scrub ground left after the enclosure movement aggregated all the worthwhile agricultural land - but you could walk across these bracken and gorse lands and arrive at a country ‘B’ road in, at most, an hour: along this metaled hedge-rowed canyon there would shortly appear cottages, a pub and a few shops signifying a gentle transition to the fine web of village, market town and city that lays across the country and establishes the dominance, in this tiny island, of human culture. Wilderness skills were irrelevant. The back yard could be tamed with a push-mower, a pair of clippers, fork and spade; woods and coppices traversed along ancient bridle paths; commons walked over on well-worn tracks; rivers and streams followed along their tidy banks of willow and wild flowers.

Here, in America we are, mostly metaphorically, but at the wildland urban interface, often literally, still engaged with the frontier – the stain of uncontrolled nature, the wilderness that threatens to engulf us. Here, there are intrepid cadres of outdoorsmen and women ready to broach the wild, backpacked and provisioned ready to encounter both themselves and the other, their primal twin.

I am not one of that tribe. I lurk at the fringes.

My friend Will has just embarked on a solo two week high altitude circuit of the eastern Sierras. He will be in his element, communing, as they say, with nature - living out of a well-equipped, advanced technology backpack that is the product of a world entirely antithetical to the experience he seeks. My son Will, took a similar trip a few years back despite a notable lack of encouragement or example from his then very urban parents.

Having made the move to Ojai we are now wilderness adjacent but being close to State Highway 150 we remain linked to the vast network of freeways and surface streets that vein Southern California and thus we continue to be in the great circulatory system of the Empire, still swimming instinctively in the plasma of late capitalism.

Likewise, Thoreau’s cabin was not in wilderness but at the edge of town, about two miles from his family home. Walden Pond lay in a wood – scarcely a wilderness - comfortably within walking distance of Concord and within earshot of the then new Fitchburg railway. Thus he immersed himself, not in wilderness, but in the urban wildland. The railroad was a symbol of modernity (and the antithesis to any notion of a classical wilderness) which served as his link to a world of trade and finance, of industrial capitalism, that he mostly disparaged. As he notes,

“The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am. I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth……”

The line ran then and now between Fitchburg, north and west of Boston via Concord to North Station in the City: it was a visible symbol of Thoreau’s enmeshment in the skein of village, town and city that characterized southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts - and in this regard, at least, made its regional name of New England entirely appropriate.

Thoreau writes,” I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me”. Oh that I could share in his equanimity as I hear, of a weekend, the barbaric snorting of Harley Davidsons as they snake up and down the 150 below us in the valley where, in the early morning, the fog swirls in confluence.

I hate Harley Davidsons. They serve not as transport but as crude affectations - machismo appendages that befoul the air and viscerally curdle my soul. I hate the Neanderthals that ride them. I hate the regalia which symbolizes their crippled and contradictory world view: the outlaw faithfully making payments on his (or her) heinous machine while conflating his or her right to terrorize fellow road-users, and others in ear-shot, with the genuine freedoms of the Republic. If not quite "the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible" (as Wilde spoke of the fox-hunting fraternity) they are most certainly the emasculated in vain pursuit of their virility.

That said (and yes, I feel better for it), they represent a sonic connection to an urban world in the same way that the locomotive served Thoreau. While he, patently the better man, sublimates the whistle of said iron horse as “the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard” and likened the rattle of railroad cars to “the beat of a partridge” I cannot get past my blind hatred. Not usually lost for metaphor or simile, I am stuck in some primitive non-verbal place where my lizard brain is firing synapses at will and blanketing my higher thought processes with hot-lead.

But here, in Upper Ojai, despite the occasional aural assault, nestled beneath the Toptopas, "I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth" - a writer setting the planet to rights: for it is here, on the margins, in a liminal space that is, as Nietzsche said of Turin, "the first place where I am possible...."