In Brooklyn last weekend, Prospect Park was limned in monochrome only occasionally leavened by a snow plow's colorful livery or a red, yellow, or blue jacket of a runner who had not gotten the memo: black cold weather running gear best complements the snowy wastes of the park. It was a few degrees above freezing and a plow's blade had cleared a dark band of wet asphalt between rippled piles of slush. Across the white meadows and steely grey lakes stood a black filigree of trees that plumed towards a leaden sky. The previous day, half a foot of snow had fallen transforming the park into this visual slurry of white ash and charcoal.
Returning to California, the Jet Blue Airbus 321 takes off and then traces a wide arc out into the Atlantic offering its passengers aerial visions of the snow fringed continent, black and white cornrows of Long Island's Levitt towns, and then the obsidian daggers of industrial jetties carrying oil pipe into the wintry ocean; then, as I watch (now on the seat-back screen's map channel) the blue silhouette that serves as the plane's pixeled icon turn, in the blink of an eye, towards a crude cartographic representation of the white heart of a mostly frozen land, I plunge again into the dense, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, deeply sectarian, tribally costumed and variously be-hatted world of Patrick Leigh Fermor's magisterial travelogue, The Broken Road (2013).
As a youth, the author walked the length and breadth of pre-WWII Bulgaria, and remembered his journey, with startling clarity, in his old age. I was driven, from Park Slope (and around Grand Army Plaza) then along Eastern Parkway towards Jet Blue's revivification of Saarinen’s spread-winged terminal almost entirely oblivious of the social, ethnic, economic, religious, national, and political enclaves through which I was passing. I glimpsed (and conjectured) along the eight-lane, bifurcated street (and heaven knows, over the continental United States) that there is substantial evidence of our ethnic heterogeneity: yet Levi Strauss' pronouncement in Triste Tropiques (1956) that we are headed for a global mono-culture remains prescient.
On many of Brooklyn's streets, terra-cotta, common brick, yellow brick, brick clinkers, pale rough-cast stone, granite and brownstone alternatively wrap ossified cavities (often encased in dark woods) that once hosted lively communities of worshipers. This borough is famously replete with churches, most dating back to the former city's days as the most, or second most populous in the country. Now, these varied ecclesiastical edifices remain as hulks, massively irrelevant carcasses in a world gone secular - where Mammon has established his patriarchal sway, attended by nymphs proffering votives of enabling technology.
Barclays Center - a rusting, Corten-clad Leviathan seemingly hauled up from the Hudson River on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush - is a twenty first century corporatized multi-use venue. Here, the many arrive to worship their sports stars and, this spring, for instance, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, The Who, Stevie Wonder, and other aging acts still, apparently, of appeal to what, in another borough, is known as the bridge and tunnel crowd; here, they are enraptured in a place which once was at the heart of multi-ethnic low and middle income neighborhood. Sometimes known locally as the 'Slug', this facility represents the creeping Manhattanization of Brooklyn, a dilution of ethnic, economic and. cultural diversity before the leveling impact of a global corporate mono-culture. On some nights, streets that once may have seen a multiplicity of headgear are swamped by a sea of black, Chinese made Brooklyn Nets snapback hats - a sign of the wearer's allegiance to a company of tall, ball-bouncing mercenaries: but I suppose that there is also, in that flotilla of brimmed cloche, some of the same exoticism of which Fermor takes note in a Turkish graveyard where stone pillars marked the graves. He writes,
“The lower and older ones, chipped, split, tilted askew and leaning at all angles, were crowned with extravagant carved headgear….They expanded like giant pumpkins and vegetable marrows, intricately pleated round a cone, and sometimes a helmet’s point pricked through the bulbous folds; others were coil upon stone coil of twisted linen; yet others, jutting fluted cylinders adorned with aigrettes. What pashas and agas and beys, what swaggering bimbashis, what miralais with mandarin whiskers, could have worn these portentous headpieces?”
The avowed modernist Ataturk abolished the fez and turban (of which the above lithic draperies are all examples) in 1920. The elaboration within, and multiplicity of, social worlds is a defense against cultural entropy – the process where taste devolves towards what used to be called mass culture.
Complexity empowers the human world. Monoculture destroys vitality and facilitates entropic decay. Mark Fisher points out that “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics” Capitalist Realism (2008).
At the same time, the natural world is increasingly homogenized by the growth of monoculture agriculture, destruction of habitat, the spread of invasive species and by global warming. The bright green weeds of the world are by their very nature, dominator species – bent on global hegemony over the vast variety of the plant kingdom.
Once upon a time, there was a world of plenty and peace. Over this beneficent tranquility ruled the Great Goddess. But it was but a small step to move from Goddess culture to what Riane Eisler calls an 'androcratic' social organization under a patriarchal God where domination of the natural world, women and the physically weak is condoned: where might makes right and where rigid hierarchies of power prevail. We are the heirs to such a world.
Complex communities of varied ethnicity, taste and culture have long been under threat from the dominator ideology of neoliberal capitalism. A desacralized Nature is threatened externally by the plundering of its economic resources and within it, by opportunistic flora and fauna, abetted by deliberate and accidental, humanly engineered migrations that further degrade native ecosystems of their complexity and stability.
Long before the godhead was anthropomorphized, human societies lived in worlds of enchantment where there was a recognition that the infinite energy of the universe existed in all things. Then, the human task was to propitiate all that they touched in supporting their livelihoods and worship all that surrounded them. Then, men and women were equipped with egos that remained subservient to the world soul, and humankind's chthonic unconscious acted like a pervious membrane that allowed for the universe to flow in and human intention to flow out.
Drifts of owl’s head clover are set in a lush backdrop of weeds. The plant's slightly purpley red pin-cushion flower heads rise above a sea of alien grasses, clovers, and the irrepressible erodium. The trails through the chaparral that a couple of weeks ago were rock strewn dirt tracks are now grassy, virid veins that thread through the dull brown green and shadowed wild lands. It has rained again: New York's snow echoed in Ojai by half an inch of warm rain. Imported, European sourced chlorophyll is rampant: there are places that look like gimcrack evocations of the Emerald Isle.
This morning I awoke to the steady drum of rain on our metal roof. At first light I saw the Topatopa bluffs were rimed with snow that clung to ridges spread across the spalled sandstone - the dark rock banded in white. To the east, the Santa Paula ridge was lightly dusted while its conical peak was white with snow. Below, as light began to stream over the upper valley, the chaparral remained its dour, somber self; at its edges, meadows, the bright green of trails, and weedy roadside verges pulsated with a manic vigor.
For a moment, I am transfixed again by the clover, lost in its exuberance and its native beauty. I am enchanted - transported to a more complex time (paradoxically), long, long ago, when magic inhered in the world.