I woke to the white-noise of a city awakening. It is 4 a.m. in Venice and I feel a mild anxiety slowly filling my consciousness tracking parallel to an awareness that I am not in Ojai anymore…..
It’s salutary to spend time in Los Angeles. How else to confirm the joys of living elsewhere? Yet I carry the stamp of an urban-dweller wherever I rest my head: thus it is entirely apt that this blog is titled Urban Wildland.
I am an outlander, an outlier, an outsider. More urban than wild. But I am at home with myself and at home in the chaparral, that entirely useless, but infinitely valuable eco-system that has never nurtured people – where humankind is intrinsically alien. (The Chumash were careful to situate their villages in areas adjacent to a creek and riparian shade trees or in oak-meadowland). Grizzlies, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, grey foxes, and their animal prey were the mammalian inheritors of this Pleistocene eco-system and all but the grizzly still dominate its dense thickets. In its cleared patches people now farm, build country estates and horse ranches or, mostly hidden from sight, extract oil. Some, like me, live in isolated houses in the scrub-land with cherished access to the city (via Santa Paula to the 126 with a choice of linking up with the PCH, the 101 or the 5) and relish the frisson of the urban wildland - where our expensively acquired liberal educations allow us to parse the relationship between town and country while avoiding commitment to either sensibility. Mostly, we look at the chaparral as an ancient scenic backdrop to our twenty-first century lives.
My parents were both Londoners evacuated from the city early in WWII and ended up spending the rest of their days in rural Surrey. I was born a few years after they made this move, living in the small villages of Eashing, Witley, Churt, Frensham, Lower Bourne, and then, at age six, moving to a new Council house on a small Estate (or Project, as such congeries of Public Housing are known in the U.S.) in Milford, a village that suffers the indignity of having a Victorian era Gothic revival church as its centerpiece - still considered, in the 1950's, an example of brash modernity compared to churches in surrounding villages that typically date back to Norman or Saxon times.
My parents were neither locals nor did they maintain cultural and economic roots in London, as did those families whose bread winner traveled daily on the British Rail Southern Region line to Waterloo Station. My father briefly commuted to his insurance job in the City from Churt, but quickly tired of this routine and resolved to work locally. By the time we had arrived in Milford, to live in public housing, we had forfeited any pretensions to belonging to the middle class and settled into our lives of alienation, physically within but socially firmly outside of the stock-broker belt and never likely to be considered country folk, certainly not a part of the local gentry nor, with my father employed as a small time insurance agent, ever likely to ascend to the professional classes.
Compounding my estrangement from any comfortable niche within the English class system was the fact that both my parents, but particularly my father, had upper- middle class accents of which my dad was very protective and concerned that his children inherit. After the age of nine I was banned from playing with the local kids for fear that I might pick up a Surrey accent.
A couple of years after leaving High School, in 1967, the inconsistencies in what might be called my class affect (I was the embodiment of false consciousness) were such that leaving England seemed the only reasonable course.
In the spring of 1933, a similarly tumultuous time, and perhaps for some of the same reasons, Patrick Leigh Fermor, at eighteen, left to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. He was an assiduous diarist and eventually turned the material from this epic stroll through Europe between the wars into two books that made his reputation as a writer; a third volume was published posthumously. Although he went on to live an extraordinarily rich life, it was the memories of his walk across a continent that fuelled his literary production into his old age; they remained the well spring of his creative life.
Fermor, who was thrown out of every school he ever attended and never went to a university, acquired great learning at an early age from an adoring mother who was a fashionable haute bohème in London and a famous geologist father resident in India, who introduced young eight year old Paddy to mountain climbing in the Swiss Alps; together they provided enough contacts in Europe's fading aristocracy to assure comfortable lodgings when the boy was not sleeping rough in some remote field or abandoned shepherd’s hut. He also had a weekly stipend of one pound that kept him in food and drink while he was 'On the Road'.
My journey away from England began by hitch-hiking to Dover and boarding a cross channel ferry to Ostend in Belgium. It was the first time I had left Britain. My previous hitch-hiking experience was mostly limited to Gloucestershire where I had briefly attended the Art College in Cheltenham. It was April and I had a kapok filled sleeping bag. As I recall, I slept rough the first night and then hitched to Paris, then on down the RN-9 to the French Riviera. My first night in a bed was somewhere in Provence - courtesy of a couple who were on their way to their country house. The next morning I was taken to the appropriate route by the husband in his gull-wing Mercedes. Fermor would have moved in for a week and made life-long friends – my almost complete lack of French, despite studying for five years, limited my entertainment value after the first flush of vagabondish appeal. I was, however, given the address of their son in Nice, who was about my age, and I looked him up upon arrival. A deeply entitled young man, he had little time to waste on a provincial lad from England intent on the romance of travel and totally incapable of sampling the wealthy youth culture of the Riviera. I hitched through the string of glamorous resort towns and headed for Venice, Italy.
Emblematic of a trip that wandered across Asia and then ran out of roads in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), I saw the sinking city only through the haze of Northern Italy’s industrial smog: an early success in avoiding the culturally sanctioned sights, lightly sacrificed for the greater thrill of journeying onward and Eastward.
Now, I find joy in looking north through the foothills to the Topatopas, knowing that onward is a wildland that stretches to Bakersfield and beyond. It is here, I imagine, that resides the primordial soul of California, nurtured long before people journeyed down the kelp road (in the familiar marine environment that holds constant all the way from the Aleutians), forged in the maelstrom of colliding tectonic plates, pullulating coast lines, disappearing inland seas and finally, grinding mountains of moving ice which, in a warming world, puddled into great rivers, aquifers and lakes.
In my rear view mirror I see the vast conurbation of the Southland, from the teeming tenements of Tijuana to the broad coastal plain of Los Angeles, bounded by the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Gabriels, where lives a virulent urban culture that leaks through the canyons and passes, floods the San Fernando valley and is finally sated somewhere just north of Oxnard and the City of Ventura - all woven together with the sinews of a profoundly twentieth century transportation system that found its apotheosis in the freeway.
Somewhere between these hulking, mythic realities lies the urban wildland. It is in this precarious interstice that I have found my place.