There are a few sprigs of Eriodictylon in what I think is called a bud vase - narrow neck bulbous body, clear glass, about ten inches high, provenance unknown, sitting on the kitchen counter. Because of the narrow neck and the sprigs' short stalks they have required a little top up of water the last two mornings; because they are right by the sink where I fill the kettle for my tea, they are the first thing I focus on in the morning. I collected the pale blue blossoming Yerba Santa, Eriodictylon crassifoium, (sometimes called Indian chewing gum) on two successive runs this week: first one flower stuffed in the pocket of my running shorts snatched from a plant somewhere up in La Broche Canyon, where it grows alongside a track from which there are, on a clear day, sweeping views of the Oxnard Plain and beyond to Point Mugu and the ocean; then yesterday, a further two sprigs from a stand of the leathery leafed plant growing in the dry, braided creek beds that serve as overflows for Sisar creek (not required for the past four years and thus fully vegetated).
This little display of a chaparral wild flower gives me sufficient pleasure to fully recompense for any fleeting guilt I might have about snatching these blooms from their parent plants quietly minding their own business in the largely untracked hinterlands of the Topatopa foothills. So, it comes down to this: it's all about me; the chaparral a verdant tableaux from which I may pluck at my pleasure whatever floral bauble (so to speak) strikes my fancy, imprison it (them?) in the none too salubrious environs of my shorts' pocket and thereafter impale their heads on a spike (in a manner of speaking) for my morning's fleeting delectation, my conscience almost entirely untroubled by this flagrant act of anthropocentrism. Why then, dear reader, this barrage of rhetorical exposition?
It's Spring! I'm back blogging after the deaths of two close friends and I am, once again, reporting to you, my imagined audience, about entirely inconsequential minutiae set against sometimes portentous, sometimes mildly philosophical and sometimes, regrettably pompous considerations of our place in the cosmos (all in service, ultimately, to a consideration of my place in Upper Ojai or yours in Woop Woop). It's time to continue building the brand one twelve hundred and fifty word blog piece after another (this is number 230); building a state of mind as a prophylactic: a mildly dystopian antidote to my (our) unthinking acceptance of neo-liberal bondage. Call it urbanwildland, call it Chaparralville.
My not posting in the first three months of the year was also the result of my teaching an on-line seminar for the Viridis Graduate Institute on ecological ethics. The reading, lecture writing, subsequent recording of a forty minute talk and hosting the two hour seminar for ten successive weeks not only reduced the time I had available to devote to Urbanwildland but also, in many ways, supplanted the reason for this blog (see also above), which is to investigate the moral, spiritual, aesthetic, practical and ethical impacts of my relationship with the natural world - specifically as I experience them here, in a particular place. I return to this investigation within a slightly altered context: our house is now augmented by a newly constructed guest house - a small step towards more gracefully accommodating others in the attitude-altering environment of Chaparralville.
Much of whatever foreboding I feel (see 'portentous' above, listed as a brand ingredient), when confronted with evidence of the sixth extinction, weather disrupting climate change, rising sea levels, desertification around the globe and the agricultural, infrastructural and commercial development of the world's remaining wildernesses, is shared by the many. It functions as a leitmotif of our contemporary existence: it is woven into the low level angst that urban dwellers experience when considering the fate of the world. For me, these concerns are exacerbated by the intense pleasure I derive from a surrounding wilderness that I recognize to be representative of other wildernesses under far greater existential threat.
California chaparral has survived at least partly because it is so unassuming, the land so incapable of being harvested for commercial profit (except in the case of oil and real estate) and so indomitable in its resistance to flood, fire and drought. Nevertheless, there are many thousands of acres where it has been bent to the will of successive waves of colonial conquerors and now is under pressure from the expansionary forces of capitalism to which, as the developer of a wildland site for a residence (and now guesthouse) I am a small contributor.
And yet, as Joachim Radkau writes in his new book, The Age of Ecology, 2014, "the Eco-age may be conceived as the New Enlightenment" capable of elucidating the choices available to us and guiding us, against all odds, towards a safe haven where a reasonable and sustainable balance between humankind and the natural environment is achieved. This 'Age of Ecology' can be traced back to Alexander Von Humboldt early in the nineteenth century. Andrea Wulf's popular history, beguilingly titled The Invention of Nature, 2015, weaves the story of the great German polymath, (the Aristotle of his age), together with those of Jefferson, Darwin, and Ernst Haeckel (1834- 1919) who coined the neologism 'Ecology' in 1866.
As Wulf indicates, the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century was founded on the revival of classical thought, Natural Philosophy, and Rationalism, while 'Ecology', in the nineteenth, emerged out of a primordial soup of discoveries and speculations (often sourced from expeditionary travels) by Maupertuis, Lyell, Lamarck, Darwin, Haekell, Agassiz, and, most importantly, Von Humboldt. Meanwhile, in America, as Roderick Nash demonstrates in his Wilderness and the American Mind, 1967, the initial fear and revulsion experienced by the early European settlers towards this country’s wildlands were transformed by Thoreau and John Muir into an attitude that fostered the establishment of the National Parks and the Sierra Club early in the twentieth century. An American environmental movement was then forged from the ideas of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, David Brower (Friends of the Earth) and Dave Foreman (Earth First!); the establishment of Earth Day in 1970, precipitated by a massive oil spill off of the Santa Barbara coast, marked the beginning of a more generalized ‘green’ or ecological awareness.
I am privileged to experience my ‘green’ awareness at ground zero, grubbing in the broken margins of the chaparral, pulling out Tocolote (Centaurea militensis) with my trusty Pulaski. Tocolote is a close relative to the notorious Russian Star Thistle (C. stolstitialis) and marginally less toxic. It has colonized swathes of grass (mostly non-natives) along our driveway that border the dark, green lines of chaparral beyond, where this stable, 30,000 year old plant community continues to resist invasive species – until you mess with it. Having built at the Wildland Urban Interface I am now engaged in trying to mend its native landscape.
In this Age of Ecology, the fragility of our diminishing wildlands demands that they experience a minimum of disturbance - that we establish a kind of cordon sanitaire around them. Or better yet, perhaps, as Roderick Frazier Nash suggests in an epilogue to the fifth edition of his seminal book, that we create human clustering on a global scale, where giant megalopoli, perhaps one hundred miles in diameter, contain (and entrap) all human activity. These points of light would then exist in the dark space of the wildlerness which would exist untrammeled, unexploited, untraveled and forever self-willed. He calls it Island Civilization.
My residential life is lived within the confines of our built structures, a gravel terrace and a pool. Beyond, slowly healing from the disturbance of their creation, and reverting, slowly, to a reasonably pristine state, are the surrounding wildlands. I call it Chaparralville.