“Attachments to places may be nothing less than profound”, Keith H. Basso writes in Wisdom Sits in Places, his short monograph on landscape and language among the Western Apache, University of New Mexico Press, 1996. But, as he also notes, our attachment to places remains enigmatic.

I arrived to live in Ojai with my family almost six years ago. We lived in town, on Blanche Street, while our house in Upper Ojai was being built. In May of 2009, we moved into our new residence which was quite deliberately set at the wildland urban interface – the place we were about to call home. A year later I began this blog at least partly because I wanted to both record and nurture my attachment to this particular ecotone: as I had hoped, it has become a way to construct my surroundings, to create bonds to a particular locality and to engage in the process of place-making.

But as followers of this blog will know, I have pursued a parallel bonding experience directly with the land itself – primarily in attempting the restoration of the disturbed areas of our site. My guide in this endeavor has been our neighbor Margot Griswold, a professional landscape restoration ecologist. Under her tutelage, I remain, in keeping with my English heritage, an enthusiastic amateur. We are both engaged in weeding out non-natives on our respective sites and share notes on our battles with mustard, tocalote (Centaurea melitensis) and the noxious star-thistle. I think we are both resigned to the continued existence of erodium (now, after a few warm weeks, fried to a crisp and crunchy underfoot!) and each give a pass to many of the introduced grasses.

At the same time I have tried to locate our property - within the axis that runs between Santa Paula and Ojai; within Ojai’s economic cultural and spiritual sphere of influence and both to the wilderness at its back (Los Padres National Forest) and the Pacific coast to the west. Temporally, I have set the moment of the area’s first human settlement as a baseline in which to situate the land, and have attempted, in these posts, to establish a resonance with its earlier, native inhabitants and a dissonance with their cruel European conquerors (but with whom I accept a modicum of complicity).

Occasionally, there have been notes from abroad, but always now with a firm sense of home, of an anchoring to our house, its site and surrounding landscapes. Edith Wharton, a writer of breathtaking psychological acuity, writes in her 1905 tear-jerker, the ironically titled House Of Mirth, of her heroine’s lack of this geographical grounding, feeling (at the moment of her final peril) “the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years”; and, “the feeling of being rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor tentacles of self could cling….”; of having

“grown up without any one spot on earth being dearer to her than another: there was no center of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others…”.

Wharton piles on in this vein for another paragraph or two, eerily echoing a sense of the moral and spiritual sustenance that connects the Western Apache to their homelands, me to the Topatopa foothills, and all of those favored portions of humanity who have a notion of domestic locus (of home), but that is tragically absent from her heroine’s background.

Place-making is best practiced in one’s youth, but it is a skill, perhaps, that can also remain with us into our dotage. It is, after all, an activity that is embedded in time. Places do not represent unchanging realities. Indeed, the act of paying special attention to a “spot on earth” dearer than others reveals that said spot is in constant flux. To coin a cliché, we never step into the same place twice. As Basso writes, “we may perceive a place afresh, but it resonates with our past knowledge of it”. Place-making involves multiple acts of remembering and imagining that inform each other: it is thus both a discursive and a recursive activity that mostly occurs, in our culture, unconsciously.

By contrast, the Western Apache go to great pains to weave their storied places into a moral universe – to establish ‘grave endearing traditions’ to which they can look for support and guidance. The names they give to these special places, which are often topographically precise, such as Line of White Rocks Extends Up and Out; Whiteness Spreads Out Descending to Water or A Red Ridge with Alder Trees, have tales of human folly, wisdom, grief or happiness (for instance) associated with them and the names become a kind of short-hand for behavioral guidance, especially for the young.

The process of establishing ‘what happened here’, of recording the minutiae of human activity within a limited geographical area, of fabricating a local history has been one of my goals in producing the almost two hundred posts (198…and counting) that make up Urban Wildland. I make no claims, however, for their general usefulness in terms of moral guidance: but given that I privilege my own experiences in telling my tales, they are effective in elaborating a convincing place-world which I  use as a touchstone of my personal psycho-geographic space, or, more prosaically, of my neighborhood and home. Others, meanwhile, may find interest in the baroque tessellations of this fabrication.

Last evening, I continued weeding the north facing slope which acts as an abutment to the portion of Koenigstein Road which was re-routed, a dozen years ago, to short-cut the hairpin meander traveled by the old County road as it skirted one of the more lively seasonal tributaries to Bear Creek. The crimp in this hairpin (the old road still sits in the landscape and is now a part of our property) is marked by Peruvian peppers emerging from the gulch on each side of the road as the stream passes beneath it in a corrugated steel culvert. The two sides of the hairpin splay southward towards the base of this road-triangle formed by the new short-cut. Within it, is a wedge of land along which the stream winds before disappearing into another culvert that passes deep beneath the new road. Block this second culvert and a wet winter would produce a fine pond. The whole construct is warped and there is a twist in the planar surface of the abutment. I know, I get awfully close to its surface as I extract star thistle, tocalote and mustard.

I have just described a place. For five years now, I have weeded that slope and progress –measured by the reduction in non-natives - is slow. But where once was a solid tangle of star-thistle the herbage is now leavened with tarweed, an occasional clump of bunch-grass and a few bushes of Baccharis pilularis (Coyote brush).

By building data about particular local areas, by establishing an experience of them in some informal way, by writing or telling stories for instance, there is a slow accretion of particularity which is at the heart of place-making. I am privileged to be surrounded by chaparral hills, streams and oak meadowlands. I have created places in them, places where time and space have fused in an idiosyncratic personal history. I have worked in these places in ways that enliven my present through their evident reverberations of the past.

Basso writes,

"….for Indians, the past lies embedded in the features of the earth – in canyons and lakes, mountains and arroyos, rocks and vacant fields – which together endow their lives with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the ways they think”.

I aspire to this condition.

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…….

Wild Thing

"It’s the question every writer faces, every morning of his or her life: Am I Malcom Gladwell today, or am I Arthur Rimbaud? Do I sit down with my pumpkin latte and start Googling, or do I fire a couple of shots into the ceiling and then stick my head into a bucket of absinthe?”

This is James Parker’s opening shot (so to speak) in a brief essay on literary bad boys (in honor of William S. Burroughs who was born one hundred years ago this year) in Bookends, The New York Times, February 23, 2014. If I define my personal choice of literary persona, faced by a blank lap-top screen (most often in the evening), along the continuum of milquetoast to bad-boy, then I clearly plump for the lily-livered end of the spectrum. The closest I have come to absinthe is its rather more civilized relative, Pernod, and my experience with fire arms ended in my adolescence with a few half-hearted shots at wood pigeons with a four-ten shotgun and several target rounds with a .303 World War II vintage bolt-action rifle. I have rarely lived my urban life on the wild side. But now, at the edge of the wildland, albeit comfortably ensconced in a modern house, I feel when I broach the keyboard, not only reverberations of the wilderness from without but also stirrings within: atavistic echoes of the primal.

This evening, retreating to the warm embrace of said modern house (which has mild pretensions, in its shape, simplicity and continuous ridged interior volume to being a barn) I brought with me, from my walk up Koenigstein, a frisson of the elemental spritzing my otherwise over-civilized and complacent brain.

A massive wall of marine layer stood on the western horizon, pierced only by the peaks of the Nordhoff range, behind which the sun slipped, its day’s work done well before its scheduled close. Quiffs of cloud scrolled slowly along the Sulphur Mountain ridge, while to the north thin whisps of fog appeared from the east, scribbling over the Topatopa bluffs. I watched the sun sink into its grey blanket while leaning against the south facing side of a riven sandstone rock, my feet against the opposing face of the cleft. From this position of repose, at a little over 2000 feet, there is a commanding view of the upper valley clear to Black Mountain. Walking back through dry grasslands and dead sage, dehydrated coyote brush and over bare earth through which even the redoubtable erodium has failed, thus far, to emerge, I was keenly aware of a change in the weather: an end, at least temporarily, of perhaps the worst Southern California drought in 200 hundred years. By the time this piece posts, we will have experienced the impact of what Wunderground describes thus: “Huge Gulf of Alaska low covering about 4.4 million square miles of the eastern Pacific will bring rain to the area today through Sunday”.

The storm duly lived up to its advance billing and dumped over seven inches of rain on Upper Ojai. The hills resounded with the rush and gurgle of streams: the chaparral came alive. Beneath each rocky fall in each seasonal stream I came across - when I ventured abroad in the lulls between storms - there were clouds of suds as though the rain had awoken the Naiads and each of them, in some sort of crazy mass psychosis, had decided to partake of a bubble bath (Nymphs and Naiads). A more prosaic explanation is that in the three long years since the last major rain, saponins from soap plant roots (Liliacaea Cholorogalum pomeridianum) had leached into the soil and were released, in a foaming frenzy, by the torrents.

The chaparral came alive, but did I? Was this an occasion when the stirrings of the primal were manifested, signaling a revival of my wild self? Was this an Arthur Rimbaud moment? Alas, dear reader, I found myself, on returning to the barn, with a deep yearning for a cup of Yorkshire Tea and a strong compunction to check, on-line, the Ventura County Watershed rainfall totals. In other words, I exhibited, not transformation, but a customary, persnickety frame-of-mind not altogether distant, I suspect, from that of the googling, pumpkin latte loving Malcolm Gladwell.

The wild weekend storm of the 2013-2014 rainfall season was also, by chance, the moment when I finished Feral, George Monbiot’s new book. It is a call to action: for planetary and personal re-wilding. Monbiot is a sometimes inspiring commentator and blogger for The Guardian although he is also, controversially, a proponent of nuclear power (like James Lovelock, the gadfly scientist who established the Gaia hypothesis), a position, post Fukushima, which I believe to be totally, irrevocably, untenable.

In Feral, he calls for the re-introduction of wolves, beavers, lynx and bison into the British countryside in order to initiate ‘trophic cascades’ by which top-predators, by culling their prey, limit the abundance at every level of the food chain and balance the entire ecosystem. The re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone has demonstrated this remarkable phenomenon; by reducing the elk population the river and streams, absent over-browsing at their banks, now support a richer plant community which in turn supports a richer variety of fish, insects, reptiles and mammals.

Monbiot is an effective popularizer but he is very late to this particular party. In Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation, Wild Earth, Fall 1998, Michael Soule and Reed Noss make a succinct case for the reintroduction of the entire set of pre-Columbian carnivores – bears, mountain lions and wolves - throughout the North American wilderness, contending that rewilding is “simply scientific realism, assuming the goal is to insure the long term integrity of the land community”.

There have been two catastrophic extirpations of native fauna on this continent. Human kind is deeply implicated in both. The first occurred over about two thousand years, starting around 12,000 years ago: the great Ice Age herds of megafauna vanished at the hands of Asian big-game hunters (the Clovis people) newly arrived in the Americas – in an egregious over-hunting of the energy resource that fueled their exploration of the continent.

As Soule and Noss point out, contemporary ecosystems remain profoundly altered by this extinction episode and beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing up to the present time, a second wave of killings precipitated the drastic decline of the continent’s mesofauna – the senseless killing of grizzlies, mountain lions, antelope, big-horn sheep and cougars. It is the loss of these keystone creatures that has led to a further biotic simplification and species loss in the American wilderness. At about the same time, another non-renewable energy source, fossil fuels, was being extracted from the earth with little concern for the environmental degradation it caused - so critical was this resource to the development of the modern world.

Now, such impacts have been exacerbated by the global triumph of corporate-driven consumerism, NAFTA, continued over-grazing, tree plantations and population growth. The wildlands are under siege. Rewilding offers a short-cut to a re-imagining of wilderness. While Monbiot bleats about the destructive impact of sheep on the uplands of Britain – territory he considers to be ‘sheepwrecked’ – Soule and Noss are equally emphatic in their belief that the American wilderness “will not recover from past and present insults and mismanagement unless its bears, cougars and wolves return”.

A few weekends ago I visited the California Oil museum in Santa Paula (A Tale of Two Cities) which was featuring a special exhibition, ‘Prehistoric California’ where the skulls of mega fauna such as the saber tooth cat, dire wolf, a prehistoric camel, a horse and ground sloth were on display. Greeting visitors, as they entered the gallery, was a life-size, life-like replica of a saber tooth cat on loan from the Page Museum (Bobcat Magic). This was one truly scary moggie (Brit-coinage for a domestic cat), a wild thing hunted to extinction for its meat, fur and saber teeth – variously used as ornaments, weapons or digging tools. Alive, it ripped and tore its prey with a staggering sanguinity, a bloody-minded top-predator that was a vital motor in maintaining the complexity of its ecosystem.

It is remote and miniaturized descendents of the murderous crew of Pleistocene marauders that biologists understand to be essential for the maintenance of our wildlands. We are fortunate that mountain lion, coyote and bear still roam the lowlands of the Santa Ynez Mountains. But the chaparral lacks the grizzly, the last California variant of which was shot in 1922 (in Tulare County) and it is the re-introduction of this bullocking giant of the chamise pampas (or, at least its northern cousin) that would truly energize the plant and animal community.

The grizzly would open up the chaparral up to its trails – for it is the only animal capable of bending the schlerophytic natives to its will. Its presence would spark a re-imagining of our place in the world, banish our complacency, encourage humility and ultimately move us all a little closer to an engagement with our wild selves. It is a thrilling thought: it makes my heart sing.

The Wild Frontier

Beyond the creek, and thus beyond our property line, I saw a glowing orange-leafed tree; a cottonwood in its autumnal glory massed against a dark wall of chaparral.....

By the eleventh century in Japan, the tradition of establishing houses within artfully created recreations of the natural world was well established in the capital, Kyoto. Distant mountain views were ‘borrowed’ to complete the illusion of living in nature while the family remained secure in a walled garden.

Already entrenched in Asia, the notion that one might look beyond one’s own domain and enjoy borrowed views came late to the aristocratic European mind, arriving on the heels of the establishment of colonies outside of Europe. The ‘new’ territories provided room for the more rambunctious and adventurous elements in society to pursue their often predatory appetites: in their erstwhile homelands views beyond the compound could then be safely parsed for aesthetic satisfaction rather than defensive intelligence.

As European artists began to explore more rural themes in their paintings, it became fashionable to value the bucolic scene beyond the stage-managed garden precinct. In England, the naturalistic style of landscape design developed early in the eighteenth century with the work of William Kent and Horace Walpole and was further developed by Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. Their work was facilitated by the use of the ha-ha, a sunken wall and ditch that provided security but allowed for vistas reaching far beyond the estate. Aspects of the bucolic scene were included in the grounds themselves – famous examples include the milking parlor at Versailles and the hermit refuge at Stowe.

In nineteenth century America, wilderness, the ‘out-there’, had a political as well as aesthetic role. Thoreau suggested that “in wilderness is the preservation of this world”. Simon Schama (Landscape and Memory, 1995)  notes that there was the sense that wildland, those frontier places beyond factory, farm and garden, “would be the antidote for the poisons of industrial society”. Politically, wilderness was conflated with the idea of frontier and by inference, freedom - whose swaggering symbol, for a brief cultural moment, was Davy Crockett - King, you will remember, of the wild frontier.

I have always believed in the experiential primacy of landscape over the built-environment, yet for much of our history it made sense to retreat behind structure - be it cave, castle or courtyard. The impulse remains. Spanning the second half of the twentieth century and the first several years of the twenty first, I was mostly immured in the walled garden typology.

Growing up in darkest Surrey, those walls may have been holly, hazel and beech hedges (or in places, wire threaded through concrete posts) but there was never any doubt that the immediate world around the Norman-roofed, steel casement windowed and red-bricked semi-detached was carefully prescribed. Our patch of green-sward, vegetable garden, fruit trees and flower beds was effectively barricaded against our neighbors' potential encroachment - as their territory was defended against our predations - although the hedges did afford a measure of porosity to pre-teens willing to suffer the sartorial and tonsorial mayhem that was the cost of passage. (It never occurred to these intrepid bipedal hedgehogs, and full disclosure, I was one such, to clamber through the more easily traversed but more exposed wire fences). Our worlds were quartered, and our horizons mostly measured by property lines - escape lay not into the wild but out the front gate and into the country lanes and 'B' roads that offered kinetic thrills on bicycle and then motor-bike.

Later, there were a few idyllic years in Sydney, Australia, when my backyard was the inland waterway Pittwater, and, on the further shore, the dense bush of Ku-Ring-Gai National Park: here was a borrowed view, an extension of a mean concrete patio, that exploded with a dark aboriginal magic which even the vacuous day sailors in the middle distance could not entirely expunge. In Los Angeles, first in Echo Park and then in Santa Monica Canyon, my gardens were again fenced, walled and hedged but six years ago I finally engineered my escape to the urban wildland of Upper Ojai.

Love of the wildlands is culturally conditioned. It is, let's face it, an intensely bourgeois predilection. In fact, it is an almost obscene luxury to find aesthetic pleasure in the natural world when, for most of human history (and pre-history) that world has represented nothing more than the source of an extremely hard-won livelihood amidst threats from ravening beasts. I blame the Transcendentalists. And John Muir. Now, we have all, metaphorically speaking, ventured beyond the walled garden: we went as soon as it was safe to do so and were ready to see the picturesque (the randomly composed) in nature’s apparently casual but inherently systematic ecosystems that drape themselves over the earth’s antic geological musculature. The Romantic notion that wilderness was a veil through which the guiding spirit of the universe might be experienced only encouraged its worship. Muir famously wrote of Yosemite that it was there that "Nature had taken pains to gather her choicest treasures to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her."

Here, in the upper valley, there are grazing lands, horse ranches, oil-lands, avocado and citrus orchards and boutique vineyards: beyond, the tangled complications of chaparral, oak meadow land, scree slopes and sandstone rock faces; a road runs through it, climbing out of the Santa Clara River basin and, a little beyond the Koenigstein turn-off, it reaches the Summit (grade-school, general store and hamburger stand).  This is the County divide where water flows east to the Santa Clara or west to the Ventura River. The road continues on a slight descent through the wide pasture lands until Black Mountain signals the beginning of the Grade, that precipitous decline down into the lower valley. There is much here on which the lover of the picturesque may dwell and almost all residences borrow a piece of the pastoral valley, back-grounded by chaparral or oak meadowland, as their view – a wild frontier fringed with grass.

Schama makes the point that Arcadia, the idyllic landscape that resides beyond the domestic realm, is of two types - wilderness or pastoral – and that these extremes appear to play out in opposition to one another across a range of landscapes, so that a lawn may be mown or left wild and unruly with clumping bunch grasses and forbs; a park formal or naturalistic. Ultimately however, he concedes that these two notions sustain each other: Thoreau, for instance championed both the wilderness and the picket-fence Arcadias of small-town New England.

Vast swathes of suburban Los Angles were laid out in the spirit of Frank Jesup Scott’s mid-nineteenth century The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds where mown-grass was intended to sweep to the street with no property fences to obstruct the suburban meadow. Lacking privacy, these undifferentiated front yards were eventually widowed, with family life confined to the back yard and the pastoral ‘views’ to the front losing their coherence once driveways were cut to conform to post WWII off-street parking ordnances.

Our front yard view includes aspects of the pastoral, and we have landscaped our property in a way that honors Frank Jessup Scott: a wild, currently drought stricken swathe of bunch grasses, drifted rocks and patches of bare dirt sweep down alongside the driveway to the street, an unruly echo of a suburban meadow.

To the rear, a similarly impoverished meadow beyond the pool quickly gives way to a chaparral fringe of toyon, elderberry, walnut, baccharis, laurel sumac and mountain mahogany which, in turn, is quickly consumed by a wilderness ultimately bounded by the distant Interstate 5 and State Highway 101. My view is cut short by the Topotopas but psychically, I have borrowed the entire Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain beyond as both an antidote to the “poisons of industrial society” and to be my wild frontier.


Cumuli were massed over the eastern horizon; spare, drought savaged chaparral stood atop the low mounding hills of the old County Honor Farm silhouetted against the brightening cloud bank - just another dawn tease on Koenigstein – for these clouds did not presage rain.

By light of day, when the full color spectrum is revealed, it is clear that the most severe drought in thirty years is having an impact on the usual stoicism of the sclerophytic natives (Sleepy Oaks). Oaks are dying, their evergreen foliage desiccating into a gingery brown, baccharis is giving up the ghost and the deerweed died months ago. Only the laurel sumac remains, in places, brightly green: elsewhere its foliage has taken on a darker, reddish-purple hue that speaks of its struggle to achieve adequate hydration despite a root system that customarily descends more than twenty feet into the earth.

For a landscape aesthete, the various drought stricken tableaux that are currently on offer have an appeal independent of their meteorological cause. But as hard-hearted as I am in my devotion to the superficial beauty of the natural world, even I occasionally weep a tear for the existential struggles of the chaparral during this testing time when all but the deepest rooted or fortuitously located are showing signs of massive stress or have simply died.

Time to call in the Rain Shaman. In most dialects of the Chumash group of languages, water was simply called O. Its beneficence was conjured by a weather doctor who communicated with the Upper World where the Sky People lived (Real Suspense). Ritualistic intercession was considered necessary to ensure the orderly continuation of the biotic world – rainfall needed to be coaxed out of the sky. The instruments of persuasion were carried in a medicine bag or more simply in a bundle. Such a collection of rain making totems is discussed in the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, Vol. 32, No. 2 (2012) by the Tulare Lake Archaeological Research Group which includes Alan Garfinkel (Shamanize or Die). Many of the items are of Chumash origin, taken east during the great diaspora spurred by the genocidal proclivities of the Franciscans running the mission system.

Now housed in the Kern Valley Museum, the collection includes several bowls, nine steatite tobacco pipes with broken bird bone stems, river-washed pebbles, geodes, crystals, obsidian flakes, charmstones, a tobacco pouch and a medicine bag fragment. The most rudimentary of magics is sympathetic conjuring – the act of mimicry producing its simulacrum: as in spraying water in the air to produce rain; puffs of tobacco smoke sent heavenward to encourage the formation of clouds or stones struck together to encourage thunder. The Chumash practiced all three. The shaman’s power, however, depended upon more than these mimetic gestures. Quartz crystals were considered to be a powerful physical embodiment of sacred, environmental energies. Their shamanic power derived from their perceived function as intermediaries between the material and the spirit realm. Jay Miller, an anthropologist who specializes in American Indian history, suggests that thought and memory are literally crystallized within their lithic structure and as such can be beamed into the ether. He also notes that crystals were seen as particularly related to water and power.

Dark river rocks were prized, perhaps, for their ability to conjure thunder clouds. Charmstones, which are shaped or pecked rocks often carried for their talismanic protection may also have been instrumental in weather control. Basic to the shaman’s ability to control the elements were songs either passed on to him or dreamed anew. Snatches of these songs survive in the community which today identifies with the moribund Chumash culture. Their efficacy has doubtless been vitiated by the profane circumstances of a people now indebted to the vicious, Neanderthal capitalism manifested by casinos – a grotesque caricature of the cosmic games of chance practiced by these people’s forbears (Bingo).

We may have the kit, but where’s the shaman? The sad reality is that the human spark that might actualize these mystical objects is now entirely missing – the artifacts no longer have power: they are the dead apparatus of an extinct culture. The dominion that once resided in crystal, stone, quartz and smoking paraphernalia now resides in technocratic, military and intelligence organizations. The Special Collection Service (SCS), a mash-up of the NSA and the CIA pursues rendition of enemies, eavesdropping, surveillance and ’black-ops’ – all activities that were once within the purview of Chumash shamans. Inevitably, the SCS also has its own weather forecasting service. I have it at one remove from a deeply embedded apparatchik within this puzzle palace that we can expect, in the local area, fifteen inches of rain over the 2013-2014 season.

The timidity of this shadowy pronouncement is stunning. In an average year Ojai usually sees around twenty inches of rain. On the dry side less than ten and in seasons such as 1997-1998 and 2004-2005, close to fifty. Any shaman worth his datura would serve up not a projection uncomfortably close to the historical average, but a resolution that he and his powerful spirit allies would deliver rainfall precisely according to the needs of his people and the land. Speaking for the oaks, I don’t think fifteen inches will do it.

When Heinrich Harrer arrived in Lhasa after his epic trek across Tibet from North Western India where he was being held in an internment camp during WWII, he found even the sophisticates of the Holy City firm in their belief that certain lamas could control the weather. It was commonly supposed that they could hold up hailstones or call down rain showers as the circumstances demanded (Seven Years in Tibet, 1953). Certain simple monks were also reputed to have skill in managing the weather, blowing on conch shells, for instance, to repel approaching storms. The thirteenth Dalai Lama maintained a court weather-maker whose special charge was to protect the God-King’s summer garden from untoward hail storms.

Here in Ojai no one, at present, is offering up their services to break the drought. Perhaps Julie Tumamait, our local professional Chumash princess (available for weddings, funerals and the blessing of land) could step up to the plate and twirl her bull-roarer (a showy piece of pan-Indian paraphernalia noticeably missing from the Kern River Museum bundle). Perhaps Camille Sears, a local stone fruit orchardist and meteorologist who grew up in Meiners Oaks, can prognosticate more accurately than the SCS, or maybe we should just check the Farmer’s Almanac, by which Margot, our neighbor and chaparral restoration expert, swears. Meanwhile, I am left scouring the land and sky for omens.

We’ve had a few.

A few early mornings ago, the shadowy old moon was cradled in the bright silver sliver of the new as it rose over the eastern ridge – this phenomenon is caused by earthshine flooding the part of the lunarscape un-illuminated by the sun and is traditionally a bad weather omen. The fact that it happens regularly as part of the lunar cycle does not entirely destroy the poetry of the attendant myth, here referenced in an 18th century Scottish ballad,

'Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
Our guid ship sails the morn.'
'O say na sae, my master dear,
For I fear a deadly storm.'
'Late, late yestre'en I saw the new moon
Wi'the old moon in his arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
That we will come to ‘arm.'

In the event, Sir Patrick Spens, the ballad’s subject, sets sail despite this celestial omen and he and his crew foundered somewhere off the Isle of Islay in the predicted gale. In Ojai, right on schedule, we are now experiencing a fearsomely desiccating Santa Ana wind storm……

In the absence of coyotes and bobcats grey foxes have taken up residence on our property. We hear them calling to one another across the open meadow below the house in the evening and early mornings… night they cry eerily. With the moon still subject to both direct and reflected sun-light, but now higher in the sky, we were preparing to walk down to the garage one recent morning when Lorrie spotted two foxes on a nearby rock. They were juveniles – we had last seen them as kits a year ago – and now bobcat-like they were both standing proud surveying the scene with their long fluffy tails draped over the rock: one looked west and the other east so they presented themselves as heraldic creatures – crossed foxes.

Crossed Foxes. Watery lunascape with silver crescent. Omens? Perhaps, but we can be reasonably sure that at some point in the next three months it will start raining and that old Chumash magic (still imprinted on the landscape?) will kick in and order will be returned to our little corner of the biosphere.


Seat Guru advises that, on the Canadair Regional Jet 200 operated by United out of Albuquerque, “Seat 14 A is in the last row of the plane and may not recline. Proximity to the bathroom may be bothersome”. On the other hand, situated aft of the wing, seat 14 A offers a ripping view of the desert landscape below on an afternoon flight to Los Angeles. There was cloud cover as we flew over the forestlands of the Zuni mountain foothills but as we approached the dead desert heart of Arizona, north of Phoenix, the skies cleared and I dreamily tracked our progress over the trackless land.

We had left fire-ringed Santa Fe (Too Late) and driven to Albuquerque – well north of the 44,000 acre Silver City blaze in the Gila Wilderness and took off, our departure delayed a mere three hours, in this little 50 seat aircraft to fly home to the western fringe of the continent where charred battle lines were being drawn northeast of Banning and north of the Morongo Indian Reservation in the Hathaway Fire. Between the mountain pine beetle ravaged forests of New Mexico and Arizona and the San Bernardino National Forest (where the Dendroctonus ponderosae thrives in elevations above 2,000 feet) there’s mostly sand, rock and cinder cones.

In his book The Wild Places, British writer Robert Macfarlane writes of Rannoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands:

 “There was too the motif of the delta: in the antlers of deer, in the branching forms of the pale green lichen that cloaked the trees and boulders, in the shape of Loch Laidon, in the crevasses and fissures in the peat, and in the forms of the few stag-headed old Scots pines.”

In the Sonoran and Mojave deserts there are deltas written in the sand. No need for metaphor - the rippled land is stamped with the once-upon-a-time ravages of flood water. Everywhere, as I looked down over the brown land from my imperious (non-reclinable) sky-chair, I saw etchings of the hydrologic cycle. The resolution of these watery scribblings became evident as we flew over the California border where the Parker dam holds back the Colorado and forms Lake Havasu.

This reservoir feeds the Colorado River aqueduct, operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern  California, which supplies water to almost all the cities in the greater Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego areas (Wickipedia). Beyond the dam, the Colorado flows south, much diminished, and is further vitiated by its irrigation of fields of lettuce, cauliflower, cotton, cantaloupe and tomatoes; it then suffers the twin indignities of the Imperial and Laguna dams. As it approaches Yuma it is but a “dull brown glint…in the rushes”, as William T. Vollman writes in his opus, Imperial, and it serves as nothing much more than the main drain of the Quechan Indian Reservation.

A little further south, in the Sonoran border town of San Luis Rio Colorado, Vollman looks askance at the offerings of a taco shop: “three bowls of salsa: blood-red with a hint of orange, carrot orange and deep green. Their liquid content derives from Colorado River water…..” The withered Colorado River then makes its way through a narrow strip of Mexico and eventually dribbles into the Gulf of California across a fetid delta that Aldo Leopold, the great naturalist (A Sand County Almanac) proclaimed, in the early 1920’s, as “a land of milk and honey” amidst “a hundred green lagoons”.

Airborne, approaching Los Angles over Riverside County and then the Inland Empire, the quietude of the wide brown lands give way to an urban mosaic sinuously threaded with freeways – a built gestalt halted only by the implacable Pacific. Travelling north on the PCH to the 101, the 126 and finally the 150 to Koenigstein Road affords ample time to consider our fragile hold on life at the irrigated edge of the westward creeping desiccation. Earthbound, car-bound, constrained by asphalt and lane markings, I cannot shake the somber sky-message of the desert – drought lands between burning forests.

At home, we are cosseted in that broad swathe of chaparral that runs through the northern half of Ventura County, east to west, totaling over 325,000 acres. West of desert and forest, undeveloped tracts of Upper Ojai wildland are cloaked in shrubland, oak meadowland or riparian woodland; coastal sage scrub and vestigial wetlands then run on to the ocean – all lands that are both drought and fire-adapted and where, not incidentally, Native Americans achieved their highest population densities on the continent.

Yes, its dry. Yes, its crispy (CAP’N CRUNCH). But there is a pleasure to be found in the plant community’s phlegmatic survival and, even now, its floristic delights: the coy Acourtia where, amidst mostly drab white blossoms or fuzzy gone-to seed clusters, there are fringes of Day-Glo pink; white sage is ghost-like in a sea of rusty black sage; Laurel sumac is in creamy bloom and sometimes in fruit –tight pyramids of tiny red berries, the caviar of the chaparral.

Elsewhere, the California everlasting continues to be just that while the buckwheat blossoms, white muddled with pink, have now begun to oxidize and begun their metamorphosis towards a dark tannic brown. In these first days of summer the poison oak leaves have already begun to turn – from withered green to pink and deep carmine. Aloft, amidst whatever armature its tendrils grasped in spring (but often poison oak or laurel sumac) the seed heads of clematis, the size of Ping-Pong balls, add a white, fuzzy syncopation to the dry, entwined brush. Mountain mahogany is covered with its wispy beard of seeds while the florets dropped from the pendulous bracts of chaparral yucca blossoms are decoratively impaled on its spikey base.

Today a dense mist hangs over the hills. There is moisture in the air and the chaparral will soak up the fog-drip. It’s the time of June Gloom, when the marine layer grants soft light and moderate temperatures. The full heat of summer will soon be upon us and the pleasures of the chaparral will become primarily olfactory rather than visual. The sizzle of summer awaits us, but this afternoon I expect the cool winds to kick up and send the bunch grasses into a graceful dance - I revel in this season. Thoughts of fire, desert and drought recede and, if I look at the brilliantly yellow tar weed panicles I can see in the tracery a delta – harbinger, perhaps of a coming season of heavy rains, this year or the next, when the chaparral’s impassive stoicism will be vindicated.

Worlds Apart

There are creamy yellow blossoms of mountain mahogany, blossoms of California bay, the passion-flower-like virgin’s bower (the cream-white native clematis) and the rest of the cream meme – star florets of wild cucumber, flat-top elderberry blossoms, pendulous poison oak flowers and the miniature grape-like flower clusters of its close relative, squaw bush - cream on grey skeletal twigs. The tiny fuzz balls on the mule fat (baccharis salicifolia) are the color of a tea-stained linen napkin while the local morning glory is whiter, but replete with red wine streaks on the exterior of its trumpet.

There are the blues of lupine, the nightshades, fiesta flowers, blue eyed grass and blue dicks and now sage; white popcorn flower, white California everlasting and the black to carmine of the California peony blossoms.

Most of the white ceanothus flowers were lost to the winds of late February and early March but there is still the blue. Owl’s head clover, tending deep pink, has pushed up in drifts amidst grasses, invasive erodium and clover; pink prickly phlox is set in sandstone cliffs and at the damp base, coral Indian paintbrush. The bush poppies and bush sunflowers provide splashes of yellow (along with the tiny punctuation of fiddlenecks) amidst the chaparral’s mostly blue, white, cream and pink flowers.

This efflorescence is a tiny slice of the local botanical diversity. As Lightfoot and Parrish point out in their California Natural History Guide, California Indians and their Environment, 2009,

"California is home to more endemic species of plants...than any other equivalent sized area in North America. 3,423 species are considered to be native and another 1,416 are classified as endemic, i.e. they are found only in habitats within the state. Nearly 25% of all known plant species in the United States are found in California. These include the world's tallest trees, the coast redwood (sequoia sempiverens), the world's largest trees, the giant sequoia (sequoiadendron giganteum); the worlds oldest trees, the western bristlecone pine (pinus longeava); and some of the smallest and unique plants known to mankind."

By contrast, as my friend Will Reed reminded me the other morning, Britain possesses only 32 (or maybe 35) native trees and 32 native shrubs, of which only one, an obscure hornbeam, is endemic. Yes, there are some 1,500 grasses and forbs native to the Old Dart, but Britain was wiped clean of flora during the massive glaciations which began around 100,000 years ago and has half the biotic diversity of its cross-channel neighbor France (quelle dommage!).

After the end of the last Ice Age, plants slowly re-colonized Britain in their general drift towards the northwest as the climate improved and the range of species was extended. However, about 8,000 years ago, with continued ice-melt, the rift between Britain and France was submerged in a cataclysmic megaflood fed by the rising waters of a vast freshwater lake formed over many thousands of years in what is now the southern north sea. This devastating surge of water pounded and gouged the land, creating a giant channel between the two land masses. This newly formed English Channel then halted terrestrial migration of plants from the rest of Europe, forever limiting Britain's native biotic diversity. (Sanjeev Gupta et al. in Nature 448, 2007)

It is interesting to note the comparative ages of human inhabitation in California and Britain. As I have detailed in Ancient Isle, the first humans arrived in California, perhaps via the Kelp Road (and if so, perhaps on the Northern Channel Islands) about 15,000 years ago during the last groans of the mega fauna.

Some 700,000 years before, early humans were mixing it up with hippos, rhinos and elephants along the banks of a vast meandering river that drained central and eastern England and flowed sluggishly into the North sea. This, of course, was millennia before Britain separated from Europe and the warm interglacial period afforded opportunities for settlement in the continent's northern reaches - what today is Suffolk and Norfolk. (Simon Parfitt et al. in Nature 438, 2005)

It is tempting to view the protracted isolation from the uber-predator as the reason for California's biotic fecundity. But, as I mention in WEIRD, human populations can sometimes foster biotic diversity and certainly the absence of pre-historic agriculture went some way towards preserving California's variety of plant-life - many of whose species native peoples incorporated into their food, medicine, craft and buildings. There are more profound, climatic and geological reasons why this 'Floristic Province' is now designated by Conservation International as a Global Biodiversity Hotspot.

Over the last 2 1/2 million years, California largely avoided the ravages of the Ice Ages. Instead, the coastal areas were characterized by grassy plains with rich sediments deposited by rivers meandering their way to the ocean. Seismic activity has bounced some of these old beaches inland and old sea floors now form our mountain tops. Old wave-cut ocean terraces step down towards the present-day coastline. Streams have cut through the up-lifted land mass and created deep valleys. As the climate warmed and sea levels rose these valleys were flooded to form estuaries rich in the deposition of soft sediments, which have eroded and spread their riches down stream as sea levels have dropped again (viz. the Oxnard Plain). Over time, these processes have shaped California’s unique habitats and produced a rich mosaic of life. Now, the cold ocean currents to the west and high mountains to the east have formed, in Carey McWilliams' phrase, an island on the land, where California's dizzying diversity is nurtured in its short wet winters and long dry summers.

The other evening on the pool terrace, drinking a Page tangerine cocktail (equal parts juice, Campari, and soda), with Jim Churchill, the drink's originator, he looked across at the east hill and asked, what is that pink bush mid-slope? It was at that hour when the world is suffused with an apricot blush (resonating with the color of our drinks) when the low sun, filtered through the planet's dust, casts its glow across the spalled cliff face of the Topatopas. I had no answer, but assured him that I would investigate the following morning.

Walking through the east meadow past the oaks and walnuts, I pushed through the chamise up the slope until I had a clear view of Jim's pink bush. In the morning light it was a more prosaic beige and it was apparent that the color belonged to a frost damaged bough of laurel sumac. In this floristic paradise, it is easy to imagine flowers where none exist.

Strictly Analog

Last night it snowed on Koenigstein.

Lorrie and I had driven down to Ojai in the evening after a mostly clear day to find, as we descended the grade, the north mountains wreathed in a dense fog of cloud slowly being sucked south and east, towards the Topatopas, in the trail of the weather front that had passed earlier in the day. We arrived home about 10 pm and the headlights of the car caught the errant flakes, just marginally less assiduous than rain drops in their quest to hit planet earth. These were not those dreamy, fish tailing flakes, light as air, that are downright reluctant to alight. This was barely snow. But this morning, the evidence was in: white patches on bare earth and the ipe decks sparkling with snow crust.

That morning (now a few days ago), approaching the gorge that splits the old county property (mostly used as a cattle pasture) I was followed by the sound of wind machines thrumming lower down in upper Ojai, but by the time I was on t'other side, it was the Santa Paula wind mills that I heard. This deep ravine, which this morning was a sound barrier between east and west, carries a piddling stream to which the cattle, and I suppose deer, track. I know, because I have followed their trail, at the northern, less steep part of the gorge. Above, on the mesa, there were patches of snow to the west but none to the east.

Having arrived at its lower reaches and passing beneath Koenigstein Road, nearby Bear Creek is not as geographically emphatic as the gorge. Its drama in the landscape derives primarily from its establishment of a riparian habitat. Without it, we would not have the willows, sycamores and cottonwoods that have just concluded their fall show of oranges and yellows. The next Santa Ana will strip them of their foliage and leave them briefly naked before they re-leaf. Such is the subtlety of our seasons. This year, just before Christmas, the crown of one cottonwood made a particularly effulgent golden ball, floating aflame, it seemed, on a sea of sage and chamise, to the west of our west meadow where snakes Bear Creek.

Once, I fancy, the gorge carried the creek: the amplitude of the geographical gesture matched by significance of the year round watercourse - fed by a spring beneath the eastern-most face of the Topatopas and the seasonal rains that wash down it.

If you detect notes of heightened reality in this piece, and flaming orbs floating on the dull grey green swells of the chaparral may count as such, then it has to do with the lacuna implicated in the first paragraph. Between evening and 10pm, the night it snowed on Koenigstein, we were in Ojai, first bumping into friends Julie and John in the still fire-damaged post office, then having an early dinner at Monte Grappa, where the main room is finally working (after a couple of expensive lessons in becoming a restaurateur bequeathed to the previous two owners of the space), and then: watching Ang Lee's The Life of Pi at the Ojai Playhouse (on its new digital projection system).

Understand that the aggrandizement of nature in the movie, while not, in my opinion adding to the pathos of the story, has inevitably colored my view of the world. Ang's over-the-top, CGI representation of the splendors of the Pacific (not a few flying fish, but a veritable pescatorial blizzard; not a pod of dolphin but a thousand leaping mammals; enough meerkats to sink a carnivorous mangrove island; and, not a few fluorescent jelly fish but a Scyphozoan milky way) has upped the stakes - I never thought I was one to hold back, but my scant smattering of snow would, in Ang Lee's hands, have become an impenetrable Arctic wasteland of bottomless drifts blanketing topography in frozen white waves.

Certainly he would have located a raging torrent at the foot of the gorge (until the water spasmed into chunks of ice and the canyon was buried in snow); and I too have felt, for the past day or two, that the local terrain could use some re-arranging - for dramatic effect. The relocation of creek to gorge is an obvious first step.

But what this really means is a temporal realignment. Once upon a time, we can presume, Bear Creek forged its way through the terrain and created the gorge as it spewed its way towards Sisar Creek. Once upon a time, to take another example, there was a seismic event that caused the massive spalling of the Topatopa face and a great scree of sandstone shards and boulders was deposited across the north side of the valley. Now, for full dramatic impact, Ang Lee style, we would have the boulders and an engorged Bear Creek hurtling down the slope contemporaneously; and since we are conflating time, enraged grizzlies would be dodging the lithic onslaught and perhaps surfing the waters of the creek.

Instead, we have a misplaced creek and apparent stasis. Change happens over vast aeons of time and, as we look at the landscape, it appears unchanging and even dull. We stand, as Frances Cornford wrote of Rupert Brooke, like golden haired Apollos,

.... dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

Perhaps, in our lifetimes, a tree falls and dams a stream diverting it from its ancient course. Perhaps something of the sort happened locally in the great rains of 1968-69. The next wet years were 1977-78, and I know that it was then that Bear Creek flooded over our neighbor's property. Charred oaks record the history of fires that, from time to time, have both ravaged and revived the land. These are brief moments of drama in long periods of quietude when the landscape is disrupted by nothing more than the slow turn of the seasons.

Our lives are fleeting even by the standards of hydrological and fire cycles - how many El-nino years will each of us experience; how many fires? On a geologic scale the insignificance of our planetary inhabitation, even as a species rather than as individuals, is truly profound. We are left to seek meaning, not in the extraordinary, but in the incremental changes of the hours, of the weather, and in the acuity of our attention. 

Two hours in the company of Pi, his young life embroidered with remarkable scenes of nature at its most awe-inspiring (as imagined by Ang Lee and his army of designers and computer artists) momentarily distorted my appreciation for the chaparral. One recent frosty morning, the sage and squaw bush really were like the milky way, sparkling in the dry creek bottom; the patchy snow on Koenigstein a revelation; the golden ball of the cotton wood a vision of quiet splendor - these are moments that lack bombast, have no soundtrack and are strictly analog: they are, quite simply, beguiling.

Red, Blue or Green

About a week ago, after a long and very warm fall, winter fell like a hammer. A couple of days later, when the daytime temperature returned to the 80's F. we were able to joke, 'well, that was winter'. Such are the joys (and yuks) of living in southern California. But the fact is, the season has changed - our pool water temperature has slumped to 60 and there's no way it's getting any higher until next April, however many 80 degree days we have over winter - cold nights wipe away the day's injection of solar calories.

Apart from the loss of our swimming privileges, there's not much to dislike about the start of winter in the chaparral. Low to the ground the grasses are sprouting and above, the winds are ruffling dried summer stalks. There has been just enough rain to wipe the grime off of the leaves and the grey green hills have adopted a more emphatic verdure. Now, you'd think, we'd begin to see more wildlife - newly comfortable in meadowlands no longer withering in the heat of summer.

It hasn't turned out that way. No bobcats or foxes and precious few deer; occasionally a distant coyote chorus in the middle of the night but no sightings. We have pursued several explanations. Was it the early summer appearance of a mountain lion? I spoke with Ilona the other day (she and Les are planning to build a 4000 sq. ft. house on a knoll just below Josh and Megan's place (Love comes to Koenigstein)) and she blames the half dozen mules that Josh runs which have stripped the pastures bare on both sides of his property as it spans Koenigstein. Certainly the fencing of the old Lazy Two Ranch (Death Comes to Koenigstein) has impacted the game trails that once ran free over the ridge, but there's still plenty of open land.....I am not convinced. Then, I met Charlotte walking her dogs along Los Osos and she mentioned that the bow hunters at the top of the road (who I had run into early mornings and were, I thought, hunting rabbits) had a permit to hunt deer on the Old County Farm property, now owned by a local family, the Drinkwaters. How many deer, I wonder, do you have to shoot before spooking the entire local population?

In any case, we are now down to a solitary roadrunner (notable amidst more prosaic but always prolific bird-life). Alex and I spotted it again on the west meadow the other day. They are sprightly birds, but are really best in their role as light relief: they don't have the gravitas to perform as the primary wild life attraction as we gaze from our windows. We are searching for more archetypal fauna. Somewhere, in the activities of our local top predators - man and lion - lies, I suspect, the explanation for this apparent faunal desertification. Alex found the hind legs of a fox the other day, stripped clean of meat but with enough mangy fur to afford identification. Mountain lion? Coon hounds? These latter are another peripheral annoyance - they are a pair owned by Peter Jump the entomologist (Alpine Chaparral), that he allows to run free over the chaparral chasing game. Perhaps one day they will meet their match.

This country has just emerged from its quadrennial exercise in considering the merits of two shades of grey: a ritual that involves the highly constrained discussion of doctrinal difference where little of real substance is at stake. Nevertheless, despite the marginal nature of the debate, the country emerges with two populations: the vanquished and the victorious. Traditionally, the beaten side briefly retires to its rural sanctuaries, suburban enclaves or urban salons to ruminate over the unjustness of their recent defeat and plot revenge scenarios. Meanwhile, the real business of the country continues undisturbed within this larger celebration of the exceptionalism of its people, uniquely beneficent governmental structure and the glorification of its militaristic might.

Four years ago, we escaped to this particular world of rusticity for reasons that had almost nothing to do with our preferred shade of grey. Arguably, we have retreated to a sanctuary where majority political opinion runs counter to our own. Many who live and and work here pursue activities within the Urban wildland that are inimical to our largely passive consumption of what we presume are its aesthetic and spiritual qualities. I readily admit to being an urban dilettante operating at the margins of the wildland in ways that probably mystify many of those who are more established residents.

Thus I have found it convenient to center my own validation more on the area's erstwhile indigenous populations than its current inhabitants. I recently found further support for my removal from the fray from an unlikely quarter: seventeenth century China, where many of the country's most celebrated artists withdrew from public life (while the bloody war conducted by the invading Manchu Qing dynasty destroyed the old order of the Ming Empire) and sought solace in nature and reclusion. Some of the work produced by these cosmopolitans in rustic exile is currently on display at The Santa Barbara Museum of Art's exhibit, The Artful Recluse. The exhibition is highlighted by a monumental work of twelve, hanging scrolls from the National Palace Museum, Taiwain titled,  Plants of Virtue and Rocks by Water (Sketching Bamboo) by Shitao (1642–1707). I recommend it.

The exhibit moves to the Asia Society in New York next spring, where the anticipatory blurb reads,

"This is the first exhibition to explore the theme of reclusion in Chinese painting and calligraphy within the broader context of political and social changes during the seventeenth century, a time of rich cultural expression and dramatic political change. The trauma of the Ming dynasty’s collapse...and the Manchu Qing conquest provided an extraordinary context for the creation of historically conscious, often emotionally charged and deeply personal paintings and works of calligraphy. These images, however varied, share an overarching theme of reclusion, a concept of withdrawal and disengagement that has deep and significant roots in China..."

The Qing dynasty was established by the Manchu (Mongolian tribes that had conquered Manchuria in the early middle ages) in 1636, when, allying with rebel Ming generals, they emerged as a major threat to China's rulers. In 1644, the last Ming emperor hanged himself on a hill overlooking his palace. The rebel generals were dispensed with and the Manchus entered Peking and from that time on it was a Manchu emperor who sat on the throne of China until Hsian-T'ung, the last of his dynasty, was forced to abdicate following Sun Yat-sen's republican revolution in 1912.

Mid seventeenth century, China's artists and poets headed for the hills rather than live under a foreign regime. The poetry and painting produced in their rural retreats represented a transcendence of political trauma; their work still resonates with those of us retreating from the clamor of red versus blue. In the green of the urban wildland I have found an inspirational refuge.

Huang Ding (1660-1730), in a poem called Silent Mountains in the Evening writes,

     Passing alone through the empty mountains, caged by evening mist,
     On a special visit to an isolated recluse, examining the lying pines.
     Suddenly, the toils of the dusty world are completely dissolved;
     The single tone of a bell from deep within the verdant cliffs.


There is a pleasing crunch as you walk (or run) over a late summer meadow in Upper Ojai. It is the sun-fried Erodium giving way to your footfall. This long hot summer has given new meaning to 'dried to a crisp'. Despite the few drops of rain from the last gasp of tropical storm John not much is stirring in these chaparral clearings (rarely are these native meadows - more usually they are erstwhile or currently grazed areas, or land graded, at one time or another, for development). The grasses (native bunch, exotic oats and bromes) are a peroxide blonde, the bed of Erodium beneath - the low-lights - the color of dark marmalade.

Sometimes, in these dry grassy meadows, there is a drift of vinegar weed, with its amazing smell and delicate blue flowers; often sprinklings of turkey mullein and tarweed. Then there's an occasional stand of narrow leaved milkweed (Asclepias fasicularis). Most of the winter weeds are now turned to straw skeletons with only the star thistle sometimes still in bloom. There are other faint signs of exotic life: tumble weed appears out of nowhere and horehound is emerging at the margins.

California owes its official nickname (since 1968) of The Golden State to both the discovery of gold in 1848 at Sutter's Mill and the fields of golden poppies that suggested their adoption as the State flower. The fields of mustard that in many areas have now supplanted the poppies have also, conveniently, a golden cast when in bloom. But suffused in crystalline sunshine through this long, intense summer, vast areas of Southern California now have a platinum glint, where the dried stalks of annual weeds create a straw matrix drained of almost all color. The miracle of the deep and dusty greens of the mature chaparral hillsides that often flank these dry meadows is never more in evidence; this ancient adapted ecosystem seems even more remarkable set off against the arriviste, European grasses annually felled by our seasonal warm weather.

The conversion of native plant communities in California to exotic annual grasslands is one of the most dramatic examples of habitat alteration associated with exotic plant invasion (Heady 1988). The hills and valleys of coastal California were once dominated by native perennial bunch grasses and sage scrubland (the not-quite-chaparral to which our local disturbed soils, given half a chance, revert). In the endemic ecosystem, native plants (forbs) grew between the perennial grasses and shrubs. The introduction of European annual grasses and weeds together with intense grazing that began in the late eighteenth century has converted these habitats into the golden fields, interspersed with the occasional stands of live-oaks, that now dominate much of the summer landscape and which are regarded, in the popular imagination, as iconically Southern Californian.

It is the dominant exotic forb, Erodium, that gives the crunch to our dry meadows. Hidden in its rusty leaf litter (that effectively hampers the germination of natives), are its corkscrew seeds that wait for the Fall rains before swelling, twitching, and given the right lay of the land, spiralling down into the soil to take root: by mid-winter the meadows will be carpeted with this 'scissor grass'. The native species (and I, as inveterate weeder) are powerless before it: by the time the locals get around to germinating mid-winter, the Erodium has fully taken hold.

The heat of this summer has brought to an end the carpet of deerweed that in the past few years has spread across the graded 'bowl' behind the house. In Cool: Very Cool, written at the end of July 2011, I noted that the deerweed was aflame - turned a bright orange after a season of brilliant green with a frosting of yellow blossoms. It mostly made it through last winter, although we culled it in the spring, but now it's done: dead. Nothing too remarkable here, it's a short-lived native; but having now removed it from the slope, tiny bunch grasses, under-storey survivors from our initial hydro-seeding, now pepper the ground. By next summer we should be able to look north towards the Topatopas and see in the foreground something resembling a native meadow.

Isn't it romantic? Another step in the construction of what we must now rate as a reactionary, pre-historical landscape. I am not alone in such endeavors. The National Park Service carefully manicures Yosemite (if that is the word for felling 100 foot redwoods) to preserve historically significant views. In an attempt to freeze time at around the moment when Carleton Watkins photographed El Capitain in the early 1880's agents of the Yosemite Scenic Vista Management Plan keep busy removing conifers that obstruct views of the massive lithic face. It is gardening on a grand scale.

As I have suggested previously (My Arundo), gardening is nothing much more than deciding what lives and what dies; then there is the added frisson of deciding which species one will introduce to the territorial ark over which one holds sway. Here on our acreage in Upper Ojai I have been vigilant in meting out death to exotics and highly nurturing of the pre-lapsarian natives. The fall from indigenous grace that befell California occurred most precipitously after 1769, but there had been human interference before in the hands of torch wielding Chumash who understood the regenerative power of fire. While the two and a half centuries of European colonization (both human and vegetal) are as nothing in the context of 30,000 years of a reasonably stable local eco-system, we nevertheless exist at a time of profound change to the environment which is unlikely to be reversed any time soon.

What we are attempting - the creation of a picturesque, 'natural' landscape in which our net-zero-energy house sits - is whimsy, but is also profoundly pre-historicist: we are privileging the aesthetics of a seemingly simple botanical past over the difficult, complex present.

As I make my imperious footfall over prostrate Erodium, crunching gently through the dawn light, I am certain that our presence here in this exalted part of California (precisely: the chain of dry ridge-top meadows beyond Koenigstein that run south towards the Silver Thread oil leases and afford views of Santa Paula mountain to the east and Nordhoff Ridge to the west) is contingent. We will be expunged from this place through drought, plague, war or natural cataclysm in at most, a millennium or two. I am equally certain that Erodium cicutarium will remain and by then, should any sentient being exist to pass judgement, be considered an essential California native.

Mr Chaparral Man

We have been invited to a summer solstice party - a bit early, since it is to be held five days before the astronomical event. When I first got the e-mail invitation, along with a request to wear white, I replied that it was winter in the chaparral (The Winters Tale) and, perhaps I could wear black?

OK - I'll play nice and wear a white shirt and khaki pants and scrounge up a fabulous selection of native flowers to stuff into my shirt pocket. The ladies will be sporting wreaths - I have the idea to pick yucca blossoms, yellow buckwheat and canyon sunflowers to help Lorrie make her's.

I intend be more chromatically indiscriminate in my pocket bouquet selection: elegant Clarkia, California everlasting, tarweed, deerweed, chamise blossoms, the last woolly blue curls of the season, sage, chaparral morning glory, popcorn flower, white eriogonum, poppy, mimulus and heart-leaved penstemon. A wander up Bear Canyon could produce more variety but I'm restricting myself to the easy-pickings. This profusion will already verge on the obnoxiously horticulturally prolix, but how often do I have an opportunity to be The Brand?

It all seems so simple to me, eradicate all non-natives and revel in the glory of the local plant community. In the event, as readers of this blog will have surmised, it takes a great deal of work to restore the broken crust, in areas of recent upheaval, to a pristine chaparral-ness. The perseverance required becomes, perforce, a radical act. The intolerance for the non-native an extreme act of biotic xenophobia.


Hey ! Mr Chaparral Man, play a song for me

I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to

Hey ! Mr Chaparral Man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you...

Many have followed Piet Oudolf (whose U.S. work includes the planting scheme along The High Line). He has, in my very truncated understanding of the history of twentieth century landscape design, picked up the mantle from Gertrude Jekyll (April Showers) in designing wild gardens.  Jekyll was a great colorist and typically designed in broad washes of texture and hue. Mindful of the local native plant communities she nevertheless worked with the available, global horticultural palette - much of which had been developed, in the previous couple of centuries, by British plant collectors. Piet, like Gertrude before him, is an avid propagator, always keen to develop varieties of plants that can simulate wildness within the narrow confines of the typical suburban garden.

The intellectual groundswell that drives The Dutch Wave, that loose confederation of landscape designers (formed around the protean Oudolf) characterized by a desire for 'wild' and 'natural' gardens, is the understanding that the wild places of Europe and their unique plant communities are under siege. Roadside verges are increasingly managed chemically and, in any case, are under constant assault from gas and diesel fumes. Urban development has impinged on the waste-lands and commons of the post-war era. Industrialized farming has decimated the small-holdings, the inefficiencies of which made room for wild ditches, ponds, hedgerows, tree circles and copses. Remaining wild places have now become recreational resources and are managed to facilitate human interaction rather than the unruly fecundity of nature.

In Oudolf's Planting the Natural Garden, Timber Press, Portland, OR., 2003, Henk Gerritsen, his co-author, bemoans the rapid disappearance of wild flowers:

"I remember cycling around Utrecht at the beginning of the sixties and seeing ditches filled with marsh lousewort and fields overgrown with sun spurge and scarlet pimpernel. The water meadows of the river Lek were covered with ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle and rough hawk's beard; ten years later all had disappeared."

He sees the desire for more nature in the garden as a direct corollary of its diminution outside of it; the need for wild flowers in the garden reflective of their scarcity in the natural setting. He suggests that the old plant selections are over-cultivated, and unnatural in appearance.

Here in the New World, in California in particular, the comparatively short history of agricultural and industrial development has left broad swathes of wildland. Take a plane ride anywhere in the U.S. and the preponderance of wilderness, observed from 30,000 feet, remains daunting (Red Smudge). Thus, atavistic memories of the wild frontier are perhaps still too fresh for most Californians to embrace the wild in their back yard. The divide between civilization and the natural world still represents a wound to be cauterized, the infection of the natural world quarantined: the libidinous wilderness contained and emasculated.

Not so on 20 or 40 acre residential parcels in Upper Ojai, where the chaparral, or oak meadowland inevitably predominate. To fetishize the primacy of the pre-1769 landscape as I have, is merely an extreme position in a community where taming the chaparral except in the immediate vicinity of residential, agricultural or equine development is not really a viable option. Its 'improvement' is an expensive and time consuming task. Left 'un-improved' the natural soil is too poor and dry (most of the year) for anything but its indigenous plant cover and the panoply of invasive weeds that I battle on a regular basis.

Alex departed at the end of May for a summer of stripping roofs in Lansing Michigan, so I now stand alone on the front line of eradicating the thistles, mustards and other european-invasives. Now is their time. While the chaparral snoozes (and the energetic Alex is away) the ancient vernal impulses of the European weeds are in full flood as they rise to celebrate the Summer solstice. The armies of Russian star-thistle are mobilizing while their native enemies sleep: only the vigilance of the biotic xenophobe stands in the way of their ultimate triumph.

The summer solstice is the star-thistle's Tet offensive, a holiday excuse to pulverize the locals into submission. I therefore consider it as a highly inappropriate occasion for celebration. Nevertheless, I will attempt to separate myself from the vegetal doom that this axial zenith portends and try not to cast too long a shadow over this evening's festivities.

Little Foxes

They appeared just west of the clump of oaks and rocks behind the house. Nuzzling each other atop a rock, viewing the scene, looking at the house, looking, perhaps at Lorrie and me seated at a table eating supper. It was that hour before twilight, when the full brightness of the afternoon has departed - the sun having fled the scene - but there's still enough light bouncing around the empyrean for it to be considered day. The magic hour. Supper time.

Two little foxes: but first, the thought that they were feral cats, one of which I had seen earlier in the day. Then, bobcats? Until they sidled apart and displayed their tails. Tails! Baby mountain lions? By the time they sauntered off the rock, behind the toyon, brushing past the poison oak and began wandering up the path, their full, glorious vulpine nature emerged - the foxy little faces, pricked and pointy ears and silver bushy tails edged in black that seemed to float in the air behind them.

It has been a while since we have seen anything much in the way of wildlife on the property, but a couple of weeks ago I heard a very distinctive bird call one morning. A piercing run through the register, beginning with the top notes. A downhill glissando. And loud. Once heard, never forgotten. A couple of days later Margot mentioned that she had seen and heard a canyon wren....meant nothing to me, Margot sees all kinds of birds of which I am oblivious. Last week I heard the call again and saw the singer sitting on the huge boulder just to the west of our front door, a lithic mass that I sometimes think of as our 'Ayers Rock' - that red Australian monolith that features so prominently in the dreamscape of the Anangu.

Our rock is sandstone and is composed of buff tones; the little song bird belting out that glissando was a dark rust color that better matches the ruddy tones of what is now called Uluru as it glows in the evening light of the Australian outback. The bird was, of course, a canyon wren (Catherpes mexicanus) and the  description of its voice, "gushing cadence of clear, curved notes tripping down scale: tee tee tee tee tew tew tew tew" confirmed the visual identity, "rusty, with dark rufous belly..." (Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America).

I deputized Lorrie to be our in-house ornithologist a while ago, and she has fitfully accepted the challenge. She uses the Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds - Western Region and riffles through its pages at breakfast. Last week she identified the annoying little birds (formerly known as LBB's - little brown birds) who flutter about our eaves, as house finches. The male of the species boasts a little red on crown, breast and rump, the distaff side is a dreary, plebeian creature.

Just last Friday we attended Allen Bertke's presentation of his photographs of local birds at the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy offices. Allen is a true birder, although of fairly recent vintage, and takes remarkable photos of the local species. We, meanwhile, are flat out trying to remember the names of the basic, background avian presence of thrashers, towhees, hawks, quail and (now, we know) house finches. Occasionally, we delight ourselves by spotting comparative rarities such as the black pheobe and the white tailed kite.

Last night I woke to the sound of three owls (it seemed) triangulating across the chaparral hills - short, single hoots across the dark expanse, sonic signalling amidst the chthonic wildlands. Barn owls perhaps? We know the call of the great horned and the tremulous burble of the screech owls, these haunting calls were neither. A little while ago, returning from a meal in town, at the foot of the grade just past Boccalli's, a ghostly B-1 bomber of a bird buzzed the Land Rover and through window and then the sun-roof, we saw the white undercarriage of a barn owl gleam against the dark sky and overhanging oaks. They are out there: and last night a coterie was encamped somewhere within owl call.

Our resident family of deer are gone, spooked by the mountain lion who claimed one, at least, of their number (Love Comes to Koenigstein). The coyotes have not returned, either in my dreams or in the local chaparral (Coyote Dream). The bobcats (Bobcat Magic) have gone walkabout and even snakes are thin on the ground. We have seen a couple of racers and a baby gopher snake and last Monday while I was working in the office and Alex was weed-wacking in the back yard I received a text from him: " Five foot snake outside your bedroom, under a rock now". That got my attention.

It turned out that the rock in question was at the foot of the oak knoll as it drops down to the gravel pool terrace, placed against the slope with an excavator some three and a half years ago. While the family of gopher snakes that lives beneath these oaks was much disturbed by the building of the house adjacent to their home, the spaces beneath these additional rocks piled against the knoll have provided them with generous room additions. The snake, this recent afternoon, had indeed retreated from view by the time I got on the scene, and once I was reassured that it was not a rattler, Alex and I resumed our respective tasks.

Our lives are wreathed in bird life, framed by the chaparral and enlivened by the presence of wild animals. Our location in the urban wildland and our intention have made it thus. We replaced a home set in the suburban, beach-side idyll of Santa Monica Canyon with a rural loft - a barn-like house in the Topatopa foothills. This is a setting which I have, perhaps, fetishized. I have also made rules. Making a home here has been a design exercise and design, both architectural and landscape, is, as I understand it, enriched by the creation of bounds.

In this environment, the development of a framework in which to make aesthetic decisions, has taken on a kind of pantheist imperative. I have introduced no non-native plants onto the property and have expended time and treasure in trying to remove those non-natives that are already here. We try to make room for the wildlife, and are tolerant of it all - even rattlesnakes and marauding mountain lions. We are trying to have our wildlife experience while avoiding the traumas that this environment can inflict on callow homesteaders such as ourselves.

We are taking a Franciscan position of 'suffer the little foxes unto me', rather than the Solomonic stand of "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes...". I always thought of foxes as carnivores, but apparently they enjoy snacking on grape leaves, or at least did when the Song of Solomon was written about 1000 B.C.E.

Our raised vegetable and herb bed - a world unto itself and thus given a pass on the non-natives directive - has no vines (or lettuces). We have learnt through hard-won experience to plant only spicy greens and pungent herbs. We Urbanites are slowly learning to coexist with the Wildland.

Naming Names

Alongside the sandy track that extends Verner Farm Road into the hinterland and becomes a line scratched in the land where other roughly cut trails, oil roads and deer paths criss-cross the chaparral, in an area dotted with oil wells and forlorn houses and where there is a half-acre fenced yard that contains several rv's, and many broken down cars and trucks (in the middle of it all, an oil well), is, right at the moment, a yerba santa bush, its blossoms, under this week's deep, grey marine layer, a startling blue.

There's a lot of blue in the chaparral at the moment. Still dominant are the white mounding ceonothus bushes that cover the hillsides, but every day as the warm winds disperse the petals the snowy white drifts appear to be melting away. Here and there are the California lilacs, blue ceonothus. There's the occasional blue dick, lots of Solanum, blue eyed grass, rarely, Verbena lasiostachys and the blue blossoms of black sage (don't ask).

Few people care about chaparral, even those who espouse a concern for California's wild places. It is an un-loved plant community. Few know its signature plants - I was shocked recently when a board member of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy did not recognize ceonothus or for that matter the only slightly less common fuchsia-flowered gooseberry (Ribes speciosum). But take the trouble to get to know the dozen or so signature plants of the chaparral and the rewards are immense.

One could argue, perhaps, that the names of these plants are irrelevant. That you can enjoy the landscape without knowing what's what. Faithful readers will know that I believe in the power of naming names. That said, I also know that common names can be as effective in staking a connection with a plant as the official genus and species. As a child, I knew many common English plant names long before I was aware of the Linnaean classification system and, in my part of Surrey, a bank, hedgerow, meadow or roadside offered a constellation of recognized plants without a classically derived appellation amongst them. I would acknowledge, for instance, the presence of blackberry, ragged robin, cow parsley, deadly nightshade, yarrow, dead nettles, stinging nettles, docks, burdocks, horseradish, daisies, campion, violets, sorrel, dandelions, groundsel, horsetail and so on amidst the hazel, oak, holly, chestnut, ash, beech, birch and alder trees. Amongst this unremarked upon congregation of plants of the Surrey countryside the special displays of bluebells, primroses, foxgloves, cowslips, poppies, dog roses, snowdrops, jack-in-the-pulpits, red-hot-pokers and forget-me-nots were seasonally noted.

In an age when entertainment is less often derived from the natural environment, and the acquisition of culture almost entirely divorced from natural history, knowing the names of plants is a peccadillo not a pre-requisite of a shared civic curriculum. Gone are the days when Willis Linn Jepson (the great Californian botanist) could reasonably proclaim that "every educated person should know, at least broadly, the native forests, shrubs and flowering plants in his own state". But is it unreasonable that Californians should at least recognize their state flower, the poppy, rather than mistake it, as did a recent visitor to our property, for a buttercup?

California is rich in linguistic history. Thus native plants here have their official Linnaean names, their Spanish name and their multiple Native American names (many of which Harrington has preserved for us) (Yuccapedia). Sometimes, like their British counterparts, they have common names which may provide insight into their characteristics; and only our unfamiliarity with the classical languages in which their names are expressed, obscures the often prosaic meaning of the Linnean nomenclature.

The Spanish knew Eriodictyon crassifolium as yerba santa because the Franciscans recognized its medicinal value. But it has also become known, over the years, by a variety of common names including mountain balm, bishop wort, purple betony, holy herb, bear plant, saint's herb and most intriguingly, Indian chewing gum. A company called Blue Coyote Organics sells the dried herb at ten bucks an ounce and recommends smoking it or making a tea infusion "to calm the soul". The chewed leaves are resinous and bitter. Local Chumash knew it as wishap'.

Chamise, that stalwart of chaparral, with the frothy white flowers but tough as nails sclerophytic leaves and flesh ripping twigs and branches is also known as grease wood - because it is rich in oils, and of all the many chaparral plants that burn well, it reputably burns best. Chamise is derived from Spanish chamisa, from Galician chamiça, dry brush, firewood, from chama, flame, from the Latin flamma. Its Linnaean name is Adenostoma: from the Greek aden, "a gland," and stoma, "a mouth," in reference to the five glands at the mouth of the sepals - a reflection of the botanist's cone of vision which usually focusses on a plant's sex organs. The Chumash, at least the Barbareño, Purisimeño and Ineseño, according to Harrington, simply called it na'.

With a similar economy of syllables, related, perhaps, to the plant's ubiquity, Deerweed was ya'i to the Barbareño, but more elaborately Escoba de Horno (Hearth Broom) to the Spanish and is included in the Lotus (fruit of forgetfulness) genus. Now comes word that this genus is undergoing extensive taxonomic changes, for the Linnaean classification system is subject to constant revision. All thirty species native to California have been recently moved to the genera Acmispon or Hosakia in the second edition of The Jepson Manual. Willis Linn Jepson is California's Carolus Linnaeus, the man who set out to establish a definitive taxonomy of the State's flora.

It was Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) born in Sweden and a taxonomist, botanist and zoologist, who famously lumped apes in the same category as humans and thus paved the way for an acceptance of Darwin's evolutionary theory. His Systema Naturae (1735), a great inventory of life on earth, was the first work to gather terrestrial phenomena into the now familiar groupings of animal, vegetable and mineral. He published Species Plantarum in 1753 and thus initiated a formal botanical taxonomy. Jepson (1867-1946), like all natural scientists who followed Linnaeus, built on his binomial system and in 1923, U.C. Berkeley published his A Manual of the Flowering Plants of California a 1200-page single volume tome. Commonly known as Jepson's Manual, it has become California's botanical bible. Now Bruce Baldwin, curator of Berkeley’s Jepson Herbarium, has edited The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California, listing over 7,500 California plant species, subspecies and varieties, in a 1600 page volume published by U.C. Press, 2012.

While this systematized simulacrum is an enormously valuable scientific text, and of deep interest to the chaparral warrior (for to enter into the thorny world of the elfin forest is to battle the barbed enmeshments that it throws up in defense of its pristine world), it is but an intellectual exegesis of the  wildlands. Yet, as the definitive namer of names it holds the key to our connection to California's landscapes: where the power of naming leads to a recovery of the sacred bond that exist between humans and plants - the magical connection we experience as children when we first lay claim to a flower, not by cutting and capturing it, but by whispering its name.

Love Comes to Koenigstein

Driving down the PCH the other morning, just past Point Mugu, we pulled over to watch a pod of grey whales steam north after breeding in Magdalena Bay, Baja, Mexico. We watched the leviathans blowing and undulating their way towards their summer feeding grounds in Alaska, in the cold waters of the Bering, Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas. They were close enough to the shore for us to see the mass of barnacles on their backs. Despite massive whale hunting in California in the middle of the nineteenth century the whales have survived with this annual migration pattern intact.

A few days later, I stopped on the old coast highway above Emma Wood State Park and, for old times sake, clambered down the hill and crossed the train tracks headed for the beach where I had spent many a happy hour surfing in the late 1990's. This day, sans board, I looked south and there, about one hundred yards off-shore, I saw another pod headed north. During twenty years of consistent ocean watching from 1980 to 2000 I saw not a single cetacean from the beach. As I headed back up the track from Emma Wood I glimpsed a seal bobbing in the surf line.

In the early 1980's, returning in a light plane from our Honeymoon at the Hana Maui resort Lorrie and I watched an Orca leap from the pellucid ocean below and then put on a spectacular show of elemental power and grace - somewhere in the Kalohi channel between Molokai and Lanai as we flew towards Honolulu. The Orca is sometimes called a killer whale - a misnomer since it is actually in the dolphin family, but they do kill whales. Last week there was a story of a "pack of killer whales tearing a baby gray whale to shreds" off the Central Coast as observer groups were shepherding a wounded fully adult Grey whale towards Monterey Bay.

Our neighbor on Koenigstein, Kit Stolz, reported seeing a young condor feeding on road kill on the 150 between Upper Ojai and Thomas Aquinas College recently. He provided documentary proof in the form of a blurry i-phone picture; the silhouetted antic pinion feathers at the end of each wing, even at this age suggesting a mighty span, certainly seem to support the identification. Even closer to home, while we were away in NorCal, Margot walked a part of our property and found mountain lion scat. Following her two dogs she then found a discarded deer leg. No one has credibly seen the big cat although Lorrie thinks she might have, but it was a fleeting, distant impression rather than a definitive sighting. I walked the area last week where Margot had originally seen the scat and saw lots more - distinctive because of its size and black color, typical of the digested blood of a fresh kill. Mountain lions bury the remains of the carcass after their initial meals of blood engorged organs like the liver, kidney and heart, and return to feed off of it in subsequent days. We have put that area off limits for the time being.

These signature, archtypal creatures, whale, condor and lion each possess, one way or another, dominion over their respective element, and their lives are woven into the tapestry of human existence on a very primal level. This is a reason to live in the urban wildland, it offers an opportunity to engage with the web of life and connect with the collective unconscious, that now deeply unfashionable well of feelings that guided our ancestors and still shadows our contemporary lives.

About a year ago I wrote of two deaths on Koenigstein, and the two hilltop houses that were made vacant because of their owner's passing (Death Comes to Koenigstein). A few weeks ago I noticed a new barbed wire fence being built adjacent to the eastern boundary of our property next to the old Atmore land. I drove up to the recently purchased house and introduced myself to Josh and Meghan who run a back-country guide service in the Sespe with pack mules. The new fence, I learned, was being built to enclose a sloping meadow across the street from their house where the mules will occasionally pasture. They have opened up the house to the north and I suspect they will find it very servicable. In the mail box this Friday was a note announcing their Saturday wedding.

While we are often reminded of a vibrant natural world in this eastern borderland of Upper Ojai, it is good news indeed when the human population hereabouts tilts younger - particularly when the new additions are both locals with a thorough understanding of the local ecosystems. They come recommended by Bill Slaughter, Sheriff of Sisar, who knows them both. Josh grew up on Sulphur Mountain and attended Happy Valley School, he is determinably low tech, eschewing even an e-mail address.

Yesterday they were married at the house and early this morning several pick-up trucks were still casually parked along the corner where Koenigstein heads sharply north at the knoll where their house is perched, indicating that a very good time was had by at least those who elected not to drive back home because of the late hour or inebriation.

Josh and Meghan advertised their wedding and reception with two discreet white balloons at the 150 and a prettily painted arrow sign at Calle de las Osos, the left fork below the Bear Creek crossing which exerts a magnetic attraction to all who wander up this way not really knowing where they are going and, following the siren call of this road named for the erstwhile dude ranch at its end, subsequently get lost amongst the pinnacles and valleys of what is ultimately a gallimaufrey of dead-ends and private driveways. Some, it is said, never do get back on Koenigstein and lose their minds in this crazy land of feral emus, one hole golf-courses and ravening coon hounds.

An archetype expresses itself, first and foremost, in metaphors. As such, meaning oscillates between the encoded linguistic meaning and its metaphoric interpretation then resolves itself in a third place where these patterns of thought cross cultural boundaries and establish themselves deep within the human psyche - at all times and in all places. Carl Jung explains archetypal images as universal patterns or motifs which come from the collective unconscious, and are the basic content of religions, mythologies, legends and fairy tales.

On Koenigstein, we suffer a surfeit of these archetypal images: the condor and the mountain lion, as well as the viper (substantiated as the rattle snake) and the bear. Our streams run down to the ocean where whale, dolphin and seal disport themselves, while steelhead trout plash in the shallows of Sisar Creek. Now comes the mule driver Josh and his fair Meghan to live in the rickety house on top of the hill. Their mule team grazes in the meadow. Soon the hills will ring with the sound of their children and Koenigstein will be restored to its place somewhere between legend and folklore, never-never land and the faraway country of an eternal dreamtime. As your faithful scribe, dear reader, I will continue to report regularly from this place of magic, this place of archetypal surfeit.

Personal Property

(Continued from Pulp Fiction below).......In short, she smiled. Her name is Kathleen Cressler and we know her from the days when she was office manager for Jerry and Shar Michaels at Coldwell Banker; now she's an agent with Keller Williams, this morning subbing for Sharon MaHarry who is off finding someone's pink moment for them (an Ojai-only reference). A couple of other agents were milling around, one the wife of the owner of the local pool store, and with whom I had discussed acid levels, chlorine generators and the like only last summer, and the other the mother of Otis Bradley, a contractor who built a purportedly 'green' house on Signal Street several years ago. Jonas was a potential buyer as was another gentleman in a green sweatshirt. Lorrie and I were Jonas' posse. I was also looking for a story, and I found one.

Kathleen sketched the outline. The house (coyly absent from the KW listing, since it is an egregiously illegal residence) was moved from Camarillo at the time of that town's being split asunder in the 1950's (Camarillo Brio) by the 101. It is a 1920's wood frame, single story shingle cottage typical of the thirty or so that found their way to Ojai. The house sits on eighteen inch high stacks of one foot square concrete block caps (or pavers).

Despite the presence of several faults, no significant earthquakes have struck Ojai in the historic period. However long this 1200 square foot 2-bedroom 1-bath cottage has been sitting up at around 2500 feet, some 3500 feet below the eastern end of the Topatopa bluffs, it does not seem to have been significantly seismically shaken. It sits calmly amidst the accumulated agricultural, mechanical, earth-moving, electrical generating and hydrological junk of an owner, who it seems, has a passion to muddle, mend and tinker with, but never discard the past and present equipment that he has contrived to support his off-the-grid lifestyle.

His ten acres are just to the west of La Broche Canyon. Somewhere, in a steep canyon to the north of the house, is a spring towards which Jonas and I climbed, following the white 2" pvc pipe that fed his newish-looking 5,000 gallon corrugated water tank. We climbed high enough to appreciate a view, across the city of Santa Paula and Oxnard Plain, that revealed a glimpse of ocean beyond the wetlands and dunes at Point Mugu, but turned back before finding the water source.

Below us was the house, the aforementioned water tank, the windmill that once pumped the water (work now undertaken by an electric motor and a small photo-voltaic array), a holding pond stocked with fish, a large equipment shed housing a Case excavator and a backhoe, a few acres of avocados and several firs and eucalypts. These were the owner's 'Green Acres', haphazardly irrigated by the hidden spring and the traceries of pipe that lay over and under the land.

Not much changed with Chevy trucks after the so-called 'Second Series' came out in 1947 until the mid-fifties. The bloopy fenders, rounded cab roof and split screen windshield all became iconic signifiers of America's favorite half-ton truck with Chevrolet's yearly up dates focused on only minor cosmetic changes (in 1952, for instance, the window-winder knobs were changed from black to maroon plastic!), but in 1953 the standard body color of the vehicle was changed from Forrester green to a slightly lighter shade, Juniper green.

Hidden beneath a tarpaulin in a make-shift lean-to garage just down wind of the property's septic tank and leech line was a 1953 Chevy truck in its original, first model year Juniper green livery. Here was the old man's labor of love, last registered in 2009 but looking 'ready to work', as they say. This truck is a sweetener thrown into the deal - for the land sale includes all personal property (including the 'ghost' house whose existence, remember, is not acknowledged on the listing) with the exception of a rolled late-model Nissan. This latter, I suspect, is part of a pending insurance settlement.

Jonas had a mind to turn the whole mess into an up-scale health resort. It seemed to me that the cottage represented a perfect educational opportunity to study the realities of living off-the-grid. The beautiful hand wrought steel barrel-shaped wood burning stove serves as the building's only heating. The fridge, cooking-stove and lights run on propane. Water service at night is dependent on battery storage of the solar array's power production. The old man made it all work and when it didn't work he fixed it. A salutary lesson available, perhaps, for 'green' pretenders.

The owner had, Kathleen told us, lived up here to get away from his family. Now in his 80's the family had successfully persuaded him to put his retreat on the market. More likely, thinks I, this is a carefully weighed calculus that has granddad selling the property and neatly self-financing his final decade of adult-care under the sensitive ministrations of minimum-wage minders: payback for his daring to hide-out in his suburban-cottage-turned-hunting-cabin to live amidst the scenic splendor of the Topatopa foothills for the past thirty odd years.

Better, I muse, for him to die with his boots on, his stiffened body pawed over by the bears that he now scares away with single shots from his Smith and Wesson Model 10, .38 caliber revolver (Kathleen tells us), only the holster of which was available for the showing, casually placed on a work table amidst old maps, books and magazines. The old man then, away for the open house, was presumably packing heat as he waited out the remains of the day. Disgruntled, resentful, already missing the twittering of chapparal birds, deer tip-toeing down the canyon and the marauding bears, his un-holstered revolver was, no doubt, a comforting presence: its dead weight pulling down one side of his Patagonia fleece jacket.