Good Vibrations

It was only ten years prior to the publication of Francis Hitching’s seminal text, Earth Magic, that radio-carbon dating was fully accepted within the archaeological community. The first American edition of the book was published in 1977. I own a copy with a pristine dust-jacket that I happened upon recently at that excellent addition to Ojai’s community of retail establishments, Book Ends. I first came across (and then devoured) the book in paperback in Australia in 1978 or 1979. My relationship to carbon-dating, to the extent that it has ever been established, began in 2007 when I began volunteering at UCLA’s Native American Rock Art Archive which is housed in the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

So, we have the publication of a book, my reading of it; my rediscovery of said work thirty five years or so later (and my re-reading of it) and the attendant birthing and maturity of a dating technique that arguably has revolutionized Archaeology – along with my incidental exposure to that revolutionized academic discipline starting some seven years ago.

What does all that add up to? Well, in my personal history quite a lot, but as a writer, I believe I am charged with a generalized responsibility to make matters of personal import of some wider interest to my imagined and occasionally real audience. It is a reflection of my perversity that I believe that what interests me in the narrow ambit of my home in the chaparral will resonate, when crafted into a blend of my own sensory and intellectual experiences, with the select few…..

In January of 1977 I began an undergraduate degree in Architecture at the University of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. In my second year of studies I discovered my mentors: Dr. Terry Purcell, a psychologist who taught a much derided course in man-environment studies, and Marr Grounds, an environmental artist who had somehow found employment, in those more liberal days, as a lecturer in design. These two academic outsiders, neither architects, guided me through what ended up being a hugely formative experience in which I discovered an interest in the primal qualities of the Australian landscape and landscape in general - interests which ended up completely dominating my antipodean education.

It was against this backdrop that I picked up Earth Magic in the University book store and in reading it I connected back to my childhood in the English countryside and my adolescent interest in the occult, the practice of which, in its literary re-telling, usually involved settings of ancient mystery and foreboding –ruined abbeys, stone circles, lonely moors and the like. I was readily susceptible to the genre’s facile production of chills and tingling spines. Looking back, I can re-frame the appeal in terms of an interest in making contact with a universal energy – which, it was implied in the books that I read, possessed the bi-polarity of good and evil.

I continue to be fascinated with the apparent tributaries of etheric energy which adepts, both ancient and modern, have found ways to channel to their purposes. In Earth Magic, which details the endeavors of megalithic man to focus and amplify these energies by building a system of stone nodes and nexuses, I understood an archaeological aspect to my childish proclivity. Although this was well before Bruce Chatwin had written The Songlines (1987), I also possessed a generalized awareness, sharpened by Marr Grounds who, in his environmental art-making, worked extensively with aboriginals still pursuing a traditional life in the Northern Territories, that I was living in a country where there existed primitive lines of force that had once bound together a far-flung and never large population of sentient beings. I vaguely understood that I was living, at that moment, at the tail end of two centuries that had seen the almost complete destruction of an elaborate human exegesis of primal forces that is the aboriginal culture of Australia, developed over perhaps 50,000 years.

Now, lurking at the fringes of the chaparral wilderness, amidst strewn boulders hailed down from the Topatopas in some fracturing event of the Pleistocene, I wonder whether the rock marks made by California’s earliest people were an attempt at a lithic ordering that privileged some stones over others. Within the antic geology of the land, they might thus have recorded the same lines of force that intrigued megalithic man and the Australian aborigine which, in the ritual and physical marking of such networks, bound their societies.

Within the discipline of Archaeology, the study of peoples who failed to create significant artifacts beyond their language and belief-culture is of a limited appeal. If you have any interest in advancing your career you will not stay long in the ghetto of American Indian cultures. At UCLA‘s Cotsen Institute there are five full professors of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and not one in North American Languages and Culture. Within that ghetto, Rock Art represents the darkest, most underfunded and ill-regarded neighborhood. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who directs the Rock Art Archive, has not ascended beyond Research Associate despite holding the prestigious post of Director of the Easter Island Statue Project where the excavations at Rano Raraku, the primary moai quarry, are her life’s work. David Whiteley, perhaps the most renowned archaeologist currently studying the rock art of Californian Indians has no academic affiliation whatsoever. Similarly, until very recently, those who study the works of megalithic man have also been side-lined. What that means is that the field is overrun, instead, with odd-balls, amateurs and speculative historians. Fine company.

Ironically, the general popularity of these areas of archaeology has never been higher, as evidenced in the last week or so by the blanket coverage, from National Geographic to the Daily Mail of the new discoveries at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. The work, by archaeologists from Birmingham and Bradford Universities and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Vienna has also been awarded the ultimate middlebrow accolade of a two-part documentary series on BBC-2, titled Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath.

I do not know whether this title is the BBC’s homage to the Hermetic notion that the microcosmos reflects the macrocomos, but the new information appears to solidify the monument’s significance as a major ritual center that is likely linked, in ley line alignments, to other such centers like Avebury and beyond, perhaps as far North as the massive Neolithic temple complex at the Ness of Brodgar in the Orkneys (recently uncovered using the same ground-penetrating radar used at Stonehenge).

The incised rock art of Californian Indians has been dated back to somewhere beyond 15,000 years ago using a controversial dating system developed by the geomorphologist Ron Dorn. Known as  cation-ratio dating, the method uses the leach rate of elements from the desert varnish (accumulated atmospheric debris) which covers the rock motifs, to deduce their age. Carbon dating, as the name suggests, is only useful where there are organic elements such as bone or charcoal which are adjacent to and, by implication, of a similar age as the artifact under study. There are very few examples of rock art panels conveniently buried under such material. The imprecision of dating pictographs may go some way to explaining the disfavor in which they languish in the academic world. These artifacts exist in an uncomfortable zone where neither accurate dating nor any certainty of meaning or signification is possible.

Megaliths were sometimes placed over burials, and therefore capable of being accurately dated but inspired amateurs such as Francis Hitching remain free to speculate on matters of signification. He argues that the major monuments of megalithic man which, like Stonehenge, are dated to between four and five thousand years ago (and continued in use beyond the beginnings of the Christian era), were concrete realizations of both astronomical abstractions and subterranean electro-magnetic currents. Both notions are broadly supported by scientific evidence.

In the 10,000 years prior to the great age of megaliths, Paelolithic humans had, it seems, been mostly focused on representing hunting totems. Similarly, the oldest rock art in North America attempts the representation of mega-fauna such as long-extinct camelids. While that tradition continued with drawings of, for instance, big horn sheep, well into the historic period there is also a coherent tradition of abstract symbols that appear to tie in with the geomantic and astronomical concerns of the makers of stone circles, dolmens and standing stones. In southern California, there are several instances of solstice alignments in caves and ridge notches as well as incised spirals and concentric circles that likely reference energy vortices.

In Ojai-speak, we might consider these ancient glyphs as denoting currents of rhythmic life-energy. The notion is in common currency - Conde Naste Traveler magazine references Ojai’s “famous magnetic vortex", and Ojai’s “storied electromagnetic forces” in a recent article about the appeal of the area. The Chumash preferred painting to pecking rock and their surviving designs clearly reference astronomical events. But is it possible that the vigor of the life force that runs through these valleys left no need for lithic amplification or painted signification? That the local good vibrations could be exalted in a kind of heedless hedonism whereas in the gloom of Europe, for instance, heroic effort needed to be expended in the production and tracing of a feeble charge -  a quavering echo of the universal life force which courses so strongly through Ojai?

Tip-toe Through the Killing Fields

On a warm August evening a super-moon had just risen above Sulphur Mountain and the grey and golden grasslands of Happy Valley were framed by the silhouette of the distant Nordhoff range (softened in the gloaming); the Topatopa bluffs (which glowed faintly with the day’s last remaining light) and Sulphur Mountain’s oaks (massed into a dimpled, darkling terrain). Cleared of their native oaks, then later cleared of serried ranks of European walnuts (grafted onto native root-stock), the grasslands now conjured, over their 400 odd acres, a faded pastoral idyll.

 The place resonated: and it was into the unearthly timbre of this dream-like landscape that the audience was pitched as we left the Zalk theater after a stunning performance by Chankethya Chey, late of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

Now resident in the United States (after earning a degree in choreography at UCLA) she appeared as a part of the Ojai Playwrights Conference having work-shopped her piece, My Mother and I with a director and a dramaturge. Over the course of the evening it became clear that the notion of her mother included her birth parent, her dance master (a woman) and her Country. All four dramatis personae survived the rape and murder of the failed Khmer social revolution (and its aftermath) and Kethya’s attempted reckoning is communicated through the stylized gestural language of the Royal Ballet overlain with antic influences of modern and urban dance.

Released into the heady rapture of that summer’s eve, my thoughts immediately turned to the miracle we had witnessed: a classical art-form, preserved and re-energized, that had somehow survived Pol Pot’s program of cultural genocide. The ironies unfolded more slowly.

As Eric Hobsbawm details in The Age of Extremes, A History of the World, 1914-1991, the Khmer Rouge were part of a tide of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutions that swept Africa and Asia in the 1970’s. The U.S defeat in Indochina reinforced the advance of communism and socialist regimes were established in all of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He notes that in the latter case, under the leadership of Pol Pot, there arose “a particularly murderous combination of Paris café Maoism…and the armed backwoods peasantry bent on destroying the degenerate civilization of the cities”.

Pol Pot’s attempt to root out the effete cultural traits of urban intellectual life had a horrendous impact on such institutions as the Royal Ballet where, of the 190 ballet corps and principals, only forty survived. More generally, of Cambodia’s estimated 380,000 artists and intellectuals, just three hundred, by some counts, escaped the genocide. Removed from power after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, the Khmer Rouge, under Chinese and American patronage, lived on in camps along the Thai border and remained a force in Cambodian politics - their flag flew in New York City, as sanctioned representatives of their country to the U.N. - until 1993. Kethya was born in 1985.

Mythology (as limned on the carved surfaces of the great tenth century temple and palace complex of Angkor Wat) attributes the beginnings of Cambodia’s dance tradition to a time when warring gods and demons churned the cosmic ocean, and celestial dancers called apsaras emerged from the froth (Brian Siebert, NYT). In Angkorian culture the human manifestations of these mystical beings became handmaidens to the court of the Empire (802-1431).

Most of the great monuments of the ancient and medieval worlds were built using forced labor. In the twentieth century, the Soviet and Chinese gulags, along with the labor camps of Nazi Germany, supplied much of the human energy required to create massive infrastructure projects. The great temple and palace monuments of Angkor Wat were similarly built by conscripted peasant labor and slaves captured from neighboring territories.

The complex has come to symbolize the country but it also represents the millennium of impoverished serfdom suffered by Cambodia’s peasants up until the declaration of the Republic in 1975. In a fiercely hierarchical society, court dance served the divine aspirations of the ruling family: as a State sponsored cultural expression, an aspect of its mission was to shore up the spurious mystical foundations of princely privilege. It was this privilege, along with the support provided by an urban, educated and cultured upper-middle class, that Pol Pot set out to destroy.

The almost-annihilation of Cambodian classical dance was a profound example of the collateral damage he inflicted on the country’s traditional arts: and it was the ghost of an apsara, nurtured in centuries of aristocratic co-option, that danced with Kethya that balmy August evening, remaining haughtily composed despite the alien influences of the globalized dance stylings with which Kethya surrounded her.

It is, perhaps, a matter for debate as to the extent to which the oppressed can authentically use the tools of an oppressor in their attempted overthrow. Or, as with Kethya, use a language of oppression to critique the history of a revolutionary force intent on that language’s destruction. It’s complicated. But certainly not lacking in irony.

Here in the United States we are long removed from our killing fields and long indoctrinated to ignore their dark shadow. The last vestige of Native resistance to the implacable forces of American imperialism was acted out in dance. As I suggested in Hoop Dreams, the development of the Ghost Dance, a mash-up of the Plains Indian round-dance, spiritual revivalism, end-times prophecy, trance states and incitement to destroy the white race was, as much as anything, a loose aggregation of stress symptoms. The movement originated in areas of profound spiritual and geographic dislocation - the Indian Reservations - where the survivors of the holocaust lived lives that were a macabre caricature of their authentic nomadic being.

James Mooney (1861-1921) was a self-taught ethnographer with the Bureau of American Ethnology from 1885 to 1921. His most notable work was in the study of the Ghost Dance. In 1894 he made a series of recordings of songs associated with the movement. Amidst the scratch and hiss of the recordings, a late nineteenth century American brogue is discernible droning Native American incantations - for these are his renderings of the anthemic Indian chants.

The Ghost Dance was once and forever ended with the killing of Sitting Bull at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. His are renderings after the fact. He sings in remembrance - in the voice of the oppressor.

In whose voice does Chankethya Chey speak?

Ancient Super Seed Secret

In The Three Sages, I wrote about three local salvias –black, white and purple - no mention of chia, Salvia columbariae (the most important sage to the Chumash) the seeds of which are now consumed daily in our breakfast cereal, bread and health drinks. Dr Oz (among others) proclaims it to be an Ancient Super Seed Secret. It was a staple in the diet of many indigenous peoples. Referencing C.L. Bard’s A Contribution to the History of Medicine in Southern California, Southern California Practioner, August 1894, Jan Timbrook notes,

“Perhaps the most widely used phrase in California Ethnobotany is Bard’s assertion that one tablespoon of chia seeds was sufficient to sustain for 24 hours an Indian on a forced march".

More than a century later, the hyperbole continues.

My goal in The Three Sages was partly to raise awareness of this species that thrives on the fringes of the chaparral and to encourage a minimal sage literacy. How then could I ignore columbariae? The simple fact is that until a few days ago I had experienced but a single chia sighting, on Shelf Road, some four years ago (In Search of a Shaman’s Lair). All that changed on a recent hike up Horn Canyon.

Was it a Thacher lacrosse field that lay to my left on the way up to the trail head? Young athletes lounged on the field, their sophisticated ball catchers sprawled around them, mostly unaware that this game had derived from a geographically alien culture (East-coast woodland Indians) and were they to participate in simulacrum of a local indigenous sport then on-line poker would be infinitely more appropriate (the Chumash were gambling-mad). Unless, that is, they were interested in achieving an altered state of consciousness, in which case ultra-marathoning might appeal to these louche wannabe Spartans. Fueled by the ancient super seed, local Indians performed prodigious acts of mind-altering distance-running.

Meanwhile, a young equestrian crossed my path and trotted up a nearby rise. The Spanish, agents of the Indian genocide, had, of course, re-introduced the horse to California in the late eighteenth century after the original Asian immigrants had hunted Equus ferus ferus to extinction at the end of the Ice Age some ten thousand years before.

Best not, perhaps, to trouble these young minds with the difficult paradoxes of pre-history. I passed by, intent on broaching the wildlands that beckoned beyond.

Yellow-gold petals from bush poppies were sprinkled along the trail. The rocky path was shaded by cottonwoods, bays and oaks as it followed Thacher Creek. Horticulturally, it was a quiet beginning: the usual suspects of lupin, mimulus, vetch, blue dicks, eriodictylon, occasionally woolly painbrush and, of course, the bush poppy grew along the clearing in the dominant chamise chaparral.

As I climbed beyond The Pines camp site at 3250 feet, the vegetation grew more interesting – dodder, wooly blue curls, manzanita, bush oaks and then………..chia! It grew, demurely, on either side of the trail amongst the companionable blue blossoms of blue dicks, black sage, and yerba santa: a few florets still clung to the seed heads which, in a week or two, would be ready for harvesting.

I imagined that long ago forbears of these annual plants had been seeded from spillage from burden baskets carried by Chumash women (secured with a tumpline - a broad strap supported by the woman’s brow) as they returned from the legendary chia fields at the foot of the Toptopa range. As M. Kat Anderson explains in Tending the Wild, 2005, Chumash grassland burning practices encouraged the growth of selected seed crops. The cessation of this practice, combined with the inroads made by introduced plant species has caused a drastic decline in the abundance of chia (Timbrook). It is now grown commercially from Kentucky to Argentina, but here in the erstwhile happy gathering grounds of the Chumash, it is increasingly rare - easier to find on supermarket shelves than in the wild.

Thus the commodification of the wildland continues at a cost to the authentic experience. Goji berries promise to provide the longevity of Himalayan Tibetans while chia seeds guarantee the endurance of the Tumarahara and Chumash trail runners (In Search of a Shaman's Lair). Context is everything. I can assure you that your endurance will improve if you regularly climb out of the valley to about 5,000 feet and harvest your breakfast cereal and then carry it back in a Juncus rush burden basket, mix some with a little spring water and knock it back. Similarly, the sparse diet of the traditional Tibetan, with or without goji berries would almost certainly prolong the lives of the WEIRD (Jared Diamond’s acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). Dr. Oz’s medicine show promotes Chia pudding, Click here for the complete recipe, but absent the primitive life-style of the indigenous people your health benefits may vary.

Authenticity in Landscape, Life and (Lacrosse?) is hard won. Edward Abbey, whom I have only recently begun to read, represents someone who, although fundamentally WEIRD (but never Rich and as an Anarchist, questionably Democratic),  possessed an inviolable authenticity. He writes, in Desert Solitaire, 1968, that his aim, as he begins a summer as a park ranger in Moab is to,

“confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock that sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities.”

Farley Mowatt, the Canadian writer whose death at 92 was announced today had a similar ethos: he adopted the diet of the Artic wolves he was studying (eating wood rats and other rodents) in order to understand their true nature. He later fictionalized his researches as Never Cry Wolf, 1963. Peter Matthiessen, who died earlier this year, never wavered from his fierce advocacy of the wildlands and its creatures. His first book, Wildlife in America, 1959, was published three years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and initiated a half century of researching and writing about endangered species. In The Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes, 2001, he writes,

“In this brilliant winter light, against black tree trunks and white snow, the red-crowned crane moves and turns like the quick heart of life, as dark evergreens, in their impenetrable stillness, breathe the imminence of the great mystery looming behind.”

Such lyricism can be the reward for an authentic immersion into the natural world. All I’m saying is a life in Ojai demands an engagement of its wildlands. A friend who lives on a lane off of Thacher Road mentioned that in her ten years of living in Ojai, she had never seen a deer. I suppose it would be possible, immured in Manhattan, to never see a yellow cab. But can either life be considered authentic to the place where it is lived?

Shell Game

Early this morning: dark clouds scudded across the eastern sky, as though fleeing the impenetrable, moonless night. A slightly fuzzy crescent the sun had carelessly painted on the side of our earth-washed satellite (which had arisen to greet the dawn) hung over the eastern ridge, a jewel bright morning star subtended below it. Sort of reminded me of the Turkish national flag – and no wonder, said red banner pays homage to the Tengriist beliefs of the ancient sky-worshipping Turks.

Status report from an earth-worshipper: underfoot the peonies, soap plant, wild cucumber, goosefoot and Acourtia are flourishing; at eye level ceanothus and chamise are beginning to bloom; poison oak glistens malignantly. Despite the general failure of winter, spring has arrived. Pantheists (and others) are rejoicing.

Last week, not for the first time, I was called to jury duty: actually for the third time that I did not have the ready excuse of resident alien status. Ah, those joyous years when I could scrawl “Non-Citizen” across the summons and return it (postage paid). But rendering such service is a small price to pay for the diminished night sweats. As a citizen of this fine country I can now luxuriate in my anarchist politics, comfortably ensconced in the great pluralism of the U.S. of A, protected by the might of Empire and assured of my First Amendment freedom of speech – and, by inference, of thought. Yes, dear reader, this country now clasps a viper to its bosom.

Now, when it comes to jury service, I am as willing as the next free-thinker. Turns out, such willingness is not reciprocated. Call number two (when it counted) resulted in my inclusion in a jury pool on a drunk-driving case. The case turned, as we were led to believe, on the accuracy of the breathalyser device. A young Latina was the defendant: casual observation would lead one to believe that she should more appropriately have been charged with under-age drinking. In any event, she had been stopped and blew, as the billboards suggest, $10,000. More perhaps, as she had the gumption to contest the charge. Seated with my fellow good men and women jurors I was questioned by defense and prosecution: I threw the racial profiling curve ball and followed it with the “in no circumstances will I find this woman guilty’” game ender – or so I thought. The judge came to bat and asked whether I would follow his instructions. Not necessarily says I – finally, game over. Judge asked to be reminded of my name and profession and then excused me from further service. That’s one potential client to whom I can safely say goodbye.

You’d think that that performance would have earned me an asterisk against my name – indicating that under no circumstances, save a massive die-off of eligible citizens, should I be called to assist in the machinations of the criminal justice system. But no….last Thursday found me in my jury attire lurking at the back of the hall with the on-line poker players. I was reading Edward Abbey. Mercifully, at around 3 p.m. we were sent home.

Having consigned the entire day to this civic duty I now found myself close to the ocean with more than four hours of light awaiting my pleasure. Gone are the days when I might have checked the surf report, instead, the Chumash Trail (which has some claim to being the oldest continually used footpath in California) was calling. Located across the Pacific Coast Highway from the Seabee’s rifle-firing range, it is at the southern end of Mugu lagoon in what once was the sizable Chumash village of Muwu, the path heads straight up the western flank of Mugu Peak (1050’). I usually pass the dirt parking lot on the left as I drive by at around 60 m.p.h., eyes looking ahead to the less photogenic side of Mugu Rock, and preparing for that first shot of ocean on my hurried way to Santa Monica, but this day I pulled in, parked the car, grabbed my paper cup of Peet’s Darjeeling tea and headed up the heavily used track.

This is in the area that burnt in the Camarillo Springs Fire of May 2013 and absent a wet fall, the vegetation is only now beginning to regenerate: first up, bushy red-berry; yucca, sprouting from blackened ‘pinapple’ stumps (the edible crown or base of the plant); bright green opuntia pads growing on charred cactoidal skeletons and coreopsis sprouting amidst its burnt ruins from last spring.

After about 25 minutes of steep climbing, I reached the first overlook of La Jolla Valley, green meadowlands that reach towards the jagged backdrop of Boney Mountain, reputedly a place of power for Chumash shamen. Behind me views of the ocean and Mugu Lagoon fading into the mists of Port Hueneme. To the right the trail continues up towards Mugu Peak where some functionary from the California Department of Parks and Recreation (I presume) had seen fit to raise an American Flag - a reminder of our crass conquest of these primal lands. Here, blue dicks, Indian paintbrush, poppies and white lupine have established their own mountain-top kingdoms somewhat less assertively.

Dropping down towards the rugged La Jolla Canyon the trail crosses a small creek and then leads back towards the meadow. Beneath skeletal oaks with bright green foliage nested in their carbonized upper branches I followed the creek where pools of water and jumbled debris of blackened sticks and rocks remained from the recent rain storms - crowded by patches of mugwort, nettles and poison oak. Along side, mounded, ashen earth forms were dotted with the burnt oaks where once the Chumash and before them, the people of the Millingstone horizon had made camp.

As I followed the track through a mostly monochrome landscape (the creek bottom and the puffs of new oak growth the only green) I noticed, on the blackened earth amidst the white ash of burnt sticks, other more intense dots of white. When I looked closer I realized that I was walking through a casual collection of shell middens – where mussel, barnacle, sea-snail and clam shells had been exposed by the fire. I picked up a small collection from the surface and put the shells in my now empty Peet’s cup. These were the leavings from some Chumash meal in the Mission period, below them no doubt, was buried the detritus from countless sea-food dinners consumed over many thousands of years.

At the other end of the sweeping curves of the PCH, which begin at Pt. Mugu and wriggle sinuously between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific, is County Line beach (as it continues south the highway then veers away from the coast and heads across the Malibu hills). Neptune’s Net, a lonely sea-food roadhouse (except on weekends when it is beseiged by bikers) looks across the road to this surf beach and a small promontory that I have long understood to be a Chumash site (The Sage Gatherer). Immediately opposite this piece of scrubland which offers a fine perch from which to watch the surf, is Little Sycamore Canyon.

Commonly referred to in the archeological literature as the Little Sycamore site, VEN-1 was investigated in the mid ‘50’s by William Wallace who uncovered a kitchen midden site measuring 115m x 150m that, in the process of constructing the PCH has been split into two investigable fragments. He chose to dig at the surf-side promontory and beneath the surface shells he uncovered nineteen bodies, 116 metates (mortars), 123 manos (grinding stones), as well as pipes, charmstones, hammer stones, points (arrowheads), other stone tools and antler-bone flutes, diggers and pendants (Wallace et al. 1956). In the process, he more or less defined the characteristics of the Millingstone culture which he saw as unchanging over the 7,000 years of pre-history evidenced at the site. Later research has demonstrated significant cultural change over time culminating in the development of the Chumash civilization.

I had walked over a similar midden, the mounds, perhaps, not earth-forms but depositories layered over time and entombing a people’s artifactual history; the scattered surface shells remnants of the very last food consumed before their culture was swept away by the ravages of the Spanish.

Ancient Bestiary

In the yellow dawn light chaparral is draped over the boney massif that is composed of the Topatopa mountains and fore grounded by the Santa Paula Ridge; this is the jagged head of the Santa Ynez mountain range that coils lazily back to the ocean in a long tail that terminates at Gaviota: It is as though a dragon had freshly emerged from the depths beyond the Continental Shelf, its tail dripping a few miles on-shore, its head resting in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary - and I was running in the folds of its scabrous skin, still black under the jaundiced sky.

A few nights ago I dreamt that I was lying on the planet’s crust and had an awareness of its curvature, of its being a sphere spinning through space: I felt profoundly lonely. What if the Earth itself was my only friend? Reason enough to anthropomorphize the planet so that its mantle is its skin, its vegetation a fuzzy insulation or a scaly armor, its magma the bodily fluids that occasionally erupt out of suppurating pimples, and its heart the lumpy mass of lode stone at the North Pole. In my dream I had caught it bathing in the vast oceans that enwrap it and the whole enchilada was floating blissfully in the firmament.

Now, in Upper Ojai, there appeared a dragon in an embrace of the planet’s moribund flesh. In many mythologies, dragons function as agents of creation and are enmeshed in doubleness - the light and dark, the yin and yang - that gives rise to the world. But here the dragon, substantiated in mountains, had assumed the traditional Chinese male form of Yang, recumbent on the female Earth – dark, passive and absorptive – the essence of Yin. This fantastical juxtaposition exists for me as a provocation, as a goad towards an understanding of what symbolic relevance might exist in twenty-first century landscapes.

There is, as a subset of Archeology, a discipline called Landscape Archeology, which treats landforms, in as much as they are symbolically interpreted by humankind, as cultural artifacts and investigates the morphology of the land as it has been adapted to serve farming, housing, transportation, burial and other ceremonial needs. Here in Upper Ojai, anthropogenic changes to the landscape have come only slowly in the last one hundred and fifty years or so. Previously, the Chumash and their forebears had neither the technology nor the will to make changes to earth forms beyond paths and flattened areas (cleared of rocks) for their village settlements and shallow mounds for burials.

Roads, oil roads, house sites, and farming have now altered the terrain in still subtle ways following in the wake of game trails, ancient meadows, and native village settlements (Sisa, Mupu, ?awhay and, here on Koenigstein, old Indian camps that nuzzle Bear Creek). What remain almost entirely untouched are the spalled face of the Topatopas, Kahus (now called Black mountain), scarred only with a single track along its crest carved from a Chumash spirit path (Roaming Charges), the Santa Paula Ridge - a spiritual focal point of Mupu, and the sinuous ridges of the Santa Ynez Mountains which surely penetrated Chumash and the Oak Grove Peoples’ consciousness as a powerful, serpentine earth form - a smaug-like guardian, perhaps, of the center of their universe, Mount Pinos.

Despite the availability of satellite imagery, we are slow to read the mythologies embedded in the planet’s wrinkled mantle and remain more attuned to meanings in the constellations above, than on the earth below. Hermes Trismegistus, the great Pagan Prophet, and founder of the western Hermetic tradition, established the maxim, “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing." Or, more simply, ‘as above so below’ which serves as a core principal of the occult sciences.

As I pointed out in Real Suspense, celestial beings mediated Chumash reality from above but they were twinned with creatures that roamed the terrestrial plane, thus the deer was associated with the Milky Way while the spirit of Mars was mirrored in the condor. Wolves, bears, antelope, coyote and rabbits all had their astral associations. What is not clear from the archeological and anthropological record is whether earth forms and rock alignments were recognized as a kind of visionary geography or even, as Richard Leviton (RV III) believes he has discovered at Glastonbury and Elizabeth Van Buren at Rennes le Chateau, a landscape zodiac.

The extent to which we are reluctant to accept evidence of the dragon in the landscape, so to speak, was brought home to me upon publication of Rock Art at Little Lake, produced by the Cotsen Institute of Archeology Press at UCLA, 2013, and with which I was involved as an illustrator and word-smith for several years. The book, beautifully designed by Doug Brotherton features, on the back cover, a stunning aerial image of the eponymous lake with a very obvious dragon form curling around its eastern shore. Obvious, that is, to me.

The confused morphology of dragon, serpent and lizard (or crocodile) is evident across cultures and where I see dragon, others may see a more prosaic reptile. Moko, for instance, appears in some Pacific Island cultures as a lizard with both human and avian features making it King of the Lizards, while at the same time, as a biological mash-up, it transcends the animal kingdom altogether and rises to the level of an entirely mythic creature. Similarly, the rattle snake, amongst some Native American cultures, exists as both a corporeal viper and a transcendent spirit animal sometimes associated with thunder and lightning (which, to some minds might signify a fire-snorting dragon!).

At Little Lake, the head of the dragon, formed from a basalt lava flow, faces due south while the western flank of its body is delineated by a talus slope. The creature sprawls along a mile of lake-frontage. The lake, a nearby cinder cone and the dragon make up the defining large-scale characteristics of this oasis site, an ancient crossroads on the western edge of California’s Great Basin. Teams of students and volunteers, led by Dr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg and John Bretney, combed the site for rock art over a period of more than ten years and were well aware of the power of this landscape image that forms the eastern backdrop to the lake.

Harrington (Trunk Show) noted that the Panamint Shoshone knew the escarpment as Rattlesnake Ridge and, as Jo Anne Van Tilburg et al point out, “There is little doubt that the serpentine configuration was noticed and valued by other….groups”. The Kawaiisu commemorate a mythic giant snake (tugubaziitbit) in several landforms close by, but no definitive evidence suggests that the Little Lake land-monster was amongst them, but today, be it Great Snake or Dragon its covert presence is dramatically outed on the back cover of the UCLA volume.

Little Lake (formerly Little Owens Lake) is just to the east of US 395 which is the primary route from Mojave to the ski resorts of the Eastern Sierras and the road is thus heavily trafficked with laden SUV’s in the winter. I drove by a few times a year for the decade that Lorrie and I took the kids snow-boarding. Over the years I fell into a rhythm of looking out for the lake, which comes right to the edge of the paving and is almost at the same level, then casting my eye beyond it to the curving line of the talus slope, which rises more than a hundred feet above the water, and fantasizing about one day running along its ridge - the dragon’s spine.

Early in the second half of the twentieth century, Noam Chomsky suggested that the basic syntactical structures of language are hard-wired within the human brain, and Claude Levi Strauss, the French anthropologist, proposed that similarly, a shared mythic consciousness exists across all cultures. A century earlier, American transcendentalists suggested that matter is but a metaphor for spirit.

While language is most often the medium of transmission for mythologies - and these expressions of speculative narrative share universal structural similarities - it is perhaps through the armature of landscape and the Etch A Sketch of starry skies that myths are most effectively reified – shared foundational stories made manifest in the world; matter made spirit.

So it is that landforms, gnarled oak trunks, rocks, rivers and streams can have metaphoric meaning in the world. Lacking an oral tradition of mythology (or the pecked and painted symbology of rock art), they may be our last repository of a universal consciousness, a link to the narratives of our becoming and - like the constellations - contain an ancient bestiary through which these stories may be told.

Trunk Show

In California, by the last third of the nineteenth century, Native civilizations had essentially collapsed after the prolonged physical and cultural assault of European religion, disease and colonization. The coup de grace was administered by the inundation of the State by gold seekers around 1850.

But by 1870, Californian Indian culture was ripe for one last revival. A catalyst arrived in the form of the prophecies of a Nevada Paiute named Jack Wilson or Wakova, and the revival achieved its frenzied apotheosis in the Ghost Dance - the practice of which promised not only the return of the dead, but the end of the world and the elimination of all white people.

Despite the widespread embrace of the cult, particularly in northern California, where tribes were less Christianized, none of these goals was achieved: instead, the confused, hybridized values inherent in the Ghost Dance distanced native peoples from their ancestral cultures and in many cases forever removed them from their traditional tribal practices. The belated realization of a common cause amongst discrete tribelets and the development of a pan-Indian identity merely hastened the destruction of their unique cultures.

The practice of the Ghost Dance became a red-flag in the face of Anglo-Americans confident of their hegemony and they redoubled their attempts to extinguish the cultural, economic and, in many cases, the physical lives of Native peoples. The Ghost Dance was revived in Nevada in 1890, but while this recrudescence flourished across the Great Plains to the north and east, Native California cultures had by then disintegrated beyond the point of resurrection. The movement was finally destroyed at the Wounded Knee massacre perpetrated by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry later that same year.

Other Indian cults arose in this brief twenty year interregnum, 1870-1890, and most were marked by an apocalyptic, end-times ethos that promised the elimination of white people. The Earth Lodge Cult stressed the end of the world, while the Bole –Maru abandoned the doctrine of imminent world-catastrophe and stressed the concepts of an after-life and a supreme being (The 1870 Ghost Dance, Cora Du Bois, Univ. Calif., 1951).

In light of this fin de siècle Indian renunciation of the core animism of shaman-centered spiritual traditions, it is no surprise, perhaps, that those who now identify as Native American swell the ranks of the evangelical Christian movement and, as adherents of casino capitalism (often quite literally), reliably vote Republican.

These cults represented both a reaction to what was perceived as a failed animistic magic and the adoption of a last ditch faith in authoritarian prophets or dreamers who promised an end to the long decline of their societies. In the early decades of the twentieth century, as Harry Lawton notes in his introduction to Carobeth Laird’s memoir of her life with John Peabody Harrington (Encounter with an Angry God, 1975), a generation of newly minted, University trained anthropologists (many the students of Franz Boas) were infected with a similar sense of time running out. He writes,

"They fanned out across the North American continent to record everything which could be learned about the dying cultures of the American Indian…they sought out those old people who remembered how life had been before the coming of the white man”.

Foremost amongst these researchers creating a new body of knowledge was the linguist-ethnographer John Peabody Harrington. In 1915, then 31, he met the nineteen year old Laird. She recounts their life together – he collecting information from his ‘informants’, she driving their model T to remote Southern Californian and Arizonan locations and living in isolated and primitive conditions, which he ignored and she came to despise. Harrington obsessively gathered information on moribund languages and half-forgotten ethnobotanical information from aged Indians and these gleanings apparently sustained him in mind, body and spirit. His habitual diet was a mix of boiled grains which he called ‘mush’. He disdained society and only reluctantly visited Washington, D.C. where his employer, the Bureau of American Ethnology occasionally required his presence. For him, field work was everything and he often worked eighteen hour days.

He drove his young wife has hard as he did himself and after six years together she left him for one of his informants, a Chemehuevi of mixed ethnic background who retained connections to his Native culture through his mother. Together this couple scratched a living on twenty acres in eastern San Diego County where she eventually succumbed to Christian Science and he to old age, dying in 1940. Some thirty years later, having revived her truncated career as an anthropologist, she wrote the memoir which had Tom Wolfe acclaim her as ‘an exciting new literary talent bursting forth at the age of 80’. Harrington recovered from Carobeth’s departure, acquired a new assistant and continued his fanatical collection of data until his death in Santa Barbara, from Parkinson’s in 1961.

While Urban Wildland has focused primarily on the spatial contexts of perceived Native spirituality under the category of Etheric Landscape, the relationships among people, place, and power are largely effected through language and it is the mechanics of this process that fascinated Harrington - it was his sometime mentor Franz Boas, who as a pioneer investigator of Native American languages, had established the importance of linguistic analysis and pointed out that language was a fundamental aspect of culture. How ideas are transmitted through the structural shape of language became, in the twentieth century, a decisive tool of social analysis. Harrington worked at the atomic level of this epochal intellectual project.

California supported several diverse culture areas and at least 100 distinct languages. The devastation was so rapid that the synthesis of Native and Spanish structure characteristic of Latin American Indian languages did not take place. As Catherine Callaghan notes in J. P. Harrington - California's Great Linguist, Journal of Californian Archeology, 1975, ‘there was a whole generation of older Indians in the early part of the twentieth century who remembered their language when it was largely in its pre-contact form’.

No piece even tangentially about Harrington would be complete without mention of his notorious habit of stashing material away in boxes, trunks and warehouses that was subsequently lost and then, as the stories usually go, miraculously recovered. Here is one local snippet of loss and re-discovery: in 1981, a trunk was uncovered in the garage of a house in Simi belonging to a Harrington relative. It had been stored there for the previous 40 years, and is believed to be the steamer trunk that young John took with him to Germany in 1905 where he pursued graduate studies at the University of Leipzig, then considered to be one of the finest schools in the world. When opened it was found to contain a mass of papers filling the trunk to a depth of a foot consisting of both ethnographic data and personal mementos, dating from as early as 1894 to the late 1930's (Benson and Edberg, The Road to Goleta, Journal of Great Basin Anthropology, 1982). 

Of particular local interest were the approximately six thousand slip notes (J.P.H.’s version of a note cards) in Ventureño Chumash. Harrington gleaned information from at least two informants, Simplicio Pico and Maria Antonia Tumamait (an ancestor, presumably of Ojai’s Julie Tumamait) concerning vocabulary and grammar, data on place names, ethnobotany, historical events, shrines, sweat houses, and myths - which has since become the source of work by Travis Hudson and the ethnobotanist Jan Timbrook, among others.

Harrington spent a great deal of time working with Ventureño informants in the El Rio area (now Oxnard) and he was sanguine about their chances of survival, on one of the slip notes he scribbled, " Mestizos siempre hay. No se acaban." But while confident that these people would endure, he was under no illusions about the purity of their Chumash ancestry – hence his use of the word mestizo.

Whatever we now know of the Chumash culture is largely a result of Harrington’s monomaniacal data collection. At some very fundamental level he understood that this was his role in the world. He eschewed personal gain and academic reputation (he published only a few short papers) and, most of all, a settled domestic life in the attempt to record fast vanishing Native cultures and languages: his secrecy, paranoia and the intensity of his work ethic were all symptoms of his ‘rage against the dying of the light’, the clouding of the crystalline visions of an animistic world that once had informed a myriad cultures in California.

Mission Statement

There are signs everywhere that I am well and truly infected with the zeitgeist - blogging in the main-stream of what is arguably a major tributary to our shared, contemporary world culture. I am concerned with the particularities of place, my place – its landscape, its wildlife and its relevance within its broader bio-region. It is these concerns and my self-characterization as an independent historian, natural historian and speculative environmentalist (who shares his thoughts in essay form) that position me squarely in an increasingly popular genre. I have been reading Robert Macfarlane, a well-known British nature writer and a leading practitioner of said literary niche: I feel affirmed and only a little chagrined that everything I have ever said he has said better.

I suppose it was my father who first introduced me to some of the rituals pertaining to this particular form of creative non-fiction (Knowledge Scrublands). He would quote George Borrow’s minor nineteenth century classic, Lavengro (which I dimly recall sitting within the glass-cased bookshelf) and talk of those, ‘wind on the heath, brother’ types. I knew whom he meant, they wore shorts and carried khaki canvas knapsacks and strode across the Surrey downs. He was secretly one of them, although he wore a tweed suit, swung a cherry walking stick and spurned a back-pack  - often with me, in grey-flannel shorts, in-tow. It is only now, with the help of Mr. Google that I can connect this derisive characterization with a book he loved in which a character declaims that even in sickness and blindness he would cling to life, for when,

"There's the wind on the heath, brother; if I could only feel that, I would gladly live forever”.

Sitting in our back yard this evening, I had a similar thought: will I ever tire of this view? And then, as Lorrie and I enjoyed the deepening colors of the evening - highlighted by the puce clouds in a still bright sky – a tremulous breeze wafted down the canyon and I realized that perhaps this haptic caress was, indeed, all I needed to remain connected to the wildland that surrounds us (well, that and the nocturnal mewling of the bobcats and the hysterical eventide caterwauling of the coyotes).

My father, who I sometimes characterize as the last of the Edwardians (born three years after the end of that brief reign, 1901-1910) was, it now seems, ahead of his time. Robert Macfarlane calls Borrow ‘the most charismatic of modern walker-writers’ who ‘set images loose in the nineteenth century imagination’. He certainly stirred something in my father who in turn, contrived to focus my aesthetic fetishism on the natural world,

“There’s night and day brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?”


Although Macfarlane’s new book, The Old Ways, A Journey on Foot, explores paths in Tibet, Palestine and Spain his home territory is the British Isles - what he calls the archipelago - and thus however intimidated I may be by his being, by Pico Iyer’s account, ‘the most accomplished (and erudite) writer on place to have come along in years’, as long as he stays well clear of the chaparral I can continue in my endeavors with some sense of purpose.

Meanwhile, not a chapter of his goes by without turning my head into a veritable carillon of ringing bells. Take ‘Grave’ in The Wild Places, for instance, where he writes of Burren on the west coast of Ireland, ‘Walking its grey reaches, you find memorials to the dead everywhere: stone circles, dolmens, wedge-tombs, headstones, crosses, burial grounds consecrated and unconsecrated’. And later, ‘At certain times and in certain places….one could see through the present land, the land of the living, backwards into another time, to a ghost landscape, the land of the dead.’

Walking the land this morning I propped up a rusted skeleton of a truck door from the 40’s or 50’s on a rock beneath the canopy of a fire-scarred live-oak, a makeshift memorial to the time when this was still a working ranch. At my childhood home in Surrey, built on land that had been farmed for millennia, and before that, grubbed and hunted across by early man, the earth offered up its past in artifacts like the hubs of old cart wheels, rusted scythe blades, hand forged nails, once, a Roman coin, and much Neolithic detritus such as skin scrapers and hand axes.

Here, across the road, where Bear Creek widens just east of Margot’s house, Scott Titus, who grew up at the Koenigstein/150 junction (in the house where fellow blogger Kit Stolz (A Change in the Wind) and his wife Val now live), tells me that he and his friends would unearth stone tools and debitage (lithic flakes from their manufacture) along its banks. Where once was an Indian village now frolic fuzzy coyote pups who venture forth to gambol along road’s edge and occasionally poke their collective noses up our driveway. These physical manifestations of erstwhile spirit helpers and Datura givers are now multiplying in the wake of a decimating parvo epidemic and preparing to put a serious check on our burgeoning rabbit population.

While the only known grave site in Upper Ojai is adjacent to the Awha’y village, just west and south of here, where lie buried the bones and artifacts of the departed Chumash, every Indian village contained its own burial area with bodies interned alongside tomol planks to enable their voyage to Shimilaqsha, beyond the western shore; their sky-journey marked with feathered and painted spirit poles placed on prominent hilltops. From the eastern reaches of Upper Ojai, perhaps the first such marker was erected on Kahus (Bear Mountain, now called Black Mountain).

No stone circles, dolmens, wedge-tombs, headstones, and crosses, but still this land is memorious (a favorite Macfarlane word!) of its human past - occasionally, hereabouts, rock art; sometimes cave shelters where carbon traces, bones, seeds and fiber betray a long-ago life; or depressions in the land revealed after a fire, that mark a village site - and paths.

Now is the time to explore the Indian spirit, summit and trading trails that start from Point Mugu and head off into the Boney Mountain State Wilderness through blackened land burnt in The Springs Fire which began on May 2, this year. Officially designated number 344, it has 343 predecessors – major fires in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (which more or less overlays the Chumash heartland) dating back to 1925. Despite the lack of Indian burnings over the last couple of centuries, our smoking, barbequing and often just plain malicious society has contrived to replicate the intensity, if not the finesse, of their pyro-activity, and in this case may have again revealed the Chumash way over the mountains towards their inland trading partners and their vision-quest sites in the Simi Valley.

Northwest over the mountains, down through Thousand Oaks, across the 101, onward towards Bell Canyon and then into Santa Susana State Historical Park where Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory now awaits radio-nuclide clean up and ultimate inclusion in the park, (complete with one of the finest remaining Chumash painted caves): here is an urban wildland path waiting to be discovered.

This is not easy country. Vestigial signs of its past are not easily given up. The frenetic human imprint of the last one hundred and fifty years has all but obliterated the previous 10,000 years of human presence. Mature chaparral is almost impenetrable; the trails – where they exist - can be steep and rocky; the suburban sprawl and the Amazonian freeways that service their off-ramp populations obdurately resistant to anything but vehicular passage, yet I have a feeling that George Borrow might have found a way.

If I have learnt anything from Robert Macfarlane it is that arm-chair research only goes so far. The wildland demands a physical engagement and in that effort may be revealed a glimmer of understanding.  On Wordsworthian reflection, that little knowledge may then be expanded in the act of writing.

Real Suspense

The 'antap were complicit in the creation and maintenance of a cosmology in which the Chumash people existed in a planar universe - the middle world - reflected above by the celestial bodies of the heavens and below by an underworld of malevolent beings. It was given to the 'antap, an inter-tribelet intellectual elite, to interpret this layered universe and render prognostications based on their close observance of it.

The middle world was quartered and then quartered again. To the east was Kakunupmawa, home of the sun, to the west was both the land of the dead and the ceremonial alignment of Hutash, the earth. From south to north was considered to be the path of the ancient ones searching for pinyon, mirrored above by the Milky Way. These Before People, journeying towards the land of spirits, traveled a ghost's road in a spectral bisection of the earthly plain. The winds blew across this world in each direction and then, in their fickleness, blew again between each of the cardinal alignments.

At the center of it all was the 'Antap plain - playground of all the powers of the Chumash universe: a fearful place riven by the San Andreas fault and still today, largely uninhabited. The Cuddy Valley, as it is now known, occupies that dead zone between Frazier mountain and Mount Pinos. Here, in the lonely urban wildland enclave of Pinon Pines Estates, an unlikely exurb of Santa Clarita, houses have fallen into foreclosure as high gas prices have destroyed its viability as a commuter hub and real estate values continue to drop after the collapse of the bubble in 2008. As one of Harrington's informants reports, "The wind blows strong there and the earth shakes. If you get in there, you never get out". Another informant, Maria Solares, claimed that it was the most sacred place in Chumash country and that spirits danced at night in the flickering light of their fires. Spanish soldiers from Fort Tejon who went there to fell lumber quickly retreated: these spirits may still spook visitors who mistakenly wander into, or build houses within this ectoplasmic maelstrom.

The 'antap governed the ritual life of native American society as it existed north from Malibu, south from Paso Robles and west of the Central Valley. The 'alchuklash, astronomer priests of the 'antap followed the the sun, moon, stars, constellations and planets and saw them as personified supernatural beings whose behaviors, games and relationships must be swayed by the appropriate ritualistic intercessions otherwise, as Hudson and Underhay note in Crystals in the Sky: An Intellectual Odyssey Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology and Rock Art, 1978,"cosmic equilibrium would be lost and disaster for the entire biotic world would surely follow". This was a heavy responsibility and never more onerous when only the correct observance of Chumash ritual could coax the sun, after its three days of apparent paralysis at the winter solstice, to turn to the north and bring the world back to the warmth and light of spring in its annual re-birth.

Celestial beings mediated Chumash reality from above but they were also twinned with creatures that inhabited the terrestrial plain. The deer was associated with the Milky Way while the spirit of Mars was mirrored in the condor. Wolves, bears, antelope and rabbits all had their astral associations, while the essence of Polaris, the north star, inhered in the coyote and it was thus known as Shnilemun, Sky Coyote. (Today, after a long absence, two of these animals were roaming the meadow below the house: come nightfall their star will appear somewhere above the implacable shadows of the Topatopa ridge-line).

Chumash knowledge and practice were woven in a complex framework within which the local indians conducted their daily lives. Of modern-day America, Jean Beaudrillard wrote,

"Astral America...the direct star-blast from vectors and signals, from the vertical and the spatial...Sideration. Star-blasted, horizontally by the car, altitudinally by the plane, electronically by television, geologically by deserts, stereolyptically by the megolopoloi, transpolitically by the powergame, the power museum that America has become for the whole world".

Never mind what exactly he means, and perhaps it reads better in French, but what he expresses here is his foundational premise that we experience the world through a simulacrum of our own construction. Elsewhere in America, his 1986 ode to the anomie of the United States he writes,

"Everything is destined to reappear as simulation. Landscapes as photography, women as sexual scenario, thoughts as writing, terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television."

The Chumash experienced their world largely as it was reflected in the phenomena of celestial bodies, the agency of spirits that inhabited the flora and fauna of the chaparral and the coastal scrub and the ritual activities orchestrated by the 'antap. Their world, like ours, was mediated. Their points of connection with the physical universe became touchstones in an elaborate liturgy that attempted to neutralize the dark forces of the underworld. Misunderstandings and misconstructions of the universe as it was explicated in the Chumash cosmology could only be rectified by the intercession of a shaman who had the ability to travel directly to, and deal with, elemental, unmediated, sources of power. The Shaman, (like the nuclear physicist and, perhaps, the neurosurgeon), was able to eschew metaphor: the uninitiated could grasp the world's cosmic energy only if it was insulated by mythical elaboration. As T.S. Eliot noted in another context, "Humankind cannot stand very much reality".

The asceticism of the Zen monk enables him to grapple with the nature of being (and becoming) that elude most of us star-blasted souls living within close range of our culture's toxic radiation. The 'antap, too, necessarily stood apart. The priest astronomers, the 'alchuklash, and the shaman magicians within the 'antap were further removed - their direct observation and intercession shaped the rituals scheduled, performed and interpreted by their cult  - which ameliorated other lives lived in this penumbra of tales, association and omen.

Living in nature is no guarantee of enlightenment. Most Chumash and their predecessors, the Before People, (who existed in a world before the acorn was the Indian's food) lived in a simulacrum constructed for them by priests and magicians. Their ability to break through what we might call the fourth wall was highly proscribed. We face similar challenges in accessing unmediated reality. The occasional sighting of a coyote or bobcat, a walk through the heavy scents of the chaparral, the surveying of a reasonably unblemished night sky or awakening to a rosy fingered dawn can sometimes seem to offer special dispensation, a glimpse beyond culture's veil, but we are soon clawed back into Beaudrillard's America, where "the fact of living is not really well attested, but the paradox of this society is that you even cannot die....since you are already dead. This is real suspense".

Ancient Isle

T.C. Boyle has written a second novel primarily set on the Channel Islands. The first, When the Killing's Done, 2011, focused on the removal of the invasive pig population on Santa Cruz, the second, San Miguel, 2012, tracks the history of two sheep ranching families on the eponymous island. So, as they say, what's up with that?

Why the fixation on these scrappy mountain tops left exposed above the rising melt waters of the last ice age? The celebrated author lives in Montecito and perhaps, on a clear day, he can see the shadowy forms of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and even San Miguel on the horizon from his writing room. It is but a small step from the admonition, 'write what you know' to 'write what you see' - a step that I have certainly embraced - but T.C. (Tom to his friends) is no beginning writer casting around for a journalistic focus. He is famously prolific and many of his books can reasonably be claimed to be about something beyond the prosaic meaning of their narratives. There is something else driving his current purview.

The geographic imperative has a long history in America. 'Go West, young man', exhorted Horace Greeley, seeking to materialize Manifest Destiny (Fortune Cookie). Us Euro-Californians can relate (Asian-Americans less so): but I was reminded that there can be contrary directional impulses within the United States somewhere around the seventh hour of last Sunday's staged reading of The Great Gatsby which Lorrie and I attended. (Gatz, By Elevator Repair Service, from the text by F. Scott Fitzgerald, directed by John Collins; at the Roy and Edna Disney Cal-Arts Theater, Disney Hall, Los Angeles).

In a work that slides into penny-dreadful territory in its closing chapters, Fitzgerald remembers his elevated literary ambitions when he mythologizes the great trek east: Nick, Jay and Daisy have all migrated from the mid-west and Fitzgerald briefly considers that fact's significance (to draw his reader away, perhaps, from pondering the automotive and ballistic carnage he has just foisted on them). Until the mechanics of the plot run away with him, I was enraptured by Fitzgerald's prose lucidly presented by this New York theater troupe. Let me tell you, T. Coraghessan Boyle is no F. Scott Fitzgerald. The former is a novelist of a distinctly different stripe. His are the narrative skills of a westerner: no complexities of syntax, no elaborate metaphor; he writes instead with the propulsive force of a locomotive carrying the reader, pell-mell, along the lines of the plot and through richly rendered landscapes and weather.

As such, he is a writer who uses externalities rather than interior monologues or the finely crafted apercus of Fitzgerald. He is, in a real sense, an environmental writer in which human characters share the stage, on an equal footing as it were, with their surroundings. In a recent interview he says, “what I seem to be writing about through all my books is us as animals in nature”.

Boyle's islands are not true wildlands. They might be seen as highly attenuated urban wildlands. But these are not suburban annexes (such as Upper Ojai), they are truly remote - yet the wildness of the isolated setting has been transmuted by the pasturing of livestock which creates its own barren, rusticated hinterland. This transmutation of the real into into the ersatz, of gold into dross, of, ultimately, wilderness into pasture, is presumably one of T.C. Boyle's novelistic concerns. His are tales of paradise lost.

The families who sojourn on San Miguel (both his recent books are novelistic glosses on the facts of nineteenth and twentieth century ranching on the islands) lead lives made miserable, in one way or another, by the environmental damage caused by the depredations of the Spanish, who first de-forested the island early in the nineteenth century, and then successive waves of ranchers whose sheep herds nibbled the vegetation down to the nub. Lacking all hindrance, the abrasive winds that sweep down past Point Conception drive sand deep into the food, shelter and clothing of these coastal pastoralists. Their lives are abraded by grit. The wool that is their livelihood is similarly infiltrated and the sand quickly blunts the blades of the Mexican and Indian itinerant sheep shearers. As Boyle tells it, when the lash of wind driven sand abates it is replaced with a shroud of fog that wraps its dampness over the land and its chilled inhabitants alike. Fun Times.

I am now reading Scarlet Feather, 1945, by Joan Grant, a so-called Far Memory Book in which the author ostensibly recalls a story from a past life. There is a connection to Ojai in that Grant's grand daughter (also a writer) now lives in Ojai having been gifted an estate that included a house and grounds in the east end by an avid fan of her grandmother's writing - she, in turn, is now embarked on telling this strange tale of inheritance. Scarlet Feather is the American story in Grant's canon (Joan incarnated in many of the more storied civilizational epochs) and relates to an Indian tribe loosely located in the west.

Grant recounts the story of Piyanah and Raki, princelings of the Two Trees band who are charged by the chief to lead a new tribe into the promised land in which the Canyon of Separation between men and women will be bridged, Love is recognized as the source of Life, the Sorrow Bird is banished, Superstition is extinguished and The Before People - their ancesters - emerge from the shadows to become spirit guides. Grant might reasonably be accused of projecting a mid-century, feminist mysticism on a midden of accumulated anthropological cliches, yet she leaves us with at least one useful concept.

The Before People represent the beginning of things: they are, Grant writes, "Those who came before we can remember" where, in their Country Beyond the Water, men and women walked hand in hand and shared their days, "it was together that they wept..laughed...worked and loved". I cannot speak to the equality of the sexes on San Miguel in its early days of human habitation, but the island's first men and women arrived at the end of the last ice age and given their great discontinuity with the lives and culture of the Chumash it is, perhaps, appropriate to think of them as The Before People.

Having navigated the 'Kelp Road' down from what is now eastern Siberia, they made landfall south of Point Conception where a pine-forested San Miguel beckoned. At that time, it formed the northern tip of Santa Rosae, before rising sea levels divided the land mass, then a mere five miles off of the mainland coast, into separate islands. Carbon dating establishes a Paleoindian presence on this scrap of land beyond the California coast as long as 13,000 years ago. John Erlandson, the archeologist who has spear-headed the Kelp Road theory, writes,

"By about 16,000 years ago, the North Pacific Coast offered a linear migration route, essentially unobstructed and entirely at sea level, from northeast Asia into the Americas....With reduced wave energy, holdfasts for boats, and productive fishing, these linear kelp forest ecosystems may have provided a kind of kelp highway for early maritime peoples colonizing the New World."

And it was in Daisy Cave on San Miguel that Erlandson found evidence of kelp culture, North America's earliest shell midden and an ancient weaving technology evidenced by basketry and cordage (all this, despite looting by the ranching families of whom Boyle writes).

By 1543, when the first European to explore the Californian coast, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, suffered a fatal wound after slipping on a San Miguel rock, the Chumash had found the island's most propitious use to be the burying of their dead. The Spanish removed the relict pine trees and the remaining native population early in the nineteenth century. As noted above, sheep and goats destroyed what was left of the native flora. In the middle of the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy administered the final indignity by using the island as a bombing range.

The Rainbow Bridge (Hoop Dreams) no longer connects San Miguel to the mainland: Santa Rosae's vestigial isthmus is now truly the land beyond the water: rising seas lap at her shores, live ordnance lies buried beneath sand and rock and her Before People have retreated to the shadows. Yet I am heartened that a moment in the island's time has now been animated, in all its grim beauty, by Boyle's pen. May other legends of this ancient isle be similarly revived.

Word of Mouth

Black Bears, Grapefruit and Star Thistle - all alien life forms on planet Upper Ojai. My provenance is also deeply questionable. But we are mostly tolerant of new life here and, if we have any understanding of history, we accept that everywhere on Earth the new inevitably replaces the old in the supernal flood tides of the cosmos.

It is only fitting however, that we occasionally stop to mourn those who have been recently swept away. Eric J. Hobsbawm, Alexander Cockburn, Gore Vidal and Tony Judt have all shuffled off in recent months and together they represent a phalanx of brilliant, historically aware writers for whom there are no immediately apparent replacements. On a selfish note, I regret that my bookshelves just got burdened with another row of dead white male authors.

The evanescence of life becomes ever more apparent as one ages and there is a kind of rearward-looking genetic immortality that some seek in their genealogy. For a historian manque or, on my better days, an independent scholar, I've never been much for looking backwards at my own family records. My standard retort is that I come from a long line of ne'er-do-wells, but the reality is that I have no knowledge of anyone beyond my grandparents. While it is not unusual for someone to be able to trace their lineage for a half millenium or more, Ernestine Ygnacio de Soto, a Santa Barbara resident, makes the stunning claim that she can trace her family back thirteen thousand years.

She makes this bid for a connection to the first peopling of California in Paul Goldsmith's film, Six Generations. As it happens, I know Paul (Shamanize or Die), and I have tried to watch his film a number of times, but the inherent goodwill I have towards it is destroyed in the first few frames when the following note appears over images of an idyllic Santa Barbara seascape:

"Chumash Indians have been living along the coast of Southern California for many thousands of years, as far back as the archeological record can determine."

Now as it happens, I have some familiarity with said archeological record and it is unambiguous in establishing that Chumash culture reaches back, at most, three thousand years. To wit:

The Chumashan languages are sui generis, linguists treat them as a 'classificatory isolate'. Yet their lack of wide diversity - just three main groupings, Northern, Central (which includes the local dialects of Purisimeño, Barbareño and Ventureño) and Island (the languages spoken on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel) - suggests a time depth of not much more than two millennia. In other words, the languages exhibit the same sort of internal diversity exhibited by the Germanic and Romance languages of Europe and, in fact, they likely developed over the same two thousand years or so, up until the dawn of the nineteenth century (Victor Golla in California Prehistory, 2007). So that while there has been significant demographic and cultural stability, over twelve or thirteen thousand years, in the lands now considered 'Chumash', the language arrived only recently.

The Yukians, who occupied coastal lands north of San Francisco, may have represented a relict population of the earliest people of California - their fiercely independent, war-like character has led to them be labeled the Basques of northern California - and it is their early language that may have served as the base linguistic strata for much of California, including the central coast and inland ranges. At this time there is no compelling theory as to how the comparatively recent languages of the Chumashan phylum developed.

While various Hegira theories remain at the fringe - relics of the notion that the Americas were solely peopled via the Beringian land bridge and the Laurentide and Cordilleran inter-galacial corridor - it is now considered more likely that coastal California was populated via the Kelp Road along the ice free Pacific coast (Jon Erlandson). Within an overriding cultural stasis, civilizational diversity was engendered, over time, by climate change (as it impacted the biophysical environment) leading to significant dietary adaptations both along the coast and inland valleys. Technological innovations, again mostly driven by the exigencies of subsistence, also contributed to a clear delineation of peoples over the millennia - most notably in the establishment of the milling stone horizon (9,000 - 8,500 B.P.).

Thus the notion that any coherent cultural link can be established between a baptized Chumash woman of the early nineteenth century (Ernestine's first documented ancestor) and the first peopling of California is at best, naively romantic. Distinct societies evolved, at least partly prompted by climatic changes with each iteration possessing unique cultural traits and languages until about 1000 B.C. when there appears to have been a homogenization, of both culture and language, over the area we now consider to have been peopled by the Chumash.

None of this addresses the genetic linkage proposed in the film by Ernestine and Dr. John Johnson, Curator of Anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Johnson studies the genetic relationships among California Indian tribes belonging to different linguistic families. Pre-contact, over 60 ( some say a hundred) different languages were spoken within a vast patchwork of different cultural groups (reflecting, perhaps, significant migration events in pre-history). Using mitrochondrial DNA molecules (passed along the female line) from extant mixed blood 'Chumash' he hopes to establish the genetic prehistory of the Indians who lived along the central and south coast and determine if they were genetically distinct from other neighboring tribes. Ernestine is Exhibit 'A' - or rather Haplogroup 'B', one of several such mtDNA markers that originated amongst the ancient people of Asia.

Ernestine possesses one of the genetic markers characteristic of Native Americans - whose four mtDNA groups can all, in turn, be traced to Asia. A rare Haplogroup 'D' is more specifically associated with the early peopling of the Pacific Coast dotted along the entire seaboard of North and South America (providing more support for Erlandson's Kelp Road thesis). Does this make Ernestine 13,000 years old as she coyly suggests in Six Generations? Does her self-identification as 'Chumash' have any meaning at a time almost 200 hundred years distant from any semblance of a coherent Chumash culture? Neither of these questions is addressed in the film and the fact that they may even occur to the viewer is a symptom of Paul and Ernestine overselling their story - for the simple fact of her connection through six documented generations to her great great great grandmother, a full-blood Barbareño Chumash ironically born in the first contact year of 1769 and baptized Maria Paula (numbered 3302) at Santa Barbara Mission on the third of April, 1807 provides, one would think, sufficient narrative structure.

As remarkable as her well documented lineage back to the moment of first contact is, it is enormously enriched by her family's close connection with John Peabody Harrington (1888-1961), the man who almost single handedly preserved the ethnographic and linguistic history of her erstwhile people. She is the daughter of Mary Yee (1897-1965) who was Harrigton's last 'informant', and the last native speaker of Barbareño and indeed of any Chumash language. Mary followed both her grandmother, Luisa Ygnacio and her mother Lucretia Garcia as the great linguist's 'informants'. Ernestine grew up around Harrington who was an almost daily visitor to the family's house, and it was her mother who nursed him as he lay dying of Parkinson's disease. Mary Yee kept her own extraordinary illustrated notes as her work with Harrington progressed over the final eight years of his life. Her heritage and her daughter's is truly remarkable: too bad, that in Six Generations, it is mired in overblown claims of unproven genetic kinship with California's first people.

This just in: Black Bear Attacks Woman in Ojai. This blog more often attempts the timeless than the timely; but sometimes the present intrudes. Perhaps because she had seen that I was working on a piece provisionally titled 'Black Bears, Grapefruit and Star Thistle' (remember them?) Lorrie texted me

"Go to Yahoo News: Story of Black Bear attack on Gridley Trail. Yikes!"

Or, perhaps because the attack occurred at seven a.m., prime running time and, in fact, on part of an old trail route of mine, she was anxious to provide documented proof of the foolhardiness of my private passion. I appreciate that she cares deeply but I take the moral of the story as do not turn your back on a mother bear with her cub (even when accompanied by three dogs, as was the woman), unless you are running like hell. Mama bear took a couple of swipes at the human and inflicted superficial lacerations. She refused medical help. Meanwhile, Game Wardens with the California Department of Fish and Game are vowing vengeance and plan to hunt down and euthanize the poor animal. Since 1980, there have been about 15 confirmed bear attacks in California - none fatal. I'll take my chances.

Neighbor Margot neglected to call the police department when a black bear strolled through her garden recently, understanding, perhaps, that part of the Urban Wildland thing is forbearance (so to speak) of the slight risks of animal attack within the greater joy of equitably sharing this ecotone with wildland creatures. We've been down the 'euthanasia' road before. Grizzlies, as we all know were hunted to extinction in California, the last being shot in 1922. Living on Koenigstein, where once was a hotel dedicated to the hospitality of grizzly bear hunters, and which dead ends at a trail that wanders up Bear Canyon where flows Bear Creek (which, as it descends towards its confluence with Sisar Creek along the 150, describes our westerly property line and a little further south, Margot's eastern boundary), we are a part of that sad history. We are sensitive about bears. L.A.'s last grizzly was killed in 1897 while the last grizzly in Southern California was tracked and killed in Trabuco Canyon less than 20 miles northeast of San Juan Capistrano early in 1908. We can assume their gig was up on Koenigstein well before that, perhaps by the turn of the century.

After the California grizzly became extinct, black bears started to appear in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties (Grinnel et al 1937). The Department of Fish and Game then supplemented this natural range expansion by moving black bears into southern California during the early 1930's (Burgduff 1935). The current bear population is a mix of these populations. They are, then, more interlopers than aliens. No such modifers need be applied to grapefruit. The mediterranean fruit does well here in Upper Ojai and there is a particularly luscious variety on Margot's property. She surprised me by mentioning, as Alex and I were eyeing the fruit, that they take 18 months to reach maturity. Well almost - turns out that the fruit reaches maturity in nine but can stay on the tree for another seven months to reach maximum sweetness. That's a long time to wait for your locavore breakfast treat borne of an exotic citrus tree (but bears are patient creatures).

Josh (Love Comes to Koenigstein) stopped for a chat the other day as he was riding his mule down the road while I surveyed a field to the south where Alex and I had cleared star thistles. Josh is always on the look-out for pasture for his mule herd, but despite being very catholic in their food preferences, mules stop short of eating this particular invasive species.

We are operating at the margins: saving a bit of sage scrub from thistles here, not alerting the constabulary upon sight of mountain lion or bear, there: but our work pales in contrast to the likes of Harrington and Mary Yee, both devoted to the notion of salvaging an oral language - the highest order of cultural artifact - of an extinct people.

World of Swirl

National Geographic reports that, "Researchers have discovered astronomical calculations on the wall of an ancient Mayan site that suggest dates thousands of years beyond 2012". The find came at the Mayan ruins known as Xultun in Guatemala, where archeologists discovered a small room used by 9th-century record-keepers. In RV III, I wrote of the European marginales awaiting shelter from the end of the world (indicated in some interpretations of the Maya calendar) in the civilization they imagine beneath Bugarach mountain. Meanwhile, the fey Elizabeth van Buren is readying herself to access the underground city complex of Agartha, a portal to which she believes she has located in her landscape zodiac around Renne-le-Chateau. Now, in light of this calendric reappraisal, Science reports that, "We keep looking for endings. The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It's an entirely different mindset." Its official: the end of the world (at least in the year of our Lord, 2012) has been cancelled.

OK, the elephant in that sweaty little room, with faded murals and scratched calculations, is called Cosmogony. The Mayan world view was supported by multi-layered, cosmic calendrics. These were being parsed to establish the beginning of a new cycle of time. It was past due: by around 900 A.D., the classical Mayan world was crumbling, their jungle mega-cities, confronted with their inherent unsustainability as the diminishing returns of slash-and-burn reduced the maize yield, were collapsing back into the steamy grip of tropical rain forest.

The Mayan version of the 'hopey-changey thing' was based on prognostications of temporal renewal, of a resetting of the great cycle of time. In the event, their faith in cyclical renewal was misplaced, for their civilization, already dwarfed, was in terminal decline, defeated by environmental calamity and the intra-city conflict so engendered. Their great cities, their temples, ziggurats, canals, highway system and this little time-keepers office were swallowed up by the fecundity of the Central American bio-mass and disappeared into the leaf litter and the chlorophyllic tendrils of the endemic plant community. Theirs was an urban wildland returned to the wild, their civilization engulfed by biota.

The Irish-Spanish adventurer Juan Galindo originally stumbled upon the Mayan ruins early in the nineteenth century while fighting for Central America's independence from Spain. He led the charge against the Caribbean fortress of Omoa, the last Spanish stronghold in that part of the world, and was rewarded with the governorship of a large swathe of Guatemala. He went on to write descriptive accounts of the ruins at Palenque and Copán. John Lloyd Stephens, an American travel writer and explorer and Frederick Catherwood, an English artist and architect, popularized this re-discovery of the lost civilization in their books, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, 1841 and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, 1843. Stephens, incidentally, was sponsored in his explorations by Martin van Buren, the eighth president and Elizabeth's ancestor, and was made the United States Ambassador to Central America.

After a century and a half of intense archeological exploration (and looting), there still remain mysteries to be discovered and treasures to be revealed. A team led by William Saturno from Boston University unearthed the intricate calendar calculations on the crumbling walls of the day-keeper's room in Xultun just this month where computations about the moon, the sun and possibly Venus and Mars involve dates stretching some 7,000 years into the future. Interviewed by Bruce Gellerman, on Its Living on Earth, Saturno claims,

"The Maya calendar has no end. The Maya calendar was a series of circles. And, like a circle, one could say ‘where is the beginning of the circle, where is the end of the circle?’ Well, the whole point of the circle is that it has neither beginning nor end, and it just goes around and around and around. And for the ancient Maya, that’s how their calendar worked....."

For some cultures, and this list would include Australian aboriginal, Mayan and Chumash, time and space are woven together in a kind of Einsteinian four dimensional continuum. So it was, that for the Chumash, time does not move forward from past to future but is, instead, recursive. The 'antap were cosmic time-keepers (Space and Practice II) for the purpose of scheduling ritual and ceremony, markers within a multi-layered universe in which its inhabitants sought stasis, the steady state of an eternal now. Calendrical notation existed in this Southern California stone age world, at least for solstice observances, and this cosmic knowledge lent prestige to its recorders, who acquired their power based on the ability to prognosticate and schedule significant rituals in accord with astronomical events.

The Chumash world was a place where characters, events and spirits, that existed outside of the quotidian world, could be accessed by culturally prescribed rituals and dreams and, on a more ad hoc basis, by shaman who utilized datura to speed their journeys to this parallel dream world. But these worlds were not conceived of as separate: they were parts of a whole, enfolded, like time and space, in a ubiquitous present. Nevertheless, as Michael K. Ward notes in his Timoloqinash: Interpreting Chumash History, OCB Tracker, Glendora, Ca., Fall 1998 thru Summer 1999, the local tribes were cognizant of an origin mythology, but this genesis was understood to be a recurring phenomenon - their continued existence was perceived to be dependent on a recreation of these circumstances. "Such events occur and forever afterwards exist, on a continuous plane of subjective understanding, both for each individual person and collectively for the entire community of language speakers" (Ward).

Clearly, when considering these cosmogonies, we're not in Kansas anymore. Rituals existed, in the Chumash world, as markers measured out in a kind of paleolithic sidereal time, where the Earth is a fixed point in the universe, the stars journey overhead, and the sun continues to revolve around the planet in symbiosis only with the correct performance of ritual. Like the Maya, the Chumash were not looking for change, and certainly not an ending, unless caused by their carelessness in acts of propitiation; continuity was the ever present ingredient in a timeless world.

While the Mayan decline is marked by their increasing architectural ineptitude (viz. Tulum), and thus their civilization's collapse was very publicly recorded (albeit successfully hidden deep in tropical jungle for several centuries), the Chumash culture was evanescent rather than monumental and their decline afforded no such parallel record. A flurry of archeological artifact gathering (and looting) in the late nineteenth century has resulted only in a slim representation of their meagre material culture moldering, for the most part, in museum storerooms.

Their cultural destruction can be measured out, instead, in Spanish missions - architectural markers placed along El Camino Real - each signaling a step along a death march towards oblivion. Towards a pathetic end to a vibrant, pre-colonial, native American World of Swirl. The end date of this world has been precisely recorded. It was 1769.

Sitting Ducks

The Mission Period in California has achieved a remarkably benign reputation considering the church's crushing failure to achieve its objectives and its disastrous impact on the resident Native American populations it encountered on its colonial progress through California; even the iconic buildings failed catastrophically more often than not (Faulty Missions).

This Spanish project, which, as elsewhere in the Americas combined the ambitions of church and state, begun in earnest in 1769, aimed to create in Alta California a Christian, feudal dependency. For this to be achieved, however, not only the human capital of the Franciscan Friars and the soldiers who were to protect them would be required. It was also necessary to create a population of peasants who would till the land, tend the animals and provide other manual labor necessary to support the entire enterprise. Unfortunately, the indigenous populations of Southern California, although largely sedentary, had absolutely no agrarian background and proved entirely ill-suited to the Iberian agenda.

It is only with heavy irony that I note that these populations were never consulted as to their willingness to participate in this susbstantially medieval society of which the Spanish dreamt. In California, it remained a dream unrealized. Peonage, serfdom, or to put it plainly, slavery, ill-suits humans in general and particularly those well-fed and at ease with their way of life, as were the native populations before the Mission era.

While the Spanish initially presumed that bowls of steaming boiled barley would provide a sufficient lure to entrap these sitting ducks - their proto-peasantry - they quickly learned that the native peoples had little trouble feeding themselves and preferred the bounty of ocean and chaparral to the weevilly, over-cooked European mash. Thus it was that the Colonial oppressors turned to the lash to encourage the locals to sign up, by way of a perfunctory baptism, as neophytes in the mission system; but once enrolled they proved, from the Spanish perspective, more trouble than they were worth.

As the missions, built of an adobe composed of mud, straw and oxblood, fell about them - shaken to the ground, time and again, by seismic irruptions - the Franciscans also saw their socio-religious-economic agenda quickly fall apart, victim of that old problem of too many Friars and not enough Indians. For while the Spanish ultimately had some success in corralling women and children into the mission pens (for the arrival of new technologies, gods and voracious herbivores, such as cattle, sheep and horses, soon weakened the social, economic and spiritual foundations of native cultures), once there they died with a truly horrific rapidity. Many of the men meekly followed their families into captivity and premature death. While we can debate the extent to which its impacts were understood as they unfolded, missionization of native populations effectively resulted in their systematic extermination.

By the time the Spanish arrived in Southern California they had had over two and a half centuries of colonial experience in the Americas and were successful in extracting huge amounts of wealth from the New World. Their goals for California were comparatively modest - to establish a presence in the region as a discouragement to the other lurking European colonial powers, England and Russia, from further encroachments - and to do so at a cost that was not burdensome to the Spanish treasury (Blowback).

They had every reason to feel confident: as Robert H. Jackson and Edward Castillo point out in their Indians, Franciscans and Spanish colonization: the impact of the mission system on California Indians, University of New Mexico Press, 1995, "The fundamental success of the Spanish colonial system was the ability to exploit sedentary Indian populations.... the mission, a center of religious indoctrination and acculturation, was the instrument used to forge the new colonial society". The California mission system was not an experiment, it was an extension of a hitherto successful program of wealth extraction. In the event, the Chumash had the misfortune to be at the epicenter when this modest colonial expansion all went horribly wrong.

The Chumash were the most heavily colonized Californian indigenous people. Between 1772 and 1804 a fort (The Santa Barbara Presidio), five missions (San Luis Obispo, San Buenaventura, Santa Barbara, La Purisima, Santa Ynez) and finally, in 1831, the Asistencia de Santa Margarita were built in their territories. As an almost direct corollary, this loose confederation of tribes, known since their naming in 1891 by John Wesley Powell, as Chumash (after the name used by coastal people for their relatives on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands), had the highest death rate amongst Alta California's native peoples.

The causes of missionized Chumash death were varied, but foremost was a range of European diseases against which they had no immunity. Additionally, a force-fed diet of high carbohydrate grains with few vegetables or animal fat proved ruinously unhealthy to people used to a lean but highly nutritious diet. Sanitation was atrocious and conditions were compounded by the number of the dead and dying. An eye-witness, Thomas Jefferson Farnham, writing in his, Life, Adventures and Travels in California, 1849, was repelled by the charnal house he found at Santa Barbara Mission, where the graveyard was regularly exhumed to make way for newly dead Indians. In the mission courtyard he saw,

"....three or four cart-loads of skulls, ribs, spines, leg-bones, arm-bones, etc., laying in one corner. Beside them stood two hand-hearses with a small cross attached to each. About the walls hung the mould of death!"

The high mortality rates in these communities resulted in the almost continuous recruitment of unacculturated Indians into the mission houses where, on the one hand they strengthened the survival of a relict Indian culture thus fatally impacting the Franciscan goal of indoctrination and on the other they provided highly vulnerable recruits to a system heavy with the stench of death. The Indian populations in the missions were never viable, they did not grow through natural reproduction. Children born in missions rarely survived beyond their second birthday dying, most often, of syphylis, consumption (TB) and dysentary. Survivors were lucky to make it to twenty five years of age.

The Chumash culture, the pinnacle achievement, in terms of complexity and sophistication, of California's indigenous, stone-age peoples proved enormously fragile in the face of this European invasion of new technology, domestic animals, disease and spiritual blandishments. It quickly withered in the missions where its people were serfs in the fields, slaves in the workshops and captives in their fetid quarters. In a little over half a century Chumash culture was effectively destroyed leaving a small, dispossessed Indian population thrown first into the Rancho system of large land holdings where they fared ill as impoverished agricultural workers then worse, into the maw of the aggressive capitalism as practiced in the new American State.

Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who was the driving force in the Spanish conquest and colonization of this culture (and many others), is remembered and revered; his figure is replicated in statues throughout the state (locally, in front of Ventura City hall). For the Chumash, its people gone, the remnants finally lost to the great American melting pot, their name lives on, now appended, in mis-remembrance, to Casino, Highway and some pan-Indian syncretic bastardization that is the public perception of the local native American heritage (Shadowland).


For the third weekend in a row, it rained. This time, on Saturday afternoon, it played perfectly into our hands. We had a small gathering for lunch and at 11:30 a.m. I lit the Rais stove and an hour later the first guests arrived to a roaring, albeit highly constrained fire (locked within the glass doored combustion chamber of our prized Danish stove). By the end of the afternoon, after six hours of feeding it oak, the fire had warmed the oven chamber above it to 250 degrees centigrade, hot enough to cook pizza.

We are approaching the end of our first three years in the house. Two wettish winters and this one, the Big Dry (Rikyu Grey, Chiquihuite, Arcady). The fact is, despite four and a half inches in these three weekend storms in March, we are still less than 50% of normal rainfall and a third of last year's total. Just enough moisture though, to revive the thistles and give hope to the mustard. On the weed front, we are not yet, to mix metaphors, out of the woods. Nevertheless, the lack of rain has given us room to tackle work other than weed abatement and the property is looking its best ever.

The first cycle of deerweed that opportunistically geminated on the new, hydro-seeded slopes is now beginning to die back - prompted, perhaps, by the lack of rain. I have pulled it all out of the 'front lawn', the fill slope in front of the house, and now there are just bunch grasses (pendulous with seed) except for where the deerweed shaded the grasses too well - there we have a few moth-eaten fallow areas that are awaiting sun to revive dormant seed. On the cut-slope behind the house, the task of removing the dead deerweed is more daunting since it has entirely colonized the area and the grasses are correspondingly either stunted or absent and it awaits the focussed efforts of myself and Alex over the next week or two, work that must be completed before the start of fire season.

Sunday, following the rains, was a particularly beautiful day as it so often is after a storm. That afternoon, when we were out for a walk, we noted a parade of sightseers driving up and down Koenigstein looking at the magnificent Topatopas on the left and Sulphur mountain to the right on the way up, and the upper valley spread before them on the way down. Those who showed persistence and continued beyond the widened road to the original, narrow County road that snakes up to the Greenberg Ranch were rewarded with fabulous views of the Santa Paula Ridge and the Santa Monica Mountains beyond.

Where, amidst these quietly complacent domestic jottings, are the Chumash? They have been absent from this blog since Chiquihuite and I hear their call. While they may dip in and out of the Urban Wildland discourse, my accumulated ideas about this aggregation of now lost Indian tribes who once lived along the coastal fringe from Malibu to Point Conception and on the Channel Islands north of Catalina, chime sonorous notes in my otherwise cacophonic consciousness. These tribes, and my ideas about them, are the flickering shadows that substantiate my thirty odd years lived in the land where they lived. These are the shadows that stretch backwards in time to the moment when the first people arrived on the coastal islands, nourished by the rich life of kelp beds through which they voyaged from their old land to this new continent (An Island on the Land).

These phantasms of a primal people rarely intrude, I suspect, into the awareness of most who now live where they lived and tread the ground they trod; but they may occasionally be awoken by events such as the Chumash Day Pow Wow, the fourteenth annual episode of which is to be held this year on Malibu Bluffs Park on April 14th and 15th., a visit to the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, or a drive along the Chumash Highway which links Santa Barbara and Los Alamos. Unless, that is, you live in Ojai, whose citizens cling dearly to all things mystical and hold close to their collective soul any scrap of association with the spiritual sanctity of the indigenous population. Such connections are merrily stirred along by our professional Chumash muse Julie Tumamait and, on a slightly more cynical note, yours truly.

This split between a romantic conception of this continent's indigenous people and a realist, cynical or 'truthful' appraisal has a long history and is illustrated, at either end of the nineteenth century by James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain.

In an essay published in The Galaxy, 1870, Mark Twain riffs to devastating effect on the romantic view of the Native American as propounded in The Last of the Mohicans, 1826, and offers, in the title, The Noble Red Man, a profoundly ironic view of his character. Cooper establishes the target thus,

"His hair is glossy, and as black as the raven's wing; out of its massed richness springs a sheaf of brilliant feathers; in his ears and nose are silver ornaments; on his arms and wrists and ankles are broad silver bands and bracelets; his buckskin hunting suit is gallantly fringed, and the belt and the moccasins wonderfully flowered with colored beads; and when, rainbowed with his war-paint, he stands at full height, with his crimson blanket wrapped about him, his quiver at his back, his bow and tomahawk projecting upward from his folded arms, and his eagle eye gazing at specks against the far horizon which even the paleface's field-glass could scarcely reach, he is a being to fall down and worship....."

and Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910) swings massively at it with his pen dipped in the same well of vitriol with which he would later dispatch the coyote in Roughing It, 1886, (Coyote Dream),

"He is little, and scrawny, and black, and dirty; and, judged by even the most charitable of our canons of human excellence, is thoroughly pitiful and contemptible. There is nothing in his eye or his nose that is attractive, and if there is anything in his hair that--however, that is a feature which will not bear too close examination . . . He wears no bracelets on his arms or ankles; his hunting suit is gallantly fringed, but not intentionally; when he does not wear his disgusting rabbit-skin robe, his hunting suit consists wholly of the half of a horse blanket brought over in the Pinta or the Mayflower, and frayed out and fringed by inveterate use. He is not rich enough to possess a belt; he never owned a moccasin or wore a shoe in his life; and truly he is nothing but a poor, filthy, naked scurvy vagabond, whom to exterminate were a charity to the Creator's worthier insects and reptiles which he oppresses."

The years that separate these conflicting visions are telling. Cooper (1789-1851) relied for his vision of the noble savage on his father's recollections of Native Americans, effectively pushing his dateline back forty years to the Revolutionary era when memories may have still existed of such noble beings residing in intact cultures unsullied by contact with pale-faces.

The experience of the shadow is separate, more profound and may exist outside of the romantic-cynical spectrum. In any case, the temporal penumbra that I perceive in this land is not cast by those who currently claim a hereditary link to the local tribes, like Julie Tumamait, but is shadowed by lost legions of Paleoindian, Millingstone Horizon (Oak Grove), Proto-Chumash and Chumash peoples who lived here from 13,000 B.P., up to the time of European contact.

Theirs is the long tail of pre-history when, arguably, not much happened, but whose combined shadow still falls, obliquely, across the land. It is their legend that has lodged in my mind and it is their spectral presence that still hovers over, and inflects my view of this landscape.


Squawbush grows in the dry, braided creek beds that run between Sisar and Verner Farm Road. These are the reserve channels that await their call while the main stream runs sluggishly to the west. After only a couple of brief winter rains we are at about 20% of normal rainfall. It's the middle of February and we are in the Big Dry. The flanks of Santa Paula mountain, usually masquarading as the Emerald Isle at this time of the year, are a scruffy sage green/brown reminiscent of the sub-saharan bushveld. It looks as though the Squawbush will remain high and dry for the winter's duration.

I am re-aquainting myself with plants I first got to know three or four years ago and now I am singing them back to life again by remembering their names or, if not, returning from runs and walks with specimens to match against Uncle Milts photographs and drawings (Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains, Milt McAuley, Canoga Park, 1996) or, giving the merest hint of a description to Margot and have her zero in on the genus, species and particular local characteristics.

So it was with the Squawbush - its defining characteristic, at this time of the year, catkins of a reddish hue, a sufficient hint. It's a close relative of poison oak, but there's no confusing the two. Both have three-lobed leaves, but basket bush (Rhus trilobata), commonly known by the aforementioned, but politically incorrect moniker is less deceptive than poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum). Although both plants originally belonged to the Rhus family, poison oak is now exiled under the genus Toxicodendron. P.O. is capable of chameleon-like changes in character that keep you guessing; but I like to believe that I can now see through most of its ruses (insert pun here), bright green, dull green, red, in leaf or not, climber or bush - I can usually nail it.

Both plants were of great use to the Chumash. As its name implies, Squawbush was harvested by women. They employed it in the manufacture of baskets, a long process (sometimes many years) but vital to the domestic economy in the chaparral, for the Chumash did not make pots and thus relied on baskets for storage, gathering, winnowing and cooking. They did possess carved steatite (soapstone) ollas and these cooking vessels were some of the first objects from the culture that were treasured and collected by Anglo-Californians in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Freshly cut poison oak stems exude a sticky, terpene oleoresin that oxidizes and polymerizes into a shiny black lacquer. This sap is also produced, although less copiously, in roots, leaves and flowers. Pomo Indians are known to have used the natural lacquer of poison oak to dye their baskets and this may also have been a Chumash practice. The resin contains urushiol, an allergen that causes dermatitis. The Japanese lacquer tree is a close relative, Toxicodendron vernicifluum and the name urushiol is derived from that tree's indigenous name, urushi ki.

I am currently reasonably immune to the allergen and thus it was that I cleared a truck load of poison oak bushes from beneath an oak on our west meadow, leaving Alex free to remove the ceonothus, chamise and sages that crowded its canopy (Sharawaggi). I did wake in the middle of the night a couple of days later with two painful lesions on my left arm, but the combined blister trail was barely a quarter inch long. Nevertheless, I treat it with respect and have only once, early on in my tenure in the urban wildland, attempted to clear it with a chain saw - atomizing urishiol over much of my exposed skin!

The Chumash were apparently completely immune to its toxin and, Harrington tells us, via Jan Timbrook's Chumash Ethnobotany, Santa Barbara, 2007 that they used the leaves as a poultice to heal wounds. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. The juice from freshly cut spring stems was used as a cure for warts, skin cancers and sores and a concoction of boiled P.O. root was ingested by those suffering from severe dysentery. She points out that those who claimed Chumash descent in the 1950's "no longer made any medicinal use of poison oak but eagerly sought remedies for its effects". Mugwort (available from any year-round creek near you) is now generally regarded as a specific for the skin lesions.

Timbrook writes, "Most Indian people today prefer the English names sumac, sourberry, or basket bush instead of the once-popular term squawbush". I would point out that most Indian people today prefer to be called Native American. (It is difficult to be always politically correct all of the time). Squawbush has a charming Spanish name, chiquihuite, and Harrington's informants used that word to describe various baskets, whisks and seed-beaters made from its woody stems. Tightly woven and tarred, the plant could be used for water bottles. It could also be woven into hats, toasting trays, buckets and served as the armature in ceremonial headdresses (Timbrook). Like the prized chia (the seeds of which were collected with chiquihuite seed beaters) squawbush was a burn-managed crop. I have not seen chiquihuite on our property but it may grow closer to Bear Creek, certainly poison-oak thrives on the east facing bank and generally both plants like a little moisture in the soil and are, in fact, a useful indicator of damp conditions.

The Big Dry as I am provisionally calling the 2011-2012 wet season, has impacted the deerweed population and I just carted two truck loads of dead specimens to our west-meadow dump/compost pile. Undaunted by the lack of rain, soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) is pushing out of the trail that leads there and the plants low crinkly lily leaves seem to survive the occasional crushing they receive from the fat tires of our 1977 Chevy S-10. Their roots were used by the Chumash for a soap and a fish poison - toxic enough to stun trout but not enough to impact its healthful consumption.

Other field notes: the Marah macrocarpus is gamely entwining whatever is within its reach, but the hillsides are not draped with it as they are in a wet year. The elderberry is flowering, their creamy, frothy flower clusters a reminder of my promise to make elderflower wine (but not this year) (Mining Gravel) but the lack of rain will not be to their liking. The white ceonothus is blooming but not quite profusely enough (yet) to perfume the day and the sycamores are re-leafing. We have identified a number of scrub oaks along the banks of the seasonal stream in addition to the two we found when clearing last spring. They are in various stages of generating tiny yellowish catkins. I had a bit of a wobble when first I saw them, but by a process of elimination I was fairly certain of the species, then cross-checked with the two confirmed trees.

The Chaparral doesn't need for me to know the names scientists have given its various plants or for me to be reminded of the uses that the native people of the area found for this unique biotic community - I, however, need to know. It is a small gesture of solidarity, of acknowledgment, of confirmation that as an observer, I matter. My memory of those names, characteristics and uses, bolstered by my local knowledge, is necessary for any slight possibility of true communion with this mostly silent, brooding and now thirsty plant world that is my home.

Cowboys and Indians

I visited the new Renzo Piano Resnick Pavilion at LACMA recently to see California Design, 1930-1965: "Living in a Modern Way", purportedly the first major study of California midcentury modern design.

The centerpiece is a replica of the steel framed Eames house (originally built in 1949 off of Chautauqua in Santa Monica Canyon) and furnished with Ray and Charles' eclectic, multi-cultural bric-a-brac. Like Gala and Salvador Dali's rambling home frozen in time at Port Lligat, Catalonia (Suquet) the Eames House re-creation is burdened with a static display of a decorative style typified by quick-fire, daily and even hourly changes that the design obsessed make in their immediate surroundings and depend upon for their fragile sense of self. At LACMA we see the lifeless effigy of a living process, a single frame from a movie, displayed in a painted wood sarcophagus. The rest of the exhibit is not much better, with way too many bad chairs (the Eames' excepted) from architects; but there is some interesting clothing, Raymond Loewy's great Studebaker Avanti (lent by Dick Van Dyke) and an impressive 1960's Hi-Fi (one of which is owned locally by Bruce Botnick, the audio engineer and music producer).

Fortunately, right next door was the stunning exhibit, Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World, which details the culture wars that ensued after the Spanish military and political conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521 and the Inca Empire in 1532. The French historian Serge Gruzinski, quoted in Daniela Bleichmar's review of the exhibit in The New York Review of Books, February 9, 2012, has described the conquest of Mexico and the imperial regime that followed for the next three hundred years as a "war of images". She goes on to write,

"Cortes and his men marched inland from the Gulf carrying religious bannners, medals, and figures. They whitewashed murals in native temples and destroyed local idols, replacing them with Christian icons....After the conquest, Catholic churches rose in the exact spots of pre-hispanic temples, capitalizing on the sacredness of those locations. Missionaries waged their own war to extinguish native religion, burning ancient sacred books and ritual objects as part of their effort to achieve a spiritual conquest....But despite this campaign of extirpation, there survived, into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, local cultures that were a complex mixture of native, European and colonial elements..."

Within a hegemonic Spanish Colonial state, the losers in the political battle used images as a means for staking out religious, social and cultural claims; but both sides borrowed forms, techniques and iconography from the other and the results are thrillingly displayed in this exhibit. Thus the richness of native art (such as feather paintings), metal work and architecture did not disappear - they were melded into a unique hispanic heritage while the appropriation of Native sacred spaces for Christian churches and cathedrals ensured the survival of these ancient power spots.

In Burn Notice and Woman of the Apocalypse I noted that, in Southern California, although native cultures were entirely subsumed by their colonial conquerors, the survival of the Spanish tradition is not in doubt, despite Spain's early withdrawal and the territory's nineteenth century annexation to the predominately Yankee, Northern European and Protestant political entity we now know as the United States. Here, a rich cultural stew exists, but one absent the spice of Native American culture.

Tom Hines, the Architectural Historian established, in his Mission Bell to Taco Bell lecture at UCLA's History department, (which I attended back in the day) the enduring appeal of Spanish Colonial architecture. This tradition was goosed, in the late nineteenth century, by Helen Hunt Jackson's novel, Ramona and has now become Southern California's signature architectural style (New Moon). While the style runs the spectrum from full blown Colonial Revival to historicist pastiche, there is no hint of native American art and culture - although it was native labor that built the mostly primitive interpretations of the style in the Missions.

These Missions and Asistencias (sub-missions), despite proselytizing goals inimical to local traditions honored them in the breach. Asistencia Santa Paula, was founded on the site of the Portola Expedition Campsite (Independence Day) at the junction of the Arroyo Mupu and Santa Paula Creek, north of the 126 and east of the 150 at the present location of Harding Park, a significant confluence for the Mupu Indians whose main village was sited nearby on what is now the Thomas Aquinas campus. There is some indication that the Californian El Camino Real followed ancient native American trading routes and spirit paths. Certainly the trail established by the Spanish from Mexico City to Santa Fe, New Mexico, was overlaid on more ancient trade-routes connecting the Native Americans of the southwest to the Mesoamericans in the old Aztec Empire.

The CSU Monterey Bay archeoastronomer Ruben Mendoza has documented solstice or equinox effects at 14 of California's 21 missions. While he claims that this is a "complex blend of solar geometry and Franciscan cosmology" this is, at the very least, a remarkable intersection of Christian and native American interests and given the latter's local knowledge and key role in the construction process it is disingenuous to dismiss their role in these alignments (Space and Practice II). In 2008, Mendoza finally recorded the winter solstice illumination of the Royal Presidio Chapel of Santa Barbara after many years when cloud or fog obscured the sun. This mission played an intricate part in the lives of the local Chumash and to my eye, at least, the building has more of the rusticity of the native culture than the neo-classical trappings of the European; here surely the Chumash were complicit in the engineering of this solstice event.

Ultimately, of course, these are but the faintest glimpses of a native American past almost entirely buried beneath the over-burden of Spanish and American history. While many ancient sacred sites were co-opted by the Franciscans in the seventeenth century now the military, as the State's largest landlord has, deliberately or not, co-opted still more. California's Native American Heritage Commission (CNAHC) has a massive listing of over 170,000 sacred locations identified as either Worship/Ritual or Sacred/Power sites. Many of these are within military installations including, for instance, March Air Force Base and Chocolate Mountain Gunnery Range, Miramar Naval Air Station, North Island Naval Air Station, and Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base.

The Coso Hot Springs located on the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station were used extensively by a number of Indian tribes, primarily the Owens Lake Paiutes and the Desert Shoshones while the Coso Canyons contain perhaps the most significant collection of petroglyphs in North America (Things Fall Apart). The burial sites and village remains from scattered communities of Chumash who lived along the California coast areas are now often buried beneath coastal military installations and runways. Vandenburg Air Force base has a number of power spots sacred to the Chumash and possibly feather and paint pole shrines (Space and Practice). (Vine Deloria).

The wreckage of a culture is hidden beneath roads, buildings, religious, educational and defense facilities and millions of acres of industrial farmland - the infrastructure of twenty-first century California. Its images are not much memorialized in museums (The South West Museum of the American Indian in South Pasadena closed several years ago, its collections bundled off to the Autry National Center, formerly the Gene Autry Cowboy Museum) nor its cultural production recognized as of equal value to the Missions in California's heritage (California Dreamin'). The battle was lost on all fronts. The War of Images a non-starter. The cowboys won.

The Way

Last Sunday afternoon, Lorrie and I attended a sold-out performance of The Way at the Ojai Playhouse. This venerable movie house, in more or less continuous operation since 1914, opened, in what was then Nordhoff, as The Isis; presciently, its first screening was The Valley of the Moon based on the Jack London novel. Three years later, in a paroxysm of xenophobia as World War One drew to a close, the City Fathers (with the collusion of the U.S. Senate) changed the name of their town to Ojai, a colonial phonetic spelling of the Chumash word for the moon (New Moon).

Sometime in the Spring of 1981, the theater was showing The Great Santini, and by then was called The Glasgow Playhouse in honor of its owner Wayne Glasgow. I attended a showing of this melodrama, based on Pat Conroy's novel and starring Robert Duvall during my first evening in Ojai (Where Native Meadows Come From). By the time we arrived in town many years later to live on Blanche Street (while our house was being built in Upper Ojai) the theater was owned by Mark and Kathy Hartley who had purchased it from Glasgow's successor, Khaled Al-Awar; but overextended after the real estate crash in 2008, and after they had financed a major renovation, the Hartley's recently handed ownership back to Al-Awar.

The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez is a family affair starring Emilio's father Martin Sheen. It tells the story of four peregrinos who undertake the walk from Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santaigo de Compostela in Northern Spain along Saint James' Way, a traditional Christian pilgrimage route for at least a thousand years. Lorrie had visited Galicia forty years ago and was anxious to see the film while I was interested because the destination of the pilgrimage is a part of a visionary geography - the name Compostela being derived from the Latin Campus Stellae, field of stars. Saint James' Way spoke to me not as a Christian pilgrimage route but as a far older, spirit path.

Compostela owes its fame to a reputed apparition and the consequent discovery of the remains of St. James. With the Virgin Mary's blessing, the apostle James left Jerusalem after the death of Jesus, crossed the Mediterranean, and arrived at Tarragona on the east coast of Spain, just west of Barcelona. He is believed to have failed as an evangelist, but in 39 AD the Virgin Mary, although still alive in Jerusalem, appeared to Saint James in Zaragoza, in the first recorded Marion apparition. Four years later, James returned to the Holy land and was summarily be-headed by King Agrippa I. (Acts 12:1-2)

His corpse is said to have been brought to Galicia on a rudderless boat by his disciples (with an angel of the Lord as their pilot) and, after many mishaps, miraculous escapes, the help of a pagan, she-wolf Queen (La Reina Lupa), the taming of wild oxen, the killing of a fire-breathing dragon and at least one guiding star, the body was finally laid to rest in a field alongside the Queen's fortress.

There the body moldered, forgotten for almost eight hundred years, until a hermit saw angels who announced the coming discovery of the tomb. Some days later shepherds noticed an area of pasture illuminated by a strange glow. At that spot a marble chest containing a headless skeleton was discovered and identified as the remains of St. James and it was here that a small community of monks was established who formed the nucleus of the future settlement of Compostela.

None of this made it into the movie but these legends are braided into the folk history of Galicia and form the back-story to Santiago de Compostela's rise as the most significant pilgrimage destination in Europe. There is likely a far older, pre-Christian source for the spiritual resonance experienced along Saint James' Way, Santiago de Compostela and the rocky coast of Finisterre to the west. The pilgrimage route follows a far more ancient ritual road, along a spirit path tracing the arc of the sun, traveling east to west, and ending at the Atlantic on what the Galicians call the Costa del Muerte (Coast of Death), long considered to be a gateway to the afterlife - L. Finis Terrae, the end of the world.

Saint James was resurrected to serve as a locus of Christian identity around which the Iberian tribes could coalesce in their resistance to the Moorish conquest of their homelands early in the eighth century; ironically, the outlying Galicians remained largely untouched by islam, cherishing their Celtic ancestry and its nature based spirituality lightly overlain by a still Pagan-influenced Christianity. Now these traditions are all melded in the vastly popular pilgrim experience of traveling The Way.

In the Celtic tradition, witches and warlocks controlled the shamanic practice of gathering information from the spirit world and using it for good or ill in the temporal realm. Both the witch and the shaman were said to traverse the bridges of Otherworlds. They celebrated the seasonal changes of equinox and solstice in stone circles or in calibrated cave openings (Space and Practice II). But despite the universal underpinnings of shamanic practice and its survival in many parts of the world, the brutal extirpation of the Chumash peoples by the Franciscans and their Spanish military enablers, has entirely destroyed the local traditions of ley lines, vortices (power places) and spirit paths that might have created a more profoundly geo-centric cultural and spiritual gestalt in this region of California (Burn Notice).

We have forgotten the power of place. Unlike the Celtic cultures of Europe, the tribes of North America rarely constructed temples. To them the land was the sacred temple. They sourced etheric hotspots on the land, and their locations were passed on through oral tradition or perhaps were indicated by cryptic petroglyph markings. There is little record of California's sacred sites, spirit paths or places of power. In Chumash territory, Harrington is our last connection to a remembered, sacred past.

Those who currently identify as neo-traditional Chumash have no living-link with their shamanic history, but the ethnographic record establishes that Point Conception served as a portal to the Chumash after-life, Mount Pinos was the center of the Chumash world and that locally, Kahus (Black Mountain) is of geomantic significance. We know that there was a sprit path heading north straight through the hills behind Muwu (Point Mugu) and that there was a ritual and trade route up through the mountains to the Carrizzo Plain.

The tradition of building 'rainbow bridges' between sacred places is as old as myth, but looking for these lost paths in a rivened land where freeways follow economic and political exigencies rather than meridians of etheric energy poses extraordinary challenges. We do not know enough to understand exactly where these paths were trod and under what etheric influence they were pioneered. There are doubtless many 'Ways' in Southern California, but they have faded into the chaparral or been buried under asphalt and concrete.

We are pilgrims lost in a profane world, where the shards of sacred sites, and ancient geomantic, astronomical, and ritualistic alignments are hidden in a broken landscape.

Christmas Sage

Somebody brought a Cymbidium to the house yesterday. I said to Lorrie, I hope its screams don't keep us awake at night.

We are doing a Chaparral themed Holiday season again (Yuccapedia), so we are not decorating one of the 30 million victims of arboreal infanticide sold annually in the U.S. as Christmas trees. Instead, the dried husk of a chaparral yucca (Yucca whipplei) stands in the corner of the living room adorned, on its lower branches where its seed pods have already fallen, with frosted white and clear 1 1/2" glass balls from China (Sinology). Elsewhere in the house we have used sages, Baccharis pilularis, toyon and Ribes californicum in various arrangements. This level of holiday cheer is quite sufficient for us merriment minimalists.

The Cymbidium, poster child for the forced propogation of exotic flora into premature display of their sex organs, is sadly out of place and will probably end up in the guest room. We should, I suppose, be thankful that it was probably grown in California, perhaps in Ventura or Santa Barbara County, not shipped in from Thailand, the world's largest grower of Cymbidium.

The history of orchid growing in California goes back to the 1930s, when owners of large estates in Hope Ranch and Montecito began to raise them because they flourished in the Mediterranean climate. Back in those days, orchids took their own sweet time to flower - often as long as seven years after planting. Now, in the hot houses of Thailand, Holland, Australia and, increasingly, China, the plants have been hybridized to flower with 36 months of germinating and temperature and light controls are used to induce inflorescence at commercially opportune moments such as Easter, Mother's Day and Christmas. Other flower stimulating technologies, such as the application of cytokinin (6-benzyl-aminopurine), nitrogen starvation, extreme root excision and the forced feeding of phosphorous are being introduced to improve flowering synchronicity with market demand.

A couple of years ago we attended a talk by Dorothy Maclean, one of the four founders of Findhorn (Back-yard Romance) at Meditation Mount. She was introduced by Roger Collis, then executive director of the Mount. (Lost Horizon). Roger originally met Dorothy some forty years ago at Findhorn (where he also met and married his wife, Kathleen). So Dorothy, now in her nineties, was very relaxed in Roger's company and gave a charming talk on her work with plant spirits or devas. Towards the end of her presentation someone wheeled in a trolley with a large Cymbidium in a five gallon plastic pot, and Dorothy invited us to commune with the plant and then report on our findings.

A member of the audience had worked at an orchid 'forcing' green house and made trenchant comments about the floral gulag that exists in Carpinteria. It was an unfortunate moment. Dorothy was undone; perhaps she had been expecting a fresh, native Californian plant tenderly removed from the chaparral rather than the signature product of the global orchid industry; in any case, the magic of the event evaporated in the presence of this hybridized Orchidaceae.

Dorothy now counts as one of the three or four people I know of who communicate with plants (Dowsing). That's not including Prince Charles who, speaking of his 900 acre organically farmed Gloucestershire estate in 2010, noted that, "I happily talk to the plants and trees, and listen to them. I think it's absolutely crucial....Everything I've done here, it's like almost with your children. Every tree has a meaning for me." The key point here is the listening part: Margot confirms that, although scientifically trained, she still has much to learn directly from the plants within her ambit as a chaparral restoration ecologist.

Did the Chumash talk to plants? What of the other end of the spectrum - did they brutalize or hybridize plants in pursuit of aesthetic, culinary or healing goals? Were plants considered sentient beings in their cosmos? Did they practice, according to their codes, ethical treatment of the vegetal world? Only John Peabody Harrington knows for sure (alive to us today through his moldering notes, stored throughout the country and yet to be fully catalogued, in which lies the sum of his knowledge about the Chumash - for he wrote no syntheses of his notes, nary a short monograph on his life's work).

However, we can presume, that while probably not reaching the level of beatific communion with nature commonly ascribed to native Americans, the Chumash possessed a level of sensitivity to plant life that we can only imagine. For while we live in a world of written, pictorial and numeric information, they lived in a numinous universe of lithic, botanic, animal and meterological spirits where plants were revered for their multi-faceted contributions to the individual's and the tribe's well being.

Take sage. I took sage. For our Christmas decorations. I like to think that I am aware of all the local, accessible giant white sage (Salvia apiana) populations. Some are on our property, others a little further afield, but all were harvested in a careful and respectful way. James D. Adams, Jr, Associate Professor of Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Southern California, and Cecilia Garcia (a self-styled Chumash healer) suggest that, "White sage, like any plant, should be collected with prayer. Only the amount needed should be collected. A small branch or a single leaf can be broken off for each use. Each leaf contains vital medicine for the health of the spirit." Fernando Librado (one of JPH's key informants) said that if a hunter placed white sage in his mouth he would be invisible to deer (Jan Timbrook).

This afternoon an Australian architect, Andrew Macklin, visited our house with a mutual friend and just as he was leaving we saw, through the open kitchen window, our local Monarch of the Glen (Sir Edwin Landseer, 1851), a magnificent three point stag wandering along the meadow protecting its fawn who grazed across the driveway. Our house is bedecked with sage, the four of us were at the open window, is it too fanciful to imagine that this architectural maw substituted for the mouth of the hunter? Certainly we remained invisible to the mule deer until doors were opened and gravel be-trodden.

Maria Solares (another of JPH's Chumash posse) recommended putting fresh leaves of white sage on one's head as a treatment for headache. It was also used as a purgative. More recently, those identifying as Chumash use sage for smudging - the ritual burning of compressed bundles of leaves as celebration and an act of spiritual refreshment (The Sage Gatherer). This is a plant, like so many others, that was woven into the fabric of Chumash life - offering a cloak of invisibility, various medicinal uses and spiritual cleansing. It may also have lifted the spirits of native people (as it does mine) who saw it displaying its large chalky grey-green leaves rising above an ocean of black and purple sage, competing with yerba santa, or on the edges of oak-shade - as a ghost sage wrapped in its new spring leaf - just in time for the winter solstice.

The stacks of Cymbidium piled outside of Trader Joe's are a similar sign of the mid-winter festivities but they leave my heart heavy and my spirit enervated for their waxy flowers betray the anguish of this forced display.

Shamanize or Die

Last night I dreamt of a bobcat.

At first light, I saw bent grasses where deer had lain turned a cerulean blue by the heavy frost; the long tongue-like leaves of yerba santa (Eriodictyon Californica) were rimed with white and nearby the intense pink flowers of wand buckwheat, apparently untouched by the cold, pierced the grey, green and white of this chaparral winter morning.

Yesterday evening I was reading about the influence of shamanism on the poetry of Ted Hughes (1930-1998), while Lorrie sat beside me in front of an oak fire watching Werner Hertzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams on her lap top. We talked about the film, in the (cave-like) dark when we awoke, just before dawn. Later, but in the still early morning, I watched the second half of Six Generations, Paul Goldsmith's film on a Santa Barbara Chumash family. This is how my imaginative life is made - of which this blog attempts a flickering reflection. Reflections, it must be said, that become, recursively, part of my life.

I had not thought about Ted Hughes since sometime in 1964 (except in the moments that he was linked, journalistically, to Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) whose suicide-enhanced celebrity shelf-life has thus far eclipsed her husband's) until I wrote the words "in a white, 1960's 3.8 Jag Mk. II" (Ghostburb) which put me in mind of the Hughes' poem  O, White Elite Lotus.

In 1964, at Farnham Grammar School (founded in 1560 during the reign of Elizabeth 1), there was a rare moment when the upper sixth car and motorcycle junkies came together with the English lit. aesthetes to celebrate both the car and the poem. I was, not quite uniquely, a member of both cliques, and for a few weeks, Ted Hughes was The Man, a great contemporary poet with an eye for winsome American girls and beautiful, racy, English cars.

During our final two years of high-school, with most of our fellow students having left at age sixteen, we specialized in three or four subjects and each of us had different schedules - only coming together in the upper-sixth study when the day began and ended. In this small room, with space for about fifteen desks we chatted, across disciplines as it were, about our shared passions. While I studied English Literature, History and Studio Art, I also joined with my fellows, and the lower sixth, several afternoons a week when we ran, jumped and threw javelin, discus and shot-put and chased, propelled and sometimes caught balls of different size, color and shape through the seasons (but in my memory, almost always in muddy fields).

Away from our studies and games, in those few weeks, when most of the world was focused on Vietnam, the Beatles or Martin Luther King being awarded the Nobel Peace prize, we spent time in our study, or the library, and continued our parsing of,

"Steel, glass-ghost
Of a predator's mid-air body conjured
Into a sort of bottle.
Flimsy-light, like a squid's funeral bone,
Or a surgical model
Of the uterus of The Great Mother of The Gods."

and so on......

Yes, we thought, that was about as good an explanation as we were going to get of the strange affinity between pressed sheet metal and the great mysteries of sex, the divine and the natural world - connections which we instinctively understood but were anxious to have confirmed. Thus we young Romantics and tender gearheads could, for a moment, gather around a single icon - Colin Chapman's completely unattainable and totally desirable little Lotus Elite.

A couple of months ago, in a room of similar size to the upper sixth's study, but in an institution of higher learning - UCLA - I met the film-maker Paul Goldsmith after a lapse of some twenty five years. He and his wife Peta had been our first architectural clients after Lorrie and I graduated from Architecture School. Scrunched into a basement room in the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, where I was gathered with Dr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg and a half dozen other Rock Art volunteers involved in the publication of The Rock Art of Little Lake, An Ancient Crossroads in the California Desert,  Paul arrived to discuss the possibility of including our work in his upcoming film on Alan Garfinkel's research in the Cosos. He left us with a DVD of his last film, Six Generations, shown recently on KCET, a copy of which sits in my iBook G4.

Six Generations is a singularly touching record of a contemporary Santa Barbaran woman, Ernestine De Soto, whose family history reaches back to the time of first contact between Europeans and Native Californians. She has chosen to assume a contemporary Chumash identity and in her telling, privileges the Native American fragments of her history; in a similar manner I could trace my roots back to that ancient Briton, Boadiccea. Nevertheless, this is a genuine and heartfelt channeling of lives who, from cradle to grave, fill the historical space of the colonial occupation and genocide and her story is sensitively presented by Paul.

His new work with Garfinkel will tell another story. In the world of Californian archaeology Garfinkel is a reactionary, yet he has staked out the biggest archaeological prize in the State, the Coso Rock Art Monument at China Lake (Things fall Apart). Paul, knowingly or not, is now a party to the promotion of the Garfinkel ideology.

My introduction to California rock art was through David S. Whitley's The Art of the Shaman, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2000 - a title that tells you all you need to know about Whitley's understanding of the provenance of rock art production. Garfinkel has returned to an older, largely discredited theory that maintains that the production of big horn sheep imagery is an example of an 'increase ritual' whereby good fortune in hunting is assured through the serial production of the prey's graven image. As Garfinkel coyly notes in his Paradigm Shifts, Rock Art Studies, and the “Coso Sheep Cult” of Eastern California, in North American Archaeologist, Spring 2007, "These glyphs have played a prominent role in attempts to understand forager religious iconography". He goes on to admit this 'hunting magic' hypothesis has become marginalized by the now prevailing view that sees most rock art as an expression of individual shamanistic endeavor, then goes on to attempt the older theory's resuscitation.

We at Little Lake have largely signed on to the prevailing wisdom and while there is no preponderance of big-horn sheep imagery around the lake, there are literally hundreds of atlatl motifs (images of weighted, spear throwing sticks) pecked into the basalt cliff that rises in the south east corner of the lake - motifs that are almost certainly connected with coming of age rituals overseen by the priestly class, the shamans. We have not, therefore, fully embraced Whitley's notion that these glyphs are uniquely a product of shamanic vision quests - lithic jottings as astral plane reportage; but equally, we have not regressed to Garfinkel's quaint position. We take a nuanced, wide-ranging view that admits the complex motivations for rock art production over the last ten thousand years or more.

It is, of course, the shamanic tradition that is at the root of my interest in petroglyphs. These wizards and magicians (Strange Land) are the human sinew that connect the material and spiritual planes. A role, perhaps, that poets now play. Ted Hughes explicitly links the poetic and shamanic experience and regards both as being nurtured by the romantic temperament. The shaman is usually called to duty by dreaming of an animal, often an eagle, that then becomes a 'familiar' acting as the dreamer's liason with the spirit world (Eliade). The crisis Hughes believed shaman-poets had to deal with was, as he called his essay on Eliot, The Convulsive Desacralization of the West. Once the shaman (or poet) hears the call, Hughes writes, he must "shamanize or die".

I am mindful of  Hughes' admonition: but the odd appearance of a bobcat in a dream does not, I believe, rise to the level of a call.

Cross Quarter Day

We sometimes see a mackerel sky here, flecks of high cloud that resemble the scales of the fish: it is usually a sign of unsettled weather; but last evening, we saw a salmon sky. Dark dollops of cloud, trailing driblets of their flesh across the sky - the undersides a creamy, golden salmon color, turning richer as the evening progressed and ultimately melding with the dark meat above and disappearing into the night. Then appeared the slimmest possible crescent of the new moon fading in and out of sight as the clouds moved across it. What do these spawning clouds portend? What will the August moon bring?

The first sighting of this crescent moon is the signal for the beginning of Ramadan, the lunar month of fasting in the Muslim world, where it serves as a time of spiritual rejuvenation. it is believed to be an auspicious month for revelations, for it was the time when the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to Muhammad. It is the Wort Moon, the Wiccan celebration of the first harvest moon, one of the Great Sabbats or pagan moon festivals of the year. It is Lughnasadh or Lammas Eve, Lady Day Eve or Feast of Bread. It is the moon of the Tea House, it is the moon that will flood the upper valley in the warm nights of August - when the fluttering song of the screech owl rises above the ringing thrum of cicadas. It is the Barley moon of wisdom, logic and dreams. It is a time of mooncakes.

It is a time when connections are made to the root world, the Underworld. It is a time, it is said, when Harvest Spirits enter the earth to give their energy to the nourishment of life-giving grain. But if we pull back from the classical and pre-classical worlds, these traditions evaporate. Here, in Southern California, those ancient harvests and their moonshadows are an alien, distant, phenomenon. But there is a link.

In the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, over-gathering and over-hunting during the beginning of the Holocene (+/- 10,000 B.C.E.) resulted in a pre-historic food crisis, driving the human population to move from hunting-gathering to herding-planting. Traditional foods once lightly gathered in meadows were subjected to intensive grazing and quickly subsumed by highly aggressive anti-pastoral species. The prime characteristic of such colonizing plants is thorniness, and a high proportion of these spiny plants developed in the Middle East where the switch to farming originated. They became common contanimants of grain crops. Similarly, alien pathogens took up residence in sedentary agricultural populations which, although more reliably fed, risked sickness from greater co-mingling and poor sanitation in villages.

In the mid 1820's, European alfafa was imported into California containing yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) seeds. Finding a favorable Mediterranean climate the thistle began its New World colonization and now commands ten to fifteen million acres of California's wildlands. It exists as both a threat to our local ecosystem and a living reminder of the ancient grain cultures of the Mediterranean basin.

Neither the local Chumash, nor their predecessors, made this switch to farming, relying instead, on an astonishing range of naturally occurring foodstuffs. The seemingly benign environment was nonetheless frighteningly unpredictable, with famine a constant threat. Stress levels in Chumash society stemmed from periodic, and often serious, droughts. Brian Fagan notes in Time Detectives, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1995,

"Instead of living a relaxed existence in paradise, the Chumash lived conservatively, well aware of the unpredictability of their environment. Canoes, fishing spears, nets, acorn-grinding technology, everything and everybody became geared to the efficient exploitation of seasonal foods. Some villages stored large acorn crops each fall. Others harvested thousands of anchovies, while a few miles away their neighbors hunted sea mammals."

This was highly organized foraging and progressively more sophisticated fish harvesting - not farming. From the earliest times of their island occupation (Hoop Dreams) native groups relied heavily on wild seeds and shellfish, moving from place to place. As island and mainland population densities rose, the Chumash ate more and more fish. When the tomol (canoe) came into use, about 2,000 years ago, allowing people to fish farther offshore, settlements became more sedentary, and the Chumash developed a complex society of fishing villages. Their trade networks extended inland as far as the Southwest and helped ease local food shortages (Fagan).

An increasing dependence on protein-rich fish did not protect the Chumash from the kind of health decline that occurs when hunter-gatherers settled down to farm. Crowding into larger settlements, living in familial groups of up to fifty in their domical grass houses (Primitive Hut) and encountering people and their diseases from many miles away, cost coastal groups the good health they had known for thousands of years as mobile hunter-gatherers.

Inland, Southern Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) supplemented the diet of the native peoples but did not threaten the acorn as the primary food staple. Chia (Salvia columbariae) seeds were highly favored and nutritious, but the fields of chia in Chumash territory have long been in decline, due in part, "to the introduction of new plant species by European colonists, and from the supression of Chumash grassland burning practices in the late eighteenth century" (Timbrook). Thistles would be high on the list of likely suspects in suppressing the native chia: I saw one rare stand on Shelf road a couple of years ago but have not been back recently to see if it survives (Mining Gravel). Its harvesting season began in late spring and continued through early summer. By August it was done. The Chumash periodically burnt the chia fields to increase productivity. Burning a stand of chia today would result in its extirpation - to be replaced by noxious weeds.

Does August have a purpose in the Chaparral winter (The Winter's Tale)? Many believe that it's a great time to leave the wildland to the withering heat (Cool: Very Cool). It is not a great time for weeding, but I have already eliminated the star thistle from our meadows and consigned them to land-fill where their 30,000 seeds per square meter can do no harm. Bats fill the sky in the evenings. Last night around 2 a.m. I was awakened by the shrill buzz of a lone cicada, it continued its vibrational courting song for some time then, to reference an ancient technology - it was as though the gramophone needle had been abruptly snatched off of the vinyl. A bat had struck. I went back to sleep, arose around five, made a cup of tea and drank it while noting that the pale morning light does not appear until it's almost six. The sun is heading south.

August 1, Lammas Day, now a week ago, a cross quarter day, the halfway point between summer and fall.