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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/18/21

Bear Canyon

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Message John Davis

Snow leopard about to walk
Snow leopard about to walk
(Image by Tambako the Jaguar from flickr)
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I have just completed the wearisome journey that is the reading of Peter Matthiessen's book, The Snow Leopard, 1978. He documents a trek into that mystical borderland of Dolpo (hidden land) on the Himalayan edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The expedition was undertaken with the naturalist George Schaller in the early 1970's.

His is a journey into the still center of the human storm - a path pioneered within the Taoist philosophical tradition that emerged in the Paleolithic. He travels into the deep structure of the cosmos in the mountain landscapes where Tao, or the way, was originally revealed to ancient sage-masters. This is the reason he traveled to Nepal rather than remain in Manhattan where he had established his practice in his own zendo with a small group of fellow adepts - to delve further into what David Hinton calls "a primal cosmology oriented around earth's mysterious generative force." Nowhere, by virtue of its spiritual tradition, iconography, poetry and painting, is that 'mysterious generative force' more legible than in the sacred mountains of the Himalayas.

Matthiessen's spiritual journey, begun in America, is made fully manifest in the dizzying altitudes of the Himalayan passes. Trekking along vanishingly narrow mountain ledges between medieval hamlets, stupa, and Buddhist monasteries (gompa) in the gathering cold of autumn, he lived on little more than lentils, a few eggs, a scavenged yak's neck and occasional shots of mountain-still arak. He roughs it, along with George and their motley band of unreliable porters and taciturn Sherpa, sleeping in flimsy tents or in the shelter of stone sheep pens. Above the tree line, across snow fields, along river, gorge, and canyon, his experience of flora often limited to lichen and of fauna to occasional sightings of relict blue sheep and wolves, his senses are overwhelmed by the lithic majesty of the Himalaya rising into the crystalline empyrean.

Collections of prayer flags, cairns, and sometimes a stupa, erected across the ages by traders, herders and pilgrims, in thanks to the gods for safe passage, greet Matthiessen as he treks through the high passes. These ad-hoc mountain shrines mark both his geographic progress and his advancement along his etheric, spiritual path, they are prods to his intention - to be submerged in the moment. His temporal engagement is furthered by an itinerary that imposes withering physical demands almost totally unmediated by material comforts or leavened by meaningful social contact. George is an absent companion, busy observing the local sheep and investigating their genetic proximity to mountain goats.

His story of extreme tourism is lightly foreshadowed by the likes of David Livingston, Sir Richard Burton, Ernest Shackleton, and T.E. Lawrence, who traveled and wrote during the great age of European colonial adventuring. Matthiessen jets into Kathmandu from New York City and begins his journey into the Himalayas whilst shifting, culturally and materially, from the twentieth century to the Middle Ages. He travels in search of personal spiritual gain rather than material exploitation, or nationalist expropriation, but he cannot be entirely absolved of charges of cultural voyeurism, nor from Western paternalism. Enthralled by his sublime writing I experienced a powerful sense of place - only slightly addled by the knowledge that Dolpo lies within a continent that has long been caricatured by the West as redolent, "of antiquity, romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes," a cartoon that Matthiessen subtly embellishes with this tale of Eastern mysticism.

A world away, running up Bear Canyon, in the foothills of the eastern Santa Ynez mountains, as it emerges beyond the detritus of wildland-urban housing, cattle pastures, and avocado ranches, I am guided, for the most part, by no markers beyond a single track pounded into the earth by the passage of black bears and now occasionally tended by my removal of errant rocks, twigs and foliage. This and every spring, however, it is signaled by the chaparral's floral sentinel, the torch-like blossom of Yucca Whipplei - our Lord's candle - which rise intermittently along the northwest face of the canyon.

Survivors of the rainy season's antithetical drought, they have now seeded in gnarled green globules, each the size of an elongated walnut, ascending in antic pattern along the spine of the dead blossom. These pods will desiccate and drop their seed in the fall, leaving a display of dry husks along a stalk anchored by a spine-tipped rosette of blade-like leaves. In simpler times, W.S. Head recounts that during, --the years when the Model 'T' Ford touring automobile was the predominant family car, the proud yucca stalks were lashed to sides of cars, after the traditional Sunday drive. The yucca was usually shown to friends but was in the trash by Tuesday." I harvest a yucca late in December, and entwined in a string of white Christmas lights, the dead, dried and bleached yucca remains in a corner of our living room over the winter celebration. The prayer flags of the Nepalese mountains are shredded by the near constant winds, cycles of freeze and thaw, and faded by a sun unfiltered by pollution; yet like our yucca, it is in their senescence that they are most highly venerated.

Dolpo is bordered to the north by the Tibetan plateau which has an average elevation of 4500 meters. Sparsely populated with barely one person per square mile, this 'Roof of the World' harbors the planet's largest reserves of fresh water beyond the polar regions. Edged by the great mountains of the Himalayas to the south and the Gobi Desert to the north, its indigenous people have, for millennia, steadfastly resisted the encroachment of Chinese civilization. Some have chosen to flee and settle in the Himalayan region of Nepal or, like the fourteenth Dalai Lama, have trekked across the mountains to find religious refuge in Dharamshala. Others have discovered ways to continue their pastoral traditions - unburdened by Han Chinese cultural oppression - in Ladakh, a territory tucked away in the far northeast of India.

America's Great Basin, which occupies most of Nevada, southern eastern Oregon and about half of Utah, functions hydrologically like the Tibetan Plateau. It is bordered to the west by the Sierra Nevada, where its highest peak, Mt. Whitney, rises to 4,421m - puny compared to the Himalaya's Everest, which is more than twice its height. Nevertheless, the Sierras effectively block drainage from the Great Basin where precipitation, mostly falling as snow, drains internally and evaporates into salt lakes or flows into vast underground sinks. Unlike its water, which remains forever trapped in the high desert, its pre-historic peoples, predominantly the Shoshone and Paiute, expanded into richer ecosystems beyond the basin. Their migrations included journeying west over the Sierras into the fertile lands enfolded between the mountains and the sea - now California. This ethnographic dispersal from an increasingly inhospitable environment echoes the Tibetan plateau's Buddhist diaspora, the Sierras offering considerably less resistance to the flood tide of humanity than the Himalayas.

Locally, the indigenous people of Bear Canyon were a part of the Chumash grouping of tribes that first arrived via the 'Kelp Road' - Jon Erlandson's term for the coastal waters that lie off the west coast of the continent south of the Bering strait - where cool artic currents foster an ecosystem based around the giant seaweed which provided a familiar life-support system for the voyagers. Around 15,000 years ago, they settled in the Channel Islands before expanding onto the mainland across the narrow strait, a journey subsequently enshrined in myth as a passage across the 'Rainbow Bridge'. Much later, In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of their descendants attempted to escape the ravages of European settlement by moving inland to areas populated by the Paiute.

It has been perhaps a century and a half since indigenous people could be seen along the Bear Canyon trail with gathering baskets filled with chia, acorns or soap plant roots. The grizzly bears that shared the trail left shortly afterwards, hunted to extinction - the last of the Pleistocene megafauna. In the Himalayas, Matthiessen and Schaller are obsessed with seeing the snow leopard, the rare mountain cat that stalks the Dolpo region. Amidst patches of snow, rock, edelweiss, blue gentian and dwarf rhododendron they search in vain for the the snow leopard, which, Matthiessen understands, --has pale frosty eyes and a coat of pale misty gray, with black rosettes that are clouded by the depth of the rich fur".

Yucca whipplei are not prayer flags. The foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountain range are not those of the Annapurna. But the mountain lions that shadow the local hills are as elusive as the snow leopard; and Bear Canyon offers similar opportunities to be engulfed in the --all-pervading presence of the Present-- that sublime connection with the generative force of the universe which Matthiessen sought along the high mountain trails of Dolpo. He and I share remarkably similar Tibetan Buddhist mantras in our attempts to quiet the mind: he to prevent his thoughts wandering into the prosaic complications of his life in the twentieth century and I from the minutia that cloud mine in the twenty-first. The feel and sound of our footsteps are, I suspect, not so dissimilar, connecting us to each other and to the enduring tradition of venturing into the wildlands - where cultural hubris is entirely extinguished and the Tao beckons.

Om Mani Padme Hum"

The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen, 1978

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John Davis is a practicing architect in Ojai, California. He has taught Environmental Humanities at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and at Viridis Graduate Institute. He blogs on history and the environment at  (more...)

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