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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/18/21

In the Weeds of History

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Message John Davis

California Rain
California Rain
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After four years or more of bloviation focused on Trump, American democracy and the deep wounds of this country's colonial past, it is time to return to the enchantments of the Urban Wildland - except that there is no escape, even in the hinterlands, from the psychic toll of conquest.

I have been weeding in damaged areas at the edge of the chaparral and celebrating the 2020 - 2021 drought. The lack of rain favors the drought tolerant local flora while invasive weeds often fail to germinate or wither quickly in the heat of this preternaturally dry spring. This is evidenced, for instance, in bare patches of earth where only parched and dwarfish dots of erodium are scattered. Then, often suddenly revealed, is a native deerweed, golden bush or buckwheat seedling in the newly denuded space. The gratifications of weeding are few - Sisyphus is our mythological overseer - but the drought is making life for those of us who tend the wild a little easier.

To maintain faith in the importance of restoring the purity of Southern California's native plant communities requires a constant stream of justifications to ward against the easier option of an acceptance of the hybridized landscape that has evolved over the past three centuries or more, since erodium seeds started blowing up from Mexico where the plant had been introduced by the Spanish as rough pasturage. The religious and military conquest, that began in California in 1769, hastened the introduction of mostly European plants already naturalized in Mexico, which then included great swathes of what was to become the American southwest, as both food crops and animal fodder. Incidental propagation also occurred from seeds transported in clothing, animal skins, food and sundry supplies that reached the chaparral from Sante Fe and other centers of Spanish trade.

While the missions functioned as super-spreaders of non-indigenous plants, their dissolution in the 1820's after Mexican independence made the land available to Mexican grandees. Often gifted as political reward or as recognition of military service in the revolution, the rancheros began large scale operations across California. It was the success of these ranchos that persuaded Anglo-Americans and European migrants who had arrived during the gold rush that great fortunes could be made in the cattle business. Indeed, the rancheros thrived throughout the gold rush, but as Tom Philpott writes, "By 1856 their fortunes had shifted. A severe drought that year cut production".and rancheros began to lose their herds, their lands and their homes". By 1870, California's cattle herd had dropped to little more than 500,000 from a high of three million.

Like the missions before them, but with an even greater impact, the development of ranchos devastated the native American population by denying them access to their richest hunting, fishing and gathering lands. Established on the native grass and forb lands of the great valleys in times of above average rainfall, the cattle industry also wreaked irreparable ecological damage across California before it was terminally diminished by a combination of prolonged drought interspersed with devastating flood years, such as 1861-2, which saw much of the Central Valley under fifteen feet of water. The pattern of drought and flood continues today with both phenomena intricately linked to the cycle of rampaging wildfires which destroy desiccated biomass nurtured in years of heavy rainfall.

Robert Macfarlane writes that, "Any landscape that enchants" - as surely the chaparral does - "but has been the site of violence in the past produces a kind of dissonance." Here, in my patch of chaparral, I sense that dissonance. It is land settled in the past by the Chumash and has subsequently served as ranchland. The steep hillsides that flank the meadows, now rampant with tocalote. mustard, brome and rye grasses, thistles and erodium, were covered with impenetrable chaparral before the Thomas Fire of 2017-18. Violence has been visited on the land - once lightly peopled, sympathetically tended by them and home to a rich and plentiful variety of fauna, including grizzlies, mountain lions, bobcats, deer, coyote, and rabbits - ever since it fell into the thrall of the Mission system. Their native lifeways denied to them, the Chumash were decimated by disease and hunger as they sought refuge in the Franciscan compounds. Ranchers, oil prospectors and hunters then further ravaged the land and succeeded in exterminating the grizzly by the early 1920's. The infrastructure of urban and suburban development, oil and gas, agriculture, and roads and railways, have now critically fragmented the breeding territories of the big cats and pushed them to the edge of extinction.

In purposeful weeding, given a smattering of horticultural knowledge, one is made aware of the floral markers of colonization, and by extension, of all the floral, faunal and human violence which attends it. In speaking of the mountains of Slovenia, lands fiercely contested by Balkan peoples of warring creeds and ethnicities, Macfarlane writes, "But to read such a place only for its dark histories is to disallow its possibilities for future life, to deny reparation or hope - and this is another kind of oppression." My limited acts of chaparral restoration serve as small gestures of reparation and are inevitably based on hope. I can do nothing to re-introduce the grizzly or restore the vibrant society of those native tribes now collectively known as the Chumash    . The sense of violence and pain that has seeped into the chaparral, creeks and oak meadowlands over the last quarter millennium haunts my consciousness.

This is not memory - it is lived experience. Weeding non-natives keeps the dark meaning of the landscape ever-present. Silvia Federici makes a subtly different calculus to Macfarlane's. She writes, "Loss of memory is the root of oppression, for obliviousness to the past renders meaningless the world in which we move, strips the spaces in which we live of any significance, as we forget at what cost we tread the ground we walk upon." Macfarlane's stricture to read not only a landscape's tortured history, but to also allow for the possibilities of an exorcism of it hauntings, is sound, but given the lack of awareness of most to the psychic shadings embedded in our environment, better to heed Federici's dictum that those who have a sense of such historic wounds and their manifestations in contemporary pain should hold close to that experience, even amidst their enchantment with present beauty - the better to confront the injustices of the past.

Tom Philpott, Perilous Bounty, 2020

Robert Macfarlane, Underland, 2019

Silvia Federici, Re-Enchanting the World, 2019

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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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