The Long March

A collision of time

In Blood Meridian (1985) Cormac McCarthy writes of the Sonoran desert,

“…here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships.”

In such wildlands, he seems to suggest, individual consciousness and even morphic distinctions evaporate beneath the Universe’s gaze. In these landscapes too, something similar happens to time. It expands to become the eternal now. Left behind in the cosmic dust are such pettifogging notions like: the future is unknowable, the end is near and the past is a foreign country.

Moment to moment, experience is immediately consigned to the past but is used, in that moment, as a guide to the future. It is in these realms of memory and of conjecture that most of us, in our daily lives, reside. Despite our best intentions of being present, we exist in a netherworld where our thoughts structure our experience - their surge and back wash constituting our notions of the past and the future - the present consigned as nothing more than grist to its mill. Thus it is that we are trapped temporally within a current flowing between past and future.The Time Lords are remorseless in their dedication to vanquishing the present.

In the world of the Chumash, enmeshed in their wildlands - fully present in their animist universe - there was an escape from the smothering folds of past and future into the knife-edge of the now. It’s a hell of a way to live, but perhaps the only way to be fully alive.

Early in January, I drove into Chumash territory north and east of Santa Barbara. Perhaps more accurately, I drove north into Chumash Casino territory, for it is this palace of fine dining, entertainment and gambling that is now the most visible symbol of those who claim a genetic link to the native American tribes that shared similar languages and cultures from Malibu in the south to Ragged Point in the north, along coastal plains bound by the Santa Monica, Santa Ynez Mountains and, beyond, by the San Rafael Mountains and the Santa Lucia Range. The supposed forbears of the Santa Ynez Band, who now look to the casino for their wealth, were effectively exterminated, along with all of their Chumash brethren, by the Franciscan brothers, ably led by Junipero Serra, with mop-up operations conducted by Americans who flooded into Southern California in the mid-nineteenth century. So it was that the tribe’s eternal now, which lasted for at least 13,000 years (Erlandson), was effectively ended by the beginning of the twentieth century.

While Indian consciousness may have endured in a state of immediacy, the people ever receptive to the sensory impulses of a constantly numinous world, their physical setting was undergoing massive change. As the climate warmed at the end of the last Ice Age, sea levels rose dramatically along the southern Californian coast - by as much as 400’ north of Point Conception along more exposed coastlines. During the melt water pulses of 13,500 and 11,000 years ago the rate of rise was between six and thirteen feet per century (Masters and Aiello, Postglacial Evolution of Coastal Environments, 2010) inundating vast areas of the coastal plains that had originally been inhabited by California’s first settlers.

Much of the evidence of these Paleo-Indian people is thus buried beneath the ocean, along a now submerged coast. It is at least partly because of this buried archaeological treasure that there is now growing support for the designation of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary to fill the gap with sanctuary protection between the Channel Islands and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries.

Meanwhile, I was far in-shore, ensconced for a few days in Los Alamos, originally part of the estate of La Purisima Mission. In 1839 the land was granted, under Mexican rule, to Antonio de la Guerra as Rancho Los Alamos. By the 1860's it was a popular stagecoach stop en route to San Francisco. The Union Hotel was opened in 1880 on the main street (Bell Street) and survives still as a kitsch curiosity, rivaled only by a truly hideous 1864 Victorian mansion which stands close by and is now operated as a themed room bed-and-breakfast. The town was a stop on the narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway which ran from Los Olivos to San Louis Obispo from the 1880’s through the early 1930’s as both a passenger line and a freight line servicing the agricultural and oil industries. A former freight shed still stands in Los Alamos and now houses an antique mall. When I first visited fifteen years ago, the town seemed to echo with a death rattle as semi-trailers rumbled past lots left vacant since a devastating 1893 fire and empty storefronts.

Long ago, a Chumash village sat amongst the cottonwoods that run through the valley. As its population was impressed as newly baptized neophytes in the early 1800’s they quickly succumbed to the colonists' introduced diseases and the enforced labor required by the Franciscans at the nearby mission. An 1840’s small pox epidemic struck the last of the Indian population and by the mid-1850's only eight natives were left in the valley.

The town is in the process of being resurrected from this forlorn history as the northern outpost in the food and wine triangulation of the Santa Ynez Valley, anchored by Los Olivos and the town of Santa Ynez. The Chumash Casino is a meretricious outlier to these bastions of the haute bourgeoisie and their junior acolytes, hirsute and inked hipsters. Withal, the jewel encrusted dead hand of hyper-capitalism, here conjured by the twin cities of gold, Los Angeles and San Francisco, lies over the lean and racy wines and the field fresh food of this clustering of new restaurants, delicatessens, bakeries and tasting rooms.

The Spanish arrived in California determined to develop feudal estates around their mission system using the native population as serfs. Thus even as late as the eighteenth century, Spanish colonial rule hearkened back to the feudal system but here in California the model collapsed in a plague of introduced diseases and famine. The intended broad base of compliant laborers died in mission, field and their erstwhile villages, in an unintended genocide.

Around Purisima, the land then passed into the rancho system where remnant Indians and low-caste Mexicans served their aristocratic masters (many newly minted) and thus replicated, slightly more successfully, the medieval economic system. This comparatively benign feudalism was then engulfed by the gold rush that opened up the 31st. State to mercantilism before agriculture, oil, shipping, real estate, banking, tourism and entertainment finally moved California into a mature capitalist system.

Contemporary cultures, driven by neo-liberal capitalism, have now fully abandoned the present: they are, instead, consumed with the future. Los Alamos has been shaped over the last one hundred and fifty years by competing visions of transport – from stagecoach to railroad to the original route of the 101, and is now being revived by notions of how we might eat and drink in an idealized future where artisanal practice somehow trumps the pervasive world-reality of industrially produced food and beverages. The past is fetishized by re-purposing the town’s buildings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as emporia of twenty-first century boutique consumption.

This morning, a still sea of mist lay over the Santa Clara River in a faint visual echo of the roiling melt waters that first carved the valley.  Far above, in a chaparral canyon which funnels a tributary towards the river, the heavy scent of ceanothus blossom hung in the air while the sound of my breathing, my footfall and bird song further occupied my senses. For a moment, I escaped into the now. I eluded the Time Lords, whose rule began in the waning days of the dark-ages when hunters, gatherers, woodsmen and fisher-folk were first organized into a laboring under-class to serve the aspirations of the rich and powerful: the first step in our long march to the future. Under their unrelenting tutelage, we have consumed the present.