Toeing potshards

Monument Valley. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

In the late Spring, when we vacationed on the Colorado Plateau, I discovered a book by Patricia Limerick called Desert Passages.  Dr. Limerick describes the American encounter with deserts in terms of three attitudes towards nature “as a biological reality in human life…hunger, thirst, injury, disease and death….as an economic resource…a container of treasures awaiting extraction…or as an aesthetic spectacle. “  We affectionately called our trip the archaeology tour as we visited the ruins of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples at Wupatki, Monument  Valley, Mesa Verde, and Canyon de Chelly. Wave and I spent many hours at the ruins in quiet meditation while I attempted to capture the  essence of these amazing cultural resources on watercolor paper.

White House ruin, Canyon de Chelly

White House ruin, Canyon de Chelly. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

One of the great mysteries is what happened to the ancient peoples?  Archaeological evidence reveals that sometime in the late 13th century these peoples abandoned their homes amongst the mesas and canyon walls and it is theorized that environmental changes —  possibly extreme drought — caused these peoples to abandon their homes.  One feels a certain twinge given the current state of  drought in San Diego, Los Angeles and the rest of California, and of course the fire still burning in the San Gabriel mountains.   It is believed that they left the Colorado Plateau and migrated to join other pueblos along the Rio Grande river in New Mexico.   How would we best characterize the Ancient Pueblo peoples encounters with the desert?  As a biological reality?  Probably yes.  As an economic resource?  Probably yes.  As an aesthetic spectacle?  Probably yes.  We  preserve the artifacts they left us and look for answers in the patterns as we piece the pot shards together.   Ann Weiler Walka’s poem  “Other Dreams: Grand Gulch”  in Waterlines: Journeys on a Desert River gives us something to ponder.  “My thumb polishes the fragment of a bowl, its shallow curve delicately cross hatched with black…some woman dug this clay from a slip of mud…she kneaded the clay with sand and spun a ball into coils….she painted the bowl with a yucca leaf…and dreamed the design from her fingers…she blessed the bowl…that night in her sleep she saw clouds piling over a mesa, spirits coming home. She dreamed of the clay along the creek cool and slippery as a freshly opened heart.”

Smokey the Bear

When I moved to San Diego last year, I did two wonderful things. First I joined the Sierra Club San Diego Chapter and enrolled in the Wilderness Basics Course.  Second I started hiking with my brother-in-law Doug. We chose hikes in the San Bernadino and San Gabriel mountains because of their proximity to Doug’s home and since I had spent thirty some years in Northern California any trail in Southern California would be an adventure for me. Our first explorations in the San Bernadinos included a hike through Jeffrey Pines on the snow covered Siberia Creek Trail, documented in this watercolor,

Hiking on the Siberia Creek trail

Hiking on the Siberia Creek trail. Copyright 2008 Robin L. Chandler

and a trek to the Pacific Coast Trail where it brushes by Big Bear Lake.   Our final adventure of last year was in the San Gabriels  hiking  Mt. San Antonio (known affectionately as Old Baldy) with my friend Dan.   Baldy is some twenty-two miles to the east of Mt. Wilson and Big Tujunga Canyon where the fires continue to burn now in their sixth day.  I keep thinking about those mountains — a challenge for  the north-south driver — but also a strong range charged with protecting the Los Angeles basin from the harsh temperatures of the Mojave desert and capturing moisture during the winter for the times of drought.   I keep thinking about the wildlife and people uprooted by such a massive fire and the lives lost, some heroically and others needlessly.  This evening I opened Gary Snyder’s essays Back on the Fire and thumbed to the “Regarding the Smokey the Bear Sutra” and this brief excerpt reads “a handsome smokey-colored brown bear standing on his hind legs showing that he is aroused and watchful, bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath appearances….his left paw in the Mudra of Comradely Display  indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits…wearing the blue work overalls symbolic of slaves and laborers, the countless men oppressed by a civilization that claims to save but only destroys…wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the West, symbolic of the forces that guard the Wilderness….round-bellied to show his kind nature and that the great Earth has food enough for everyone who loves her and trusts her….”  Thank you Smokey.

On the fireline

Sunday afternoon I swam on campus at the Canyonview pool. The cool water was delicious as I did my laps, a good way to exercise on a hot day! Built on a mesa, the pool provides a great view down the canyon to the northeastern section of San Diego County.  On a typical Summer’s day the view from this part of UC San Diego extends across the Carmel Valley to the foothills southwest of Escondido.   I’ve tried to capture this summertime view in my ink and watercolor drawing.

Canyon view

Canyon view. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

On a crisp clear day in Winter after a cold rain, one can see a dusting of snow on the hills — sometimes catching a glimpse of a snow capped Palomar Mountain (some 5300 feet above sea level) in the Agua Tibia mountain range. In August, however, snow is a distant promise, and on this day the sky was a very hazy and thick gray-pink color, a result I believe of the fires burning in the San Gabriel mountains north of Los Angeles.  Crossing the Tehacapi and the San Gabriel mountains is the final driving test before Northern Californians  —  tired from slogging through the endless miles of Interstate 5 —  are permitted to enter the City of Angels.  It is dramatic country.  The San Andreas rift zone lies on the San Gabriel ridgeline  neatly separating the Mojave Desert from the Los Angeles Basin.   The San Gabriels are also the majestic backdrop to the craftsman bungalows of Pasadena.  In the autumn of 1888, Mary Austin — future author of  The Land of Little Rain —  journeyed from Pasadena to the San Joaquin valley.  The journey  — described in her book One Hundred Miles on Horseback —  took her across the San Gabriels via the towns of San Fernando and Newhall and up the San Francisquito Canyon to the ridgeline and finally Tejon Pass.  On her way to San Fernando she ambled past orchards and vineyards alternating with stony stretches “marking the wash of some mountain stream and covered with brown tangled chapparal, bristling with the dried stalks of that species of yucca known as the Spanish Bayonet…these stony places are the favorite haunts of the prickly pear.” Once she began to climb the walls of the San Francisquito canyon she encountered the “dark red satin smooth stems, and olive green foliage of the manzanita;  sometimes bare and ragged cliffs with strata turned and twisted, and folded back upon itself, bearing on its face the marks of primeval fire and flood.” California has a summer drought followed by a risky fire season and native plants many of which have adapted so well to this climate that they don’t reproduce until after a fire.  As Californians we all know that flood, fire and earthquake are part of living in this beautiful place, and many of us prepare as best we can, but their significance as life changing events cannot be overstated.