Connecting to this land–an assay

silvery blue butterfly

I begin with a story to set the stage. It is a very Homo sapiens story.

Sometimes we find ourselves living in places where we just don’t fit, and so it is for me. During my previous incarnation as an academic, one of the topics I studied intensively was human population movements, which archaeologists usually refer to as “migration” although we’re not talking about a seasonal migration like that of animals. Anyway, the motivations for picking up sticks are various, but the pattern is pretty consistent. It usually starts with a bunch of young men in search of land or booty or glory. A few of them settle down in a new place and marry local women. Word gets around that they found a good patch or a made their pile, and others follow–significantly, relatives of those first young men. Entire families start to relocate, along with women and children and animals. From then on, barring some calamity, there is usually a more or less continuous trickle of people from the Old Sod to the New.

This pattern has played out in my own family over and over. I come from a long line of younger sons and daughters of younger sons and daughters. I have traced my ancestry back to the late Roman Empire and perhaps even earlier, but dates get fuzzy that far back–a thousand years or so ago, many of my ancestors were wealthy members of European warrior aristocracies. But by the time my ancestors started coming to the Americas, 350-400 years ago for most of them, they were just ordinary Joes and Janes. The first sons had inherited, so the younger sons had to make their own fortunes, and the daughters had to marry them, or die trying. Younger children of younger children grew ever more distant from the patrilineal line of primogeniture, first becoming poor cousins, then merchants and peasants, until there was no room left for them in Europe, no more booty, no more glory.

A warrior-pillager ethos seems to have been pretty common in European societies, from Odysseus to the Vikings. Its eldest son was empire and colonialism; its youngest son was poverty and exile.

In the last couple generations of my family, this pattern played out again. It started with my uncle, the young warrior (an Air Force officer). He settled where I now find myself, the suburban jungle of greater Los Angeles/inland Southern California. He didn’t have any choice about coming here, but he and his wife decided to stay. His wife, my aunt, was my mother’s eldest sister. When I was away at college, my mother was caring for my grandmother. My aunt promised to help. So my mother followed her family out here. Necessity was the engine of the move, but family was the compass. And when my mother became ill and it was my turn to be the caregiver, I had to move here because she was already too weak to come to where I was. But it all started with a young warrior.

There is no truly empty land, and with young men roaming around in search of brave deeds to do and whatnot, it’s inevitable they will bump up against other people. After all, there has to be somebody else to make war on, somebody else to trade with, somebody else’s women to…er, marry. In the Americas–and maybe other places as well, lost to history–this story became a tragedy when the settlers find their New World inconveniently occupied.

I like cities (lots to do, good food, museums), and I love the countryside (because nature and ponies), but I can’t stand the suburbs. Suburbs have none of those good things. From where I live, you can drive almost an hour in every direction and never leave the suburbs; in some directions you can drive considerably further, like three or four hours, all the way to the sea. One ‘burb simply fades into another. The rivers of this landscape are freeways, the hills are overpasses, the soil is concrete and asphalt, the sky is smog. Everything is tamed, flattened, homogenized, neutered, policed, regimented, and ranked.

Plus it’s hot here. What little green there is, is not native and is inappropriate considering the severity of the drought.

But since this is where I find myself, I have been trying to learn about the land and its history. I have studied some of the native plants. I try to learn the names of the species I encounter so I can try to be friends with them. In spite of all this, it feels incredibly sterile here. I was honestly wondering if the spirits of this land had fled elsewhere, or just gone to sleep underground, to reawaken when wildness comes back to the region.

The first thing I looked for was native folklore, but there isn’t any. No one bothered to write it down in the brief period–about 100 years–between Europeans first settling here and the indigenous peoples being almost exterminated. One of the “Indian Schools” is right in this area–they brought native children from all over the country to this spot to rub the Indianness out of them. There are still some native people left, and I don’t mean to detract from their survival or achievements, but overall, what I see in this area is a monument to their erasure.

Traffic here gets worse every year. When my aunt and uncle first moved here, people regularly commuted to LA to catch a show or visit a museum. Now you take your life in your hands with LA drivers, if you’re willing to put in the hours of freeway commute to get there. So these former bedroom communities have been cut off and are slowly necrotizing. I do believe the apartment complex is in the most moribund neighborhood of these moribund suburbs. On one side is a concrete-and-chain-link drainage channel that only ever has enough water in it to stink. Usually it’s full of trash and invasive plants. On the opposite side is an abandoned orchard full of dead and neglected trees–at least the cats love that place–and a small nursing home where Alzheimer’s patients are sent to die. The nursing home is hidden from the street, but you can tell where it is because the driveway is lined with cypresses, the “mourning trees.” How perfect.

And yet, the river.

The Santa Ana river–Wanaawna to the Tongva people–flows from the San Bernardino mountains,¬† across the heart of the Inland Empire, through the Santa Ana mountains that bear her name, and onto the flats of Orange County, out to the sea. She may not seem very grand compared to your Nile or your Mississippi, but she is ancient, millions of years old, and her watershed covers more than 2500 square miles.

Santa Ana river in flood, 1938.
Santa Ana river in flood, 1938.

Every generation, the river would flood, bringing nutrient-dense river silt to the plain. It was this silt that made this area so agriculturally rich. (In the early 1890s, Riverside was the wealthiest city in the nation thanks to citrus agriculture.) But flooding and permanent settlements are not very compatible, and the last great flood in 1938 killed more than 50 people, so they lined much of the river bed with concrete, made her straight where she was curvy, built dams and drains, flumes, canals, and ditches, and now they say there will never be another flood. I wonder. Although I don’t want to see anyone hurt or made homeless, part of me wants the river to flood, to show everyone that Wanaawna cannot be tamed.

My garden allotment is in the mouth of what once was a shallow canyon where seasonal storm water flowed to the river. It actually has its own microclimate, a few degrees cooler and just a little more humid than the rest of this dusty place. We gardeners share the place with rabbits, mice, ground and tree squirrels, raccoons, snakes, coyotes, teenage skateboarders, bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, roadrunners, bicyclists, and a homeless community. My point is it’s a desirable locale. And it’s all because of the river.

Recently I’ve been thinking that I’ve gone as far as I can with book learning about this area, and while my meditation skills are still pretty weak, I decided to just go ahead and try to make contact with the genius of this land. (I tend to be unwilling to move forward until I have perfected whatever skill I’m currently working on, and sometimes I have to remind myself that perfection will never happen–and neither will progress, unless I just go for it.) As the first part of my story shows, this isn’t a land where I have any natural links–no deep ancestral roots, no particular love for the scenery, no attachment to any denizens other than my small immediate family. When my mom passes, I don’t expect I’ll linger here. But who knows what the Fates have in store? This is where I am now, and I’m sure there is much it could teach me if I can only bring myself to open to it. And so the obvious candidate for me to try contacting in vision was the river herself, as the dominant natural feature and shaper of this land.

There’s not a lot to tell. I guess it’s not much of a reward for you, if you’ve stuck with me this long! I was interrupted at what I anticipated would be about the halfway point. Oh and also I’m not very good at this yet. I saw the river in her natural state in a kind of flyover, racing from the source out to the sea; then I was taken back to the source, but this time I could see a native person canoeing down the river. It was impressed upon me that the river enabled many cultures to travel and communicate along her length. And then it was just water rushing over me, on and on.

At the end of the vision I saw the lined, brown face of an old gnomish woman–that’s why I call the river “she”–and then in a flash, superimposed on her face, a glowing blue butterfly.

I tried to research the butterfly, but aside from finding out that there are several species of blue butterfly in the area, I can’t find any stories or traditions that might explain or describe it.

Since this vision, I have been struck several times by the beauty of moving water. I suppose that sounds sort of duh; I mean, we’re in the middle of a horrendous drought and we live on the edge of the desert, obviously water is precious. All I can say is that I am more aware. I see this silvery luminosity in it, and the simple act of pouring out a stream of water for a plant touches me and makes me feel connected in a way it never did before.

I plan to revisit the river, both physically and in vision. If I learn any more I will share it, though of course it’s only my UPG. I’d like to try drawing what I see too, though my art skillz are not up to the job.


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