“Fortunately, the task of preparing this volume has been carried on by those who have had the feeling that a piece of work must be done, but who also have had a purpose to make it reveal beauty and exude the historical atmosphere of the region with which it is concerned.”

—Santa Barbara: A Guide to the Channel City and Its Environs (1941)

Posted in Reference

Chumash Stone Bowl

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12 – Jesus, did you?”

—Stephen King, “The Body”

I spent an inordinate amount of time at the beach when I was ten and eleven and twelve. My mom and I would show up in late morning or around noon and we’d stay six or seven hours.

Our preferred patch of sand was a long walk from the car, to a nude beach, so we had to haul a day’s worth of supplies with us.

Cold, thick, home-fried cheeseburgers on slices of white bread soggy with ketchup was often for lunch.

Something like the storied “house burger” detailed by Eddie Murphy. But I loved them. The hard, crusty, coagulated, iron skillet-fried, well done, corn and chicken shit-fed, cardio-toxic wad-o-beef. A nutrient dense power pellet to fuel a boy at the beach.

There was the usual suspects at the beach. Our group of friends. We were black and white and various hues in between and gay and lesbian and straight and whatever. We spent many hours sizzling on the sand.

Although boogie-boarding was our favorite thing to do, my best friend and I, there are typically no waves during summer in Santa Barbara. And the particular shoreline we frequented was not a surfing beach anyway so it was especially flat.

My friend and I found other entertainment during those long summer afternoons. For a few years we were inseparable. We were brothers of the beach. Those were some of the best times of my life.

Back then as a kid it seemed like that seaside routine with great friends and family carried on for a long time and many, many years. Now looking back I realize it was fleeting and only but a short glorious dance in the sun. Some of those people are dead now. Including my friend.

We’d run as fast as we could on the wet sand at low tide and pounce onto our boogie boards on our knees, skimming over a thin sheet of fizzing seawater after a wave broke, and slam headlong into each other.

A natural seep nearby issued from the foot of the bluffs and formed a small pool just above the sand and then drained onto the beach. We’d play in the organic stink of the black pasty soil, then wash off in the sea. Somebody once put a few goldfish in the pool.

On the misty and gloomy days of early summer in May and June the beach became the set of a Scooby-Doo cartoon shrouded in fog, mysterious and full of adventure.

We played hide and seek, one kid counting, the other one or others if we had company running off and disappearing into the thick swirling fog.

With so many hours to fill, sometimes we’d wander the backshore way down the beach away from the adults to see what we might see.

We discovered that our bare feet squeaked when slid quickly across dry hot sand, the friction ridges on the soles playing against the miniscule grains of stone.

There were always loads of beach bugs in the cobblestone rubble along the high tide line. They resembled gargantuan pill bugs or sow bugs or rollypollies like we’d find at home in the yard. We smashed the hell out of those big beach bugs with rocks a time or two. The rocks sparking and a burnt smell in the air.

June 2019

One day we found ourselves scrambling up the steep south face of the coastal bluff. This wasn’t a smart idea being that my friend’s beloved dog, Bongles, died on the same beach after running up the face of the bluff like a mountain goat, at first, then loosing his footing like a clumsy dog, and tumbling rag doll to the sand below.

Think about naked California hippies in Santa Barbara and a certain weed and the name “Bongles” should make perfect sense.

Up off the beach, on the eroded shoulder of the coastal bluff, we kids came across a huge deposit of old weathered abalone shells. Shells were scattered everywhere

That’s some of my story at this place in recent time. A select slice of the happenings of one wee lad at a beach otherwise long frequented by other humans. This beach where somebody’s old stone bowl lay tumbled in the surf. I wonder about their stories. I wonder about their children’s playtime on this seashore. What of those stories at this beach? What else has happened here?

“In the beginning was the word, and rightly so: the world is constructed of stories, supported by stories, inhabited by stories. We get up in the morning, go for a beer, tumble into bed at night, and before we know it our lives have blinked out and we are none the wiser as to the essential story, the only one that matters: the story of what we are doing here on this mysterious planet.”

—Santa Barbara County resident, T.C. Boyle, as quoted from his introduction to Robert Coover’s short story collection, “Going For A Beer”

As kids Kelcey and I couldn’t make sense of all the old shells. Why were they there and where did they come from? We wondered. It was mystifying. We knew there was a story behind all the shells. There was an answer. But we couldn’t understand what it was the shells told us.

Decades later as an adult, I came to understand that we had found a midden heap left by the Chumash Indians. A village had once been located a short walk down the beach from where we always spent our days as kids. Ancient skeletons had been unearthed. The pile of abalone shells were a telltale clue that only later I was able to understand.

I returned to this particular beach recently to see what our old hang out looked like after so long. It’s not a beach I frequent these days. I was particularly curious about the old abalone deposit.

I searched the coastal bluffs, scrambling around the steep, loose and unstable hillside, but was unable to locate a single piece of abalone. Not one little bit. I remain baffled about how it all disappeared and where it went. 

It very well may still be evident somewhere, but in the fraction of an hour I put in looking I didn’t see anything. Another shell midden deposit is located nearby, but there is no sign of the abalone. None that I saw.

I don’t imagine the site has been cleaned up by people. Maybe the slough eroded from the bluff over the years and has once more buried the abalone. Maybe a huge slab of the bluff calved off and buried the shells. Maybe I was a kid and my memory is apocryphal. Maybe  I lost my mind at Lizard’s Mouth one night and there’s a Scab On My Brain and all these shells never existed.

On my way back down the beach on that recent walkabout, I was hopping cobblestones along the high tide line and saw the Chumash bowl, amid the rubble, right on the beach below or very nearby where we had found the abalone decades earlier.

The load of abalone shells may be missing, but there still remains other telltale clues telling stories about those people that came long before me. With open eyes, once in a while I stumble across one.

The bowl is a deeply personal item. Like a bowl from my kitchen. An artifact of the home used to prepare food and to eat.

If I were to ask what to do with the bowl that would presuppose that something should be done.

Should the bowl be let alone? Should it be left to nature so that eventually the earth takes it back and it is no more? And nobody ever sees nor feels nor contemplates it again. It has already been broken.

Some folks say let artifacts be. Admire them on-site, then return them to the earth.

In one of his books, “Soul of Nowhere,” Craig Childs writes about finding an Anasazi pot, “an artifact of the home,” that is nearly 1,000 years old. He discovers the artifact deep in the myriad folds of the trailless American Southwest canyon country.

After admiring his find he returns the pot to the earth, packing it full of soil for support so that it does not collapse upon itself under its own slight weight, and then burying it in the ground.

Three years later Childs returns to the canyon to show a friend the ancient pot. As if an intact thousand year old pot wasn’t an incredible enough find, this time they unearth the pot and discover that, due to wetter weather conditions than when Childs had first found the clay vessel, an intricate black and white geometric design now showed that had been invisible in drier conditions.

Once more, Childs admires his find, astonished at the design rendered in thousand year old invisible ink of a sorts, and he allows such of his friend, and then he returns the pot to the earth, and walks away.

Posted in Santa Barbara | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Letter to Editor Regarding Plastic Pollution

A snapshot showing plastic debris in the mulch. I walked out my back door, knelt down in a random spot in the garden, looked for just a second to spot some plastic, and took the photo. So pervasive is the plastic trash in the mulch that I can find it anywhere I kneel within seconds of looking without even digging.

I have made a point of trying to keep this weblog free of politics and tightly focused on my experiences when recreating outdoors and my related interests in nature and history.

Believe me, you do not want to hear from me about politics!

I would for a moment, however, and I beg your pardon here, like to publish a letter I emailed to a local news outlet months ago regarding the issue of plastic pollution and drinking straws in Santa Barbara County.

Perhaps this here may serve in some tiny way to raise awareness and spur discussion about this issue.

For context readers may hit the link below to a Noozhawk story regarding the Santa Barbara City Council’s decision last year to ban plastic drinking straws, which is the story that spurred my letter.

The City’s action garnered national attention in print and television outlets and stimulated widespread discussion.

Santa Barbara City Council Bans Plastic Straws, Expanded Polystyrene

A small sampling of the plastic found in the mulch. This took about 10 seconds to collect while kneeling in one spot.

In 2008, I wrote an article published in a local magazine describing the catastrophic impact of plastic pollution in our oceans and the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” off the coast of California.

I had noted at the time that, in 2005, a scientist had found a scrap of plastic inside the stomach of a dead albatross. Countless marine creatures die from ingesting such trash, from fish to birds to whales.

By tracing the origin of a serial number on the shard of plastic, the researcher found that it had come from a World War II-era airplane.

The discovery served as a shocking testament to the longevity and lethality of plastic pollution. Six decades later the small piece of trash was still a killer.

Plastic is forever. It degrades in sunlight, breaking apart into smaller and smaller pieces, becoming minuscule particles, dust eventually, but never rotting or biodegrading.

A decade ago when I wrote that article, I described the problem as a “a global blight of epic proportions.”

At that time researchers taking samples of sea water in certain places found that bits of plastic outnumbered plankton by as much as 6-to-1.

What must the ratio be now?

In recent months, numerous international news headlines have chronicled shocking accumulations of plastic garbage washing ashore in various locales across the world, from Indonesia to the Dominican Republic.

The sea is awash in plastic.

On July 17, 2018, the Santa Barbara City Council banned plastic drinking straws. So serious does the council believe the problem to be that the new ordinance affords a possible six-month jail sentence for violators. See story here: Santa Barbara City explains jail time controversy over potential plastic straw ban.

As a side note, that’s the same jail sentence given to some rapists in this county.

See two different stories here: (1.) Former UCSB Student Receives 6-Month Sentence for Rape. (2.) Isla Vista Rapist Gets Six Month Jail Sentence.

Something seems a tad askew. Nevertheless, the issue of plastic pollution is a serious problem.

The City of Santa Barbara advises residents to spread free mulch on their yards, which is available for self-service pick up at a couple of locations.

The City even pays for its water customers to have mulch delivered by the dump truck load.

But there is a huge problem here: The mulch is contaminated with large quantities of plastic.

Surely I cannot possibly be the only one to have noticed.

Ironically, the City tells us that the mulch is made from the garden clippings we put in our so-called “green” yard and garden recycle bins.

The City promotes the use of this contaminated mulch wholeheartedly with a full-throated promotion of the practice under, of all labels, and once more ever so ironically, the tab “organic.” See the City’s page here: Mulch Does A Garden Good.

The City tells us this is “natural” mulch. See their page here: Santa Barbara County’s Mulch Program.

In other words, under the advice and financial sponsorship of the City and their dubious assertions of “natural,” “organic,” “green” mulch, plastic is being spread across the land in large quantities at the same time the City launched it’s anti-plastic drinking straw crusade.

Does this make any sense to anybody out there? It’s utterly, and obviously, senseless.

Day after day, year after year, the plastic is being spread.

I made the colossal mistake of mulching my garden with a load delivered to my home.

Now my yard is littered with bits of plastic. It. Is. Everywhere.

As the mulch biodegrades, more bits and pieces of the trash begin showing until I am left with native soil covered in a layer of microplastic confetti.

I have even found bits and pieces of hypodermic needles in this mulch in my yard!

And, considering how plastic photodegrades into dust, the pieces visible to the eye are only a fraction of the amount now on my property.

And what about the rest of the gardens and landscapes across all of Santa Barbara County?

It’s disconcerting to think about how much plastic has been spread over the land out there, as advocated and subsidized by the city for years on end.

There is no doubt that some plastic washes into streets, sewers, creeks and, eventually, the ocean.

This was precisely the concern the City had in mind when passing the straw ban; plastic pollution getting into streams and the ocean.

If we as as a community are serious about addressing the deadly and poisonous problem of plastic pollution, then this issue must certainly be addressed with resolve.

Something must be done.

Will something ever be done?

I have yet to see any public discussion about this issue at all. Please show me something I’ve missed. Where and when has this issue been raised?

I suspect that an immediate moratorium on the plastic mulch program, at least until this issue can be remedied, would do far more in reducing plastic pollution than the straw ban and the City Council’s lunacy of six month jail sentences for straw-use violators.

Such a halt would certainly be no more drastic than giving straw providers or users the same jail sentence as rapists.

Posted in Santa Barbara | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Chumash Arrowhead

April 2019

Black     So what am I supposed to do with you, Professor?

White     Why are you supposed to do anything?

Black     I done told you. This aint none of my doin. I left out of here this mornin to go to work you wasnt no part of my plans at all. But here you is.

White     It doesnt mean anything. Everything that happens doesnt mean something else.

—Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited

I can’t help but wonder. What’s it mean? It shouldn’t mean anything. Just because it happened doesn’t mean something else. Or does it?

Seven years ago I found a metate in the creek: Chumash Grinding Stone. No trail led through the canyon and the creek was still dry in November.

I had been hiking the cobblestone bed, several hours by foot into the mountains, when the narrow otherwise unremarkable canyon opened into a pocket of oak woodland surrounding a creekside meadow, mountain slopes rising all around, and views of rocky crags in the distance.

I walked up to this enticing transition in the land and I saw the shallow sandstone dish sitting in the middle of the creek like any other cobblestone.

Intact artifacts are always a thrilling sight, especially something rather large, but I didn’t think the experience was out of the ordinary.

The place I had just wandered upon was so attractive to my mind that I had not been surprised to see the artifact.

At first sight, in merely looking at the place, I knew other people had long ago spent time there, not just walked through.

There were a number of geographical features characteristic of this place that were rather appealing to a person with my way of thinking about these sorts of things.

These forest things. These sites and settings. These odd and infinite arrangements of innumerable natural features—the hills, the meadows, the streams, the rock outcrops, the plants—put together just right in certain ways only in certain locations which all then come together to create a unique. . .place.

Seeing this place, I had expected to find remnants of humanity’s past, it seemed, although I had no thoughts earlier that day of setting out to hunt artifacts.

I showed no more excitement in first seeing the Chumash artifact than I would have in seeing a fossil stone I might examine for a moment during a hike. I wasn’t surprised nor thrilled. It was like finding a plant growing in its preferred habitat. It was expected. If you find the proper habit you’ll find the animal you’re after.

I didn’t wonder if the chance happening or if my luck meant something.

I didn’t wonder if the chain of events peculiar to myself alone in my life which led me to that singular place in space and time added up to a larger meaning. I don’t generally think in that manner.

I had been out for a hike to explore a canyon. That is all.

I just happened to find something.

It’s not an unusual occurrence for me as I spend lots of time out in the forest. I find things. People find stuff.

Chumash cynegetic art. A relic of a master craftsman, keenest of hunters. An artifact laden with the knowledge of countless generations as gleaned from individual personal experience through thousands of years of close and intimate, visceral interaction with the land, plants, animals and the earth’s elements and natural forces. The breadth and depth and amount of knowledge is unimaginable. It is beyond my ability to imagine. So much knowledge has been lost. The intellectual hard drive destroyed through conquest with no back up, no record. And so it is that I walk into the same land where they lived and I quickly perish from ignorance and an inability to merely survive where they once thrived. 

The following year I returned to the canyon for further exploration, but the land is rough and difficult to travel through afoot with no worn trail aiding access. Walking is strenuous, hard work.

Rocks are abrasive and unstable, brush pointy, sharp and burdensome to pass through.

Rattlesnakes are camouflaged, somewhere, potentially everywhere, every minute all day long. Walking in the woods is not just physically demanding and tiring, but such sharp and constant focus on unseen deadly risks is mentally exhausting, too.

(An aside: Earlier this year on a hike up the canyon with a buddy I nearly stepped on a long thick viper, my buddy grabbing my pack from behind and yanking me backward.

The trip alone up the canyon prior to that incident I twice crossed paths with vipers in close ways.

One large rattler I unknowingly stepped over while inspecting the underside of a rock outcrop, only to then follow my steps back around the boulder and nearly step on it a second time before I noticed it lying still, well camouflaged in the shadowy mottled light amid rocks and dry grass. I must have stepped right over it the first time completely oblivious to how close I was to death’s deliverer.

And then on my stupidly hasty way back down the creek, nearly jogging, I jumped over a tuft of grass and small rocks, and my foot landed heavily in an explosion of gravel and furious rattle on the far side as I almost landed on a viper, which then went sidewinding out of my way and slammed itself into the underside of a rock to hide.  That one was real close.)

Then the sun. The ball of fire blazing overhead is, uh, hot. And it’s difficult to hide from. The sun wears you down to a nub the day long, robbing your water, burning your skin, working your body even when just standing still.

On this day’s hike up the canyon six years ago I lost interest and motivation. I crawled under a boulder, beaten by the sun and hot dry conditions, and napped before returning to the truck. I failed to get any farther up the drainage than I had the previous year when I found the metate. In fact, I hadn’t even made it that far.

Five more years would pass before I made it back to the canyon. The time ticked by, but thoughts of the canyon always simmered on the back burner of my restless mind.

I tended through those dry and droughty years a deep desire to get back up there once more for a looksee around, as I continued to wait for a decent, normal season’s worth of rain.

This last winter the rain finally fell.

The forest this year, if the benchmark is water and all it brings, is the best it’s been in almost a decade.

This was the spring to get back up that hot, often dry, miserably fly infested, tick-strewn, rattlesnake slithered canyon. Finally.

So on a Sunday I was hiking toward the canyon, toward the place. It’s not a particularly long hike, but the going is not easy through the creek without a trail.

After nearly three hours of hiking with minimal, short rests, I began to think I had confused the canyon I was in with the canyon where I had found the metate.

I wrestled with the fact that after three hours I still was not at the place. I should have been there by now, I thought. How much farther up the bloody creek should I push myself when not knowing for sure if I was even in the right canyon?

Shortly after that consideration, I came around a meander in the creek and forest features that I recognized came into view.

I had finally arrived, I believed, with relief. I hiked a bit farther up the creek and toward what I was hoping was my destination.

I hopped out of the creek, up a bank and into the oak trees for a view around to confirm I was where I had been six years earlier. Yes, indeed. This was absolutely it.

I jumped down the bank and back into the creek bed and walked across a sandstone rib of bedrock bridging the flowing water.

I hopped off the rock and into the gravel beside the water, spun to face the sun for proper lighting, and within 60 seconds I spotted the arrowhead shown above.

Seven years later and a three hour hike and within one little minute of looking I had found the arrowhead.

As if that’s not strange enough, I will have you know that I found the arrowhead within ten feet or so of where I had found the metate seven years earlier.

What are the odds?

And in my mind’s ceaseless quest to make orderly sense of random nutty events, other strange factors stick out.

A week prior to returning to the canyon and finding the arrowhead I received an email out of the blue that provided added impetus in driving me back up the canyon.

I had received a note from an old friend I had not talked to in about a decade and had not hung out with in about two decades.

In the email my friend mentioned this particular canyon, of all places in the world, and he asked if I had ever been up the drainage before. He had just come back from a few nights backpacking in the area and had been in the upper reaches of the canyon.

I told him I had indeed been up that canyon and how crazy it was that he happened to mention it, because I had found a metate up there and I really wanted to get back to explore and had just been thinking about it.

A few days after this email exchange I made the hike and found the Stone Age projectile point seemingly just waiting for me in the creek for years.

Now, just because something happens doesn’t mean something else, but I can’t help but search for meaning in happenings like this.

Sandy Dearborn in Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 says, “I don’t believe in coincidences, only chains of event which grow longer and ever more fragile. . .”

The chain of events that in my life led me to this canyon and these finds was indeed long and fragile.

At any moment I could have made innumerable different decisions that would have led me away from this canyon and these finds. (Obviously, this can be said of any occurrence in a person’s life.)

Yet somehow everything came together as it did.

The links kept coming together just right, one joined to the next, the chain growing ever longer.

The chain never broke. And it eventually led me to the treasure.

Maybe it’s just coincidence, but maybe what happened means something else.

I can’t help but wonder.

Posted in Santa Barbara | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Mood Altering Stream Orchid

A stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea) growing near the Santa Ynez River in late May of 2019.

Stream orchids grow where constant water is found at seeps, springs and perennial streams. The plant is known for its mood altering and sedative effects.

“Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West,” Michael Moore:

“I have seen it help depression resulting from cocaine burnout; it can also aid people with a lot of emotional stress, in whom every little ache and pain is magnified and whose tolerance for noises, smells, and bright light is virtually nonexistent.”

“Wild Plants of the Sierra Nevada,” Ray S. Vizgirdas and Edna Rey-Vizgirdas:

“Native Americans made a decoction of the fleshy roots for internal use when they felt ‘sick all over.’”

Posted in Santa Barbara | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

US Coast Survey Patterson Camp Inscription Vandalism (1873)

Inside a cave in the Santa Ynez Mountains on the Gaviota Coast somebody carved an inscription memorializing the United States Coast Survey of 1873.

The name is apparently in reference to Carlile P. Patterson, the Hydrographic Inspector for the USCS at that time.

The wall of the cave with what is apparently an historic inscription is increasingly being covered in graffiti, some of which has recently been scratched right over the old marking itself.

It seems this cave may go the way of other more easily accessed caves in the area, which I have watched over the years become filled with names and initials and dates and whatever else. Bare stone not too long ago is now covered in graffiti, some of it carved deeply into the surface.

I wonder if this inscription from 1873 will be covered over and scratched up and carved out of existence not long from now.

One can only expect a sign to accomplish so much, which might be little, but at this site there is nothing to note the significance of the inscription or to politely plead for restraint for sake of preservation.

Of course, it wouldn’t be long, probably, before the sign was annihilated in some manner in a fit of misplaced emotion and energy. I’d return to find vestiges of its corpse strewn about the kill site and a hole in the ground from whence it had been ripped with causeless fury. You know how these things work out there in Humanityville.

But then again, maybe, just maybe, some of these people with shallow thoughts and twitchy hands would be just a tad less likely to carve up the old inscription if’n they only knew about it.

Inside the cave, the historic inscription center frame amid a growing tangle of names, initials and other vandalism. The “Jack” written there in the upper right is not me.

What appears to read “i Patterson Camp U.S.C.S. 1873.”

In the latter half of the nineteenth century the Santa Barbara Channel environs had yet to be properly charted.

Maps of the time were not accurate, locations misleading. The US Coast Survey corrected the matter.

An image taken from the original 1873 Coast Survey annual report showing the triangulation network between points on the Channel Islands and the mainland coast from Santa Barbara to Point Conception, with Gaviota clearly having been a major station. Click for a larger view. (Hat tip Sam Green)

Cropped view of previous image showing Gaviota Peak station.

Reportage from the 1873 document mentioning Santa Barbara and Gaviota:

Posted in Santa Barbara | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments