“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)

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The Plunder and Peddle

“Pocketing potsherds is erasure. It is the worst of colonization, the taking of the land. If you believe the stealing has ended, it has not.”

–Craig Childs Why Potsherds Matter

On this, the last day of Native American Heritage Month.

I don’t understand why people do what they do. Why they hunt things like this to peddle for so little money. So little money. Surely driven by avarice and in no way needful. 

Several years ago I stood on the mountain locked in a thousand yard stare gazing intently at a particular geological feature.

I returned another day and by another route, hiking and scrambling over steep and loose, rugged and rocky terrain, a strenuous walk without a trail. There were no tracks but that of a bear.

I saw no recent sign of people at this place, although in years past marijuana growers had put the remote and hard to access south facing site to their advantage. I found three different old grow sites. 

A wildfire had swept the mountain not long before I hiked and so the earth was stripped naked of its many forms of cover.

I walked over to the boulder that had captured my attention from far.

I stepped slowly around the monolith looking at the ground and the sides of the giant stone. I did not see anything remarkable.

Using the blackened skeleton of a scorched bay tree I hoisted myself atop the boulder. I took several steps and there they were, well-weathered and faint, but unmistakable in their form and placement: cupules. Sacred markings bored into the stone by human hands.

I spent hours sitting about and wandering around this place. It is perhaps the most extraordinary place I have seen in the Santa Ynez Mountains for its natural character and long views alone, never mind the landed artifact of the cupule boulder. The geography of the site alone is mesmerizing.

Then of a sudden other small stones of importance I had walked past began showing themselves.

This place was speckled in lithic scatter and other small artifacts. Projectile points of various designs and drills and beads and blades and a pestle. All of it laying bare to sun for perhaps the first time in hundreds of years.

A nest found in a bush but right smack on the ground, along a steep ridgeline, while walking to the place.

I returned to this place another day.

I loved to spend time there for its prehistoric presence and the natural ambiance and phenomenal view.

I’d walk there in different weather and different seasons to see what life was like in the forest there throughout the year.

I walked on warm, still summer days under spotless blue skies and on chilly, wet winter days of cold gloom and low ceilings within heavy cloud cover.

The fire had cleared the way for a steep route, which was a pleasure to hike. And so I did, repeatedly, because I knew the chaparral was growing back and it would not be long before the site vanished under the bush and trees.

I marveled how I was the only human around in this densely populated region that apparently had any interest in explorations of the freshly revealed forest. And to just walk, walk the rounded hills.

The Grouch of the Woods was astonished at this lack of interest on the part of his fellow humans, yet also very much pleased by their absence, obviously.

The mountains were steep and irregular and boney and jagged in places with exposed bedrock.

Yet, by and large, these slopes were mounds of bare soil, well-weathered and shaped into smooth, organic and curvilinear forms from the wind and the rain working with gravity to bring it all down, like groomed hills at a ski resort and heaving ocean swells.

Hillwalking here was steep work, but easy in the fire-scorched terrain and the smooth lines of the curvaceous mountains very much reminded me of the grass hills of Scotland.

Then one day on my return I found tracks to this sacred place. Some other humans had finally shown interest. Good for them. 

Then, on yet another day, I noticed the soil in places had been disturbed and it was plainly evident that a body had been digging. 

Artifacts that I had left at this place were suddenly gone on my next visit, obviously lifted.

An arrowhead I had picked up and set in a small pock mark concavity on the side of one of the boulders disappeared. The traps laid had been tripped.

While I cannot fault a person for taking an arrowhead laying on the surface in plain site, digging is another matter. Not just a difference between physical acts of removal, but in the letter of the law and intent.

I became agitated and defensive. I had come to feel a particular personal attachment to this place. To have found it myself, without being told by somebody else and let in on the secret. That meant something to me. 

I made the snap decision to collect every flake of stone I could find. I did not know then and nor do I know now if that was the proper decision.

I left a single pile of those chippings in plain view for anybody to find.

But only I know the layout of the site as first found, and where exactly lie the specific areas that the people whom left these traces of their presence worked so diligently.

I have it all recorded in words and drawings and I will not share this information.

I collected those things and set them aside so that a plunderer might not have it so easy. I did not want to return again to find it all dug out.

Sure, the pirates may be able to surmise where best to dig, but, I reasoned, at least they don’t really know where. It is not as obvious as one might think.

Several days ago I experienced an odd chain of events.

I never use eBay. I don’t even look at eBay.

I do not buy Native American artifacts. The purchase of something like that does nothing for me. 

I enjoy finding artifacts, indeed, I must confess. But it’s a casual pursuit, when I’m out there, but not always. I don’t make special trips. I have a long-standing and profound interest and I’m just observant by nature, and lucky. And I always walk with chin to chest.

I sure as hell am not going to patronize the business of plunder by buying items.

I struggle to make sense of our shared history and my place in it going forward. A part of this blog is about that, my open journal of sorts.

For some unknown reason in the cosmos I was on eBay and stumbled across this auction for what was listed as a rare Chumash artifact.

Oddly enough the item apparently had just been listed. What brought me to eBay that day I do not know. It’s remarkably odd.

I read the description and cursed out loud in astonishment. 

This person had listed for sale an artifact they said had been found “ensconced” in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara after a recent wildfire.

I could not help but believe that they had dug it up at the cupule boulder site. Of course, it is well within the realm of possibility it came from elsewhere on the mountain, but the description matches as well as it possibly could without being any more explicit in detail.

The listing was originally posted as a six day auction, but lasted only about one day or so before it was mysteriously terminated, without a bid or final sale price listed.

Here below is the listing:

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The Potsherd Ponder

“People like to pick them up and take them home. Some are small as buttons, some a quarter of a broken bowl with insides painted in spirals and interlocked teeth. I’ve seen places lousy with potsherds turned bare in a decade or two. It’s like sweeping ancestry off the land. It seems innocent enough. Just one piece, maybe two. The stark black lines on white-slipped clay are like a prize. You feel like you really discovered something. You want it as a reminder. Don’t do it.”

–Craig Childs, Why Potsherds Matter, July, 2020

I find things out there in the open spaces. You don’t have to look. People have lived around these parts of California for over 10,000 years. Like a coin on a sidewalk in the city artifacts turn up when afoot in the forest or seashore. I wonder what to do with them.

To do nothing is to do something and that’s maybe the sort of something I should do, nothing.

Turn today’s mantra of preservation on its head, and leave a trace. Leave it there.

I found this sherd recently when walking back along the beach from halibut fishing.

The place I fish I have been fishing for decades, since I was a small boy. From boats and beach and mostly in the water myself with snorkel and spear.

That’s why my ears are closing shut, not so much surfing as my doctor first said. Long hours with my head in the cold Pacific Ocean.

I’ve seen the halibut gather in this place so numerous I found it hard to decide which biggest fish to shoot first, because after the first shot they all might bolt. I remember as a small boy peering over the gunwale of a boat and seeing halibut dotting the seafloor in the shallow crystal waters of a calm day.

Through the years I have stumbled across a number of artifacts during my many hours spent at this place. I have learned from my own solitary experience that this place I fish is adjacent an old Native American habitation site.

“You’ll find them in trash middens piled in front of ancient villages and households. The people had a different relationship with their refuse. Bodies and offerings were lovingly buried in middens.”

There it was, this time, the sherd, before my toes as I stepped along. Other times arrowheads, bone pendants, stone bowls, shell beads. Pieces of peoples lives.

A friend found an arrowhead here once. A tiny black one. He threw it into the sea. To return it.

I had not been searching for anything, but, as usual, walking with my eyes on the earth, lost in thought.

And there it rested in the darkened soil and dried grasses.

Traces of humanity.

Related Post:

No Halibut, One Arrowhead

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Restoration Travesty, San Marcos Foothills Preserve

The filthy-toed plebe at the gate. 

He’s the latest superhero with powers so profoundHe can leap a dotted line in just a single bound
 
I know you must have seen him in the books and magazinesHe’s the quintessential mindless, modern epicene
 
His life is meaningful
Because he get things doneBang bang he’s deadChalk up another triumph for our heroThe automatic man
 
It’s true you must have met himHe’s your best friend and your foeHis opinions are determined by the status quo
 
A true creature of habitHe smokes three packs a dayWhen he has an original thoughtHe forgets it right away
 
He’s the automatic man
 
He’s a paradigm of carefree livingHe’s our mentor disturb him if you canHe’s the answer if your peace of mind is lackingHe’s our saviorHe is the common man
And if you are troubled by the daily bump and grindThen take a another look aroundAnd brother you will find
The automatic man

—Bad Religion, Automatic Man


More people were coming. But not too many, even by the measure of the Grouch of the Woods, for whom any body is too many bodies.

There was some widening of the footpath, but minimal. Really, there was nothing to speak of.

And that fact of emptiness was one reason I had continued to frequent this place, just around the corner from my house, to which I can walk.

I never saw anybody else at the spring whenever I went there or took the kids. And when I did see somebody it was just one person or two together walking by on the trail.

There was no problem. And never had been.

Until the advent of Authorized Personnel. 

Superhero [ soo-per-heer-oh ]

noun, plural su·per·he·roes
 
1.) a morally righteous hero in a fictional work who possesses extraordinary abilities or supernatural powers and uses them to fight evil


Six years ago unnamed trespassing privateers planted a willow sprout at the spring

Some lone crank rooted the tree from a cutting he took in the Santa Ynez River bottom the year before.

The spring was barren and sun-blasted and had no trees for shade. It had always been that way. Since long before folks from town started walking there following the designation of San Marcos Preserve.

We used to get drunk as teenagers in a nearby field. I still have the tiny German beer stein ceramic shot glass I found in that field as a teenager, several decades ago. The whole area including the Bridge to Nowhere wasn’t much visited by people.

Ligature scar

The willow has since grown to some 25 feet or so with a sizeable head of leaves. The trunk has swelled in volume from a thin wispy sprout into a stout column of wood that takes two hands to fully surround.

The willow tree casts a shadow over the spring waters in afternoon, as planned.

See, the salty crank had some vision by which he had worked. The most minimal of thought.

His work was not mindless and haphazard.

Fill in the blank. 

Then came this slipshod johnny-come-lately character, Authorized Personnel.

Authorized Personnel, whom zealously commandeered the site as their own.

And with ham-handed precision drove five steel fence stakes into the ground and wrapped the spring in four-foot high plastic mesh fencing, like some industrialist, as if there is nothing available for use that is more environmentally friendly, were there actually a real need for the fencing that is.

I weave garden fence from our mulberry bush trimmings at home to keep our dogs and chickens out of the veggie patch. 

Authorized Personnel carelessly attached the plastic fence to our willow tree with bailing wire, which worked as a ligature and cut into the trunk leaving a scar. I can see the scar from 30 feet away.

How long did Authorized Personnel envision leaving the rusty wire to strangle the tree?

With friends like these. . .

Authorized Personnel chose to leave behind their roll of plastic fencing, now known as litter.

All this in their “environmentally sensitive” habitat they had ever so rudely demanded nobody else enter.

Authorized Personnel, whom sees fit to destroy the place to save it.

A place we’ve been going to for years and which theretofore had no problem whatever with insensitive behavior.

With incompetence as this, Authorized Personnel has no credibility, to say nothing of actual legitimate legal power and authority, to demand the exclusion of all other people.

Where does this power come from?

What law, laws or bylaws? We are asking.

Is Authorized Personnel making these things up as they go, out of whole cloth?

These are rhetorical questions. I know the answer.

If Authorized Personnel wishes to be taken seriously by posting such serious language, feigning officiality, well then they should expect to be called to the mat to explain themselves seriously. Good intentions do no grant you special privileges and exclusive entitlements.  

The littering of the spring at San Marcos Preserve is an outrage, and a disgrace.

Take a walk.

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Mammoth Rubbing Rocks

Edge of the continent, Sonoma County

“Groovy, man. How much do you want for this special battery-powered back-scratcher in the showcase, man.”

“Cost you one dollar and ninety-five cents.”

“A necessary item, man, haul it out.”

—The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle (1974)

I have long thought that the .97¢ I spent on a bamboo backscratcher from the local drugstore was one of my life’s great investments.

Horse Badorties, the Fan Man, he knows.

I’ve thought about handing them out as gifts to the uninitiated.

I wish somebody would have turned me onto a backscratcher sooner in life.

I cannot believe people live without them.

How do you go through an entire lifespan without a backscratcher, man?

When the scratcher stick periodically goes missing I get frantic and antsy.

The ol’ back-against-the-door-jamb technique doesn’t work so well and my wife’s pelt puller, also known as a hair brush, reaches only so far.

Because few things in life feel better than “itching the hell out of” a good case of the itches.

Or. . .scratching. If you’re really uptight about by-the-book proper usage of the mother tongue and refuse to notice my intended folksy tone. Man.

If you hit the right spot on an itchy dog, especially one of those old lumpy and perpetually smelly senior dogs, it will drop them on their ass, neck stretching, lips pulling tight, leg strumming.

And then they crawl back licking their lips begging for more. 

What else do you know that feels better than a good scratch?

Wait. Don’t answer that. It’s a family blog.

There aren’t many things that feel better. Let’s leave it there.

Mammoth Rocks

The other day I cut sign for Columbian mammoth.

The thought still provokes a sense of wonderment and thrill.

Over 12,000 years after the last mammoth heart fell still and here I was searching the land for signs of their presence.

“Wild man. Wild.”

Near the mouth of the Russian River a number of blueshist boulders and metamorphic outcrops rise from the grassy coastal terrace.

On these rocks may remain the prehistoric signs of mammoth.

“On the Sonoma Coast, we can view rock polish that is considerably older than 10,000 years old and produced not by the action of glaciers but rather by the grooming behavior of the Ice Age megafauna.” (Parkman 2002a, 2002b).

The California Serengetti
E. Breck Parkman, Senior State Archaeologist, California State Parks, November 20, 2006

The grooming behavior of mammoths and other Ice Age megafauna may have been similar to that of today’s elephants in Africa and the bison of North America.

“The only area of the world that in recent times has had a megafaunal menagerie comparable to that of Pleistocene California is in eastern and southern Africa (Edwards 1991:4). In southern Africa, rubbing stones are common in the savanna and grassland areas (Ouzman, Sven, personal communication, 2001).

According to one South African researcher:

‘They stand as monuments to ancient itches. Rocks rubbed to a shine by massive rhino rumps. Boulders polished to brightness by itching elephants. Stones worn smooth with the scratching of buffalo and bushpig. Rubbing stones glint in desert and forest, savanna and grassy highland all over southern Africa (Skead 1976:21).'”

Rancholabrean Rubbing Rocks on California’s North Coast
E. Breck Parkman, Senior State Archaeologist, California State Parks, June 15, 2007

The relic wallow thick in waist to chest-high grasses.

Between the rubbing stones lies a remarkably green depression that stands out from its surroundings rather prominently.

Parkman, the archaeologist quoted above, has suggested that this greener-than-elsewhere low spot may be the remnant remains of a prehistoric mud wallow.

“Contemporary rubbing rocks are typically associated with the bathing and grooming behavior of megafauna.

For example, African elephants wallow at waterholes in order to coat themselves in mud, then, as the mud dries, they rub it off against a hard object, often a large boulder. This helps remove extoparasites from the animal’s skin. Bison often use dry wallows for a similar purpose.

I suspect that Ice Age mammoth and bison had similar practices to their modern-day counterparts. If so, then it seems probable that some of California’s vernal pools began as animal wallows.

In the case of those that did not, it seems likely that they served as useful waterholes in late spring and early summer, and would have thus been affected by the very presence of the megafauna (e.g., African elephants are known to enlarge and ‘improve’ waterholes).

California’s vernal pools are typically associated with late Pleistocene soils and landforms (Anonymous 1998:18; Holland 2000:31-32; Stone 1990:91).

While some of the Pleistocene pools have undoubtedly filled in over time, it is likely that many of these depressions have survived through the ages.”

Rubbing Rocks, Vernal Pools, and the First Californians: Pursuing the Rancholabrean Hypothesis
E. Breck Parkman
Senior State Archaeologist
California State Parks

Another view of the wallow from afar, which lies between the two outcrops, about center-frame in the image.

The two photos above and below show the same portion of polished stone.

The second photo below shows the reflection of my palm when I held my hand up close to the stone.

The photos were taken at 5:46 in the afternoon on a gloomy day, just after I snapped the photo of the relic wallow above.

In other words, that is how polished the stone is, that it reflects my presence so brightly on such a darkened late afternoon.

Mammoth Rocks sit a short distance from cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. They are surrounded by grasses and scrub.

At the time of use these rocks would have been much farther away from the sea, set in the ecotone between grassland and low hills rising into coastal mountains.

The area was an expansive grassland that stepped down toward the sea in a series of geologic shelves, most of which are now underwater.

The rocks would have provided shelter from cold onshore winds blowing off the sea in addition to serving as scratching posts to compliment the mud wallow.

The rocks are thought to have been situated at the mouth of an important animal travel corridor linking the coastal grasslands with the interior valleys.

The ancient animal trails made use of today’s Russian River Valley. Today a highway follows the same corridor.

A view of the polished stone as seen when standing and looking upward. It is clear and easy to see when standing beside the outcrop that the polished patches on the schist rise well over one’s head. Scholars have measured the polish up to around the 12 foot level, well above the reach of any animals in historic times like cattle or sheep.

A knobby protuberance on the outcrop polished black and shiny.

I trip out on this.

That in getting a good scratch on I can relate, as a fellow sentient being, to extinct Columbian mammoths that lived so many thousands of years ago.

Some 12,000 years later and a different species altogether and being only but 5’11” and 175 pounds with puny teeth, I still think I know how damn good those rubbing rocks must have felt to a 14 foot, 20,000 pound mammoth with 15 foot-long tusks.

I have a bamboo backscratcher, man. A necessary item.

Related Post:

Mastodon and Mammoth Sign: Reading Trees In the Santa Ynez Mountains

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The Great Valley Oak Death Rattle, Fish Creek Camp

‘Tis yet another devastating blow.

Like the death of the live oak of Mono Narrows Camp. The immolation by wildfire of the disjunct relictual stand of Ponderosa pine along Dry Lakes Ridge. And so too the palisades of tall timber that once stood around Happy Hollow atop Little Pine Mountain.

All dead. And so the places will never be the same in my lifetime. The end of it all, as I knew it.

The trees were defining features of the land and experience. They lent ambiance to settings where they stood for which there is no substitute.

Certain places out there in Condor National Forest are important to us because of, in part or entirely, the kind and arrangement of plants. Plants are elemental to land’s character. They are the reason why these places are even known to us as they are and why we visit. Otherwise there’d be no attraction to capture our attention or soothe our souls.

The creekside grassy hollow surrounded by trees is a place always attractive to humans and has its own special word we all know, meadow.

Unlike the same-sized patch of uninterrupted and dense chaparral, which does nothing for us but perhaps trigger fear and loathing in some. 

To the extent that a defining feature is lost that place loses its essential character. It is no longer the same, but something else. 

In the case of Fish Creek Camp the place will be something much less when the great oak falls.

I loitered at the camp before moving on, because the tree makes it a very nice place to spend time and I always stop when in the neighborhood. And that’s when I heard it.

I could not place the sound at first, didn’t know what it was or where it came from. I thought for a moment it was an animal. Then I found it. It was the old oak groaning.

A large crack had ripped through the grey-white sapwood long exposed on one side of the tree, which is hollow at its base enough for a child or small adult to crawl into.

Every so often in the light breeze a deep and resonant, ominous pop would issue from somewhere within the tree.

I wonder when it fall.

The place will never be same.

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