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.

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5 Responses to Chumash Stone Bowl

  1. Terry E Ferl says:

    Jack, thank you for the beautiful poignant startling memories and observations. Have missed you.

  2. Greg says:

    Nice story, one I can relate to, having grown up locally near the beach. A natural response to the picture of the bowl would be, “wow, what a great find,” i.e., to emphasize the artifact. But I think the better response is, “wow, what powers of observation you have.” Because I’m pretty sure I would walk right by that rock (may well have) without ever recognizing it as a metate.

  3. Robert Hazard says:

    One day my good friend Rick, an avid hiker, told me about a Chumash pot or bowl he came across just below Forbush Camp on the North Cold Springs Trail. It was tucked away in a small cave alongside the small stream that runs down to the Santa Ynez River. It was one of those bowls made out of black pumice like stone, not from around here. A bit bigger than a basket ball and very heavy. He talked me into helping him haul it back up the 1000 feet elevation to his parked car at the Camino Ciello trail head. We strapped it to a long pole and carried it out him on one end, me on the other. It must have weighed 50-60 pounds. He took it home and got to feeling so guilty about hording this ancient artifact that he contacted the Natural History Museum and gave it to them. They showed him a room with several of like items. Don’t know if they ever displayed it. It did have a piece broken off the lip. I still feel a tinge of guilt for taking that bowl from where someone long, long ago placed it in that cave, maybe for safe keeping?

  4. This is an evocative and compelling bit of writing. Nicely done!

  5. Stephen H Siemsen says:

    How do you make a grinding stone? If you placed a heavy round stone on top of the “bowl” pictured and placed it among the rocks below the high tide line, the bowl would become even more defined. Is this one of the ways Chumash made their grinding stones? The Chumash couldn’t go to a store to get a grinding stone, so planning ahead was essential. As a child I was taught to make stone marbles by placing a stone in a rock cavity in a swiftly flowing stream. The force of the water tumbled the stone around inside the cavity creating a round marble. The tides would do the same to create a “bowl”.

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