Gaviota Coast Gallavants: Then Came the Fox

gaviota-mountain-hikesJune 2016

I take the kids to the zoo. It’s not a place I can appreciate any longer, but granny bought us a family membership. So we go.

The kids scamper through the prison camp, er, zoological garden with great delight. We pause at each cell, I mean cage. Wait, that doesn’t sound right either. What’s a politically correct euphemism for cage? Never mind. We stand peering in on the caged occupants of each cell, living specimens in a museum collection.

We meander our way over to the giraffe pen. The kids know the routine and ask to feed the giraffes. Fortunately there is a long line of people which provides a pretext to kindly deny the request. Instead we stand beside the railing and watch the spectacle.

A giraffe snatches lettuce leaves from people’s hands with its long and curving purple tongue, an eager crowd lined up waiting patiently for their brief moment of interaction with a large mammal.

The kids enjoy the scene, but I wonder if the line of people may reflect the ecological poverty of our lives. I feel that there are much deeper matters going on here than merely feeding giraffes.

gaviota-sherpa-fire-2016

A few weeks later I wander hills scorched by the Sherpa Fire, dusty and gritty and covered in soot and the black charcoal slash marks of burnt branches.

The land is desolate and deathly.

Little life appears to remain beyond a few patrons of death. Yellow jacket wasps gnaw scorched rodent carcasses and a kettle of turkey vultures circle and soar overhead. And, of course, the supposed survivors of even nuclear holocaust, the cockroaches.

A wet spot in the blackened and ashy dust tells of a deer nearby. I follow the tracks for some distance before losing interest. Deer are all I ever see, it seems.

As the body wanders so too the mind.

I think of how few wild animals I’ve seen over the course of my life. These experiences have been virtually nonexistent, most close encounters having been with caged animals or those in some way tethered to humanity. It’s a depressing thought. The burned wasteland before me reinforces a feeling of emptiness.

gaviota-sherpa-2016-fire

In “Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life,” George Monbiot writes of suffering from a “craving for a richer, rawer life” and that he sometimes feels as if he is “scratching at the walls of this life, hoping to find a way into a wider space beyond.”

The wider space he seeks is a wild, natural one. He concludes that he is “ecologically bored.” The boredom stems not from an entitled sense of expectation to always be entertained, but an existential need deeply rooted within the prehistoric soul of humanity.

In one passage illuminating this idea he writes of finding a freshly dead deer, which he throws across his shoulders to take home:

“As soon as I felt its warmth on my back, I wanted to roar. My skin flushed, my lungs filled with air. This, my body told me, was why I was here. This was what I was for. Civilization slid off as easily as a bath robe.”

This comes from an environmentalist that had long advocated veganism, not some crazed bloodthirsty trophy hunter. Monbiot is writing existentially in this excerpt. When he writes, “what I was for,” he means as a member of the species Homo sapiens and when he writes, “why I was here,” he means as an animal on Earth. He suggests that his feelings of sudden and intense emotion stemmed from ancient “genetic memories.”

In a column for the New York Times he further explains: “I accidentally unlocked a lumber room in the mind, in which vestigial faculties shaped by our evolutionary past are stored.”

Monbiot is describing a profound life experience; the moment when he felt the fullness of his humanity or humanness, as unlocked through a close encounter with a wild animal. It is key that the animal was wild, not the perverted concoction resulting from domestication.

sherpa-fire-2016-gaviota-coast

Ostrander: What do you feel is your responsibility to the animals that you raise on Polyface Farm?

Salatin: Our first responsibility is to try to figure out what kind of a habitat allows them to fully express their physiological distinctiveness.

-Interview excerpt from Yes! MagazineJoel Salatin: How to Eat Animals and Respect Them, Too: Why this foodie farmer believes sustainable farming includes meat.

Joel Salatin, the rambunctious and heretical self-described “lunatic” farmer behind Polyface Farms, strives to provide animals under his care an opportunity to achieve their full potential as a species.

Salatin talks passionately about how his free range, open pasture chickens are allowed to “fully express their chickenness.” Of his pigs he says the same: “They’re fully allowed to express their pigness.” 

His chickens peck and scratch their way through open air and grass fields, following cows and picking bugs from their manure, and mimicking, as best as possible, the ways of nature. The chickens do what chickens were born to do, so far as possible for a domestic animal living on a farm. The components that comprise their open pasture free range habitatplants, insects and other animalsenable the birds to be birds.

What kind of habitat allows a human, the animal Homo sapiens, to fully express its physiological distinct humanness? Is it more likely that of the metropolitan hardscape devoid of wildlife or the natural realm of plants and animals found in wildlands?

One fact is certain: The advent and evolution of humanity did not occur in a city.

As my feet plod on through the ashy soil of the Los Padres National Forest my mind ponders existence and meaning.

turkey-vulture-gaviotaTurkey vulture

“Elephants, with horses and reindeer, tended and nurtured man’s rage for more than a million years. It takes all of the hunter’s intensity, effort and strength, wily intelligence, knowledge of natural history, and determined murderous force to stalk and kill an elephant in an open plain with hand weapons. From the elephant’s point of view, as from the man’s, the activity is beneficial. Who else except men will remove the bad seed? The lion and crocodile glean an infant elephant now and then, but there is no one else to sculpture the species, prune out the weaker of the giant forms, or to hone the elephant’s intelligence. How lovingly the two have been at it, treasuring each other, each raising the other to new levels of stratagem and majesty, polishing each other’s intellect for a million years.”

Paul Shepard, “The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game,”

I think of how human nature might’ve been; hundreds of thousands of years of close contact with large animals. From the advent of our species we have, to vaguely mention just a little, gazed upon, pondered, learned from, befriended, mimicked, hunted and eaten animals. We have sheltered ourselves with their skins and bones, crafted tools, instruments and ornaments from their bodies and defended our lives from their attacks.

Consider what existed in California alone only 13,000 years ago, the date of one of the oldest human skeletons found in North America which was discovered in Santa Barbara County. Spectacular megafauna such as mammoths and mastodons, seven-foot long bear-sized beavers, ten-foot tall 2,000 pound ground sloths, nine-foot long sabertoothed salmon, shrub-oxen, plundering dogs, dire wolfs, saber-toothed cats, cheetahs, horses, camels, stout-legged llamas and many more.

And then in the blink of an eye, in evolutionary terms, these animals and many more disappeared from human life. What little remained was further removed from humanity with the growth of civilization.

I wonder what happens when a component that so significantly shaped humanity is removed from the equation.

cockroachCockroach

In “The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game,” Shepard writes, “The past, having shaped our species, holds clues to normal function.” He goes on to note, “Since modern forms were created in the past they depend on environments like those in which they were shaped.”

In “The Others: How Animals Made Us Human,” Paul Shepard writes of why he believes “the human species cannot be fully itself without these others,” the animals. “The human mind is the result of a long series of interactions with other animals,” he writes.

In “Thinking Animals: Animals and the Development of Human Intelligence,” Shepard argues that animals played a crucial role in the evolution of the human mind, and that during that long process an indelible mark was stamped onto our genetic code.

“There is a profound, inescapable need for animals that is in all people everywhere, an urgent requirement for which no substitute exists,” Shepard writes.

“It is no vague, romantic, or intangible yearning, no simple sop to our loneliness or nostalgia for Paradise. It is as hard and unavoidable as the compounds of our inner chemistry. It is universal, but poorly recognized.”

Here we may see a much earlier articulation of what the aforementioned Monbiot referred to as “genetic memories.”

Is the metropolitan zoo an attempt to satisfy this primordial need? Why else do people line up to feed caged animals? It’s one of the few opportunities remaining available to most metropolitan occupants to satisfy a primordial need.

“Zoos, pets and domestic animals give us personal satisfaction only because of the ecological poverty of our lives,” Shepard writes. “Animal movies, pets, zoos and toys serve as a crude substitute for an inborn need.”

scorched-oak-tree-wildfire

I step through scorched, leafless branches beneath large oak trees. I plop down in the shade atop a sandstone boulder for a rest, thinking about the idea of ecological impoverishment, and an existential need that may be written into my DNA.

What must it be like when a wild African lion roars. To feel its terrible, deep and guttural voice resonate in my chest cavity. To feel the blast of its pungent hot breath. Maybe it’s a silly thought, but it’s remarkably appealing for some odd reason.

What must of life been like to witness bison on the American plains so thick and vast that the land seemed to flow like a river with their earthy dark bodies stretching to the horizon. To hear the low rumbling din of a million hooves hammering the earth like pistons and to feel the ground tremble under their wild power.

A mind wandering further down an imaginary path with example after example, I start feeling like I’ve never seen anything wild in my life.

I suddenly realize a deep “craving for a richer, rawer life.” I’m a starving man in desperate need of a full course meal, yet have only ever been allowed mere scraps and remnants of what little remains.

gray-fox-gaviota-coastThe fox.

Then came the fox.

The fox stands in the shadows gazing at me. I stare back. The fox stretches, arching its back. We watch each other intently. His appearance is timely. His presence helping to soothe a dour mood.

Lamenting how little life experience I have had with wild animals, I was wandering the barren hills burdened with a mind plagued by a feeling of deprivation. The fox seems to have come to my rescue with a message of hope.

The fact that it’s a remarkable moment at all may speak to the depth of the deprivation in question. Nonetheless, the brief encounter, fleeting and but a mere trace, eases my mind.

How odd it is the fox happened across my path on this particular afternoon. Indeed, how odd it is. Then came the fox.

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Gaviota Coast Galavants: Chumash Arrowhead

chumash-arrowhead-gaviota-hikeAugust 2016

“The reverence attached to the artifacts of history is a thing men feel. One could even say that what endows any thing with significance is solely the history in which it has participated.”

–Cormac McCarthy, “The Crossing”

The sacred and deadly cynegetic art of a Chumash craftsman rendered in stone for the ages. Initially an unremarkable bit of rock like trillions of others, once worked by skillful human hands it was destined to be treasure.

I’d come to go spearfishing, to hunt the nearshore shallows for summer halibut and white seabass. The water murky, and motivated by something inexpressible compelling me onward rather than homeward, I had instead wandered on down the seashore to see what I might see, seemingly guided by some unknown force. Within, inexplicably, something insisted I was on my way to find an arrowhead.

And there along my meandering way the small bit of handcrafted stone lay in the dirt among twigs and pebbles. Out of sight at first and unnoticed, I had bent down and fingered at some random otherwise unremarkable debris only to send the stone point flittering across the bare soil.

*  *  *

I kneel in the brush, flick at some natural litter, and a white arrowhead unexpectedly flips into sight.

The ritual pause upon discovery.

Squatting in the scrub a stone’s throw from the beach I hesitate to snatch up the rare find, last touched by the hands of an Indian, a remnant piece of, and a small link to, one of the world’s great maritime cultures.

There lies the arrowhead, last touched by an Indian, laden with the reverential weight of its history. The small artifact weighs much heavier in mind than in hand.

I hover over it deep in thought.

I reach slowly, pull my hand back slightly, then extend measuredly and pinch up the thin stone blade between two fingers. Contact.

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Gaviota Coast Galavants: The Wildest Wilderness

pacific-ocean-gaviota-coast-hike

“The ocean is an unbelievably vast wilderness.”

–Steven Callahan, “Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea”

The 76-mile long Gaviota Coast is the wildest wilderness in Santa Barbara County.

According to Gaviota Coast Conservancy, it is “the largest stretch of undeveloped coastline remaining in Southern California, and is representative of the only coastal Mediterranean ecosystem in North America.” It is here where the smothering urban sprawl of southern California finally and dramatically ceases.

Walled in on the north by the Santa Ynez Mountains and capped by the Los Padres National Forest, lined by miles of bucolic grassy hills and potreros parted by creeks, the Gaviota seashore is a raw and ragged frontier between civilization and the world’s single largest contiguous wilderness, the Pacific Ocean.

The sea along the Gaviota Coast is a biological wonderland of uncommon natural wealth. According to biologists at Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, “The waters of the Santa Barbara Channel form one of the most biologically productive ecosystems found on Earth.” The density and diversity of life in local waters, they say, is rivaled by few other places on the planet. That cannot be said of any other parcel of forest or wilderness in the county.

gaviota-coast-hikes-pelicans-surfA squadron of fifty-one pelicans soar the Gaviota Coast in formation.

Animals put the wild in wilderness. Rodrick Nash explains in “Wilderness and the American Mind” that the root of the word appears to stem from “will,” as found in the Teutonic and Norse languages, with a meaning of being self-willed or uncontrollable. From “will” came “wild” which was understood to mean something that is unruly. Later the Old English “deor,” meaning animal, was attached with the resulting wildeor conveying the idea of uncontrollable or dangerous animals.

“From this point the derivation of wilderness is clear,” Nash writes. “Wildeor, contracted to ‘wilder,’ gave rise to ‘wildern’ and finally ‘wilderness.’ Etymologically, the term means ‘wild-deor-ness,’ the place of wild beasts.”

In “Coming Home to the Pleistocene,” Paul Shepard writes: “Wildness occurs in many places. It is composed of the denizens of wildernesseagles, moose, and their botanical coinhabitants and all of the species whose sexual assortment and genealogy have not been controlled or set adrift by human design or captivity.”

Gaviota hosts all the denizens that Santa Barbarans commonly associate with backcountry wilderness. The largest of these on land include lions, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, bears, deer, and even the occasional condor. The coast here, land and sea, holds much more wildness than all other forest or wilderness areas in the county combined.

The marine environment and its remarkably rich biodiversity sets Gaviota apart from all else. If we are to conceive of wilderness as a land of wildness, then nowhere in Santa Barbara County will ever match Gaviota.

fox-3A gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), Gaviota backcountry.

No official record exists of anybody dying from a lion attack in Santa Barbara County in contemporary times. Mountain lion attacks in the Los Padres National Forest are virtually unheard of. The only verified lion attack acknowledged by California Department of Fish and Wildlife happened in 1992. The attack on a nine-year-old boy occurred in Gaviota State Park.

On rare occasion a person may be mauled by a black bear, as happened in Carpinteria. Sometimes a hiker or camper is pestered by a bear that is particularly bold and inquisitive, but no recent record exists of a fatal bear attack happening in Santa Barbara County.

Gaviota hosts both lions and bears, oh my, but also a far more deadly apex predator. Nowhere else around here, no forest nor wilderness, am I lower on the food chain than when I enter the sea to swim, surf or spearfish along Gaviota. Here humans must contend with the man in the gray suit.

gaviota-sunset-tafoni-rock-formation-geologyTafoni rock formation along a desolate beach. (Previous post: Tafoni Weathered Stone)

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In the waters along Gaviota there is a real possibility of being killed by a great white shark. And, in some sense, I rather enjoy that fact, as perverse as it may sound.

Where else around this heavily populated and largely depleted land does a person get to experience such a primal feeling?

It’s a feeling very few people know. And though macabre as it may be, it is a rare and ancient feeling that is special. An emotive endangered species nowadays when humans so utterly dominate the natural world.

Think of peering into the green depths of the sea while floating alone in a kelp forest far offshore, and knowing there is a stealthy predator out there that could attack unseen at any second and end a life.

Think of floating on a surfboard with feet dangling into the dark water like bait, perhaps a toe nicked on a rock while wading into the surf and oozing drops of blood like chum that can be detected for miles. Think of surfing by moonlight at midnight, alone. (Previous post: Night Surfing)

imageA white seabass shot spearfishing Gaviota in August 2016. Note the head shot. . .not bad, if I may say so myself. 

In 2016 alone at least ten white shark sightings were reported in Santa Barbara County at popular beaches (though as with any eye witness accounts some may be dubious). One harrowing incident, however, was captured on video taken by the victim when a man spearfishing was nipped in the foot by a white shark along Gaviota in August 2016. (See video of attack here.)

The following list is a record of shark attacks in Santa Barbara County over the last 45 years:

  • July 19, 1971–Point Purisima–Non-fatal
  • July 19, 1975–Point Conception–Non-fatal
  • July 23, 1975–Perch Rock, Point Conception–Non-fatal
  • December 18, 1976–San Miguel Island–Non-Fatal
  • February 18, 1985–San Miguel Island–Non-Fatal
  • October 22, 1985–Point Conception–Non-Fatal
  • October 29, 1992–Castle Rock, San Miguel Island–Non-fatal
  • November 11, 1992–San Nicholas Island–Non-fatal
  • December 9, 1994–San Miguel Island–FATAL
  • September 8, 2008–Surf Beach–Non-fatal
  • August 2, 2010–Near oil rig Hondo five nautical miles from Gaviota–Non-fatal
  • October 22, 2010–Surf Beach–FATAL
  • October 23, 2012–Surf Beach–FATAL
  • August 13, 2013–Butterfly Beach–Non-fatal
  • October 2, 2014–Walls Beach–Non-fatal
  • August 18, 2015–Gaviota–Non-fatal
  • September 24, 2015–Horseshoe Rock–Non-fatal
  • (Reference Source)

Mentioned previously on this blog in 2010 was a white shark that washed up at Rincon Point.

I was once told by a friend of an incident he witnessed when freediving the Channel Islands. After hearing frantic yelling from one of his buddies, he looked up out of the water to see his terrified friend scaling the rocky wall of the island to escape a circling white shark.

And if killer white sharks are not enough, there are occasional makos and hammerheads in the Santa Barbara Channel, too. One video taken offshore from Santa Barbara proper appears to show a mako feeding on a seal, while another video taken along Gaviota appears to show a hammerhead circling a kayak fisherman who defends himself with his paddle.

That, my friends, is the wildest wilderness in Santa Barbara County!

gaviotaPostscript  

The Gaviota Coast remains largely unprotected in law despite its rare or at least uncommon natural wealth.

Please consider getting involved to help protect and conserve this precious coastal gem from further commercial and residential development.

The Gaviota Coast Conservancy is a great place to start.

Thank you for reading!

gaviotas

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Tarantula Mating Season, Santa Barbara County

tarantula-santa-barbara-mating-migrationNo photos on this blog have ever been staged, but in the interest of honesty I’d like to note that this tarantula, found walking a few yards away, was placed atop this branch in order to allow a better snapshot. The photo was taken on 10-18-2016.

Around this time in late summer or early fall every year male tarantulas set off in great numbers in the Santa Ynez Valley in search of female mates.

The first tarantula I recall seeing in the wild as a small boy was in fall during a Monte Vista School campout at Sage Hill Campground. I still remember how much of a spectacle the large hairy spider was for us gaggle of elementary school kids.

This is the best time of year to walk the forest, especially open and grassy areas, to find tarantulas crawling about in search of mates. Or drive at a leisurely pace with eyes peeled along one of the many roads winding through the Santa Ynez Valley. In driving you can cover a large area with ease and have a decent chance at seeing one crossing the road, which is common. Paradise Road, Happy Canyon Road and Figueroa Mountain Road all lead through prime tarantula hunting territory. If nothing else, it’s a great excuse to escape the urban cage and get out of the city.

I do not want to bore readers with the minutiae of tarantula biology, which I find tedious apart from the fights they are known to engage in with tarantula hawk wasps, but I think it’s interesting to note that female tarantulas can live to be around 25 years old. That seems quite long for such a creature. Males are said to live for about ten years.

Tarantula burrow hole denTarantula burrow as found on a hike in October 2011 and previously mentioned on this blog: Grass Mountain & Zaca Peak Via Birabent Canyon.

It might also be note worthy to mention how public sentiment has changed over the last century regarding these giant spiders. In the early twentieth century and the last half of the nineteenth century newspaper headlines routinely reported tarantula encounters like horror stories. Purported deaths from tarantula bites were written up and many blurbs routinely mention people falling gravelly ill for weeks on end.

A typical newspaper account reads as follows in this clip from the Los Angeles Herald published in 1901 about a supposed hard fight with a spider:

“Right after the centipede a large and vicious tarantula sprang from the opened package at Mr Frey, Mr Still, hearing the shouts of Mr Frey and seizing a stout club, rushed up to aid him. After a hard fight the men succeeded in killing both centipede and tarantula.”

A news clip from the California Daily Alta published in 1864 mentions a tarantula “captured at Dos Pueblos, Santa Barbara” as being a “vicious and deadly monarch of the spider family.”

In 1855, the Los Angeles Star published this gem of sensational scaremongering warning that a tarantula bite is “absolute certain death.” The writer proceeded with a comical bit of yellow journalism further warning that the spiders can “jump eight to ten feet to inflict his deadly bite.”

On a different note, it is remarkable how many stories spanning many years and from numerous newspapers from differing regions report about tarantulas being found by surprise in clumps of bananas. The stories appear so frequently that it nearly compels me to want to set out a ripe bunch of bananas in the woods to see if they attract any spiders.

Back to the previous point, by contrast contemporary media reports that come out every September and October no longer demonize the tarantula and often note that they are not deadly, but writers sensationalize the matter nonetheless.

These stories often mention an annual tarantula “migration,” which does not accurately describe what is happening, but does lend an air of fascination above and beyond being simply a matter of spiders searching for mates. Monarch butterflies migrate, but tarantulas do not. Yet journalists constantly repeat the word in copy-and-paste fashion without apparent thought. The wandering spiders are also frequently described in anthropocentric terms with the male spiders said to be out in search of “love.”

Please pardon the editorial here, but it does not ever seem to be adequate to describe nature accurately if the description is not thought to draw enough eyeballs and interest without the addition of embellishments. I suppose nature has much competition these days when it comes to entertaining the masses, and subtlety, nuance and smallness rarely wins out over sensationalism and hype.

To me, these natural matters written of as they truly exist, to the best of my understanding, are plenty sufficient to capture my attention and interest. I hope the same is true for some other people, too.

Related Posts On this Blog:

Tarantula Hawk

Grass Mountain & Zaca Peak Via Birabent Canyon

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Chumash Rock Art, Santa Barbara County

chumash-pictograph-rock-art-santa-barbara-californiaThese Chumash paintings show little wear from the elements over the last several decades.

They are presented here without alteration, but for a slight intensification of the existing natural color.

They measure roughly about twelve inches in length.

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The pictographs are located near the top of a canyon on an outcrop amid rolling hills of chaparral and a short walk from a miniature gorge.

Here in the serpentine meander, deeply carved through the sandstone bedrock by the seasonal flow of water, several pools hold for remarkably long periods of time, even through years of drought when the surrounding region atop the mountain is mostly dry.

Looking over the land it is not hard to see its attraction to those that came before and why it was a choice location to paint.

There are a number of other pictographs adjacent the panel featured in the first photo, including some found in the alcove shown above which also contains incised markings on the floor.

chumash-rock-art-incised-petroglyphs-pictographs

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