Halibut Surf Fishing

“Conservation of animals and plants was a burning, emotional, personal issue. A properly socialized individual had a powerful sense that the wild world was feeding him, and he ought to be as grateful and as anxious to act decently as he would to any human who fed him out of sheer kindness. Naturally, wanton killing was virtually tantamount to murder, and ungrateful murder at that.”

—E. N. Anderson, “Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief, and the Environment” (1996)

In late April I hooked my first keeper halibut of the season. The next day I threw back four more; two long shorts and two small shorts. The legal size is 22 inches and above.

I fished for two hours in the morning throwing lures from the beach at high tide. A week earlier I didn’t get a single bite. This time I hooked something small on my first cast, but it got off. Probably a small perch. Maybe a yellowfin croaker.

A short time later I hooked the halibut. The fish attacked the lure nearly as soon as it hit the water from the cast. The line pulled tight as if snagged on a rock, then came the tugging and the whine of the drag set loose as the fish took a little line.

I anxiously weaved the halibut around and through clumps of rocks in the rush and gush of the surging high tide, somehow managing to bring the beautiful creature to shore before the line snapped or the hook shook loose.

Or the knot unfurled. That’s happened. The fish at my feet on the beach in inches of water mere inches from the sand. To watch a big halibut slowly swim away. To lift the slack line and see the curly pig tail end where the knot in the monofilament failed and slipped open.

I never seem to remember the fish I keep quite as much as those I nearly caught.

I landed the April halibut, grateful and excited, yet calm and collect, without a show. Nobody was around anyway.

Sometimes, without thought of it, I must show no emotion whatsoever. I once threw back a halibut before remembering to measure it. Only afterward did it occur to me that it may have been of legal length.

Matters at work far larger than what little may be revealed on the surface, to a bystander or a casual onlooker.

I’m not telling you anything not already known when I say that not all fishing is for fish all the time.

That is the difference between fishing and angling, a fisherman and an angler.

The feeling of releasing a legal-sized halibut.

I’ve seen slipshod fools on the pier butchering live bat rays to death for fun in their mistaken idiotic belief that what they had hauled ashore was a stingray, hacking and slashing and slicing off fins and tails, quartering the wretched animal flopping about and quivering as they laugh and drink and smoke as though throwing darts in a pub.

Those ancient impulses and the ability to kill, born of necessity for survival of the species by tooth and claw in nature’s arena of evolution, that men could hunt and take by hand in a running assault with spears large deadly animals to provide for the clan, may be let loose to evil ends.

Some men enjoy assassinating animals for sport like serial killer Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” toys with humans. “I want to stab you to death and play around with your blood.”

Are these fishermen psychopaths of another variety? Maybe they just suffer from arrested development and immaturity.

They never grew beyond the “boyishness of killing things,” as John Muir put it to Teddy Roosevelt over a campfire one night in the woods.

In their actions we see symptoms of a troubled culture, which routinely produces such characters.

A tourist questioned me about the crude men we both witnessed on the pier, appalled at their behavior, but I stammered and didn’t know what to say to the man.

I don’t want to kill some idiot fisherman, but I was of a mind to tell those men that I’d like to do to them what they did to that innocent big fish.

Yellowfin croaker

“We came to Dummy’s fence and found a cow wedged in up against the wire. She was bloated and her skin was shiny-looking and gray. It was the first dead thing of any size I’d ever seen. I remember Orin took a stick and touched the open eyes.”

—Raymond Carver The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off

Whenever I brought a fish home my three young children were always quick to gather round, to get close to the animal and touch it and poke it.

In particular they liked to stab at the rubbery eyes with sticks and they’d run to the kitchen for forks and butter knives to poke at the fish and the guts were always a big attraction.

If allowed a sharp knife I am sure they would have attempted to slice and dice and hack the fish in pieces themselves and they would have found some form of delight in the blood of it all.

But the kids acted out of innate curiosity and wonder and not malicious intent. Children are naturally inquisitive.

In a properly socialized individual those ancient impulses are turned toward positive ends as guided within the bounds of a holistic ecologically conscious culture.

Poking the fish was the curious first explorations of young scientists, biologists, oceanographers or doctors to be.

How do people fall from the innocence and wondrous possibility of our beginnings to the horrors of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and the embarrassment of the butchers on the pier?

“The killing and eating of other beings is understood by most tribal peoples as part of a larger gift of life rather than a victory over nature.”

“What emerges from a million years of such study is much more than a practical knowledge for killing—it is a knowledge of the typical life cycle of each species, its details and peculiarities. This is natural history.”

—Paul Shepard The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game

Carefully guided, the child’s natural enthusiasm and interest about animals moves from the crude poking of eyes and guts to the thoughtful exploration of the animal’s anatomy, biology and natural history.

And, when possible, visceral interaction with the animal in the field in its own habitat on its own terms; experiences for which there exist no substitutes.

Yet also never to celebrate killing as a victory over nature rather than a life sustaining gift.

The sacred duty, to take care.

To not be the pirate plunderer of the commons, the barbarian with a grin out to get his and to hell with everything and everybody else.

I took the fish home to nourish family, deeply thankful for the bounty the sea afforded us one lucky morning on a Santa Barbara beach.

The children learned something about the give and take nature of life on this one and only planet Earth.

They learned something about the work and the knowledge and skills necessary to harvest and prepare their own food in a dignified manner, that they will not demean and degrade themselves by demeaning and abusing the land and its wild residents of which their lives necessarily depend.

Posted in Santa Barbara | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer of Serpents of Rattlers Beware

California mountain kingsnake on Figueroa Mountain. Not to be confused with a California kingsnake: Killer Kingsnake Eats Water Snake

“To combat the boredom, I occasionally drove over the coastal range and into the Santa Ynez Valley to hike the trails of the Los Padres National Forest. . .Of course, the ticks were happy to welcome us, as were the biting gnats. The rattlesnake wasn’t as felicitous. It was a coil of shadow, 2 feet from the trail, and it was not happy with our presence.”

T.C. Boyle on getting out during the COVID lockdown, excerpted from a piece in the current September-October issue of Westways magazine

I did something, sent some unintentional signal in my appearance or actions and the guy walked over.

He had been eyeing me from across the dirt parking lot at the trailhead for some time. I don’t think he knew that I knew he was watching me.

I ambled about my vehicle readying myself for several days in the woods. He moseyed over. He asked if I knew the area. I said I did, better than most but not as well as some.

He told of coming up against two furious rattlesnakes in the forest somewhere along the trail back yonder in White Ledge Canyon.

He asked if I knew the place he mentioned. Yes, I had been out there the week before, I told him.

He asked what to do in such a situation and I said something about avoiding the snakes and moving on. The common man’s wisdom rooted in the obvious. His question seemed odd. What else would you do?

Well, he abandoned his planned two day loop and turned back, too haired out by the rattlers to continue.

He encountered the snakes about halfway through the loop equidistant from the trailhead no matter which of two ways he chose to return by.

Why not then continue and complete the loop? I wondered. Sidestep the snakes and get on with it.

A California mountain kingsnake hanging from a cascade in Manzana Creek in Santa Barbara County. The snake slithered out from the darkened void between the rocks and hung from the outcrop by what looked like only the last third of its body, wagging in the misted air of the waterfall back and forth above the pool, apparently looking for something. Then the snake pulled itself up and slithered back where it came from.

Rattlesnakes seem rather nonthreatening in my own experience except when pestered or when I come too close. Then they get aggressive or at least loud. Otherwise they mind their own business and keep quiet.

Of course the venomous fangs and the terror triggered in a person’s head by a rattler’s presence alone, just the mere sight of one, can be impossible to ignore.

That wicked and malignant head attached by hair trigger to the latent deadly potential of a coiled body. That’s not inviting.

As Boyle dryly notes, the run-in with a rattlesnake made him feel, “oh, I don’t know, a bit less than welcome.”

Those twenty minutes or so after seeing a rattlesnake when hiking are always especially nerve wracking. I find it annoying as well.

That extra burden of worry I had forgotten about, as every little spot in the forest I had walked over and passed by without regard a moment earlier, I now remember with frightened intensity can be hiding a killer serpent ready to strike. Eggshells and thin ice.

“Meekly, I slunk back home to the lockdown,” Boyle writes, and the “rattlesnakeless shade of the trees of my own yard.”

That guy I spoke with at the trailhead ended up spending his one and only night car camping at NIRA rather than way out in the wilderness on foot backpacking. That’s a bummer man. He got vibed by the locals.

A rattlesnake seen on the lower right of the frame here, coffee cup to the left, between the two I stood.

John Muir wrote of rattlesnakes in ways that match my own experience.

“He carefully keeps his venom to himself as far as man is concerned unless his life is threatened,” Muir wrote.

He was not a herpetologist but he knew what he was talking about from his own common experience.

He wrote of one encounter that the rattlesnake “was coiled comfortably around a tuft of bunch grass, and I discovered him when he was between my feet as I was stepping over him. He held his head down and did not attempt to strike, although in danger of being trampled.”

Muir intentionally trampled the snake to death, an act he wrote about later regretting, “before I learned to respect rattlesnakes.”

“I was on my knees kindling a fire,” Muir wrote of another encounter, and “one glided under the arch made by my arm. He was only going away from the ground I had selected for a camp, and there was not the slightest danger, because I kept still and allowed him to go in peace.”

About another close encounter Muir wrote of pulling himself up a boulder in a canyon and coming face to face with a rattlesnake coiled on top. But “when my head came in sight within a foot of him,” he wrote, “he did not strike.”

Rattlesnake circled on the left, the line showing where I was loitering about, and the coffee cup on the boulder. It appeared the snake was posted up opposite the clump of stones lying in wait for rodents.

There’s something about snakes this season. I’ve seen more this year and in a worse way than ever before.

Not a lot, actually, just a handful. And it’s happenstance, surely. But it’s more than usual. And two scary encounters with rattlesnakes.

I was probably close enough to each snake to have been bitten, but neither moved in the slightest. They held their venom to themselves.

I walked past one and nearly stepped on another in as many days when out backpacking this summer in the Los Padres National Forest. Those were two of the closer encounters of my life, on a single short trip.

At 8,000 feet in the seven o’clock hour on a chill morning I never thought to look for rattlesnakes.

I stood clenching a hot coffee cup, lost in a long stare over the high desert badlands and arroyos fanning out thousands of feet below and the beginnings of the broad wash of the Cuyama River.

I glanced over at some point and saw the viper wedged up in the soil and the pine needles, coiled, locked and loaded and ready to strike.

The mere sight of its presence excited uncontrollable feelings deep within my biological machine and in a fraction of second.

I had stood and stepped around unknowingly so close to the snake that I might have eventually stepped on it had I not finally seen it. The thought rippled through my body in another shiver.

Alone in early morning leaning on a boulder and immersed in a silent moment of extreme serenity, glancing over, the viper registered in my brain like the crack of a gunshot and a primal shock wave of emotion fired through my body.

Visual realization of the snake hit with a physical force. The sensation felt like a string being pulled through my innards from head to toe. The willies. A full-body wet noodle shiver.

I sat there for fifteen minutes or so marinating in the afterglow of having come so close to the hypodermic jaws of catastrophe, maybe death.

I live a sheltered life. I hadn’t felt so alive, old school cave man alive, since I was sixteen and I jumped from a 600 foot bridge in Costa Rica strapped to a bungee cord.

I’d look over at the snake every once and a bit and shudder again.

Even now, writing this, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and a shiver shoots down my spine. The old cliches. That’s what everybody says.

The editor of Westways titled Boyle’s piece, “The Shiver.” Because it’s true.

Rattlesnake

On the hike out from camp the morning we left, not much more than a stone’s throw up the trail, where the path lead between two old stump ends of a fallen tree a helpful sawyer had taken care of, I strode past another rattlesnake.

The snake lie coiled in the shadow beneath the log right at the edge of the trail.

I suspect that in my stride through the narrow spot along the footpath my leg swiped by the snake within striking range. I didn’t even see it.

Several seconds later a wild, pinched yowl ripped through the quiet from behind me and I knew immediately what my friend had just seen from the sound of his reaction.

That was the sound of the electric shiver that had just shot through his body like a lightning bolt. The split second moment he caught sight of the rattler as he passed.

That instinctual unthinking knee-jerk reaction from the genetic memory bank of the Deep Past fired by raw emotion. Like flinching without thought at a loud noise, because when fractions of a second may mean the difference between life and death, the process of logical thinking takes too long, is a waste of time.

Hence the rapid fire automatic flinch. And so the shiver.

Properly harnessed these ancient raw emotions can power extraordinary feats.

“I set the world record standing long jump of 25 feet on the Horn Canyon trail in 1984,” local hillwalker E.M. Walker writes of a day of glory long ago in the mountains of Ojai.

The Los Padres Expatriate Hiker: Horn Canyon Vignette

Walker concedes, “Only a rattlesnake witnessed my jump that day.”

But he affirms, “That does not detract from the prodigious nature of the feat. I know what I did. . .”

Related Post:

Pit Viper On Arroyo Burro Trail

Posted in Santa Barbara | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

No Halibut, One Arrowhead

The artifact as found sitting center frame. What? Where? 

I found this copy of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Diary, tucked into the children’s section for sale at the Goleta branch of the public library.

I mistook it for an oversight in sorting before realizing it must have been carefully placed by a fan of the author’s twisted humor. No doubt somebody delighted in placing a dark humor horror novel in the kiddie section.

Palahniuk wrote Fight Club, later turned into a film starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.

Diary is written as if by the wife of a guy that attempted suicide and is now in a coma. Her husband is a building contractor who has raised the ire of clients nationwide for remodels he did on their second and third homes wherein he went above and beyond what was asked.

The trouble is, the contractor, with expert craftsmanship, likes to wall off and hide rooms in homes. Owners return to houses with missing rooms. Sometimes it takes awhile to figure out what’s wrong because they rarely visit these vacation properties.

“Today, a man called from Long Beach. He left a long message on the answering machine, mumbling and shouting, talking fast and slow, swearing and threatening to call the police, to have you arrested. …

A woman calls from Seaview to say her linen closet is gone. …

A man calls from the mainland, from Ocean Park, to complain that his kitchen is gone. …

The woman with the missing closet. The man with his bathroom gone. These people, they’re all messages on the answering machine, people who had some remodeling done on their vacation places.”

The artifact, a root beer-colored stone blade seen here center frame, had tiny bits of tar stuck to it.

I sat hunched on a sandstone cobble the color and texture of stone ground mustard, along the high tide line amid the wrack and rubble of the seashore.

A dead anchovy with two hooks through it lay on the sand seafloor between submerged boulders just offshore, the fishing rod upright on the beach six feet off the sand in a makeshift holder built of a steel fence stake, PVC pipe and metal hose clamps.

There I sat, line out, in the game, reading a novel.

The day before I went out spearfishing in poor conditions with little visibility and when I walked up this next day the clarity looked no better.

Spearfishing was not an option so I threw out a line with dead bait.

Later I’d throw lures at the fish and actively work the shoreline up and down the beach.

But first I’d try bait and wait. And lose myself in story.

The busted point facing down.

I set down my backpack and gear in the rocks and placed my rod holder in the sand some yards away.

Within a certain predetermined area so chosen through decades of personal experience the placement of my rod was happenstance. I could have placed it up or down the beach within some 40 yards of shoreline. But I chose where I chose, for whatever particular reasons on this day. And something happened for it.

I baited the hook twice and I rose from my stone seat several times and held the line feeling for the telltale quiver of a hooked fish. They don’t always run after biting, don’t always bend the rod.

I’ve hooked halibut with my rod in hand and never knew they bit until I reeled in for fresh bait and finally felt the tug.

Between all these actions tending my line I returned to sit on the same stone.

There I’d sit reading Palahniuk, waiting for a halibut.

I fished for about 45 minutes when I once more placed the book down to get up and walk over to check my line.

I reached to place the book down, glanced over, and there lay the Chumash artifact peeking out at me from under another rock.

About three quarters of the artifact shown and it was no different to the unsuspecting eye than any of the thousands of other stones around, but my mind locked onto the thin flat bit of stone nonetheless, several feet away, amid a beach of gravel and cobblestone.

Nice and thin.

The piece is close to complete, but missing the tip of what appears to be a small projectile point of some sort.

The artifact on one side has a flat and rounded end like that of a butter knife and on the other side what appears would have been, if complete, a fine point like a drawn out pin tail on a surfboard.

I caught no halibut, not even a bite. But I saw an arrowhead.

While after food for myself I found instead somebody else’s tool once used in their own pursuit to fill their belly. I wonder what he was after.

Posted in Santa Barbara | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Resuscitation

Car headlights swept the blackness revealing a whirling glimpse of dirt parking lot that flashed in the night. Boulders ringed the empty lot before a backdrop of lumpy drab forest.

Two men stood bound in a sleepless stupor gazing at the tail lights burning red in the dark and the swirling dust like the afterburners of a departing spaceship. 

They rose from bed at a ghastly hour. The sun still would not yet rise for hours.

The car drifted away and disappeared into the moonless black that swallows everything after sundown in its infinite cosmic immensity.

The two figures turned into Condor National Forest hunched beneath loaded packs, not a word between them.

Puny headlamps flung weak splotches of light into insatiable darkness and each man slipped through the night alone in his own orbit encapsulated in a faint bulge of illumination. 

They trudged through ghostly white plumes of glowing condensation billowing from their heaving chests and floating across their faces and eyes in a constant flow that obscured their blinkered vision.

They filed through shadowy corridors pried into the dark by their little blazing diodes of the latest technological design, gazes lowered, eyes locked on a trail peeling relentless as a conveyor belt beneath the swipe of their feet.

Hillman hiked a trail like a trained street fighter systematically pummels a lippy drunk mouthing off at a bar; wickedly fast, brutally unrelenting and with calculated efficiency. He attacked trails with prejudice as if insulted by their empty presence.

Holt plodded along. Hillman’s white dot of alien light bobbed in the depthless night off in the near distance. The drive and sudden predawn physical exertion left Holt queasy and weak, having ripped his resting mind from slumber, confined it to a speeding vehicle, and wound it around the mountain’s many folds to arrive at the trailhead. 

Holt felt the grip of nausea tightening around him during the drive. Hillman at the wheel and hauling ass along twisted mountain roads at three thirty in the morning. Hillman didn’t do much of anything at half peddle. He was full-court press, full-bore, all the time. A human blast furnace of energy.

The pint of coffee and the wad of bagel Holt forced himself to eat had churned into an awful sludge in his gut. Halfway up the mountain he feared his abdominal muscles might seize him by the midsection at any moment and slam his stomach flat and throw its contents all over the back of Freya sitting shotgun in front of him.

Holt walked awkwardly on stiff and bound up muscles feeling the weight of his clogged gut. Skin wrapped his body like a nasty film, tingling and itching as millions of pores opened and oozed an initial burst of sweat and sebum. 

A hike necessitates discomfort, but the physical strain is less tolerable at the start. The muscles and mind need a few miles before each the physical and psychological components of the biological machine warm to the rigors of the long walk and the work of walking becomes, with each passing mile, ever more appealing until the bipedal creature, held up in the metropolis and so ravenous and deprived, craves the toil and hardship of the long walk for which it was crafted.

The grim physicality served as a morsel of much needed sustenance to nourish mind and body, to feed a deep evolutionary hunger, until finally, awash with sweat, hot faced and steaming in the wild night, Holt tore into the trail like an emaciated prisoner of war eating his first meal upon liberation. 

Dew-frosted blades of grass stood like phalanxes of miniature silver swords jabbing into the night along the silty edges of the trail. A million acres of crosswise mountains bristling in chaparral and cut deep by creeks and rivers loomed unseen just outside the shadowed path.

The sun sets and the mountains cool and from the forested land flow streams of incensed air, earthy and herbal, from peaks down into headwaters through canyons and into lowlands where the melange of fragrance pools and steeps throughout the night.

The men plunged afoot through these deep aromatic reservoirs immersed in the redolence of dry chaparral and moist riparian woodlands and they sucked into their bodies and blew out billowing chestfuls of the richly infused mountain air, invigorated by its savory fragrance and fresh cool feel through the nose.

Holt stared at the trail running under a pair of feet whose stride never slowed, mesmerized by the rhythm of the walk, the crunchy footsteps, heavy breaths, the swing of arms jabbing trekking poles into the earth. 

They walked for miles in the dark without stopping and for hours the lulling cadence, legs kneading mind into a perambulatory trance.

They operated by mental model. Automatons locked on a track. Like flinching at a sudden loud noise, automatically. Walking was second nature and they did so without thought of it.

Bodies powered and steered on their own accord, the long walk offered extended periods of otherwise unoccupied time, freeing the mind to wander, and there was a connection between the legs and the mind whereby working the former stimulated the latter. 

The longer the walk the more fertile the mind. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers birthed their greatest ideas in stride.

Each man walked the same trail, but traveled afar through his own thick forest of thought. Neither man would have spoken a word had they been near enough each other to hear it.

Holt stopped. He eased his head back and closed his eyes.

A storm of polychrome noise exploded against the back of his darkened eyelids with hot fizzing specks of brilliant color percolating from a tie-died pool.

His body swayed for a moment. He melted into the inebriating psychedelic soup playing against his closed eyelids like movie screens, before it brought to mind the salt and pepper flecks of an untuned television and his eyes snapped open. 

His headlight drifted up into the night diffuse like smoke in the blackened sky revealing nothing but its own pallid beam against the limitless star sprent dome wrapping overhead.

He inhaled great lungfuls of fragrant air until his hardened nostrils dribbled and ached from the predawn cold and his head began to whirl.

He pulled a long measured breath into his body. He stood tall, inflated with shoulders locked straight, bulging full of the mountain’s invigorating fresh breath. Resuscitated.

A plume of hot vapor flowed from his mouth and for a moment he lost himself in the minuscule world of swirling, luminous aerosolized droplets roiling the crisp air before his wide eyes and lit like tiny floating lanterns by his headlamp. 

His first words in two hours came slow and breathy.

“Alive,” he whispered, feigning an ever so slight maniacal chuckle under his breath.

Crickets and frogs. Nothing else.

“It’s alive,” he said elongating his enunciation and raising his voice.

Now silence. 

“IT’S ALIVE!” he shrieked starward, shaking, glowing orbs tracing winding paths of opalescent light through his darkened kaleidoscope vision. 

Vast and darkened desolation swallowed his squeak in a gulp of indifferent silence. The crickets and frogs resumed their euphonic roundelays. 

He cast a glance back in the direction of the trailhead. Light pollution from the coastal metropolis lit the horizon. The industrial candle never went out. 

Blackened mountains poked into the night sky like Jack-o-lantern teeth, jagged peaks that carved a sawtooth silhouette into the distant city’s warm apricot glow.

“The loony bin,” Holt muttered.

He turned and walked deeper into the forest.

Posted in Santa Barbara | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wolves, Grizzlies and the Howling Wilderness of Change, Santa Barbara National Forest: Race and Recognition In the Woods

Sierra Madre Mountains, Cuyama, Santa Barbara County

Chief Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux once stated that his people “did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills and the winding streams with their tangled growth as ‘wild.’ Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and. . .the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild animals’ and ‘savage’ people.”

Quoted from Roderick Nash Wilderness and the American Mind (1973).

The chief’s statement stands to reason.

Chief Standing Bear and his people stood on a mountain of thousands of years of acquired knowledge about the land around them. The Sioux saw the world through the crystal clear lens of a sophisticated culture born of the land and in tune with its subtleties and they well knew how to live with ease from all nature provided.

The white man knew nothing of it.

To the white man the open wild country where the Sioux flourished appeared as a vast and frightening wasteland that his European culture had not prepared him to face.

In some places of the great prairies in the American Midwest prior to settlement the tallgrass reached heights of six to twelve feet. And that was all there was.

“The plains were not just unlike anything they had ever seen,” S. C. Gwynne writes of American pioneers heading west into the Great Plains. “They were, on some fundamental level, incomprehensible, as though a person who had lived in the high mountains all his life were seeing the ocean for the first time.”

Gwynne writes of a settler seeing the great grasslands for the first time:

“He would have seen nothing but a dead flat and infinitely receding expanse of grama and buffalo grasses through which only a few gypsum-laced rivers ran and on which few landmarks if any would have been distinguishable.

Travelers of the day described it as ‘oceanic,’ which was not a term of beauty. They found it empty and terrifying.

They also described it as ‘trackless,’ which was literally true: All traces of a wagon train rolling through plains grass would disappear in a matter of days, vanishing like beach footprints on an incoming tide.”

“At that point, everything the pioneer woodsman knew about how to survive—including building houses, making fire, and drawing water—broke down. It was why the plains were the very last part of the country to be settled.”

S. C. Gwynne Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker, and the Rise and Fall of the Commanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe In American History

Dan Flores writes that to some folks nowadays such as in the Sierra Club or Edward Abbey fans wilderness is “a worship word, sacred. . . But for many, maybe most, rural West Texans beyond forty, wilderness is what their great-granddaddies fought and their granddaddies conquered in this country. Wilderness is the enemy.”

Dan Flores Caprock Canyonlands: Journeys Into the Heart of the Southern Plains (1990)

The idea of wilderness as an adversary is perhaps what we see in the comment of early US Forest Service Ranger, Jacinto Damien Reyes:

“When I came here this country was a howling wilderness. It was infested with wolves, coyotes and grizzly bears; and they did a lot of damage to our livestock.”

Born in 1871, Jacinto Reyes lived most of his life in Ventura County’s upper Cuyama River valley in southern California. He spent over 30 years working as a US Forest Service ranger patrolling the Cuyama District of what was then known as the Santa Barbara National Forest.

A previous post on this blog mentions in his own words how his family hunted down and killed grizzly bears:

Previous Post:  Gladiator Games of Bulls and Bears: Recollections of Jacinto Damien Reyes (1880)

Grizzlies and wolves no longer exist here in the southern Los Padres National Forest. One wonders how radically the land and its biological systems have changed with their absence.

What trophic cascades were unleashed in the southern Los Padres National Forest and its designated wilderness reserves with the disappearance of such large mammals?

Caroline Fraser puts it simply: “The environment needs predators. They regulate ecosystems in ways we can never re-create artificially.”

Fraser continues:

“When wolves and bears were exterminated in most of the lower forty-eight states, our trigger-happy forefathers unwittingly set in motion a biological experiment in ecosystem impoverishment.”

Caroline Fraser Rewilding the World: Dispatches From the Conservation Revolution (2010)

When wolves returned to Yellowstone an extraordinary and unimaginable series of events occurred that changed the way a river flowed. The video below narrated by George Monbiot discussions the concept of trophic cascades and the far reaching impact of wolves on their environment.

Jacinto Reyes’ expression of a “howling wilderness” was a classic phrase of the day and reflects popular American sentiment of the time. He was, as they say, a man of his times.

As historian Roderick Nash notes, the term howling was a popular descriptor applied to wilderness back in the day by a citizenry leery of it, because they had to battle it daily to live. He quotes numerous primary sources using the term through the years.

Today wilderness is not much thought of as a foe or enemy. Change in popular sentiment came about, Nash writes, as civilization conquered the threat of wildness in most areas of the nation.

Today we may romanticize places that are much different now but were terrifying, dangerous and deadly to those Americans that carved out lives here before us.

We may forget or discount the historical context of the times that influenced and informed their decisions back then which do not always measure up to our contemporary values and ideals now.

Perhaps it is unfair for Fraser to write of people like Reyes as “trigger-happy.” She may have had a different view if she had been the one living in the mountains in 1880 with wolves and grizzlies and was a day’s ride on horseback to and from the nearest town and communication with the outside world.

Jacinto Reyes National Scenic Byway in winter.

The United States Forest Service presents a page memorializing Jacinto Reyes as the first Hispanic ranger rather than criticizing or condemning him as an agent of extinction in a state with the absent grizzly bear on the flag.

The Jacinto Reyes National Scenic Byway was named in his honor and runs through Los Padres National Forest.

A National Parks Service page celebrates his service: History of Mexican Americans In California: Cuyama District Ranger Station, Los Padres National Forest, Ventura County.

And rightly so.

We do not judge the man by today’s environmental standards, while sequestered away from the natural world in a city, and swaddled within our plush and comfy well-stocked homes with running water and electricity and lights and refrigeration and plumbed gas stoves and heaters and supermarket grocery stores nearby and 911 and hospitals a short distance away and paved roads and cars to get us there.

This is the on-the-one-hand-but-yet-on-the-other-hand tight rope we walk when grappling with the muddled mess of history and the multifaceted and multilayered characters we find back there.

And so how much do we overlook of Junipero Serra’s record in order to celebrate him and the padres and name our wildlands Los Padres National Forest?

“I am sending them to you so that a period of exile, and two or three whippings which Your Lordship may order applied to them on different days, may serve, for them and for the rest, for a warning, may be of spiritual benefit to all; and this last is the prime motive of our work. If Your Lordship does not have shackles, with your permission they may be sent from here.”

—Father Serra in a letter to a military commander regarding runaway California Indians

“In the midst of all our little troubles, the spiritual side of the missions is developing most happily. In [Mission] San Antonio, there are simultaneously two harvests, at one time, one for wheat, and of a plague among the children, who are dying.”

—Father Serra referencing the deaths of California Indian children in like manner as harvests of wheat

The Lesser-Told Story Of The California Missions

What in history should we focus on and what should we pay less attention to?

Sunset view from Jacinto Reyes National Scenic Byway

Victor Davis Hanson is a fifth-generation raisin farmer from the Central Valley of California and an historian. He lives in the farmhouse built by his great-great grandparents in the 1870s. He earned a PhD in classics from Stanford in 1980.

In his book Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (2003), Hanson says of the Father Serra matter:

“In the fourth grade we were asked to memorize the names of the California missions. Protestant and Catholic alike learned that Father Serra was a civilizing, if flawed figure that tried to introduce agriculture, transportation and some refinement to a barren California landscape. In contrast, later generations have been told that the friar whipped Indians and forced them to convert to Catholicism. Surely the truth lies somewhere between the romanticism of my own education and the cynicism of the current indoctrination. But what is missing in the new dispensation is any sense that the world in which we live now—the cosmos of universities, the rule of law, antibiotics, surgery and eye glasses—for good or ill evolved from the world of Father Serra, not from the indigenous peoples of California whom he may or may not have oppressed.”

Serra came to California with the Portola Expedition to begin the mission system.

The Forest Service says of Jacinto Reyes:

“Reyes’ great grandfather, Juan Francisco Reyes (1747-1809), was a member of the Portola Expedition that arrived in (Alta) California in 1768.”

A plaque on a boulder at the Santa Barbara Courthouse memorializes the expedition as the “the first white men to march through the wilderness of California.”

The Los Padres National Forest was named in a similar manner.

“It will be seen that the Santa Barbara National Forest was the result of a consolidation of different national forest units. It was located, however, in six counties and residents of other counties somewhat resented the name Santa Barbara. Public pressure was brought to bear on local administrators to change to a name less identified with one county. The four counties of Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Monterey, in which the bulk of the national forest was located, were all closely identified with mission history, and the trail of the Mission fathers led over the rugged slopes of the Santa Barbara National Forest. Furthermore, nine of the old missions were located adjacent to the national forest area, already replete with an atmosphere of Spanish and Mexican days. It was quite logical that the name finally chosen, “Los Padres” (The Fathers), would be met with universal approval, so by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, dated December 3, 1936, the Santa Barbara National Forest became Los Padres National Forest, ‘The Forest of the Fathers’–a fitting memorial to its first white users.”

William S. Brown History of the Los Padres National Forest, 1898-1945 (1945)

Reyes Peak in the Los Padres National Forest in neighboring Ventura County was named for Jacinto’s father, Rafael Reyes.

These matters are intertwined and deeply woven into the cultural cloth of our community from an assortment of ethnic threads and we cannot yank one thread without disrupting the cloth of which it is a larger part.

If we yank one thread out, it may unravel the tapestry, may pull other threads with it, may fray the edges of the cloth and weaken the integrity and strength of the collective whole.

What sort of social trophic cascade may be let loose? And where would it stop?

Posted in Santa Barbara | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments