Saturday, December 20, 2014


Lupine Near Native American Village Site

   Parking in the dirt by a load of rubbish near Fancher Creek, I pulled up the parking brake: No one in the immediate vicinity. Then I grabbed my buck knife from the glove compartment, slid it onto my belt, and trotted across the oiled, single-lane road which snakes through one abandoned Native American village site after another in the lower foothills. Before I jumped up on the rock and stepped over the barbed wire, I noticed Fresno etched in the distance, so I rushed back to my car and checked the doors again.
   The region safer than most urban areas, I could hike all the way to the Kings River if I wanted to, my path only blocked by orchards just before I made it to the river. Cows might ignore me or stampede in complete terror away from me (or toward me), quail would occasionally burst out of the bushes, coyotes would pause and gaze and lope off as if hoping to be chased back to their lair. There was a slight chance that I might encounter a bobcat or a mountain lion or a rattlesnake, but with my buck knife I was ready for anything.
   Most of the paths on the bluffs converged in the floodplain of the creek, whose bed miles away had functioned as the Valley's first irrigation ditch for a farmer who lured the railroad, the catalyst of urban growth, to the area. I chose a favorite path, noting all the pounding stones and pestles and house pits along the way that had apparently evaded the sight of the average trespasser, and perhaps of even the rancher, for over a century. 
Path Leading to Abandoned Village Site
     After my first discoveries, I had trained myself to notice flat stones where I might find round holes filled with water or earth and grass and leaves, slightly tapered stones possibly used for grinding, and midden earth in oblong or circular indentations in the ground. These, along with the paths kept distinct by cattle and horses, were the only signs of a civilization that had flourished in the area for thousands of years, gone now over a century, in which time the city had grown one pop-n-fresh neighborhood after another, subdivisions leap-frogging toward the hills.
   It was hotter than I had expected. I had planned to hike for a mile or two in my work clothes, but after only about half a mile, I was thirsty and unusually tired, so I took a detour to my favorite pounding stone, where eleven pestles still waited. As I approached the pounding stone I noticed a bobcat in the distance stalking something in the grass, suddenly pouncing, then carrying a squirrel away in its teeth. After the bobcat skulked away, I found the site of the kill dotted by feces and stained by a streak of blood, far less gore than I had expected.
Pestles on Pounding Stone
   A squirrel in the rocks was chirping loudly in fear or grief, or both, even though I was only a few feet away. At first I thought that I was only projecting human emotions onto the squirrel, but I had never before heard a squirrel make such a racket, even though it was still in danger because the bobcat and I were both in its vicinity. The squeals may have functioned as an alarm, but after a minute, they began to resemble sounds of utter despair.
   I plopped down on the pounding stone as the squirrel's cries began to taper off. I had been unable to grieve at my own father's funeral. No tears. No moans. No outward display of emotion. I leaned against a tree and closed my eyes. In my mind's eye, I saw my father's coffin in the funeral chapel, so I cleared my mind. Having a mind free of everything, even the woodlands, was more pleasant than I had expected. After a while a few images flickered across the screen of my mind, but I cleared everything away again by focusing on blackness, going into the gap between words, between sounds.
   Suddenly I imagined myself climbing a tree, the leaves wet with dew like tiny stars, and golden eagles wheeling around it. As I reached the middle of the tree, I gazed at the sky and saw, not the sun, but a bright, golden, equal-armed cross hanging, completely still, in the blue. Floating at each end of the cross was an indistinct angel, each one dressed in a colored robe, one blue, one red, one yellow, and one white. 
     I continued to focus on the cross, hoping that each angel would become clearer, and suddenly I was bathed in a warm, golden light, which felt so good that I didn't want to move. I continued to rise, almost against my will, as though I were floating upward, not climbing. People and cars in the Valley below moved slowly in the distance, utterly impermanent, as I rose closer to a brilliant light more intense than sunlight. I looked at my hands, which were empty. My entire body was empty, only transparent, crystalline light. All was emptiness except for the light, which permeated everything. At the light's edge, my mind truly became blank for a moment. I was only a spark, a point of consciousness.

Pestle Removed from its Mortar (and put back)

   Suddenly I heard a loud shuffling and with a jerk came back to myself: only a squirrel scurrying through dry leaves. I had instinctively grabbed for my buck knife, but I couldn't pull it out immediately because a button held it within its sheath, which troubled me a bit, so I looked around carefully. Gazing at the pounding stone, I noticed that two pestles were still in the mortars, with grass growing out at the edges. 
     The silent stone communicated nothing about the people who had pounded acorns there for millenia. I stepped into one of the house pits and closed my eyes. In my mind's eye I saw a Yokut's woman, light moving over her face and shoulders, as though I were envisioning either her image reflected in a pool, or the light from a pool of water reflected on her shoulders and face. Then, adrenalin shot through me as I recognized that the image could be like the reflection of someone looking at herself in water. 
     I felt as if something were tugging at my ankles and shins and that I could drop into another order, as though through the center of the earth and out the other side, yet I felt at the same time that I was being presented with some choice, as though I were standing in the shallows of a pool, looking out toward the deep. The Yokuts often buried their dead in the earth under their houses, and I imagined my mind somehow mingling with the mind of the Yokut's woman, as if time were an ocean, as if I were somehow part of all of the energy fields of the world throughout human history and beyond.
Pounding Stone with Pestles
   And it was empty. The act of putting one foot in front of another, empty. The act of thinking, empty. The city in the distance, growing like an anthill a moment before, gone in the silence a century or a millinium. I gazed at a baby blue eye, no longer myself but the eternal gazing at itself, the observer and the observed and the process of observation. I was the flower and the stone and the oaks, a point of consciousness within a tapestry of infinite consciousness, and I felt the pressure of innumerable points of consciousness communicating with me in the heat in countless messages that I couldn't understand.
   I felt a timeless, eternal emptiness, the emptiness of form. Within seconds I again separated myself mentally from my surroundings, out of habit, carrying with me both the sense of timelessness that imbues everything in the woods and the realization that I was losing the sense of oneness--which made me want to go back. 
     Regretting that I was returning home sooner than I had planned, I headed to an old, disintegrating road, partially on private property and partially on public land, which sloped down to Sycamore Creek. Sliced by rivulets and broken up by roots, the road, unused for decades, descended about half a mile to a "gauging station," a measuring stick cemented in the creek bed. Although it appeared that no other signs of civilization existed for miles, hidden by bushes on the other side of the creek, the remains of a stone wall stood next to two piles of rocks, both the size of graves. A mile beyond the confluence of the two creeks, the walls of another stone house stood, the stones on top pulled down for two other piles, also the size of graves, nearby.
Stones from House on a Grave?
   The first time I had trespassed in this place, I knew when to stray from the old road into the grass to the pounding stone on the ridge, perhaps because the faint rushing sound in the distance pulled me from the road or because I had noticed a trail etched in the grass, but because of my excursions in the foothills I had begun to believe in retro-cognition. I couldn't see the past, like a truly gifted psychic, but on occasion had known with overwhelming certainty, in places that I had never been before, where I would find trails and pounding stones. Once, sitting on a pounding stone, I actually heard the laughter of women, as if the earth and the stones were all to some degree conscious and retained the memory of all that had transpired, and I could access that memory because I could tap into the timeless consciousness in moments of profound stillness.
   Several times during a long hike, possibly because of the heat, I had lounged in the shade, part of an ocean of consciousness holding all time, near a trail thousands of years old. I was the rock, the tree, the squirrel--my consciousness not just a wave but the ocean itself. I also extrapolated that I was also one with every human being but dismissed that thought immediately. 
   When I had first started trespassing, I had dismissed the possibility of finding house pits as unlikely because at least a hundred years had passed since the tribe had occupied the area. For a long time, I had believed that resting cattle had made the indentations in the ground, but after witnessing many abandoned village sites, I finally understood, with a slight shiver, the significance of circular hollows near pounding stones.
   Obviously I could not prove that where I stood uncountable generations had loved and slept and given birth and died. I couldn't prove that settlers (probably all killed around the same time) were buried under those piles of rocks unless I wanted to dig up the bones, and I lacked both the time and the stomach for that. Showing how those settlers had taken over an ancient village site would change nothing. Proving that an ancient civilization once thrived there would not keep the area from being developed. Far worse had happened there already with the help of the government: most of the tribe had been killed or driven onto a reservation where the members succumbed to alcoholism and disease and starvation, the most recent generations growing rich from the casinos on reservation land. I was quite certain of one thing after finding many abandoned village sites along the creeks in the lower foothills: after a point no mercy had been shown anyone. And history, I suspected, without a major change in the human psyche, would keep repeating itself.
   I counted the mortars in the pounding stone again and stared above the tops of the sycamores to the ridge on the other side, squinting to see a hint of the other pounding stones across the creek, my gaze finally following a slope down to another ancient village site about a half mile away on a small hill above Sycamore Creek. I tried with my binoculars to make out the trail that led on that slope to the village site near the ruins of the stone house, again without success, but I could make out without difficulty the house being built on the ridge half a mile away.
   I could still go out on a little night hike, since no one was living in the house yet, douse the wood with gasoline and light a match, and no one would know that I had started the fire, in all probability. This was my window of opportunity. I decided then to hike on the trail next to the creek, past other pounding stones, climbing over barbed wire to the building site.

Pestles Uncovered from Under Moss and Leaves

   Standing on a slope overlooking the creek, the house was less than a mile from a hub of ancient Native American trails where a rancher had dropped blocks of salt. On a forty acre lot, the house was ostentatious, commanding a view of a large territory that I had explored for years, with only cattle witnessing my intrusions. In that area alone I had found a pestle collection and three pounding stones with pestles still in the mortars. Two of the trails led over a hill down to a huge abandoned Yokuts village next to another creek several miles away. For sale signs had popped up all along the road advertising forty acre lots, with wells and utilities.
   Each time I trespassed in the hills, photographing the artifacts and the rare or threatened species, I imagined spear-heading an effort to preserve the lower foothills, pressuring government officials to buy up development rights along a fifteen mile stretch where ancient village sites were still connected by a network of continuous trails thousands of years old, but even that would provide protection for only so long. An activist for many years, I had seen how the system of private property, coupled with “representative” democracy, remains the instrument for piecemeal development that primarily benefits landowners and developers. Elected officials were continually changing zoning and land designations whenever expedient. Most aglands and wildlands were doomed, it seemed to me, yet very few people were watching.

Pounding Stone Near Friant-Kern Canal
   The ranchers probably did not go beyond their own lands. No one else seemed aware of the significance of the trails or the mortars or the pestles. (I estimated that about one out of eight pounding stones I had discovered still had pestles on or near them.) A freeway extension was being constructed in the valley just over ten miles away from the main village site at the base of the hill, but along the creeks, little had changed for over one hundred years except for that house.
   I sat down on a pile of wood and pulled out a box of matches from my backpack. I struck the match and let it burn down to my fingers. The house where I had grown up was still at the end of its street, nondescript, occupied by another family for many years. This mansion, on the other hand, was being built for elites, promising a life of seclusion and happiness. I had just turned seventeen before my father died, and I discovered that my family members harbored little sympathy for each other. We couldn't grieve together, and soon the family dispersed. We still saw each other occasionally at Christmas.
   The thought occurred to me that I was in a fire of illusion, which made me chuckle for a second as I lit another match. Little was left of what had been my family, which everyone had considered normal and well-adjusted before my father died. After ten or twenty thousand years of occupying the area, the tribe was totally gone. I had failed to hold most of my relationships together. I had failed to hold a job for more than five years (though that was not entirely my fault given the nature of capitalism--I was expendable like everyone else.)
   Despite everything, I wanted my life to matter, so I would have to be careful about losing myself too much in the timelessness of the woods. I let the match singe my fingertips. The mansion was the first sign of urban sprawl that in the next fifty years was going to engulf the foothills. The last traces of a whole race would be wiped out in the process, conveniently eliminating all signs of genocide committed by a system spreading into the far corners of the earth, ecocide the logical partner of genocide.

Poppies Near Ancient Village Site

   I held up the flame, hearing woodpeckers cackle and the peeps of bush-tits, the air growing cool. Being an activist in the Central Valley was like stepping with a bow and arrow into a mine field to face the tanks of a well-equipped army; I would have to continue by fighting an anonymous, covert war alone until they caught up with me. I was stuck in stupid jobs, working as a substitute teacher and also as a part-time instructor at a rural community college for fifteen years (without benefits). The vast majority of the teachers I subbed for could not write a one-page lesson plan free of grammar or punctuation errors, yet I suspected that I would never be hired as a full-time teacher even if I went back to school for a credential.
     People who attacked the system were sooner or later slapped down (usually sooner, if effective) and they were not forgotten by those in power, only by the public. A few had lost jobs, professionals had been slandered with impunity, organizations had closed down because of bogus lawsuits, one activist, a teacher, was fined and bankrupted for using his democratic right to sue the government for higher review of a local land use decision. I had witnessed or heard about activists threatened and blackballed by developers and government officials and townspeople alike. 
   I felt spaced out, a little unsteady on my feet, unable to belch, with pain in my joints, all symptoms of my allergies. I had indulged in several pieces of toast (which contained gluten and corn) at breakfast and was suffering the consequences. If I ate any more gluten or corn, I would risk severe muscle and joint pain, fatigue, depression; I might have difficulty functioning at my job the next day. If I continued eating it despite the warning signs, I would begin to believe I had some terminal illness and would feel hopeless. 
   I would not be able to function in jail. 
   My life was significant now in relation to what surrounded me, no more and no less than the tribe members before me, no more and no less than the buckeyes and sycamores and oaks, the bluebirds and the juncos, the rosinweed and blue curl.
   Wouldn't it be nice to burn up this entire sorry civilization, I thought for just a second, every last bit of it. I should feel anger like a clean flame (I chuckled), not self-pity or even mercy, and I should let it burn out all the corrupted places, cauterizing as much of the cancer as possible, not just a little.
   I was making a speech again in my head. Sighing, I put the box of matches away and sat extinguished in the growing darkness. I envisioned a white flame at the crown of my head, the flame forming a crown at the highest spiritual center of my being, the flame stretching down to my heart, then down to my groin and feet. I was on fire while everything around me was swirling, transient, empty.
   Bats looped silently overhead, the sun kindling the bare branches of the oaks in the distance. The moss-covered stone, cold in the light, now seemed almost as warm as an animal in the cooling air. The buckeyes and sycamores smelled dusty and wet at the same time, the creek still gurgling, making more sense than I could ever understand and no sense at all. The first lights were appearing in the valley and the sky, one constellation on the ground for a moment appearing to reflect another in the sky. I stood up with a groan and began the hike back toward my car.