Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: Reclaiming

The Role of the Newport River in Shaping the Upper Newport Bay

 

The Upper Newport Bay looking east, with Saddleback in the distance.

If you grow up on one of the mesas on the coast of Southern California, like the one that overlooks the Newport Bay, you’re told something about it. I was briefly instructed in geological history in elementary school. Costa Mesa was once two places: a settlement called Harper, named after Gregory Harper, a grain farmer, and the town of Fairview, which was famed for its hot mineral baths. They failed after an earthquake stopped the flow of hot water. In 1920, when civic boosters decided to get serious about city building, they renamed the place Costa Mesa in recognition of its geological structure. The name means “tableland on the coast.” That was about all I knew. We lived on a tableland on the coast, perched about 100 feet above sea level. Curiously, the history of Newport Bay, both its upper and lower parts, was not taught. Maybe this was because the natural history of the lower bay had been obliterated and the future of the upper bay was still being debated.

That changed after 1973, when I was in third grade. A twelve-year battle between conservationists Frank and Fran Robinson, the state, and the bay’s landlord, the Irvine Company, concluded. The Robinsons won. The bay’s waters, tidal marshes and uplands, was saved from becoming a monotonous urban landscape made of boat slips, rip-rap, yachts, and bay fill. The preservation of the Upper Newport Bay ensured that the bluffs and the bay that were created long ago, by forces mightier than even the most influential Newport Beach developer, stayed reasonably intact.

The mighty force that carved the river canyon and delta of the Upper Newport Bay may have been a river that doesn’t exist any longer, according to Ivan P. Colburn, Emeritus Professor of Geology, California State University, Los Angeles. He gave this “antecedent” river a name: the Newport River. In a talk he gave for the Society For Sedimentary Geology (SEPM), at their Western Regional Joint Meeting, in Long Beach in May 2003, and in a 2006 paper entitled “The Role of Antecedent Rivers in Shaping the Orange/Los Angeles Coastal Plain” Colburn says very plainly that he doesn’t think that the Santa Ana River made the Upper Newport Bay. Colburn theorized that the Newport River, fed by eleven tributary creeks and flowing west from a confluence formed by Peters Canyon, San Diego, and Sand Canyon creek, made the canyon that contains the Upper Newport Bay.

Colburn theorizes that the antecedent Newport River shoved its way through a changing landscape as tectonic forces lifted a ridge that stood several hundred feet above the coastal plain. After passing this hurdle, the Newport River made a capacious river delta, which housed all the habitats of the current bay, including the friable marine terraces, the uplands, the tidal marshes, and the basin that the tides flow in and out of.

(In our time, the tidal process is often so unhurried that the footprints of raccoons and other foraging mammals are undisturbed and can be seen inches under the water at low tide, clearly imprinted in the grey marsh mud.)

The Santa Ana river in its floodplain.

In Colburn’s telling of the making of the Orange and Los Angeles coastal plain, the Newport River was one of six “ephemeral” rivers that ran during the interglacial Sangamon age, 125,000 to 75,000 years ago. At that time, the climate hit the pause button in between periods of glaciation, and water coursed down from the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and Santa Ana mountain ranges, and from the weird little stumpy hills scattered among the Los Angeles basin: Puente, Coyote, Repetto, Elysian and San Jose Hills. The six ancestral rivers dribbled and flowed down, and then snaked onto the basin that Los Angeles County sits on top of, creating a series of deltas much further inland and much higher. Sea level was about 100 feet higher than it is now.

These six rivers multi-tasked as they descended, carrying rock and sediment from the mountains and hills that got dumped whenever the flow of the rivers was checked, both taking from and giving to the earth, as all rivers do. This created the Los Angeles Basin where later extractive industries flourished, like the petroleum and the film industries.

The Sangamon age gave way to the Wisconsinan age, 75,000–11,000 years ago, the last glacial period before the Holocene, the age we live in now. The transition between a very warm age to a very cold one trapped some water in ice. The coastline accordingly withdrew. At about 17,000 years ago, the coast of Los Angeles County was about eight miles away from the Port of Long Beach.

Some water became more available. The Wisconsinan age was glaciopluvial, that is to say, that there was much more rain. Southern California had a climate that was “comparable to the Pacific Northwest,” according to Colburn, and may have received over 80 inches of rain annually. This “transformed” the ephemeral creeks and streams into rivers, with more erosive power than they’d ever had.

The power these rivers had is still visible. Imagine that you’re standing on the west bluff of the Upper Newport Bay. Looking east, you see Saddleback, with its twin peaks. (If you’re lucky, the moon is full and the sky is clear.) Directly in front of you is Eastbluff. Looking down, you see roughly 100 feet of eroded cliff, with cactus digging itself into the loose soil. Put your eyes in the back of your head, and travel west on 23rd Street, past Irvine, Santa Ana, and Orange avenues, to Newport Boulevard. Now you’re crossing into Westside Costa Mesa, the former working class neighborhood with the city’s only grange hall, now classed up with high-density condos.

Travel down Victoria Street, still heading west, until you stand on the Victoria Street overpass. What is it over passing, exactly? Why, the west side of the Newport mesa. You have just traveled between two points in an ancient landscape, from the water gap carved by the Newport River to the water gap made by the Santa Ana River.

1935 quadrangle (cropped) of the Newport Mesa

There is no natural might that goes unchecked. Even as the Wisconsinan rain was swelling the rivers and watering the coastal plain, the earth kept its hand in, too. The Newport-Inglewood Fault, which was responsible for breaking some of my grandmother’s china in the late eighties, was active during this late stage in the Pleistocene era. It ruptured and produced a ridge, the Newport-Inglewood Ridge, presenting a challenge to the rain-engorged rivers. Before this, when the climate was drier, their deltas were further inland and easier to reach. But the rising ridge, which ran from the Santa Monica Mountains to the San Joaquin Hills, posed a threat to the free movement of the water.

The rivers, Colburn says, matched this power with great power of their own. They could move the earth, if not the heavens, and “entrench” themselves inside their beds, and flow at rapid speeds, too. So they did. Five of the rivers—the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, Bolsa Chica, Santa Ana and Newport rivers—bum-rushed the upwarping ridge that threatened to trap them inside the Los Angeles Basin. They were able to match in speed and might the rising earth because of their sheer velocity and scouring power. They lengthened and deepened their beds to bring themselves into equilibrium with the new location and level of the ocean. And this made all the difference.

The ridge was transected, leaving behind water gaps and mesas where the water did not surmount the ridge. This explains the Dominguez and Signal hills, which always looked sadly orphaned to me, as I flashed past them on the 405 as a child. They are mesas that were formed during this period. So are the Bixby Knolls in Long Beach and Landing Hill in Seal Beach. Only the Los Cerritos River did not make it. It became a wetland, and ultimately suffered the indignity that many wetlands in the 20th century suffered at the hands of private landowners and commercial interests.

Ivan P. Colburn’s rendering of the location of the water gap channels on the LA/Orange County coastal plain.

The Newport River did make it. Colburn estimates that its drainage basin was 260 square miles, and its length, 20 miles. But this power came with a trade off: the entrenchment that allowed the rivers to drop to new sea levels, and allowed for higher volumes of water in their beds, also demanded a new commitment from the rivers to stay put.

Rivers wander; watch a rivulet of water run down a window someday, and you’ll see in miniature the motion of a meandering river. Geologists other than Colburn have supposed that the Santa Ana River wiggled back and forth between its normal course, cutting not only the Santa Ana water gap between Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach, but the Newport water gap, too. This is the going theory and is, today, widely accepted. An oft-quoted study entitled “Marshlands at Newport Bay” published in 1958 by scientists R.E. Stevenson and K.O. Emery, was influential in shaping theories about how the Upper Newport Bay was formed; it’s cited in the city’s “Upper Newport Bay Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study, Environmental Impact Statement,” published in 2000, and appears in the footnotes of dozens of articles in scientific journals.

This is where Colburn departs from his peers. “The geologic reasoning needed to support these assertions was not included in the articles,” he states, going onto to assert that the antecedent rivers were straight-jacketed by their deeply incised beds, making this sort of riverbed-hopping impossible for them to do. Stevenson and Emery are not the only scientists to favor this theory; Colburn quotes two other papers that theorize that the Santa Ana River created not one, not two, but no less than four water gaps between Los Angeles and Orange counties. This is a lot of work for one river, no matter how much water is propelling it across a plain.

Colburn’s research is quoted mistakenly in the current version of the Wikipedia article for the Santa Ana River: his idea that the Santa Ana River didn’t create either the Newport water gap, or the Upper Newport Bay, is ignored in favor of retaining the Santa-Ana-River-did-it-all theory.

He doesn’t take issue with the role of the Santa Ana river in the making of the Newport sandbar/peninsula and its ephemeral mudflats, which became Linda, Lido, Bay, Balboa and Harbor islands. The lower bay is far younger than its sister embayment. Colburn allows that the “anecdotal” reports of the Santa Ana River flooding in the 19th century and entering the head of the upper bay through the entrance created by the Newport River are probable. Since there was more water in the oceans after the glaciers melted, saltwater intruded at least 2 miles up the river channel, slowing the rivers, which caused them to drop sediment further inland from the coast, raising their beds.

If the rivers ran their courses at the time the ridge was rising, it follows (if I understand Colburn’s argument) that the depth of the bed and the volume of water had to be deep enough, full enough, and fast enough to beat the uprising earth at its own game. Leaving its bed and weaving laterally over the plain to make more than one gap was not possible, Colburn states. And that’s where he leaves things.

It’s hard to visualize the kind of titanic power Orange County’s creeks had when they joined forces. Today, the Upper Newport Bay has only one major source of fresh water, San Diego Creek. The rest of Orange County’s creeks are contained in culverts. This keeps them from knowing each other as they did back in the good old glaciopluvial days when their polyamorous nature—creeks and streams like to take many partners—created a river.

The 23rd street creek in late afternoon, as it drains into the Upper Newport Bay.

Colburn’s research on the antecedent rivers is hypothetical, and this paper, as far as I can tell, was unpublished and has not been peer-reviewed, although other papers have. His work as a sedimentary geologist has been rewarded–and lauded–by his peers, most notably in 2017, when he received the 2016 A.E. Fritsche Lifetime Achievement Award “for his accomplishments to California geology” from the Pacific Section of SEPM.

If you want to see a remnant of the awesome geological past of the Newport Mesa, go to the Upper Newport bay, and scramble down the eroded sides of the 23rd street creek, which comes out of a culvert at the foot of 23rd street where it hits Irvine Avenue. The creek delivers urban runoff from the surrounding streets to the bay.  Sometime before 1952, that creek and what is now called Cherry Lake, which was once a 40-foot deep spring-fed ravine, supplied fresh water to the Upper Newport bay. Both are both artifacts of an old hydrological system that was spread along the northwest bluff between Santiago Drive and Santa Isabel Avenue. All of it is gone, replaced by modern modes of place-making, like landscaping and the wholesale containment of natural systems, which—should they roar to life, unexpectedly—may yet surprise us all with their ancestral, epochal determination to create.

San Francisco, June 11, 2018. Dedicated to Lizann Bassham, 1959-2018, a mighty work of creation, indeed, and a lover of humanity and nature.

Elizabeth Ann Bassham, 1959-2018

The study “Marshlands at Newport Bay, California.” by R.E.Stevenson, and K.O. Emery, is available from the Allan Hancock Foundation Occasional Papers at the University of Southern California: https://libraries.usc.edu/locations/special-collections/allan-hancock-foundation-occasional-papers  
Let me know if you order it.
With thanks to Professor Ivan P. Colburn for writing something a citizen scientist could read and learn from. Here’s a list of his published articles, as archived by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists

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In the Blink of an Eye: the end of CELLspace

 

Two weeks ago my cousin Juli came for a weekend visit. Earlier that day, before she arrived, I’d seen a post on Facebook lamenting the loss of CELLspace, which exists now in partial form at 2050 Bryant street: the east-facing wall is now totally demolished and the rest will follow soon.

I knew CELLspace was being ripped down and that the end was near, but like everyone, thought I had more time with it. I walk by the site almost everyday, and had lately been making mental note to take pictures, for (you know) posterity’s sake. Tristan Tzara’s impudent face had been painted on one of the walls. I loved seeing it. In Tom Stoppard’s play “Travesties”, Stoppard has Tzara yell “Dada! Dada, dada, dada!” like the bratty punk he probably was.

There was a similar sense of surreal unreason guiding the destruction of CELLspace and the surrounding buildings. We who live in the city are now minus a community space. Taking its place will be a six-story building with market-rate condos that most people will not be able to afford. A second eight-story building with 136 units of affordable housing will stand next to it. There had been impassioned attempts to save CELLspace, but in the end, belief in market-driven solutions to the housing crisis and this sentence “C – No Historic Resource Present / Not Age Eligible”, condemned it. The Facebook post made it clear that the end was nigh and that the demolition was proceeding. It was now or never.

“Juli,” I said after dinner, “we’re going for a walk.”

“Ok!” she replied brightly.

We sipped the last of our mead, collected ourselves and walked around the corner to a scene of great finality. Rubble lay in heaps and the dank odor of newly exposed basements filled the air. The entire corner of Bryant and 18th street was gone.

Juli and I let ourselves in to “see”, which was silly. The point of demolition is to take away the thing that used to be there. There was nothing to see. When cities change quickly, individual memory changes too and is included in the act of demolition itself. The construction equipment ripped down the buildings, and my memory, too.

The large brick building that housed CELLspace was still standing that night, now almost two weeks ago, but so bereft of human energy that it already felt gone. There was nothing inside the vast hall, except stuff with no value: a chair, some kind of light fixture, and so many things on the floor that they became nothing, a midden pile of twentieth century plastic trash.

Two years ago, I stood with about 100 people in this hall. There was low flat table supporting a large, wide-mouthed cauldron. A fire was made inside the cauldron because it was St Bridget’s day, Lá Fhéile Bríd, and we had gathered to make promises to each other communally and individually to the Goddess of the forge.

As we moved to the center and made a vow, another ritual participant raised a iron hammer and struck an anvil, which rang out loudly and clearly. There was every kind of person in the space that night, which was usual for that place. It hosted communities that gave the Mission –O horrible word that has ruined my home!—vibrancy. The people who congregated there, made culture there and took it out into the city.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition once held a fundraiser at Cell Space: I know because I helped organize it. Another night, another group, another memory: Rainforest Action Network threw a Christmas party and I danced like a madwoman with my friend Krikor, improvising pseudo-swing moves and having the time of my life.

At the end of the night, someone convinced me to take a hit off a joint. I did so and immediately recognized my mistake. I need to leave, I thought. I can’t be around these dazzling people with my mind on fire. So I walked down Bryant street leaving the confident organizers behind me happy and voluble, standing outside the brick building, gossiping and celebrating their successes even as they plotted their next brilliant campaign.

In all, there are five structures that have been torn down so that the two buildings, known collectively as the Beast on Bryant (The Monster on Mission is a different creature, though no less loathed) may be built. Here are their obituaries.

2000 Bryant street, a two storied, redwood-clad building, unprepossessing and downright homely sat directly on the corner of Bryant and 18th. I knew it as Tortilla Flats. I never ate there. Before that, it was the White Front Lunch Room. Before that it was a saloon, owned first  man named Drewes and later by two men named Jopp and Siebe . Both establishments, which were held up by robbers in 1909 and 1913, catered to the German community. Mr. Drewes often ran ads looking for cooks in the San Francisco Call. “Wanted: German woman for lunch cooking”. This makes me think of my great-great Grandmother Mary Wellendorf who cooked at my great-great grandfather’s “chop house” on Fillmore street during the turn of the century. What solid German lunches were cooked in this space? Schnitzel, probably, cutlets of meat pounded flat and pan-fried with onions and cabbage. (What were the women’s names? Why was Drewes always looking for cooks?)

2010 and 2014 Bryant street: both properties constituted the Korbel Box Factory, which manufactured cigar boxes. Before that, 2014 was home to a 16-year old girl named Annie Couthurst. In March 1903, Annie was declared missing by her frantic mother. She appeared two days later “in a hysterical condition”, declaring that she had been induced to stay out past her curfew by a friend. She feared the wrath of her mother so much, she told the SF Call reporter, that she did not want to return home.

2028 Bryant: this was a two-story Italianate apartment building  located directly next to Cell Space. It was constructed in 1885. In 1927, a woman named Kitty McManus lived there with her eight-year old daughter. Kitty was the victim of a charming bigamist named John Kearney, who had nine other wives. She didn’t know, she said. She planned on getting a divorce. Almost thirty years later, a Patrick McManus still lived there. A brother? Her father? A bachelor uncle? What happened to Kitty? Disgrace?

2070 Bryant: This building, which housed Cell Space, looked like another monumental auto livery of the type that sprung up in the city after the 1906 earthquake. However, it was not: it was a foundry called the Central Iron Works, a funny coincidence considering the ritual devotion that was shown to Bridget and her forge in this space.

In 1913, John O. McAuliffe sold a parcel of land to Central Iron works on Florida street; in 1911 manager A. A. Devoto appeared before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, promising to stop the pounding of the steam hammer at night which “disturbed the slumbers of residents” in the neighborhood. Is this story of neighborly discontent also the history of 2028, which was next door? (What was it like living next to an iron works, with belching smoke, and hissing, grinding, pounding sounds such that the residents of Bryant street might wonder if a dragon had settled in a barrow nearby?)

These histories, and others I’ll never know, represent the “past” of 2000-2050 Bryant street. I recite them to myself as I write, a monotonous string of words, and I think I must sound very much like poor Lady Pole from the book “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, who tries to explain to anyone who will listen that fairies have imprisoned her, and that she is not living in the same world that most people are. She can’t tell the story, because there is a rose at her lips preventing her, and also maybe because of the utter strangeness of it all.

This is how it feels to walk around in the litter of the ruined houses on Bryant street, the old warehouses and box factories of the Northeast Mission knowing that you could tell people some kind of story about who lived in them and what happened there, but that the stories are so wholly free of matters of national import or global impact, that what would come out of your mouth would only be a list of mundane events involving German cooks, workers laboring  in a box factory, broken arms, missing children, lover’s quarrels and a burglary or two. It is all just dust in the wind, so to speak.

From the ruins of the buildings, new vistas have been liberated. I can now see the red neon sign of Heath Ceramics glowing in the foggy night air and the far more of the San Miguel range.

This holds true until the Beast is built. Then I will see far less.

 

written with love and appreciation for:
cousin Juli whose pragmatic response to crisis made this month a lot easier. We will always drink at the Palace.
…and Tom Petty whose sweet soul shines bright. You belong among the wildflowers. You belong in a boat out at sea. Sail away, kill off the hours. You belong somewhere you feel free

If you inquire into the nature of a thing, your consciousness will change.

In the Mendocino Woodlands lived a spider: this is how a children’s version of my story might start. She was big and black, it would continue, and she had many children.

Here is the adult version: In the Mendocino Woodlands lived a big black insect. It was huge and scary. It did not like the sun, and so clung to walls and other dark places in the woods. The shift in pronoun— from unidentified object to beloved subject— is the fulcrum upon which this story turns. From it to She: this is the start of a query into the nature of the spider, her doings and her fate. The pronoun is the consciousness.

It’s hard to have to insert another pronoun at this point (the maddeningly self-centered “I”) but I have to. I was at the Mendocino Woodlands for a ritual retreat. It was my muddied gaze that entered the woodland and mis-saw things.

This is very un-witchlike, in my opinion. Witches should have gazes that are soft and wide, and sharp and discerning. The gaze is all. The molecular frenzy of objects, the clash and collision of the smallest material particles of making can be sensed, if not seen, by the eyes. Even my beginner’s gaze can’t avoid seeing the systemic failure of rotting fruit, collapsing into mold minute by minute, hour by hour.

I sensed the presence of the spider as an elongated extension of the dark gloom inside the canvass walls of the tent I and my tent-mates slept in. And then the darkness moved, gingerly, in that precise, angular way that insects move. My consciousness leapt forth to meet it. But unwillingly. I didn’t want to greet the angular shadow, didn’t want to see the finicky, practiced movement of one of its (many) legs. I put my glasses on.

She was big and black, with eight elegant legs, and a powerful ovipositor.

It was impossible to miss seeing the largest insect I’d ever seen. Its thin black legs were thrice-jointed and impossibly long. The “body” was enormous and deeply black, so black that it was hard to tell where the shadow ended and the body began. My head reared up; a general feeling of revulsion coursed through my body. Dear reader, does this sound like the start of a bad H.P. Lovecraft parody? No surprise there- the thoughts and feelings I experienced at that dismayed moment were parodic, a cognitive gesture towards knowing without knowing.

“Oh my god, you guys, there is the biggest fucking insect EVER,” I announced, like a callow Valley Girl, to my tent-mates, who promptly shrieked.

I did not know what I was seeing.

Pimoa cthulhu

She was the oldest creature in the woodland, and the most powerful. Her power went beyond the length of her body: she had power because she knew things. It was said by beaver, salmon, and even raven that she knew everything there was to know about the woodlands. She had crawled inside the deepest holes. She had lived in every branch of every tree. Every leaf was a well-known room. And She was understood to mean not just one spider, but all spiders of her kind that had come before and would come after: the countless generations of spiders; too many to count, all with the same knowledge, the same wisdom that floated above them like a cloud. They shared it and passed it between themselves and anyone who cared to listen. Where She had not gone, her children had and would go. When it was time for a woodmoot, to discuss the woods and what happened there, they would end the long meetings by asking her for stories. She would speak at length and they would listen, far into the dark night.

Later, there were two of the insect-beasts splayed out on the frame of the cabin tent; seeing them, I’d instantly thought of slim San Francisco women, dressed in their best black Lulamon schmatta, striking yoga poses. No urban yogini I’d ever seen could have achieved this insect version of downward dog, so perfectly balanced on the long legs, so sinister in its perfect articulation. My tent mates and I decided to displace the insects (I really didn’t know what it was. The legs suggested a spider, but it was so big that my mind reeled at the thought.) I went looking for George, the camp organizer, a patient man with brown eyes, who was known to be helpful.

“George,” I said tentatively “There’s an enormous insect in our tent and it’s making us nervous.” George looked at me warily. He knew what I wanted.

“Remember that scene from Annie Hall?” he replied. “The one where Woody Allen is trying to kill a spider? That’s me.”

“Yes, I remember that scene, but…” I felt bad asking him. He works hard on behalf of the Reclaiming community. I also felt bad because the ethics of displacing a woodland creature were (even in my deeply phobic state) clear to me. This is wrong, my consciousness whispered. You’re being an asshole. I ignored it.

“Please?” I pleaded. This insect was as big as a Buick. I just couldn’t go near it. I didn’t know what it was. Later, at dinner, I asked him how the insect displacement had gone.

“It jumped around a lot,” he said.

Oh, Christ, I thought. It hadn’t been a neutral experience for the insect-thing-monster, not a clean, surgical operation. It obviously didn’t want to leave the tent.

Pimoa cthulhu

The woods were big and there were many animals, but there were humans too, and the humans came into the wood. They walked carelessly, picking things up and taking them away; rocks, branches, sometimes even animals. Sometimes they took the trees away, by cutting them apart with long sticks and sharp shiny heads. Later, the men came back with things that roared and belched through the cool woods. It seemed that the whole wood would be taken. The insects, birds and spiders lost the dark holes, or warm nests they’d built, sometimes with their eggs still laying soft and warm in the small private places of the great dark wood. Of these events, the spider sang in her shivering voice.

“Moth’s wings and thistledown.
Twigs and rocks and stones.
Beetle’s shells and river rocks,
These places are our homes

 And when the branch is broken
Or when the stone is turned
When the water runs no longer
Or when the woods are burned

 Then we build our homes again
I spin my web from beginning to end
From the end to the beginning, I go back again.
From start to finish. There is no end.

“You must return to the place you were, even if it is no longer there,” She told the animals. “There will always be Somewhere.”

I returned to my tent that night and saw that the insect was gone. But a shadow along the board suggested a poised black body which was … still there. A small vibration seemed to shiver from the precise spot the insect had been; a finger of black shadow stretched along the length of the wooden beam, marking the spot where the spider had been resting. Why did you turn me out? The utter silence of the evening was absolute. But the question, a quivery whisper, echoed in my head.

 Why did you turn me out?

I felt many eyes on the back of my head as I turned over and down into sleep.

Pimoa cthulhu

The next morning, Nature flexed her muscles and showed me the strength of her persistence. I discovered a spider, a different species from the creature I banished, hanging in a crack above my head. This spider was immediately recognizable as such:  it had the classic arachnid profile of a stout-ish round body, again with those wicked, wicked legs ranged round it and the aura of quiet, menacing complacency that spiders at rest so often have. A black widow? I wondered and then rounded on myself sharply: what the fuck, Elizabeth? Why are you acting like this? Knock it off! Where was this fearful antagonism coming from? Was it real? Why did I feel compelled to act against beings that were no threat?

They weren’t a threat. I knew that: had the Buick-sized monster in my tent been a threat, the tent wouldn’t be there, or I wouldn’t, or the insect wouldn’t. The state of California likely would have posted signage, or the non-profit that ran the Mendocino Woodlands would have. Anyone who’s hiked or camped on California’s coast or in the mountains or along the foothills has seen all the warning signs: mountain lions here. Bears here. Guard your trash! Watch out for Scorpions. For rattlesnakes. (For toxic waste). Watch out for all the animals that creepeth and crawleth on this earth. (are we are all so tragically unreconciled to each other?) Ye shall know the animal by its picture on the warning sign. Anything that might harm us in California’s formalized recreational/rural/natural spaces tends to be acknowledged.

That’s the issue with healthy ecological spaces. They are inherently equal. We’re all in the same place at the same time with any numbers of different beings and any number of different outcomes. Usually, of course, it’s the animals that pay the price.

***

At lunch, I saw a man wearing a broad-brimmed ranger’s hat and uniform. He’ll know, I thought. He’ll tell me what that thing is. Curiosity had been working on me all morning; curiosity over what the insect was and curiosity over my own passive aggressive reaction. I made bold to walk over to the man.

“Excuse me,” I said. “There’s a large, leggy insect in my tent.” I sketched out the dimensions with my hands. “It’s freaking me out. It’s got a large structure on its abdomen. What is it?”

The man looked at me. “Oh, ya got one in your tent? That’s a spider. It’s an arachnid. We call ‘em cave spiders. They’re all over. She won’t hurt you,” he said and grinned. It was a female, he told me, and the large structure was an ovipositor. “The females carry their eggs with that, and drop ‘em down to hatch. It’s funny,” he said, warming to his story (he could see he had my full attention), “I’ve seen cave spiders hold onto their eggs longer than most. Usually spiders just drop their eggs, but the cave spider, I’ve seen her hold onto her egg, like she didn’t want to let go,” he said. “When they’re threatened, they lay a gazillion eggs- they just push ‘em out, even if they’re dying.”

Like she doesn’t want to let go, I heard the man say. She doesn’t, I thought. She has something to guard, to care for. She’s a Mother, the Great She, flushed out of her tent by fear.

***

It was no longer a question of what I had been thinking. I hadn’t been. I was just phobic, a pitiable state which feeds on a lack of knowledge. My champion, Curiosity, came charging to my rescue and, putting paid to feeble fear, directed me to right action: asking a simple question. What is it? And its equally simple answer (it is a female spider ) changed the world inside me. I changed my consciousness. This is what is meant by the saying. I had changed from fear to compassion because of a quick conversation that recast the unknown as something more known. And it changed me. This is how it works.

The best moment of near-instantaneous comprehension is the gape of one’s wide-open astonished mind and spirit (and sometimes, mouth). O, the simplicity of enlightenment, I thought. I am so happy to move from ignorance to comprehension. It really is a sublime feeling.

“Glad you asked,” said the man, wrapping up the conversation. “A lot of people don’t.”

Pimoa cthulhu

Later that evening, we walked into the woods for the first part of the last ritual of the retreat. The second part was to take place around the campfire. This part had been called A Wild Requiem, which, I thought, could mean so many things. Mournful chanting? Frenzied debauchery? Were we to act as crazed maenads, ripping meat apart with our teeth and hands? Was there a vegan option? Would we scream out animal sounds to the wild gods? (You see here how easy it is to summon the spirit of Lovecraft.)

Someone had been dispatched to build the fire; it was leaping by the time we got there and the heat was intense after the cool dampness of the woods. We were handed small instruments, rattles, maracas, drums. The drumming started. People began to sway back and forth, summoning their energy, wakening their bodies

Ah, shit. The wild requiem is a dance, I thought. They want me to dance. Why does it always have to be a dance? I hate dancing. The people moved hesitantly at first, pushing out from the shoals of self-consciousness, of weariness, pushing away the routinized movements of daily routines, long immiserating commutes, the dulling stupidity of the workday world. The flames gained strength. Slowly, slowly, the swaying people became dancers.

I sat wrapped in my energy which had become still, quiescent after the ritual. I liked it that way. The prospect of change (Again? my outraged consciousness yelled) seemed onerous; hard work for an uncertain outcome. Why change? I thought. I’m fine the way I am. Why do these people always want me to be ecstatic? All around me the dancers shook their instruments, leapt and yelped. The orange column of flame shot up into the night sky. I sat feeling mulish.

A Kentish man named Gwion, one of the dancers, came swooping past those of us who still sat stolid in our chairs, frozen at the prospect of change. He sailed swiftly over to me. With one fluid motion, he pulled me to my feet.

I saw the fire leap behind him and thought of something a teacher told me once: Elizabeth. Sometimes ya gotta dance with what brung ya.

And that was the last conscious thought I had for awhile.

***

Much later, I returned to my cabin. I shone my headlamp on the wooden beam. Two cave spiders, both female, were at rest. I took off my clothes and turned down and into sleep.

We were all very quiet that night.

Pimoa cthulhu

I spin my web from the beginning to end,
From the end to the beginning, I go back again.

This is the song the spider sings, I am convinced of it. There are likely more stanzas and many more stories, but I cannot recite all of them here. One thing, though, that I think She’d tell me, were I in the woodmoot, is this: If you inquire into the nature of a thing, your consciousness will change.

The spider is likely a species named Pimoa Cthulhu. I have tentatively identified it as such; its known habitat is restricted to the woodlands of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

A note on the Spider’s song: The theology of Nature’s persistence and the possibility of eternal return does not work out so neatly in real life. If there is no water, a North American beaver (Castor Canadensis) cannot build a dam. That’s just reality. Other animals may come in its place and slowly, given the time, space and active support (meaning non-interference and respect) from homo sapiens, may build an entirely new ecology in which many animals, vertebrates and invertebrates relate to each other mutually, amensally or parasitically. Harm, help, or total neutrality: all of these are possible outcomes. But there are limits.

Finally: in the matter of the Great Cave Spider, I believe my consciousness had what it needed to shift because (of all things) a Star Trek episode entitled “Devil in the Dark”, which was written by the wonderful Gene L. Coon. In this episode, Spock telepathically communicates with a fearsome creature, the Horta, only to find out that it is a female— a mother— trying to protect her remaining clutch of eggs/children from the predations of miners who. Agonized at the loss of her brood, and a phaser wound, she cries out her anguish and anger into Spock’s porous and receptive mind. “PAIN. PAIN!” says Spock. It is a wonderful episode and should be required viewing for would-be ecologists.

(And I don’t hate dancing. I was just having a fit.)

 

San Francisco, November 20th, 2014

Dedicated to Flame, a Great She indeed, who tells most wonderful stories